Quad leaders press for ‘free’ Indo-Pacific amid China tensions

Leaders of the US, India, Australia and Japan also agree to cooperate on COVID-19 vaccines, clean energy and space during the White House meeting.

President Joe Biden walks to the Quad summit with, from left, Australian PM Scott Morrison, India's Narendra Modi and Japan's Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House, on September 24 [Evan Vucci/AP Photo]

Leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia have pledged to pursue a free and open Indo-Pacific region “undaunted by coercion” at their first in-person summit, which presented a united front amid shared concerns about China.

The two-hour meeting on Friday at the White House of the Quad, as the grouping of four major democracies is called, will be watched closely in Beijing, which criticised the group as “doomed to fail”.

“ We stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states,” US President Joe Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a joint statement after the talks.

While China was not mentioned in the public remarks by the four leaders or in the lengthy joint statement and a factsheet issued afterwards, the statement made frequent mention of an insistence on rules-based behaviour in a region where China has been trying to flex its muscles.

“Together, we  recommit to promoting  the free, open, rules-based order, rooted in  international law and undaunted by coercion, to bolster security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific and beyond,” they said.

The Quad leaders also voiced support for small island states, especially those in the Pacific, to enhance their economic and environmental resilience.

Additionally, they urged North Korea to engage in diplomacy over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programmes, which Pyongyang has refused to do unless international sanctions are dropped.

The leaders took steps to expand vaccines worldwide, welcoming India’s plan to resume exports in October.

After the meeting, Suga told reporters the countries agreed to cooperate on vaccines, clean energy and space, and to hold a summit meeting every year.

‘Key challenges’

At the start of the meeting, Biden announced a fellowship programme to allow students from the four countries to pursue degrees in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at US universities.

The US president said the countries are “coming together to take on key challenges of our age, from COVID to climate to emerging technologies”.

“We know how to get things done, and we are up to the challenge,” Biden added in his opening remarks at the meeting.

Morrison echoed Biden’s remarks, lauding a push by the four countries announced earlier this year to produce one billion COVID-19 vaccines.

“We believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific, because we know that’s what delivers a strong, stable and prosperous region,” Morrison said.

The Quad, formally known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, is seen as a counterweight to China in the Indo-Pacific region. Its leaders met virtually for the first time in March.

“What these four leaders … are really here to discuss is China, and the growing influence of China in all aspects of life, not just for their respective countries, but around the world now,” said Al Jazeera’s White House correspondent Kimberly Halkett.

Earlier on Friday, China criticised the group as “exclusive”, saying it was “doomed to fail”.

The Quad summit comes as Washington puts greater emphasis on partnerships in the Indo-Pacific region.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration announced a security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia. The new alliance, dubbed AUKUS, will see Washington and London help Canberra acquire nuclear-powered submarines.

China strongly condemned AUKUS, calling it an “extremely irresponsible” threat to regional stability.

US officials say the Quad and the AUKUS are intended to increase cooperation between allies and are not aimed against any country.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Friday the Quad is “not a security meeting or security apparatus”.

Biden says ties with India are ‘destined to be stronger, closer and tighter’ [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

Indian PM Modi, who met Biden at the White House earlier on Friday, said the Quad will be a “force for global good”.

“I’m confident that our cooperation, under Quad, will ensure prosperity and peace in the Indo-Pacific and in the world,” he said.

Like other Quad countries, India has endured cooling relations with China with a border dispute between the two countries escalating into deadly clashes last year.

Biden had offered a warm welcome to Modi, invoking the heritage of US Vice President Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian.

“I think that the relationship between India and the United States – the largest democracies in the world – is destined to be stronger, closer and tighter, and I think he can benefit the whole world,” Biden said.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies