US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has completed a mission in the Pacific that included visits to Melbourne, Fiji and Hawaii, and high-level talks with ministers from Australia, India, Japan, and South Korea, primarily on security issues.
He was there, as he told a press conference in Melbourne, primarily on issues to ensure “a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
Or, as commentators said, to turn back the threat of an increasingly aggressive China through the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) alliance consisting of the US, India, Japan and Australia.
As Blinken argues, the Indo-Pacific is the most dynamic region in the world, with the three fastest growing economies and half the world’s population.
“People deserve to live freely. Countries deserve to have the freedom to work together and associate with those if they choose. And together we can demonstrate that we are effective in bringing benefits to all of our people”.
The goals of the QUAD are ones that NZ once would have subscribed to and been eager to promote. But NZ wasn’t present in Melbourne, not even as an observer.
Nor did Blinken pay even a fleeting visit to Wellington.
It’s not known whether Blinken has been invited to NZ (though it was the practice of former governments to have a standing invitation to US Secretaries of State to visit).
Australia’s PM , Scott Morrison, who was involved in the QUAD ministers meeting in Melbourne, said at a press conference he had thanked Blinken for being there:
“Yours is the longest distance to travel, but particularly with the other matters that you’re dealing with at the moment, we’re very appreciative of you making this effort”.
Morrison, claiming to speak on behalf of all Australians, said:
“We really do welcome the quality of this partnership and the importance of this partnership.. What we’re talking about here is a world that we have not seen like this for about 80 years. And we are working together to seek to shape a peaceful environment where all the countries in our region that we work with so closely can enjoy their sovereignty – to not be coerced, to be able to pursue their hopes and aspirations”.
Would NZ not subscribe to that?
“We live in a very fragile, fragmented and contested world, and that is no more accentuated than here in our Indo-Pacific, and the like-minded partners that we see gathered together in this QUAD, I always find so incredibly reassuring.
“I’m reassured by our perspective. I’m reassured by the understanding that is shared between each of us. I am reassured by the incredible, strong support that Australia has received by our QUAD partners, and I just don’t mean in a security context. I mean that in terms of our economic partnership and cooperation. I mean that in our humanitarian partnership. I mean that in terms of how each of us stands for a world order that favours freedom, and particularly here in a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“The things we discussed today are principally how we will continue to stand up for our values, which combined, which is what unites us most. In doing so, we stand up to those who would seek to coerce us. And our QUAD partners understand the coercion and the pressure that Australia has been placed under.
“But we also share a vision for a strong economy, not just regional stability and security. And our engagement in this region, of which we’re so passionate about, because that gives all nations in the region options and choices and opportunities, and enables their sovereignty to be strengthened and respected.
“And we are working together on so many shared projects, which is what the QUAD is all about. Not only, of course, the traditional regional security issues that have bound us together, but our shared partnerships on everything from critical minerals, from new technologies, to expanding our markets together and opening up markets, but also on global challenges, whether they be on climate or on humanitarian issues and the great challenge of COVID. And that has led so much of the work that has been important to this QUAD partnership”.
Morrison rounded off his remarks by saying Australia supports a world order that favours freedom through international institutions.
It was not just security issues on the QUAD agenda. Australia’s Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, said they also focussed on maritime security, cyber and critical technologies issues, counter-terrorism, and efforts to work together on climate in the region and, importantly, vaccine delivery.
India’s Foreign Minister, Dr S Jaishankar, told reporters part of the reason why the QUAD has worked so well as a global good in the Indo Pacific (in his Prime Minister’s words) was
“… because our bilateral relations have been very strong and surely I expect progress in our bilateral relations to continue”.
Japan’s Foreign Minister, Yoshimasa Hayashi, said the Melbourne meeting had been “extremely timely”.
He said Japan’s Prime Minister was looking forward to hosting the QUAD Leaders’ meeting in Japan in the first half of this year.
Japan-Australia relations had been taken to new heights, with the Leaders’ VTC Meeting in January and the signing of the Reciprocal Access Agreement.
“Prime Minister Kishida hopes to further develop our bilateral relations”
Blinken thanked Morrison for his leadership in advancing the QUAD and demonstrating that the four democracies coming together can produce constructive, concrete results for all their people “and indeed beyond”.
“I think what’s so striking to me is that this is a group of countries brought together not by what we’re against, but what we’re for, and what we’re for, quite simply, is a free and open Indo-Pacific.”
To a reporter who asked whether he saw a confrontation with China as inevitable, he replied he didn’t. But he went on to say:
“I think we share concerns that in recent years China has been acting more aggressively, a whole lot more aggressively in the region. And, indeed, potentially beyond. But what brings us together is an affirmative vision for what the future can bring, but also a commitment to defend the rules-based system .And I think the relationship for all of us with China is among the most consequential and most complex of any that we have.”
It seems odd to Point of Order that NZ under its present administration wouldn’t subscribe to that view.
In an earlier age, NZ government would have wanted to be a member of the QUAD alliance – or at least to have sought official observer status.
The question is whether some elements in the Ardern government think Australia has become too militant in its attitude to China?