Japan has agreed to host a meeting of the Quad group involving the United States, Australia and India next year, White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell said Friday, in what could serve as another chance to showcase the deepening ties of the four maritime democracies in the face of China's rise.
Campbell also indicated that Beijing seems to be feeling some pressure from the U.S. administration of President Joe Biden's ongoing efforts to strengthen relations with allies including Japan and increased multilateral engagements such as through the Quad.
Recalling the meeting between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday, Campbell, who also attended the talks, said, "I think it would be fair to say, at the virtual meeting, President Xi made very clear that a number of things that the United States is doing caused China some heartburn."
Topping such a list would likely be the "reinforcing and revitalizing" of bilateral security alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, new partnerships that are of critical importance like Vietnam, and the Quad, among others, he said.
Campbell, speaking at an event of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, did not explain in detail the type of Quad meeting to be hosted by Japan next year. However, diplomatic sources previously indicated that Tokyo has explored the idea of hosting the second in-person Quad summit, hoping to convene it as early as next spring.
"We'll work with them on timing and to make sure we follow through on what we've committed to, which is extraordinarily important, but also look at new initiatives as well," he said.
If the Quad summit is realized, it will be the first time for Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, who took office in October, to attend such a gathering among the group, and it would also be a chance for Biden to make his first visit to Japan as U.S. president.
During the first in-person Quad summit in Washington in September, leaders of the four countries committed to a "free and open Indo-Pacific" and agreed to hold a leaders' meeting annually.
Campbell said the Quad is not a "formal alliance" and the current consensus is that "it is appropriate to be considered as an informal gathering."
"I do not believe we will take steps in the near term to institutionalize" the group, he added.
The White House official, meanwhile, warned of Beijing's attempt to further increase its economic influence in the region, citing the seriousness of its bid to join a Pacific free trade agreement initially known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which the United States pulled out in 2017.
Following the U.S. withdrawal, Japan and the other 10 remaining Asia-Pacific members including Australia moved to salvage most of the pact, now called the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, or CPTPP.
China is now among the economies applying to join the CPTPP, although skepticism remains on whether it can meet the deal's high-standard trade and market-access rules.
But Campbell said, "Those who say that China is doing this for show in CPTPP, I would beg to differ."
"This is deadly serious. They are interested in deep discussions about what it would take to join," he said.
The TPP was initially seen as a counterweight against China's growing economic clout, but it was never popular in the U.S. Congress. Former President Donald Trump, who pursued his "America First" policy, pulled the United States out of the deal shortly after taking office, calling it a "job-killing" arrangement.
With the Biden administration showing no immediate interest in joining the CPTPP, concerns remain that the United States will be left behind in moves to set the rules for trade in the Indo-Pacific, benefiting China.
Campbell emphasized that a recently unveiled U.S. plan to build an Indo-Pacific economic framework around issues such as digital trade, technology, investment and supply chains has been "welcomed" by countries the United States seeks to partner with on the issue.
Japan has said complying with high-standard rules would be a prerequisite for China to enter negotiations toward participating in the Pacific free trade deal. Compared with countries such as Japan, China is seen as falling short in market-access liberalization.
In order to meet the standards set by CPTPP members, the Asian economic powerhouse would also face other obstacles such as the need to reform the preferential treatment given to state-run companies and the distribution of state subsidies.