US President Joe Biden met leaders of Australia, India and Japan on Friday, 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 says the virtual meeting of the countries known as the Quad, the first at leader level, shows the importance 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," 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 toward the realization of a free and open Indo-Pacific, and to make visible contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of the region, including overcoming the coronavirus."
India and Australia have also emphasized 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 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 say 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 United States wants to strengthen ties with allies and partners as China adopts an increasingly assertive foreign policy in Asia and beyond. Washington says the additional vaccine capacity will be used in immunization efforts in Southeast Asia, where Beijing is competing for influence.
The virtual meeting including Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi will aim to lay the groundwork for an in-person meeting later this year, the administration said.
'Whole New Level of Cooperation'
Morrison called the meeting "incredibly important."
"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," he told reporters.
Among the issues to be addressed are supply chains exposed as heavily reliant on China during the pandemic.
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 the United States and Japan would help fund Indian firms manufacturing vaccines for US drugmakers Novavax Inc and J&J.
However, Indian government sources said US curbs on exports of critical materials could hamper that effort and those to start large-scale distribution to Southeast Asia.
A second senior administration official told reporters on Thursday that Washington's focus was foremost on getting vaccines to Americans, adding: "We will not be talking about sharing vaccines right now."
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, which regarded it as a vehicle to push back against China's spreading influence. The United States hosted a foreign ministers' meeting in 2019, which was followed by another in Japan last year and a virtual session in February.
Friday's meeting coincided with a major US diplomatic drive to solidify alliances in Asia and Europe to counter China.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin head to Japan and South Korea for the first face-to-face meetings between senior officials of the Biden administration and US allies - underscoring the critical importance Washington places on Asia and the China challenge.
Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, will join Blinken in Alaska next week to meet with China's top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, and State Councillor Wang Yi - the first high-level in-person contact between the world's two largest economies under the Biden administration.
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.
US officials have said they see the meeting with their Chinese counterparts as a "one-off session", with future senior-level engagements based on Washington seeing tangible outcomes to address its grievances with Beijing.