(ATTN: ADDS omitted word 'by' in 12th para)
By Byun Duk-kun
WASHINGTON, Aug. 31 (Yonhap) -- The United States would certainly like to formalize its ongoing dialogue with countries in the Indo-Pacific region but also expand it to include other counties with common interests, such as South Korea, to launch what would be the first strong multilateral structure in the region, Washington's No. 2 diplomat said Monday.
"It is a reality that the Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures. They don't have anything of the fortitude of NATO, or the European Union," Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said in an online seminar held on the sidelines of the annual U.S.-India Strategic Partnership Forum.
Biegun noted a dialogue in the Indo-Pacific area was initially launched and is currently attended by the U.S., India, Japan and Australia, but said their recent talks on ways to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic also involved South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand.
The so-called Indo-Pacific Initiative was introduced by the United States in 2018 in what many still believe to be an attempt to check or even counter the rise of China, a possible reason for Seoul's reluctance to join as it would impose a choice between its traditional ally and its Asian neighbor and single-largest trade partner.
"Seven of us on a weekly basis at my level, so just below the ministerial level, and each of those governments met weekly, and it was incredibly productive discussion among very, very cooperative partners," said the U.S. diplomat.
He insisted the seven countries should be viewed as a "natural grouping" of countries that "will do their very best to advance this combination of interest that we have in the Indo-Pacific."
"You know the strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not inclusive enough, and so there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalize a structure like this," he added.
Biegun acknowledge the initiative was partly aimed at responding to what he called economic and political "threats" from China, but insisted there must be more than that.
"Our (U.S.) strategy is to push back against China in virtually every domain," he said.
"The purpose here can be to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world," added Biegun.
At the same time, he highlighted the importance of being modest and starting small.
"I am afraid what happened with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is the ambitions got too big, and ultimately, it fell under the weight of excessive ambitions," said Biegun, referring to the multilateral free trade agreement that was launched and led by Washington but later rejected by the Donald Trump administration.
"So I think also we have to be careful in modesty or starting with the quad. Starting with just the four (countries) might be a very important start," he said.
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