The first in-person trip is seen as part of a wider campaign to combat China’s influence in the region.
Leaders of the United States, India, Japan and Australia, convened by US President Joe Biden in a first virtual summit of the ‘Quad’ group of countries, pledged to work together to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific and cooperate on COVID-19 and climate.
The leaders discussed challenges posed by China and focused on pressing global crises including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic, said US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.
“Over the course of the meeting, a sense of optimism for the future, despite the hard times we’re in, was on full display,” Sullivan told reporters at the White House afterwards.
“The leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China, but today was not fundamentally about China. Much of the focus was on pressing global crises, including the climate crisis, and COVID-19,” Sullivan said.
Biden was joined in the meeting by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Japan’s Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who appeared on three separate flat-screen monitors at the White House.
In the meeting, the US heard from the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or so-called Quad members about China’s coercion of Australia, harassment of Japanese fishing boats around the Senkaku Islands, and aggression on the border with India, Sullivan said.
They also talked about Taiwan, where recent shows of military force by China in the 180-kilometre-wide (112-mile) Taiwan Strait have raised tensions.
Sullivan and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken are scheduled to meet with senior China diplomats on March 18 in Alaska, where they plan to raise US concerns about China’s crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong, abuse of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and military actions in the Taiwan Strait.
“This is our effort to communicate clearly to the Chinese government how the United States intends to proceed at the strategic level,” Sullivan said.
Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin plan to visit Japan and South Korea early next week.
“We will have other high-level meetings and visits in the coming weeks with leaders from the Indo-Pacific that will be announced soon,” Sullivan said.
In a communique on Friday, the Quad group reaffirmed its commitment to denuclearisation of North Korea and urged restoration of the democratically elected civilian government in Myanmar.
Quad members announced plans to work together with the World Health Organization to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to one billion people in the Indo-Pacific region and said they would hold an in-person summit before the end of 2021.
Sullivan described the vaccine programme as “a massive joint commitment today with Indian manufacturing, US technology, Japanese and American financing and Australian logistics capability”.
They pledged to cooperate on addressing climate change and to work towards a successful outcome of the United Nations’ 26th Climate Change Conference to be held in Glasgow, Scotland.
In one of his first acts as president, Biden returned the US to the Paris Agreement after former President Donald Trump had withdrawn the US from the UN accord.
Former US Ambassador Nicholas Burns, who served in the administration of President George W Bush, said in a tweet that the Quad meeting would help to “strengthen democracies in the region”.
Today’s first-ever Quad leaders meeting— of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia—is a big deal. Led by @POTUS Joe Biden, these four can lead on vaccine distribution, strengthen democracies in the region and limit China’s assertiveness.
— Nicholas Burns (@RNicholasBurns) March 12, 2021
Retired General Barry McCaffrey, who commanded US Army forces in the 1991 Gulf War, said the Quad alliance may prove to be a deterrence against Chinese military threats.
Pres Biden initiative on the Quad Alliance (JAPAN. INDIA. AUSTRALIA. US). may well prove to be a crucial deterrence to aggressive Chinese regional military threats. https://t.co/5dCgHG7f1k
— Barry R McCaffrey (@mccaffreyr3) March 12, 2021