Australia, the United States, India and Japan are discussing establishing a joint regional infrastructure scheme as a counter to China's multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing's spreading influence, the Australian Financial Review reported on Monday.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to discuss the idea during talks in Washington DC this week, possibly during a scheduled meeting with US President Donald Trump.
An unnamed senior US official was quoted as saying the plan involving the four regional partners was still "nascent" and "won't be ripe enough to be announced" during Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's visit to the United States later this week.
The official said the project was on the agenda for Turnbull's talks with the US President. But he preferred to describe the plan as an "alternative" to the Belt and Road Initiative rather than a "rival".
"No one is saying China should not build infrastructure," the official was quoted as saying. "China might build a port which on its own is not economically viable. We could make it economically viable by building a road or rail line linking that port."
Representatives for Turnbull, foreign minister Julie Bishop and trade minister Steven Ciobo did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Japanese chief cabinet secretary Yoshihide Suga, asked at a news conference about the report of four-way cooperation, said Japan, the United States, Australia, and Japan, Australia and India regularly exchanged views on issues of common interest.
"It is not the case that this is to counter China's Belt and Road," he said.
The prospect of such an initiative will be watched closely by Beijing, which is already jumpy at the same four nations for agreeing last year to restore the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD).
In November, China protested after senior foreign affairs officials from Australia, the US, Japan and India met in Manila on the sidelines ASEAN and East Asia Summits in Manila to discuss the restoration of the QSD, which had earlier collapsed under Chinese pressure on the then Australian government.
The US and its allies have long been suspicious of Belt and Road, a massive push by Chinese President Xi Jinping to fund a global network of major infrastructure projects throughout the region and beyond such as ports, rail networks, bridges and roads. The US regards it as a vehicle for Beijing to exert its influence globally.
India too is highly averse to the project, which passes through disputed territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, and has refused to have anything to do with the One Belt, One Road (OBOR) initiative.
While almost 70 countries, including New Zealand and several European nations, have signed up to Belt and Road, the Turnbull government in Australia has been cautious whereas Labour has signalled a preparedness to join the initiative as part of an increased embrace of Asia, should it win the next election.
Japan, meanwhile, plans to use its official development assistance (ODA) to promote a broader "Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy" including "high-quality infrastructure", according to a summary draft of its 2017 white paper on ODA. The Indo-Pacific strategy has been endorsed by Washington and is also seen as a counter to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has heavily promoted the OBOR initiative, inviting world leaders to Beijing last May for an inaugural summit at which he pledged $124 billion in funding for the plan, and enshrining it into the ruling Communist Party's constitution in October.
In January, Beijing outlined its ambitions to extend the initiative to the Arctic by developing shipping lanes opened up by global warming, forming a 'Polar Silk Road'.