WASHINGTON – Meeting with the leaders of India, Australia and Japan, President Joe Biden declared Friday that the U.S. and other members of the Indo-Pacific alliance known as “the Quad" are showing they “know how to get things done" in an increasingly complicated corner of the globe.
Biden and his fellow leaders— Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — are all grappling with a rising China that Biden has accused of coercive economic practices and unsettling military maneuvering.
They made no direct mention of China as they opened the group's first ever in-person meeting, but the Pacific power played a big part in the private talks.
Suga raised concerns about China intentions in the South China Sea, where it's stepped up its military presence in recent years, and the East China Sea, where a long-running dispute about a group of uninhabited islets administered by Tokyo but claimed by Beijing is a point of concern.
Suga also raised concerns about Chinese action towards Taiwan, said Japan’s foreign press secretary Tomoyuki Yoshida. On Thursday, Beijing dispatched 24 jets toward Taiwanese airspace after it submitted its application to join a trans-Pacific trade pact. The prime minister “emphasized the importance of the peace and stability in the Taiwan strait,” according to Yoshida.
Following the summit, the leaders issued a joint statement pledging “to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas.”
The Quad leaders also announced Japan would work with India on a $100 million investment in COVID-19 vaccine and treatment drugs. They launched an initiative to bolster semiconductor supply chains. And they unveiled a new fellowship for graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to study at top U.S. universities.
Biden has repeatedly made a case that the U.S. and likeminded allies need to deliver results on the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other fundamental matters in what he's deemed a race between democracies and autocracies.
Morrison and the others seemed to pick up that message at Friday's summit.
“We are liberal democracies, believe in a world order that favors freedom,” Morrison said. "And we believe in a free and open Indo-Pacific, because we know that’s what delivers a strong, stable and prosperous region.
Biden and Modi also met prior to the summit for a one-on-one meeting. The president played up ties to India — referencing Vice President Kamala Harris' Indian heritage and even his own family ties to the subcontinent.
Biden also made clear he saw tightening relations with the world's biggest democracy — one that shares a neighborhood with China and Taliban-controlled Afghanistan — as vital for both sides.
“I’ve long believed the U.S.-India relationship can help us solve an awful lot of global challenges," Biden said..
The Quad is an informal alliance formed during the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people. Biden has sought to reinvigorate the alliance, putting a spotlight on a chief foreign policy goal: greater attention to the Pacific and a rising China. The alliance met earlier this year, virtually, and announced plans to boost vaccination manufacturing in India.
The Japanese and Indian governments welcomed a recent announcement that the U.S., as part of a new alliance with Britain and Australia, would equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
That will allow Australia to conduct longer patrols and give it an edge on the Chinese navy. But the announcement infuriated France, which accused the Biden administration of stabbing it in the back by squelching its own $66 billion deal to provide diesel-powered submarines.
Tensions between Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron eased after the two leaders spoke Wednesday and agreed to take steps to coordinate more closely in the Indo-Pacific.
Michael Green, who served as senior director for Asia at the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said Japan and India welcome the United States-United Kingdom-Australian alliance “because it will really for the next 50 years reset the trajectories in naval power in the Pacific and from the perspective of those countries stabilize things as China massively builds up its naval forces.”
But Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian has called it a reflection of “outdated Cold War, zero-sum mentality and narrow-minded geopolitical perception” that will intensify a regional arms race.
The meeting concluded a busy week of wider diplomacy for Biden, who addressed the U.N. General Assembly in which he stressed that the U.S. does not seek a Cold War with China. He also hosted a virtual global summit on COVID-19.
Despite Australia and the U.S. taking multiple measures to counter China’s economic and military power, Morrison left the White House meeting Friday determined to not publicly confront the Chinese.
“We’re there to make the region stronger, more prosperous, stable. It’s a positive initiative designed to lift the well being of the people," he said.
The leaders also discussed the situation in Afghanistan and emphasized in their joint statement “the importance of denying any logistical, financial or military support to terrorist groups which could be used to launch or plan terror attacks, including cross-border attacks.” The issue is of particular concern to the Modi government, which is concerned about elements of the Taliban government who have supported attacks on India in the past.
Modi was expected to bring up Afghanistan during his meeting with Biden and to raise objections to the Taliban’s effort to get recognition at the United Nations. The Indian government also has concerns about the influence it believes Pakistan’s intelligence service exerted in how factions of the Taliban divvied up government offices in Kabul.
Suga also raised concerns about North Korea. Pyongyang last week said it successfully launched ballistic missiles from a train for the first time, striking a target in the sea some 800 kilometers (500 miles) away.
That test came after the North this month said it tested new cruise missiles, which it intends to make nuclear-capable, that can strike targets 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) away, a distance putting all of Japan and U.S. military installations there within reach.
Associated Press writer Yuri Kageyama in Tokyo contributed reporting.