US President Joe Biden to meet virtually with leaders of Japan, India, Australia

Biden (top left) will meet virtually with (clockwise) Japan's Yoshihide Suga, Australia's Scott Morrison and India's Narendra Modi. PHOTOS: EPA-EFE, AFP, REUTERS

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - US President Joe Biden will participate in an online meeting on Friday with the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, the White House announced on Tuesday (March 9), the first leader-level meeting of a group seen as part of efforts to balance China's growing military and economic power.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the meeting of the "Quad" countries indicates the importance Biden places in US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

She said she expected a range of issues facing the global community to be discussed "from the threat of Covid, to economic cooperation and, of course, to the climate crisis".

"This sends 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," a senior administration official told Reuters separately.

He said the meeting planned to announce financing agreements to support an increase in manufacturing capacity for coronavirus vaccines in India, something New Delhi has urged to counter China's widening vaccine diplomacy.

The aim was to reduce manufacturing backlogs, speed vaccination, and defeat some coronavirus mutations, the official said.

Some of the additional vaccine capacity would be used in vaccination efforts in Southeast Asian countries for collaboration in ensuring safe, equitable and affordable vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region.

The official said the engagement would last about two hours, and lay the groundwork for an in-person meeting later in the year.

India, Australia and Japan had all been "directly challenged by China in the recent period," the official said, adding the meeting was intended to work on "a different vision for the future" in the region.

India's Foreign Ministry said the leaders would address "regional and global issues of shared interest, and exchange views on practical areas of cooperation towards maintaining a free, open and inclusive Indo-Pacific region."

It said the summit would also cover supply chains, emerging and critical technologies, maritime security and climate change.

India said Quad leaders would discuss efforts to combat the pandemic and explore "opportunities for collaboration in ensuring safe, equitable and affordable vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the meeting would focus on regional security and climate change.

"It will be an historic moment in our region and it sends a strong message to the region about our support for a sovereign, independent Indo-Pacific," he told reporters in Canberra.

The United States is looking to strengthen ties with key allies as China takes an increasingly assertive foreign policy approach in the Indo-Pacific region and elsewhere in the world.

India has urged the other Quad members to invest in its vaccine production capacity, in an attempt to counter China's widening vaccine diplomacy.

The Indian statement said Quad leaders would discuss ongoing efforts to combat the pandemic and explore "opportunities for collaboration in ensuring safe, equitable and affordable vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region."

Friday's meeting will take place days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin plan to visit Japan and South Korea later this month.

The visit by Blinken and Austin will be the first to the Asian allies by the top US foreign policy and defence officials since the Biden administration took office in January.

Separately, Psaki declined to confirm a report in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post newspaper that cited a source as saying that China and the United States were discussing a potential meeting in Alaska between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi.

Asked about the report, Psaki said the United States was directly engaged with China on a range of issues, but it had not "finalised" details on such a meeting.

Any such meeting would be the first for the two countries' top diplomats since Biden took office in January.

Biden's administration has committed to reviewing elements of US policies towards China in consultation with allies, as the world's two largest economies navigate frosty relations that sank to their lowest depths in decades during the Trump administration.

Join ST's Telegram channel here and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.