Here’s the Pitch

Cricket explains India and Australia while baseball is central to America and Japan. And all four nations are playing together to contain an ambitious China.

Cricket or baseball? Can these two bat-and-ball sports, and the nations that support them, find a common language and work toward common goals — not just in sport, but in loose alliance? Four countries that are big into cricket and baseball are also working together trying to keep the world safe for democracy.

India and Australia are cricket nations. Japan and the United States are all about baseball. Together, the four nations are known as the “Quad” — “Quadrilateral Strategic Dialogue” — and they are invested in securing the Indo-Pacific region. That’s the vast swath of land and sea from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean. At the same time that the 60-game Major League Baseball season is in playoffs, high-level Quad political representatives met face-to-masked-face in Tokyo. Their goal? Figure out how to play ball together and keep China from winning the game of global competition.

As the United States and Japan try to shape the Quad’s strategic alliance to defend the region and confront China, it often seems as if these baseball nations are playing different political, diplomatic, and military games. In politics, as in sports, conflicting differences become glaringly apparent and important. Style, form, and rules vary. In Japanese baseball, the strike zone is larger, the ballparks smaller.

Same sport, somewhat different game.

To make matters worse, cricket and baseball are completely different. Yes, both have pitchers, batters score runs and games are excruciatingly slow. But that’s where similarities end. They are not the same sport. Rules and vocabulary seem inaccessible. Baseball fans watching cricket get confused when a pitcher is called a “bowler” and “wickets” — sticky or otherwise — come into play.

Life in the 21st century continues to evolve, however. Sports that once never hit American TV screens now are highlighted by ESPN. Cricket used to be strangely distant, not stumbled across while channel surfing. Sports sections in American newspapers never carried cricket tournament results that now are just a click away.

Suddenly, globalization makes every sport and activity on Earth seem more accessible — if not entirely understandable — to everyone. It makes distant events more familiar and immediate. Cricket fans now get dugout views of World Series games. Bleacher bums homebound because of COVID-19 might become mesmerized by a two-month Australia vs. India “Test series to start with pink ball game in Adelaide” on TV this November.

The Quad countries play different, if related, political games. Regardless, these countries are working to harmonize their approach, rules, and desired winning outcomes. India, Australia, Japan, and the United States want to play the same game because their shared democratic and free-market ideals are enhanced by their mutual understanding of common threats.

The Quad recognizes that while its constituent nations compete against each other for global markets, they coalesce in their fight for human rights and transparent governance. They all recognize China as a strategic competitor, though not always in the same way or with the same language.

In Tokyo this week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo got on the mound and pitched the Quad on a mutually assertive stance against China’s “exploitation, corruption and coercion.” Japan — the country that initiated the Quad in 2007 — batted away that undiplomatic approach. Tokyo’s new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said that he wants to “build stable relations with neighboring countries, including China and Russia.”

China, of course, is generally unhappy with the Quad. Beijing prefers to divide the Quad politically and conquer it economically. It accuses the four nations of trying to contain China, trying to create a NATO-like military alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Beijing says the Quad is forming an “exclusive clique” aimed at curtailing China’s ambitions.

All the while, the Quad is trying to find a cautious way to integrate its members without alienating them. India, for example, is wary of any alliances. In fact, it was central to the development of the 20th century Nonaligned Movement. New Delhi’s colonial experience and the current rise of political nationalism at home makes any move toward a military or political alliance with Quad nations nearly impossible.

On the other hand, a recent direct conflict with China on disputed Himalayan territory has slightly opened up India’s thinking towards coordinating with likeminded This brings us back to cricket and baseball, neither of which are China’s national sports. They play ping-pong, where a kill shot is the way to win.

Quad members will have to play well together without necessarily playing the exact same game. The Quad needs simultaneously to adjust to Japan’s new leadership team, an Australia increasingly threatened by China and an America that decides how it will play ball with the rest of the world come Nov. 3.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is McClatchy’s foreign affairs columnist, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the author of Spin Wars and Spy Games: Global Media and Intelligence. He is president and publisher emeritus of the Washington Monthly.