NEW DELHI — The top diplomats of Australia, India, Japan and the United States said Friday their Indo-Pacific-focused bloc is not aimed at countering China but released a statement filled with buzzwords and phrases that reflect growing unease over China’s influence in the region.
Meeting in New Delhi, the four foreign ministers barely mentioned China by name and insisted that the so-called “Quad” group is designed to boost their own national interests and improve those of others through enhanced cooperation in non-military areas.
Yet their comments at a joint public event and the written statement made clear the grouping exists to be an alternative to China with repeated references to the importance of democracy, rule of law, maritime security and the peaceful settlement of disputes, all of which Beijing regards with suspicion when coming from Quad members.
“We strongly support the principles of freedom, rule of law, sovereignty and territorial integrity, peaceful settlement of disputes without resorting to threat or use of force and freedom of navigation and overflight, and oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo, all of which are essential to the peace, stability and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region and beyond,” the ministers said in the statement.
In a direct shot at China, which has become increasingly aggressive in the Pacific and has alarmed its smaller neighbors by pushing claims to disputed maritime zones, the ministers said they viewed with concern “challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the South and East China Seas.”
“We strongly oppose any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo or increase tensions in the area,” they said. “We express serious concern at the militarization of disputed features, the dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and efforts to disrupt other countries’ offshore resource exploitation activities.”
China has been accused of doing all three. In Beijing, China's Foreign Ministry criticized the Quad, saying that "cooperation among countries should conform to the trend of the times for peace and development and should not engage in exclusive cliques.”
“We hope the countries concerned will do something that is conducive to enhancing the security and mutual trust of regional countries and to maintaining regional peace and stability,” ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said at a daily briefing.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, meanwhile, accused the United States of “trying to militarize Quad,” an accusation also often made by Beijing that America is trying to set up a new NATO-style alliance in Asia to counter China in the region.
In an oblique reference to China, as well as Russia, which have blocked actions at the U.N. Security Council and other institutions on matters ranging from Ukraine to Myanmar, North Korea, trade, technology and health, the Quad foreign ministers said they "are committed to cooperate to address attempts to unilaterally subvert the U.N. and international system.”
And just a day after China and Russia thwarted the Group of 20 largest industrialized and developing nations from adopting a joint communique on Russia's war against Ukraine, the Quad specifically endorsed language to which Beijing and Moscow objected. That included a line that said, "the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons is inadmissible.”
“We underscored the need for a comprehensive, just and lasting peace in Ukraine in accordance with international law, including the U.N. Charter,” they added, repeating another line China and Russia refused to agree to at Thursday's G-20 foreign ministers' meeting, which was also held in the Indian capital.
Speaking at a panel at India’s Raisina Dialogue, the four ministers maintained that the Quad does not seek conflict with China or to antagonize it but rather to promote democracy, good governance, transparency, digital security and global health and disaster relief.
“As long as China abides by the law and international norms and acts under international institutional standards this is not a conflicting issue between China and the Quad,” Japanese Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa said in a rare direct reference to China.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the group is not designed to blunt China's rise by demanding that countries align with Quad members or Beijing.
"Our proposition is not to say to countries in the region ‘You have to choose,'" he said. “Our proposition is to offer a choice, a positive alternative.”
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar agreed.
"I prefer to think about what we are for, not about what we are against," Wong said.
"We do offer more choices," Jaishankar said. “We do collectively offer something different. Countries are interested, many of them are looking at the Indo-Pacific as a changing theater and how to define themselves.”
Associated Press writer Krutika Pathi contributed to this report.