Washington: The United States seeks to formalise its closer defence ties with countries of the India-Pacific region — India, Japan and Australia — similar to something like the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to counter China, US Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said on Monday.
He said that Washington aims to get the grouping of four countries and others in the region to work together as a bulwark against “a potential challenge from China”, and “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world … ultimately to align in a more structured manner”, South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported.
Biegun made the comments while speaking with former US ambassador to India, Richard Verma in an online discussion organised by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum.
“The Indo-Pacific region is lacking in strong multilateral structures. They do not have anything of the fortitude of NATO or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this,” Biegun said.
“Remember, even NATO started with relatively modest expectations and some countries (initially) chose neutrality over NATO membership,” he added.
However, he cautioned that the US would keep its ambitions for a Pacific NATO “checked“, asserting such an alliance “will happen only if the other countries are as committed as the US”.
Biegun said the grouping of four countries are expected to meet in New Delhi this autumn and cited Australia’s possible participation in India’s Malabar naval exercise as an example of progress towards a formal defence bloc, according to SCMP.
India is “clearly indicating an intention to invite Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, which will be a tremendous step forward in ensuring the freedom of passage and the security of the seas in the Indo-Pacific,” the senior US department official said.
The naval exercises have been conducted by the US and India since 1992 and mostly takes place in the Bay of Bengal. Japan has been taking part in this exercise since 2015.
Australia had participated in the Malabar naval exercises once, in 2007, “but Beijing pushed back, meaning that India demurred on repeating the invitation, ostensibly for fear of needlessly antagonising China, despite Canberra’s clear willingness to take part,” according to the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute in a July report. Singapore had also participated in 2007.
The report said that the standoff between Chinese and Indian troops at Galwan valley in June, in which 20 Indian soldiers lost their lives, has made India more inclined to get back Australia for the Malabar naval exercises.
While Japan and the US have already been invited to participate in this year’s exercise, delayed due to COVID-19, India has not yet extended a formal invitation to Australia.
Meanwhile, Biegun stated that the US wants to see Vietnam, South Korea and New Zealand to eventually join an expanded version of the ‘Quad’ (India, Australia, Japan and the US), citing the “very cooperative” meetings of the grouping of four countries with officials from these nations regarding the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The meetings between senior-level officials of the seven nations were “incredibly productive discussion among very cooperative partners, and one that we should look at to see a natural grouping of countries that really will do their very best to advance this combination of interests that we have made up Pacific”, Biegun was quoted as saying by SCMP.