WASHINGTON - Leaders of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, at the first ever in-person summit of the group called the Quad, have stressed the need for a free and open Indo-Pacific, and laid out ambitious plans for cooperation on the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, clean energy, critical and emerging technologies, and space.
Against the backdrop of an increasingly assertive China, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and summit host US President Joe Biden met for about two hours on Friday (Sept 24) and later issued a joint statement.
They said: "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.
"We stand for the rule of law, freedom of navigation and overflight, peaceful resolution of disputes, democratic values, and territorial integrity of states," they added.
"We… recognise that our shared futures will be written in the Indo-Pacific, and we will redouble our efforts to ensure that the Quad is a force for regional peace, stability, security, and prosperity."
The Quad or Quadrilateral Dialogue, is an informal grouping dating back to the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Only lately has it been coalescing at a more rapid pace, driven by worries over the rise, and intentions, of China.
Mr Suga told reporters the leaders had agreed to hold a summit every year.
Mr Morrison said a "clean energy supply chain summit" would be held next year in Australia to combine the best scientific, industry and academic knowledge to ensure a transition to clean energy to "transform the economies of our region".
Mr Modi told fellow Quad leaders India would allow the export of eight million doses of Covid-19 vaccines by the end of October as part of the deal reached by the group in March to supply a billion doses to the Indo-Pacific, India's foreign secretary Harsh Shringla told reporters.
The March pledge had stalled after India, the world's largest vaccine producer, banned exports in April amid a massive surge in Covid-19 cases at home.
Friday was the first face-to-face meeting between Mr Modi and Mr Biden since the US leader assumed office in January. US officials have been highlighting the deepening relationship with India, describing New Delhi in particular as a critical partner.
"The Quad aims to continually expand areas of cooperation, with education, cyber, and infrastructure being added to vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies," Dr Aparna Pande, research fellow and director at the Hudson Institute's Initiative on the Future of India and South Asia, told The Straits Times.
"All of these areas are critical and collaboration among these countries would benefit the Indo-Pacific region," she said.
Friday's summit came just days after the announcement of a new security pact called Aukus, which will see the US and Britain in a high-tech defence partnership with Australia. Under Aukus, Australia would eventually be able to deploy nuclear-powered submarines, greatly enhancing its reach and interoperability with US and British forces.
Officials have been careful not to lump Aukus and the Quad together, however. "They're mutually reinforcing," Mr Morrison told reporters.
The joint statement also stressed "strong support for Asean unity and centrality".
"The work that we are doing as (the) Quad particularly recognises and respects Asean," said Mr Morrison.
"Asean is a huge, committed relationship that we each have individually, and we really do seek to see the world, and particularly the region, through the Asean vision. And so we look forward to continuing to work with those partners," he added.
Earlier, in Beijing, ahead of the summit, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian warned against "exclusive closed cliques" and said the Quad should not target any third country and its interests.
But security analysts say the advent of Aukus, and the rapid evolution of the Quad, has in fact been spurred by China.
The Quad, plus Aukus, plus US alliances and partnerships, demonstrate a burgeoning coalition to counter-balance China, driven in large measure by Beijing's "overreach and military and economic coercion", Dr Robert Manning, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Scowcroft Centre for Strategy and Security, told The Straits Times.
"Some of the issues emphasised, like tech cooperation, need to include other major Asian tech players like the Republic of Korea and Singapore, and also leaves out Taiwan, a critical source of tech supply chains."
"The Quad remains a coalition of four democratic major maritime powers, an ad hoc multilateralism focused on function and problem solving, in contrast to Asia's alphabet soup of largely symbolic process-centred institutional multilateralism," he said.
"The unanswered question is how to translate that balance into a framework to manage competitive coexistence."