TOKYO -- New Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga entered the world of top-level diplomacy in an atmosphere of deep uncertainty, exemplified by U.S. President Donald Trump's COVID-19 diagnosis last week.
A particular moment on Sept. 25, during his initial round of calls with fellow leaders, was especially enlightening. That day, a call with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was slipped into the schedule before Suga was set to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The talk with Xi started at 9 p.m., while the Modi call began just after 4:30 p.m.
Diplomacy is all about timing, with more important players positioned first. The earlier time slot signaled that Tokyo was making New Delhi a priority.
Suga's talks with world leaders through the 25th, with the exception of South Korea and China, included discussion of a key phrase: promoting a "free and open Indo-Pacific," with the aim of building regional peace and prosperity on the foundation of freedom of navigation and the rule of law.
The U.S., Australia, India and Japan look to take a central role in this effort. The four countries have come together for cooperation on security in the Indo-Pacific region in a grouping known as the "Quad."
The arrangement is a parting gift from Suga's predecessor, Shinzo Abe, dating back to Abe's first stint as prime minister in 2007. The Quad nations' top diplomats held their first four-way meeting in New York in September of last year, and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has arrived in Japan for a second gathering scheduled for this Tuesday. Suga is carrying on Abe's diplomatic legacy.
India and Japan signed an agreement Sept. 9 allowing them to share military supplies and logistical support. Japan had inked a similar deal with Australia in September 2017, and Canberra and New Delhi signed one this past June. The three countries are on the same wavelength.
In 2015, Japan began participating in the Malabar joint naval exercise held by the U.S. and India each year. The three-way drill was held off the Japanese coast in 2019, near the Sasebo naval base, and Australia was invited to participate this year.
Abe and Modi built a "special strategic and global partnership" between Tokyo and New Delhi, and the phrase "strategic partnership" has also been used to describe the Japan-Australia and Australia-India relationships. The three countries could be considered to be in a quasi-alliance.
The four Quad nations are conscious of China's maritime forays. After Pompeo's Japan trip this month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is set to visit the country and meet with Suga. Tokyo is forming a scrum with its Quad partners to face Beijing.
With tensions between the U.S. and China running high, if Japan sticks with Washington as its sole ally, it could be forced to demonstrate its loyalty on the diplomatic stage. Forming a quasi-alliance with India and Australia, which share the values of freedom and democracy, puts Tokyo on more stable footing.
And having more partners means that Beijing, which has a deep understanding of the role of power in international relations, cannot simply brush Japan off.
The Quad members do not see eye to eye on everything. India's traditional aversion to alliances means that it will likely resist any effort to make the grouping more formal. And the country is still an emerging economy, as well as a participant in the BRICS summit with Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, even if BRICS is a "group" in name only.
Meanwhile, the U.S., intent on countering China, looks to build an Asian NATO with the Quad at its core. If it does, it will find it difficult to draw in countries that have already been won over by Beijing.
Take South Korea, whose foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, said Sept. 25 that the Quad is not "a good idea." That Suga's conversation with President Moon Jae-in did not touch on the "free and open Indo-Pacific" concept also seems to indicate an understanding that Seoul is on Beijing's side.
And India's snubbing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership presents a potential headache for Japan and Australia.
The proposed free trade agreement includes the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Japan, China, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and India, though not the U.S.
Tokyo and Canberra had hoped for India, as one of the leading emerging economies, to serve as a counterweight to China to keep it from towering over a grouping that encompasses 30% or so of global gross domestic product. But India announced its intention last November to abandon the RCEP, amid a ballooning trade deficit that has made the country leery of lowering tariffs.
Beijing already leads major regional initiatives, including the Belt and Road effort and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. If it dominates the RCEP as well, it could reel in emerging economies hungry for capital and infrastructure investment.
The U.S. is not sitting idly by. It has teamed up with Japan and Australia to launch the Blue Dot Network, an initiative to invest in high-quality infrastructure, envisioned as an alternative to Belt and Road.
The American side of the project is led by the recently established International Development Finance Corp., which boasts an investment cap of $60 billion and can take equity positions in addition to traditional lending. Canberra and Tokyo are participating through Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, respectively.
Laos is being stretched thin by a Belt and Road project that has forced the poor country to borrow heavily. In Indonesia, a high-speed railway funded through Chinese investment has faced delay after delay. The time is ripe for quality infrastructure investment by the U.S.-Japan-Australia trio.
As it happens, Suga has chosen Vietnam and Indonesia for his first official foreign visits as prime minister, making clear that he intends to firm up relationships with core ASEAN members to counter China. The new Japanese leader likely will also face the challenge of dealing with India's withdrawal from the RCEP, much as Abe shepherded the Trans-Pacific Partnership to completion without the U.S.
As for the U.S. itself, Trump's reelection looks far from certain, and presidential candidate Joe Biden's Asia policy is somewhat fraught. That makes Japan's bonds with Australia and India -- as well as with the U.K., which is tilting more toward Asia -- all the more important.