United States President Joe Biden and fellow leaders of the Indo-Pacific group known as the Quad have announced a plan to expand coronavirus vaccine manufacturing capacity in India.
The effort to expand production and promote access to the vaccine in the region was unveiled Friday following a virtual meeting of the leaders of Australia, India, Japan and the US. It comes as the Biden administration is putting greater emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region in the face of growing economic competition from China.
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Biden described the effort as “an ambitious new joint partnership that is going to boost vaccine manufacturing … to benefit the entire Indo-Pacific” region.
“We will combine our nations’ medical, scientific, financing, manufacturing and delivery, and development capabilities and establish a vaccine expert working group to implement our path-breaking commitment to safe and effective vaccine distribution,” the Quad leaders said in a joint statement.
The effort by the group to pump up India’s vaccine manufacturing also comes as the Biden administration and leaders of other wealthy nations have faced calls from France and some global health advocacy groups to donate a small percentage of vaccines produced in the US and other industrialised nations to poor countries. Biden has also fielded requests from allies, including Canada and Mexico, to buy vaccines made in the US.
But the Biden administration has remained steadfast that, at least for now, it is focused on making sure that all Americans are first vaccinated even as China and Russia have engaged in vaccine diplomacy, sending badly needed vaccines to other countries. Administration officials have noted the US’s $4bn commitment to the COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX), an international effort to bolster the purchase and distribution of coronavirus vaccines to poor nations.
Biden was joined Friday by Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other top national security aides for the virtual meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan.
The effort by the Quad is projected to allow India to increase manufacturing capacity by one billion doses by 2022, according to a White House statement.
But the effort is already deemed not ambitious enough by some groups advocating for Biden to press for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to allow a temporary waiver of the body’s intellectual property agreement. That would pave the way for generic or other manufacturers to make more vaccines.
The US, the United Kingdom, European Union nations and other WTO members on Wednesday blocked a push by more than 80 developing countries to grant the waiver.
“The pandemic cannot be stopped anywhere unless vaccines, tests and treatments are available everywhere,” Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said in a statement.
Biden administration officials said that bringing together the Quad so early in the new administration was intentional. Each of the four nations has a complex, if not strained, relationship with China. Biden, in his calls with each of the leaders during the first weeks of his administration, stressed the need for cooperation on China.
Australia’s relationship with China has soured over a series of trade disputes.
India is in the midst of a 10-months-long military standoff with China along their disputed border in eastern Ladakh. Tens of thousands of soldiers are facing each other at friction points in the region.
Biden, in his first call with Suga days into his administration, underscored his commitment to protecting the Senkaku Islands, according to the White House. The group of uninhabited islets is administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing.
Biden intends to host Suga for the first in-person foreign leader visit of his presidency, according to a senior administration official. A date has not been set for the visit.
“A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential,” Biden told fellow Quad leaders at the start of Friday’s meeting. “The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all of our allies in the region to achieve stability.”
Fridays’ meeting was largely focused on ramping up vaccination production in the region, climate issues and technology, but US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said China was also discussed.
China has called the Quad an attempt to contain its ambitions.
Morrison said there was no reason for China to object to the leaders’ meeting.
“This is about four nations that have had a long-term interest in the Indo-Pacific,” Morrison told reporters ahead of the meeting.
Blinken has made clear that the administration believes the best counterweight to China is for US allies to stand together.
“The more China hears not just our opprobrium but a chorus of opprobrium from around the world, the better the chance that we’ll get some changes,” Blinken told the US House Committee on Foreign Affairs this week.
Biden administration officials wanted first to hold the meeting of the Quad — something that grew out of the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people — and additional meetings with Pacific partners ahead of their first face-to-face, high-level meetings with China.
Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin are scheduled to travel to Japan and South Korea next week to meet with their counterparts. Austin will then head to India on his own, while Blinken will head to Anchorage, Alaska in the US, along with Sullivan, to meet with their Chinese counterparts.