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Japan and Australia reinforce Quad bond in message to Biden

US president-elect's Asia strategy has region on its toes

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and Japanese counterpart Yoshihide Suga agreed on security cooperation for a "free, open" Indo-Pacific in Tuesday's summit.   © Reuters

TOKYO/SYDNEY -- Before his summit here Tuesday with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison took time to speak with Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, the architect of the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept.

The meeting signaled the importance of the idea, which gained traction under U.S. President Donald Trump. The increased maritime activity of China revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, between the U.S., Japan, India and Australia.

But the future of the four-nation security grouping in unclear. When President-elect Joe Biden made his first batch of calls to foreign leaders, he spoke with Suga, Morrison and South Korean President Moon Jae-in on the same day, but not to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

A readout by the president-elect's transition team on the calls with Morrison and Suga say that Biden talked about maintaining a "secure and prosperous Indo-Pacific," avoiding the "free and open" phrase.

The subtle differences with the Trump administration, has other Quad members worried about a potential position shift by the Biden administration.

It was imperative, therefore, for Suga and Morrison to show the Indo-Pacific partnership as vital to regional stability and security.

Should the U.S. ratchet down its involvement in the Quad, the grouping would lose much of its power as a deterrent against Beijing.

In a joint statement after the summit, Suga and Morrison affirmed the importance of "bilateral and multilateral cooperative activities in the Indo-Pacific region, including maritime activities in the South China Sea, to maintain a free, open, secure, inclusive and prosperous region."

The leaders "welcomed the continued commitment of the United States to this region and stressed the importance of close cooperation with the United States to contribute to the peace and stability of the region."

And Morrison put the Quad front and center when asked by reporters Thursday about why he was traveling to Japan when he would need to undergo a two-week coronavirus quarantine on his return.

"Japan is a very special relationship with Australia," the prime minister said. "It's not just an economic one, it's not just a trade one, it's not just a cultural and social one. Importantly, it is a strategic one that we form together with the United States and India a very important quad relationship."

"We play a very important role together in working in the Southwest Pacific," he said.

Geostrategist and author Brahma Chellaney wrote in Nikkei Asia Tuesday that if Biden shows less interest in placing India at the center of America's Indo-Pacific policy, it will "lead to questions about the inherent unpredictability surrounding U.S. strategy," and cause India to question the wisdom of investing in closer strategic bonds with Washington.

Of particular concern to the Quad is Beijing, whose relationship with Canberra has deteriorated sharply in recent months. China bristled at Morrison's call in April for an independent investigation into the coronavirus outbreak, and has since slapped restrictions on imports of Australian beef and antidumping tariffs on its barley, and kept shipments of coal and lobster tied up in customs.

Australia had taken pains to maintain a balanced relationship with a country that buys 30% of its exports. But security concerns are becoming a higher priority in light of the expansion of China's influence in South Pacific island nations in recent years.

Tokyo sees the fraying ties between Canberra and Beijing as an opportunity to deepen its own relations with Australia.

Suga and Morrison reached a defense agreement Tuesday that will make it easier to conduct joint land drills on each other's soil, for example. "It's significant that Australia has begun placing more importance on its relationship with Japan," a senior Japanese government official said of the deal.

The two leaders also agreed to work toward a framework that would enable Japan's Self-Defense Forces to protect Australian military assets. Australia would be only the second country to sign such an agreement with Tokyo, after the U.S.

Also on Tuesday, the Quad nations began the second phase of the Malabar naval exercise, their first four-way joint drills in 13 years.

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