US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to “reaffirm our vitally important strategic partnership” when they are in Australia for a meeting of the Foreign Ministers of the Quad bloc next week, said Daniel Kritenbrink, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific.
At the Quad meeting, “I’m confident that part of that discussion will relate to the challenges that China poses to those values (of the Quad) and to that rules-based order in a number of sectors”, Kritenbrink said on Friday.
The meeting will take place as the world’s attention is focused on the situation in Europe where the US is facing off Russia over Ukraine, and will be an opportunity for Washington to reaffirm its continuing commitment to the Indo-Pacific strategy and to the Quad.
The message that Blinken will project through the meeting is that “in this era of intense competition, changing strategic landscapes, economic coercion, and, of course, this very difficult global pandemic, there is no greater global partnership than what we are trying to accomplish through the Quad with Australia, India and Japan”, Kritenbrink said.
The meeting is being hosted by Austria’s Marise Payne and Japan’s Hayashi Yoshimasa will also be there.
Jaishankar tweeted on January 27 that he had tested positive for Covid-19 and, according to media reports, Australian officials had hoped that the schedule of the meeting would allow time for him to recover.
In opting for a direct meeting instead of a virtual consultation despite the pandemic, Kritenbrink said that “there is simply nothing like these face-to-face meetings to solidify and institutionalize what we view as a foundation of our foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific”.
This will be the fourth meeting of the Foreign Ministers and it follows last September’s Quad summit of US President Joe Biden, Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India and Scott Morrison of Australia, and Yoshihide Suga, who was the then premier of Japan.
Although, as Kritenbrink said that Jaishankar and Blinken speak frequently, this will be their first in-person meeting since they last met in October in Rome on the sidelines of the G20 meeting.
Last year’s annual 2+2 India-US ministerial meeting of Jaishankar and Blinken, and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin that was expected to have taken place in December had been postponed because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India around that time.
Asked if Ukraine would figure at the Quad ministerial, Kritenbrink said: “As leaders of for the world’s key democracies, I think it will be natural for them to address all of the important issues of the day, and I’m sure Ukraine will be one of them, given the seriousness of the issue and the threat it poses to the rules-based global order.
“I would underscore at the outset that the primary reason why Secretary Blinken is going on this trip is to demonstrate, first, the importance of the Indo-Pacific region to the prosperity and the security of the United States and the American people. The Indo-Pacific is absolutely central to our national interests and will have a great impact, again, on our own security and prosperity.
“Secondly, the Secretary will demonstrate the strength and the credibility of America’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region, and specifically to our most important partners and democratic allies in the region.”
Talking about China, Kritenberg said: “The Quad is an informal grouping of like-minded democracies who share many interests, principles, and values vis-a-vis the kind of region that we want to live in a region based on a rules-based order in which all countries big and small follow the rules, a region in which disputes are resolved peacefully, and in which countries have the freedom to make their own sovereign choices.
“It’s through this partnership that we’re strengthening the security environment in the region to push back against aggression and coercion.”
The Quad has evolved into a cooperative for joint action in the Indo-Pacific region on health and development going back to its roots when the four countries came together to provide relief in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
A key programme during the Covid-19 pandemic is to jointly provide 1 billion doses of vaccines to countries in the region by the end of the year.
The vaccines are being manufactured by India with US and Japanese financing, and Australia is to provide the logistics for their distribution.
“It is through our partnership with these three democratic countries that we are moving so fast to deliver vaccines around the world and to build a stronger health infrastructure,” Kritenbrink said.
“And it will be through this partnership that we help support global economic recovery. We intend to demonstrate that our partnerships deliver, and they deliver practical and real benefits to our own peoples and to the peoples of the region.”
Blinken will also visit Fiji where 18 leaders from Pacific Island nations have been invited to participate in a hybrid meeting with him.
Besides the pandemic and climate change, they will “issues related to the maritime domain from maritime security to illegal fishing”, Kritenbrink said.
Maritime issues in the region centre around China’s claims, operations of its fishing fleets and actions by its coast guard against fishing personnel of other countries.
Blinken will end his trip in Honolulu with a meeting with Admiral John Aquilino, the head of the US Indo-Pacific Command, and a trilateral ministerial with South Korea’s Foreign Minister Chung Eui-Yong.
North Korea’s recent missile tests and the security situation in the region be on the trilateral’s agenda, State Department spokesperson Ned Price had said earlier.
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed @arulouis)