The announcement, which came out of the first summit among leaders of the four democracies informally called “the Quad,” also hints at the Biden administration’s larger aim of linking like-minded governments to counter Chinese expansionism, including using pandemic aid as a springboard.
“At this moment, it’s a purpose that I think we all are concerned about,” Biden said as he welcomed the three leaders via video call. “A free and open Indo-Pacific is essential to each of our futures, our countries.”
They leaders also pledged to meet in person by the end of the year.
The vaccine would be produced by India, with additional funding provided by the United States and Japan and distributed with logistical help from Australia, the White House said.
China, however, has a head start, since it is already passing out free vaccine doses in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. Its initiative amounts to a campaign of “vaccine diplomacy” that experts say is part of its broader effort to bind poorer nations to China through trade or dependency.
America’s union with the three democracies is a priority for the Biden administration, which sees it as a bulwark against China on several fronts.
“We strive for a region that is free, open, inclusive, healthy, anchored by democratic values, and unconstrained by coercion,” said a joint statement issued after the meeting by Biden and prime ministers Narenrda Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia and Yoshihide Suga of Japan.
The grouping first formed following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but Friday marked the first gathering of heads of state, albeit a virtual one, a sign of Biden’s concern with Asia generally and China more specifically.
“That’s on purpose,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday. “It reflects his view that we have to rally Democratic allies and partners in common cause and his belief in the centrality of the Indo-Pacific to the national security of the United States.”
The Biden administration has set a near-term goal of repairing European alliances ruptured by President Donald Trump and a longer-term aim of repositioning U.S. engagement toward Asia.
Trump regularly challenged traditional alliances, including the European Union and NATO, while taking a relatively friendly approach to such longtime U.S. adversaries such as Russia and North Korea. His relations with China were uneven, initially praising Chinese President Xi Jinping but later referring to the coronavirus as “the China virus” and blaming the country for its spread.
Trump in the end failed to get the massive trade agreement that he sought with China. Xi emerged from the Trump era stronger at home — having secured an indefinite hold on power — and emboldened abroad with a $1 trillion international development project known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
Friday’s agreement was an early effort by Biden to push back against those efforts by Beijing to expand its international influence.
The president “believes that we are going to end up in a stiff competition with China, and we intend to prevail in that competition,” Sullivan told reporters. “He is amassing the sources of strength we need to be able to prevail.” Biden is better positioned now than when he took office, Sullivan said.
President Barack Obama had also attempted a “pivot to Asia,” as it was called at the time, only to see much of the effort subsumed by conflict in the Middle East.
Biden’s version of the pivot includes military, economic and diplomatic actions meant to blunt Chinese influence. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken are both traveling to Asia in coming days to visit Japan and South Korea in their first foreign trips as Cabinet secretaries.
China is involved in territorial and other disputes with both of those U.S. allies, and it helps to prop up the nuclear-armed regime in North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has threatened military action against both South Korea and Japan.
Austin is also visiting India, which last year skirmished with Chinese soldiers along the Himalayan border.
Japan’s Suga will be the first foreign leader to visit Biden in person sometime this year, the White House announced. Next week, Blinken and Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts in Alaska.
In the brief portion of Friday’s meeting viewed by reporters, neither Biden nor the other leaders directly discussed an array of other challenges presented by China, including threats to maritime movement, aggressive economic expansion and violation of intellectual property rights. Each of the four nations has a complicated relationship with China, and those tensions formed the subtext of the gathering.
“The Quad has come of age,” Modi said.
The group also agreed to increase cooperation on climate change and technology issues, as officials sought to portray the meeting’s aims as broader than just countering Beijing.
“The four leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they have made clear that none of them have any illusions about China,” Sullivan said. “But today was not fundamentally about China.”