Washington aims to formalise its closer Indo-Pacific defence relations with India, Japan and Australia – also known as “the quad” – into something more closely resembling the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation ( Nato ), a senior US State Department official said on Monday. The US government’s goal is to get the grouping of four countries and others in the region to work together as a bulwark against “a potential challenge from China” and “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 … ultimately to align in a more structured manner”, said Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun. “The Indo-Pacific region is actually lacking in strong multilateral structures,” he said. “They don‘t have anything of the fortitude of Nato or the European Union. The strongest institutions in Asia oftentimes are not, I think, not inclusive enough and so … there is certainly an invitation there at some point to formalise a structure like this.” “Remember even Nato started with relatively modest expectations and a number of countries [initially] chose neutrality over Nato membership,” Biegun added. Biegun cautioned that Washington would keep its ambitions for a Pacific Nato “checked”, saying that such a formal alliance “only will happen if the other countries are as committed as the United States”. Speaking with former US ambassador to India, Richard Verma, in an online discussion organised by the US-India Strategic Partnership Forum, Biegun also said the group of four nations were expected to meet in Delhi sometime this autumn and cited Australia’s possible participation in India’s Malabar naval exercise as an example of progress towards a more formal defence bloc. India is “clearly indicating an intention to invite Australia to participate in the Malabar naval exercises, which will be a tremendous step forward in ensuring the freedom of passage and the security of the seas in the Indo-Pacific”, he said. The naval exercises, taking place mostly in the Bay of Bengal, have been run annually by the US and India since 1992, and have included Japan since 2015. Australia had taken part in the Malabar games once, in 2007, “but Beijing pushed back, meaning that India demurred on repeating the invitation, ostensibly for fear of needlessly antagonising China, despite Canberra’s clear willingness to take part,” the Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute said in a July report. Singapore also took part in 2007. China high on agenda when US, India hold ‘2 plus 2’ dialogue in October The Lowy report said clashes between Chinese and Indian troops in June in the Himalayan Galwan valley, in which at least 20 Indian soldiers died, made the Indian government more inclined to bring Australia back into the Malabar games. Japan and the United States have already been invited to join this year’s exercise, which has been delayed because of Covid-19, but Delhi has not yet formally invited Australia. Biegun’s comments follow those of Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien, who on Friday called China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea “ridiculous” and touted upcoming quad meetings and planned visits by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with his counterparts in India, Japan and Australia in September and October. The State Department official also suggested that Washington would like to see South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand to eventually join an expanded version of the quad, citing the “very cooperative” meetings that the group of four had with officials from these countries about the response to the coronavirus pandemic. Those meetings between senior-level officials of the seven countries were “incredibly productive discussion among very, very cooperative partners, and one that we should look at to see a natural grouping of countries that really will do their very best to advance this combination of interests that we have made up Pacific”, Biegun said.