WASHINGTON • United States President Joe Biden met the leaders of Australia, India and Japan yesterday, a group central to his efforts to counter China's growing military and economic power, and said a free and open Indo-Pacific region was essential to all of their futures.
The White House said the virtual meeting of the countries known as the Quad, the first at leader level, shows the importance Mr Biden places on the Indo-Pacific region and that it will focus on ways to fight the coronavirus pandemic as well as cooperate on economic growth and the climate crisis.
"A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential to each of our futures," Mr Biden told the meeting from the White House. "The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all our allies in the region, to achieve stability."
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wanted the four "to forge strongly ahead towards the realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to make a visible contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of the region, including overcoming the coronavirus".
India and Australia have also emphasised the importance of regional security cooperation, which has been enhanced by previous lower-level meetings of the four countries.
A senior US official told reporters ahead of the meeting that it would involve "an honest, open discussion about China's role on the global stage", referencing "challenges in the region" to free and open trade and commerce.
The Biden administration has said the Quad nations will announce financing agreements to support an increase in manufacturing capacity for coronavirus vaccines in India, something New Delhi has called for to counter China's widening vaccine diplomacy.
US officials said the countries will also set up a group of experts to help distribute vaccines in the region, as well as working groups for cooperation on climate change, technology standards and joint development of emerging technologies.
The US wants to strengthen ties with allies and partners as China adopts an increasingly assertive foreign policy in Asia and beyond.
Washington said the additional vaccine capacity will be used in immunisation efforts in South-east Asia, where Beijing is competing for influence.
The virtual meeting, which included Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is expected to lay the groundwork for an in-person meeting later this year, the Biden administration said.
"When governments come together at the highest level, this shows a whole new level of cooperation to create a new anchor for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific," Mr Morrison told reporters.
Mr Modi told the session the Quad had "come of age" and would "now remain an important pillar of stability in the region".
Among the issues to be addressed are supply chains that were exposed during the pandemic as heavily reliant on China. Japan's Nikkei newspaper reported on Thursday that the four countries would also work together to secure rare earth metals essential to the production of electric car motors and other products.
The Biden administration told Reuters on Tuesday that the United States and Japan would help fund Indian firms manufacturing vaccines for US drugmakers Novavax and Johnson & Johnson.
India, Australia and Japan have all faced security challenges from China, strengthening their interest in the Quad. Cooperation among them dates back to their joint response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004. The Quad was revived under the Trump administration. The US hosted a foreign ministers' meeting in 2019, followed by another in Japan last year, and a virtual session last month.
Yesterday's meeting coincided with a major US diplomatic drive to solidify alliances in Asia and Europe to counter China. Washington has said it will not hold back in its criticism of Beijing over issues ranging from Taiwan to Hong Kong and the genocide it says China is committing against minority Muslims.