Foreign Minister Marise Payne and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo discussed China's regional "malign activity" before joining their counterparts from India and Japan in a show of strength in Tokyo.
Once described as a "security diamond of democracies" by former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, revived on the sidelines of United Nations in New York a year ago, is clearly back in business. The in-person meeting of the four "Quad" foreign ministers in Tokyo on Tuesday sent an unmistakeable message to Beijing.
"The fact that the Quad foreign ministers have met in person, in the midst of a pandemic, sends a message of commitment. China and ASEAN countries will need to factor it in as a new staple in the Indo-Pacific’s diplomatic calendar," said Euan Graham, senior fellow at the Singapore-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.
Beijing has made no secret of its dislike of the revived Quad. A week ago, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin, said countries should not be forming "exclusive cliques" that target third parties.
In language guaranteed to attract Beijing's attention, Mr Pompeo and Senator Payne "discussed their shared concerns regarding the People's Republic of China's malign activity in the region", a State Department official said in a statement.
Senator Payne's statement on social media after the meeting did not mention China, referring only to discussions about efforts to "promote peace, stability and prosperity in our region".
That regional stability has been sorely tested this year. Australia's call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 as the pandemic took hold around the world was deeply unpopular in China. In successive months Beijing imposed tariffs on Australian barley and wine, warned of a consumer and student boycott of Australian exports and threatened to stop two Australian journalists from leaving the country.
Elsewhere in the region, China has continued to push its claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea – including fisheries and other natural resources – and flaunt its military and naval might. In the Himalayas, clashes along the disputed India-China border have also flared up again in recent months.
After arriving in Tokyo around midnight on Monday, Mr Pompeo was due to head back to Washington less than 24 hours later. With President Donald Trump and many senior party and government officials in isolation after contracting COVID-19, Mr Pompeo scrapped plans to visit South Korea and Mongolia in favour of a quick return home.