US President Joe Biden stresses importance of free Indo-Pacific region as concerns mount about China's assertion of power around the region.
US President Joe Biden has met leaders of Australia, India and Japan, 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 crucial to all of them.
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 tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the climate crisis, and on reviving economic growth.
"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."
READ MORE: Biden to meet allies in first 'Quad' summit
'Challenges in the region'
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said he wanted the four "to forge strongly ahead toward the realisation of a free and open Indo-Pacific."
India and Australia also emphasised the importance of regional security cooperation, which has been enhanced by previous lower-level Quad meetings.
A senior US official told reporters Friday's meeting 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.
Billion doses of Covid-19 vaccines
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.
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 Beijing's widening vaccine diplomacy.
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 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.
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 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 immunisation efforts in Southeast Asia, where Beijing is competing for influence.
The virtual meeting, which also included Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi, aims to lay the groundwork for an in-person meeting later this year, the administration said.
Modi told the session the Quad had "come of age" and would "now remain an important pillar of stability in the region."
'Whole new level of cooperation'
Earlier, Morrison told reporters, "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."
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 for 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 say 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 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. Quad cooperation dates back to their joint response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004.
The Quad was revived under the Trump administration, which saw it as a vehicle to push back against China. 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 coincides with a major US diplomatic drive to solidify alliances in Asia and Europe to counter China, including visits next week by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan and South Korea.
Blinken will also meet in Alaska 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.
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."