The United States and three of its closest Indo-Pacific partners have pledged to deliver up to one billion coronavirus vaccine doses across Asia by the end of 2022 at a summit on Friday carefully choreographed to counter China’s growing influence.
At its first summit, President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia, India and Japan – countries collectively called Quad – pledged to work to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific region and to work together on maritime, cyber and economic security, issues that are important to the four democracies face challenges from Beijing.
“We are renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion,” Biden told his colleagues without mentioning China.
His national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, called the virtual summit a big day for US diplomacy, as Washington sought to revive its alliances and approach Beijing from a force ahead of a high-level meeting between the United States and China next week.
“The four leaders discussed the challenge from China, and they made it clear that none of them have any illusions about China,” Sullivan told reporters, adding that they all believe democracy can surpass “autocracy.”
Freedom of navigation in the South and East China Seas, recent cyber attacks and semiconductor supply chain security were also discussed, along with the North Korean nuclear issue and the coup and “violent repression” in Myanmar, he said.
In a joint statement, Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison pledged to work closely for the distribution of COVID-19 vaccine, climate and security.
“We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, rooted in democratic values and boundless by coercion,” they added.
The leaders agreed to set up an expert group to help distribute vaccines as well as working groups on climate change, technology standards and joint development of emerging technologies. A personal summit would be held later this year, they said.
‘New level of cooperation’
Suga told reporters that he had expressed strong opposition to China’s efforts to change the status quo in the region, and Modi told the session that Quad had “reached full age” and would “now remain a key stability pillar in the region.”
Morrison called the meeting “a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific region” and added: “let our partnership be an enabler of peace, stability and prosperity.”
Confronting China has been a rare area of unity for Democrats and Republicans in the US Congress. In a statement, Michael McCaul, the highest-ranking Republican in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he was pleased with the Quad meeting.
Indian Foreign Minister Harsh Vardhan Shringla said the summit had agreed that US vaccines would be manufactured in India, something New Delhi has demanded to counter Beijing’s broader vaccine diplomacy.
A four-page magazine said the United States, through its International Development Finance Corp., would work to fund Indian drug maker Biological E Ltd to produce at least 1 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of 2022.
It also said that Japan was in discussions about providing favorable yen loans to India to expand the production of COVID-19 vaccines for export.
Sullivan said the vaccines would go to countries in Southeast Asia, elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
Biden’s administration told Reuters on Tuesday that the United States and Japan would help fund Indian companies that make vaccines for US drugmakers Novavax Inc and J&J.
An Asian diplomat said countries in Southeast Asia, where China is competing fiercely for influence, were “desperate” for vaccines and the end of 2022 was still a long way off.
“The question is how fast they can get them out,” he said. “It’s important to get them out sooner rather than later.”
‘Inimical to our values’
India, Australia and Japan have all faced security challenges from China and strengthened their interest in Quad, whose cooperation dates back to joint responses to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
The group was revived under the Trump administration, which saw it as a means to push back against China. The United States hosted a Foreign Ministers’ meeting in 2019, followed by another in Japan last year and a virtual session in February.
Friday’s meeting coincided with a major US diplomatic effort to strengthen alliances in Asia and Europe to counter China, including next week’s visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea.
Blinken will stay in Alaska when he returns to meet with China’s leading diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and Prime Minister Wang Yi – the first high-level personal contact between the world’s two largest economies under the Biden administration.
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Washington has said it will not hold back from criticizing Beijing over issues ranging from Taiwan to Hong Kong and the genocide it says China commits against minority Muslims.
Sullivan, who will attend the meeting with Chinese officials, said he did not expect details of US customs or export controls to be important topics, but added:
“We will communicate that the United States will take action on what we do on technology to ensure that our technology is not used in a way that is incompatible with our values or harms our security.”