President Biden and the leaders of Australia, India and Japan launched a plan on Friday to boost COVID-19 vaccine production and distribution in Asia as the White House seeks to deepen coordination with partners around the world to counterbalance China.
The four countries, collectively known as the Quad, short for the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, also agreed to set up working groups to cooperate on vaccines, climate change and technology, including cybersecurity.
Friday's virtual meeting marked the first time heads of government from the Quad countries have held a summit since the group emerged after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.
Biden, who hosted, was joined by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.
It was Biden's first multilateral leaders' meeting since taking office less than two months ago — something that national security adviser Jake Sullivan said was deliberate.
The summit "cemented a group of strong democracies that will work together going forward to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific," Sullivan told reporters at a briefing at the White House. "The Quad, at the end of the day, at the end of today, is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo-Pacific."
The Quad in recent years has stepped up its activity, including regional military exercises. Analysts say Friday's summit reflects growing alarm over China's assertiveness in the region and cohesion around the idea that a joint response is required.
But Quad countries have generally avoided directly naming China as a focus of their activities. Sullivan said that the four leaders discussed the challenges posed by China on Friday but that the meeting "was not fundamentally about China."
Still, China loomed large in virtually every issue Sullivan said the Quad leaders addressed — from vaccines and cybersecurity to freedom of navigation and "the competition of models between autocracy and democracy."
Evan Feigenbaum, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the Biden administration is trying to team up with partners to alter the international operating environment for Beijing rather than to directly confront it.
"The problem that the United States has had for the last several years is that while many countries share American concern about the trajectory of Chinese policy, and thereby, to use a medical metaphor, share the American diagnosis, they don't necessarily share the prescription," he says. "So what they'll hope to get out of the meeting is to signal to the region that American policy in Asia begins with allies and partners, not with a headlong rush to Beijing to negotiate the terms of the region's future."
A joint statement said the Quad leaders agreed to establish a working group on vaccines, as well as "a critical- and emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future; and ... a climate working group to strengthen climate actions globally on mitigation, adaptation, resilience, technology, capacity-building, and climate finance."
The leaders also agreed to meet in person before the end of the year.
The vaccine initiative announced aims to deliver up to a billion doses by the end of 2022, Sullivan said, with Indian manufacturing, U.S. technology, Japanese and American financing, and Australian logistics support. The plan does not involve sharing U.S. vaccines with the rest of the world at this stage, a senior administration official told reporters before the meeting.
Beijing has been trumpeting its own distribution of coronavirus vaccines around the world, which some analysts have dubbed "vaccine diplomacy."
Asked about the Quad meeting at a news conference in Beijing on Friday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said international exchanges and cooperation should promote understanding and trust "and should not target or harm the interests of third parties."
"We hope relevant countries will follow the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win results, refrain from forming closed and exclusive 'cliques' and act in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity," Zhao said.
The Quad meeting precedes a flurry of Asia-focused diplomacy for the U.S.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Japan and South Korea next week. Austin will then travel to India, and Blinken and Sullivan will meet with China's top two foreign policy officials in Alaska.
Sullivan said the Alaska meeting would be an opportunity to communicate to the Chinese government "how the United States intends to proceed at a strategic level, what we believe our fundamental interests and values are."