All eyes may be on coronavirus test results in Washington, but Mike Pompeo is staying focused on China.
The US Secretary of State was in Tokyo Tuesday for a meeting of the Quad, or Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which includes the United States, Japan, Australia, and India.
Ahead of the summit, Pompeo rallied Washington’s regional allies against Beijing, criticizing the “Chinese Communist Party’s coverup” in the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic, and saying “it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.”
His language was not necessarily matched by other Quad members, though both Australia’s Marise Payne and Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar spoke of the need for a “free, open, and inclusive Indo-Pacific,” a phrase which is often used to reference pushing back against China’s territorial claims to much of the region.
Pompeo is one of the fiercest China hawks in the Trump administration, and has remained concentrated on Beijing even as Washington has been largely plunged into chaos by the President’s coronavirus infection and that of many other top administration officials.
This has included a renewed focus on the Quad, an informal strategic forum that has been talked of in the past as something akin to an Asian NATO, but has never reached that level, due in part to concern from some members about Chinese backlash.
As early as 2007, when the first Quad meetings were proposed, China issued formal diplomatic protests to all parties involved, and later that year Australia pulled out over fears of offending Beijing, and the alliance was put on hold until 2017, when meetings resumed, in large part due to growing concerns over Chinese advances in the South China Sea.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting Tuesday, a senior state department official said that “there’s no avoiding the fact that it’s China and its actions in the region that make the Quad actually matter and function this time around.”
The official said a “sudden turn toward gross aggression by the Chinese Government in its entire periphery” had alarmed Beijing’s regional neighbors, and pointed in particular to ongoing tensions between India and China over their shared border in the Himalayas.
The official dismissed any suggestion that other Quad members are less willing to tackle Beijing head on.
“Let me give you an example. Australia, like five years ago actually, stood up and took action and identified United Front Work activity in its own country, identified penetration of its democratic and educational processes and all that,” said the official, referencing the Communist Party agency responsible for coordinating influence operations.
“Japan is doing the same thing, and India is doing the same thing as well,” the official added. “Everybody likeminded is looking at erosion of democracy, of free market economy and all that, and they’re taking action.”
For its part, China has attempted to paint the Quad meetings as a sop to Washington that do not indicate any wider regional shift against Beijing. Pompeo’s visit to Tokyo has been greeted by a barrage of Chinese state media reports minimizing the effect of his campaign and arguing that there is little appetite for anti-Beijing rhetoric in either Asia or the wider world.
In a piece in the nationalist tabloid Global Times, analyst Xin Qiang wrote that despite the US being the worst hit country by the coronavirus pandemic, with numerous top officials infected, “many are confused why the US still spares no effort in wooing China’s neighboring countries to check and balance China.”
Meanwhile, Xinhua, China’s official state news agency, dedicated nearly 1,200 words Tuesday to attacking point-by-point Pompeo’s statements last week during a trip to Europe, saying his “relentless China-bashing rhetoric was met with criticism from senior officials in these countries and solemn condemnations from the Chinese embassy.”
But while few politicians, either among Washington’s allies or even in the US, are as vocally anti-China as Pompeo, there is reason to believe he’s getting a sympathetic audience in closed-door meetings around the world.
As well as the Quad nations, many European countries have taken an increasingly hard line on China in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, criticizing Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and calling for rival Taiwan to play a greater role in international affairs.
Speaking on behalf of 39 other governments at the United Nations Tuesday, including the US, German ambassador Christoph Heusgen voiced “grave concerns” about China’s human rights record and called on Beijing “to allow immediate, meaningful and unfettered access to Xinjiang for independent observers” as well as to protect “autonomy, rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.”
Such action may be greeted by voters in many western nations: according to a new survey released by Pew Research on Tuesday, global perceptions of China have plunged in recent months, with only one country of 14 polled having a net positive view of Beijing.