President Joe Biden and the leaders of Australia, India, and Japan made a show of unity against China on Friday, meeting together at the White House in a first-ever summit to discuss initiatives to counter Beijing’s influence across the Pacific.
The group is “coming together to take on key challenges of our age, from Covid to climate to emerging technologies,” Biden said Friday at the White House.
None of the leaders mentioned China by name in remarks to reporters. But the point of the gathering was clear.
“We stand here together, in the Indo-Pacific region, a region that we wish to be always free from coercion, where the sovereign rights of all nations are respected, and where disputes are settled peacefully and accordance with international law,” said Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
Yet success for what’s known as the “Quad” will mean navigating thorny issues that have dogged the informal alliance since its creation following the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean that killed a quarter million people. They include the tumultuous U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, complaints about coronavirus vaccine distribution in the developing world and disputes over climate change commitments and 5G technology.
“Since our first meeting, we have made considerable progress in tackling some of the world’s most pressing challenges: the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and critical and emerging technologies,” the leaders said in a joint statement released on Friday night.
Biden, who held a virtual session with the Quad leaders in March, has placed a renewed emphasis on the group since taking office, arguing that collective action by the region’s democracies could prove more effective in countering China than the unilateral approach favored by former President Donald Trump, who traded antagonistic missives — and tariff hikes — with Beijing.
“We’re four major democracies — have a long history of cooperation,” Biden said. “We know how to get things done. And we are up to the challenge.”
The joint statement cited progress against the coronvirus, including India’s announcement that it would soon resume exporting vaccines, and said the Quad countries had promised to donate 1.2 billion doses of vaccines globally.
The White House was also hoping to focus the talks Friday on climate change, amid growing concern that some of the world’s biggest polluters aren’t doing enough to improve their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions before a November global summit in Scotland. Japan and India have been the top targets of U.S. diplomats seeking more aggressive commitments.
The countries are expected to announce specific steps designed to reduce pollution stemming from shipping networks, including an emphasis on de-carbonizing ports. They’ll also look to coordinate efforts to crack down on illegal fishing in the region, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga thanked Biden for lifting import restrictions placed on food products made in the Fukushima Prefecture after the nuclear disaster there.
Other announcements appear more explicitly designed to shore up security vulnerabilities or explicitly counteract Chinese influence. Those include a supply chain initiative to map overall capacity for manufacturing of critical items like semiconductors, and a new effort to deploy 5G technology. The U.S. has warned other countries not to adopt next-generation cellular technology from China’s Huawei Technologies Co., warning it could pose a security risk, which Huawei denies.
The joint statement referred to the creation of a “Quad infrastructure partnership,” and that the four nations would “meet regularly to coordinate our efforts, map the region’s infrastructure needs, and coordinate on regional needs and opportunities.” The statement also included a pledge to cooperate on “cyber threats” and “secure our critical infrastructure.”
On issues in the region, the leaders reiterated a pledge to work toward “ the complete denuclearization of North Korea” and called again for the release of political prisoners in Myanmar.
In addition to the group meeting, Biden met separately with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier Friday in the Oval Office. The leaders are expected to discuss Afghanistan in addition to climate change and pandemic efforts.
Later, the president and first lady Jill Biden spent time with Suga. While officials described that gathering as a chance for the Bidens to express their appreciation for the outgoing prime minister’s partnership — and hospitality during the first lady’s trip to Tokyo as part of the U.S. Olympic delegation — the Japanese leader has also informed the White House he’s eager to discuss Chinese efforts to join a successor deal to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Trump withdrew from in 2017.
Beijing’s application to join the trade partnership, which was originally envisoned as a way to contain China, came earlier this week after the U.S., U.K. and Australia announced a new security pact and submarine contract. China responded angrily to that agreement, calling it a threat to regional security.
The so-called Aukus pact also created a rift with France, which saw a $66 billion deal to provide Australia conventional submarines voided in favor of a deal for American-made nuclear-powered ships. French officials assailed the secret negotiations that led to the deal.
The French ambassador to the U.S. was recalled to Paris to underscore his government’s displeasure, though he is now expected to return next week after a telephone call between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday to smooth the waters. When Biden met with Morrison earlier this week on the margins of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, neither leader mentioned the new pact during remarks to the media.