US commander hints that quad grouping may be shelved

CORRECTS LOCATION TO SINGAPORE - Adm. Phil Davidson, center, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, speaks with the media in Singapore Thursday, March 7, 2019. Davidson told reporters Thursday that he is working with countries including South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and France, to enforce sanctions against North Korea at sea. (Mass Communication 1st Specialist Robin W. Peak/U.S. Navy via AP)

SINGAPORE — A U.S. military commander suggested Thursday that a loose security grouping of his country, Japan, Australia and India, also known as the quad, may be shelved for now.

Adm. Phil Davidson, who heads the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said he was on a panel with the other navy chiefs at the Raisina Dialogue, a multilateral conference in New Delhi in January.

Davidson said the issue came up "several times" but Indian navy chief Adm. Sunil Lanba "made it quite clear that there wasn't an immediate potential for a quad."

"That does not omit or prevent our ability to cooperate in crisis and conflict. And we continue collectively, all of us, to seek opportunities in which we might exercise and work together moving forward," he added.

Davidson was asked if the quad was relevant to his country's vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region, which was the central theme of his lecture in Singapore.

The U.S. and the other three countries had come together to provide humanitarian assistance after the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe then suggested they form the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which met three years later.

The meetings stopped for a decade after China formally reached out to each country to seek information on the meetings' purpose.

The quad met again in 2017. India's Ministry of External Affairs said they addressed "issues of common interest" such as terrorism and "proliferation linkages impacting the region."

While members have said the grouping is not in opposition to China, it is viewed as a counterbalance to Beijing's rising influence in Indo-Pacific.

India had stressed in the past that the quad was not a military grouping. Lanba noted at January's conference that the Chinese navy had added 80 ships in the last five years, according to Indian media.

"Chinese Navy is a force and it is a force that is here to stay," the Press Trust of India news agency reported him as saying.

The U.S. is also keeping a close watch on North Korea following reported activity at a rocket launch site.

Davidson told reporters earlier Thursday that he was committed to maintaining U.N. sanctions against North Korea and a "readiness of our forces there."

He added that he was working with countries including South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and France to catch any sanctions breaches via methods such as ship-to-ship transfers.

"Many of those nations will contribute either maritime patrol aircraft or ships later this year," he said.

On Wednesday, foreign experts and a South Korean lawmaker who was briefed by Seoul's spy service said North Korea was restoring facilities at a long-range rocket launch site that it dismantled last year as part of disarmament steps. Satellite photos taken on various dates showed new activity at the Tongchang-ri launch site, northwest of Pyongyang.

The reports surfaced less than a week after President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Vietnam but failed to reach any agreement on the North's nuclear program.

Davidson also addressed recent comments by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who called for a review of a 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with Washington to prevent the Philippines from being dragged into a "shooting war" in the South China Sea.

China is pitted against the Philippines and other Southeast Asian countries in multiple territorial disputes in the waters, which are crucial for global commerce and rich in fish and potential oil and gas reserves.

The treaty calls on the U.S. and the Philippines to come to each other's defense against an external attack. "I should note that the Philippines relies heavily on the freedom of the seas and the South China Sea especially," Davidson said.

He added that he takes the treaty "quite seriously" and that the U.S. Embassy was in contact with the Philippines regarding the matter.

Davidson took command of around 380,000 civilian and military personnel in the region last April.

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