US President Joe Biden will hold the first-ever joint talks with the leaders of Australia, India and Japan as part of an emerging four-way alliance seen as fundamental to efforts to balance China’s growing military and economic power.
Friday’s virtual meeting of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also known as the “Quad”, will be one of Biden’s first summits since taking office and comes as his administration has sought to counter China’s military and trade expansion by strengthening alliances.
The Quad was launched in 2007 by Japan’s then prime minister Shinzo Abe, who was alarmed at China’s growing assertiveness around Asia.
“That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance that we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday.
A range of topics facing the global community is expected to be discussed “from the threat of COVID to economic cooperation and, of course, to the climate crisis,” she said.
Meanwhile, a senior administration official told Reuters news agency the meeting is meant to send “a very strong signal of common cause and purpose. And the goal here is basically to introduce the Quad as a new feature of regular diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific.”
That message was echoed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who called the upcoming meeting “an historic moment” and said it “sends a strong message to the region about our support for a sovereign, independent Indo-Pacific”.
Japan, for its part, has said Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday and voiced alarm about China’s “unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Sea” as well as the status of rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.
The Indian foreign ministry has said the four leaders “will exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region.”
The meeting is also expected to include the announcement of financing agreements to support an increase in manufacturing capacity for coronavirus vaccines in India, something New Delhi has urged to counter China’s widening distribution of vaccines in the region as part of its so-called “vaccine diplomacy”, the senior US administration official told Reuters.
The summit follows talks on February 18 among the foreign ministers of the Quad when they pressed jointly for a restoration of democracy in Myanmar after the military overthrew democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi on February 1.
US officials cast the meeting as a key way of exerting pressure on Yangon, as India and Japan enjoy closer relationships with Myanmar’s military, which has historically counted on China as its main source of support.
The Quad foreign ministers, however, were careful not to make an explicit mention of China, which has voiced alarm at what it sees as an effort to gang up on its interests in Asia.
After Biden’s election, Chinese state media had printed articles calling on India to end the Quad, seeing New Delhi as the most likely to oppose the forum.
But views have hardened in India after a pitched battle in the Himalayas last year killed at least 20 Indian troops.
Australia has also shown growing willingness to participate in the Quad as relations deteriorate with Beijing, with Canberra last year joining naval exercises with the three other nations off India’s shores.