MANILA: Giving shape to their security cooperation under the proposed quadrilateral coalition, India, the US, Japan and Australia today held their first official- level talks to keep the Indo-Pacific region free, open and inclusive, a move that comes amid China's growing military presence in the strategic area.
Soon after the meeting, all the four countries issued separate statements listing Indo-Pacific as the major area of the their discussions and resolved to work towards upholding a rules-based order and ensuring respect for international law in the region.
The meeting comes ahead of the ASEAN summit here on Tuesday which is also likely to discuss the security challenges facing the Indo-Pacific region and China's military expansion in the South China Sea.
In a statement, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said the consultations were held on issues of common interest in the Indo-Pacific region with a focus on cooperation based on converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in the area. It said the meeting discussed the common challenges of terrorism and proliferation linkages impacting the region.
"They agreed that a free, open, prosperous and inclusive Indo-Pacific region serves the long-term interests of all countries in the region and of the world at large. The officials also exchanged views on addressing common challenges of terrorism and proliferation linkages impacting the region as well as on enhancing connectivity," the MEA said.
US State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said the officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address common challenges in the region, such as upholding the rules- based order in the Indo-Pacific, including freedom of navigation and overflight, respect for international law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, in clear reference to China's aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea.
She said they also discussed ways to increase connectivity consistent with international law and standards and enhance coordination on counter-terrorism measures and maritime security efforts in the Indo-Pacific besides enhancing cooperation to curtail the North Korea's nuclear and missile programmes and "unlawful acts".
In its statement, the Japanese Foreign Ministry said the officials discussed measures to ensure a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Indo- Pacific.
"From this perspective, the participants discussed the direction for cooperation, including with countries in the region, in upholding the rules-based order and respect for international law in the Indo-Pacific," it said.
The Australian Foreign Ministry said the four countries shared vision for increased prosperity and security in the Indo-Pacific region and will work together to ensure that it "remains free and open".
"The officials examined ways to achieve common goals and address shared challenges in the region. This includes upholding the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific and respect for international law, freedom of navigation and overflight, increase connectivity," it said.
The MEA said the Indian side highlighted India's 'Act East Policy' as the cornerstone of its engagement in the Indo-Pacific region.
The meeting also deliberated on enhancing cooperation in dealing with challenges of terrorism and talked about tackling proliferation threats, including North Korea's nuclear and missile programme.
"Officials also agreed to work together to address threats to international peace and security posed by the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including North Korea nuclear and missile programmes," the Australian Foreign Ministry said.
It said the four countries committed to continuing the quadrilateral discussions and deepening cooperation on the basis of shared values and principles.
The MEA said, "The discussions focused on cooperation based on their converging vision and values for promotion of peace, stability and prosperity in an increasingly inter- connected region that they share with each other and with other partners".
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is scheduled to have a bilateral meeting with US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tomorrow and the security scenario in the Indo-Pacific region may figure in the meetings.
The formation of a quadrilateral security dialogue comprising India, the US, Australia and Japan was first mooted around 10 years back but it did not see light of the day.
Japan's Foreign Minister Taro Kono last month had said that Tokyo favours the quadrilateral dialogue to further boost strategic partnership among the four countries.
Reacting to the Japanese move, India had said that it was open to working with like-minded countries on issues that advance its interests. The US had said it was looking at a "working-level" quadrilateral meeting in the near term with India, Japan and Australia.
The US and Japan have been pushing for deeper Indian role in the Indo-Pacific region.
Joint Secretary (South division) in the MEA Vinay Kumar and Joint Secretary in (East Asia) Pranay Verma attended the meeting.
The move to set up the quadrilateral comes in the backdrop of growing Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. The US has been favouring a larger role for India in the strategically key Indo-Pacific region.
The use of the term "Indo-Pacific" by Trump has led to speculation that it may have something to do with Washington preparing the ground for a revival of the Quadrilateral alliance between the US, Japan, Australia and India to counter China's rise.