WASHINGTON: The United States, India, Japan and Australia on Friday (Mar 12) announced a joint drive to ramp up the COVID-19 vaccine supply in Asia, mounting a challenge to China in the first-ever summit of the four like-minded powers.
US President Joe Biden, who has vowed to reinvigorate alliances in the face of growing worries about China, met virtually with the three nations’ prime ministers and told them that the so-called Quad format would become a “vital arena” for cooperation.
“We’re renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion,” said Biden, who like the others made no explicit, but plenty of implicit, mentions of China.
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“A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential,” he said, a message reinforced by the other leaders as concerns mount about China’s assertion of power around the region.
Pledging that the Quad should bring “practical solutions and concrete results,” Biden said, “We’re launching an ambitious new joint partnership that is going to boost vaccine manufacturing for the global benefit and strengthen vaccinations to benefit the entire Indo-Pacific.”
US officials said the initiative would produce up to one billion vaccine doses by 2022 as the world seeks to turn the page on the devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan would see pharmaceutical hub India manufacturing the single-dose vaccine from US-based Johnson & Johnson, backed by financial support from Japan, with Australia taking charge of shipments.
US officials said the focus would be Southeast Asia at a time when China, where the deadly virus was first detected in late 2019, works to transform its image into that of a global healer.
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China has shipped vaccines as far afield as the Dominican Republic and provided doses to international partners such as Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
The Quad format has been growing for more than a decade, but Friday’s talks are the first at the leaders’ level and come as all four nations see relations with China deteriorate.
China over the past year has engaged in a deadly clash with Indian forces in the Himalayas, stepped up activity near islands administered by Japan and imposed sanctions on Australian products following a series of disputes.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the summit marked “a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific.”
“As four leaders of great liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific, may our partnership be the enabler of peace, stability and prosperity, and to do so inclusively with the many nations of our region,” Morrison said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has increasingly shed India’s historic non-alignment and pursued tighter ties with Washington, said the Quad will be “a force for global good.”
“Quad has come of age. It will now remain an important pillar of stability in the region,” Modi said.
China has denounced the Quad as a US plot against it and put particular pressure on India, saying it could have stopped the format from growing under Biden.
“The Quad is not an alliance of like-minded countries as the US claims,” the state-run Global Times newspaper said, opining that the three other nations face “the embarrassment of being between the pressure from the US and their own interests with China.”
FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY
The Quad last met in person in October at the level of foreign ministers under US president Donald Trump, who was merciless in his denunciations of China.
The Biden administration says it shares Trump’s approach on China but is taking a more tactful approach that includes a renewed focus on alliances – many of which, especially in Europe, were badly rattled by the vitriolic former president.
The Quad summit kicks off a flurry of alliance-building diplomacy by Biden.
Japan announced Friday that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will become the first foreign leader to have White House talks with Biden, who has tried to set an example by limiting travel and meetings during the pandemic.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are also paying a joint visit next week to both Japan and South Korea on their first foreign travel, with Austin continuing on to India.
After showcasing the alliance, Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet top Chinese officials in Alaska late next week in what the Biden administration has promised to be a blunt airing of US concerns.
Blinken has said he will press on trade and human rights, including China’s sweeping new curbs on Hong Kong’s elections and the mass incarceration of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities, which both Biden and Trump have described as genocide.
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