President Biden gathered the leaders of Japan, Australia and India at the White House on Friday to cement an emerging partnership of four Indo-Pacific countries, known as the Quad, united in their misgivings about China.

Neither Biden nor his guests mentioned the words “China” or “Beijing” in opening remarks heard by reporters as the leaders extolled cooperation on climate change, critical infrastructure and the coronavirus pandemic. But Chinese ambitions were the subtext of most of the group’s agenda.

Biden referred to the shared goal of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” code for open navigation and an end to Chinese military expansion in the South China Sea.

He said the group’s first major joint initiative — to produce and distribute 1 billion doses of an Indian-made coronavirus vaccine — is “on track,” although doubts remain among international observers.

“We stand here together in the Indo-Pacific region, a region that we wish to be always free from coercion, where the sovereign rights of all nations are respected and where disputes are settled peacefully in accordance with international law,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

His meaning was unmistakable, given China’s disputes with neighbors over island chains and the boundaries of international water.

“The Quad is an extremely significant initiative by four countries who share fundamental values, cooperating for the cause of realizing a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific,” offered Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga.

Suga, who is stepping down, met separately with Biden and first lady Jill Biden to say goodbye.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the grouping would “play the role of a force for global good,” as he mentioned cooperation on supply chain issues, among other things. One of the group’s goals is to encourage alternatives to Chinese manufacturing.

It was effort to put China on notice without direct confrontation. Coming on the heels of a diplomatic blowup over a U.S. plan to sell nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, the Biden administration sought to play down the idea that the Quad grouping could become a new kind of trans-Pacific military alliance.

Rather, U.S. officials call it “informal” and nonmilitary. Biden also did not mention China by name during his address to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this week, though he told the gathering that he does not seek “a new Cold War.”

Before the main event, Biden sought to reassure India, which also has lingering concerns about the United States. Biden greeted Modi in the Oval Office.

“Mr. Prime Minister, we’re going to continue to build on our strong partnership,” Biden said. Modi thanked Biden for “this very warm welcome full of friendship.”

But the meeting comes a month after U.S. forces departed Afghanistan and the Taliban swept into power, putting the United States’ commitment to allies into question from London to Brussels to Beijing. One quiet critic has been India, which argued against a hasty U.S. withdrawal and considers the rise of a hard-line Taliban government, backed by its archrival Pakistan, to be a disastrous outcome.

Now, as the Biden administration shifts U.S. attention and resources to countering Beijing, it needs to assuage concerns in India, which is juggling a tense rivalry with China to its east, but also threats from its west in the form of Islamist militant groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan that see India as a mortal enemy.

Questions over how Biden is conducting his pivot to Asia also resurfaced last week when he announced a new deal with Australia, known as AUKUS, that infuriated U.S. allies in Europe. Modi came to the White House with enthusiastic support for Biden’s Pacific project, but also a set of apprehensions, according to Indian and Western officials and analysts.

For years, the United States has courted India to become a more proactive player in the Quad, which China has condemned as an “Asian NATO” encircling it. And India, particularly under Modi, a muscular leader who envisions India assuming a greater role on the world stage, has been happy to reciprocate.

After a bloody border skirmish with Chinese troops last year, India invited navies from the Quad countries for exercises in the Indian Ocean. When Biden convened the Quad’s inaugural summit in March over videoconference, the group unveiled a plan that would see American vaccines manufactured in India, financed by Japan and distributed by Australia across South and Southeast Asia — a vast region where China and the U.S.-led bloc are competing for hearts and minds.

That plan was derailed by a devastating coronavirus wave that crippled India and brought a halt to vaccine exports. This week, the Quad members sought to reignite the effort, as Indian officials promised to resume exports next month and Biden announced a target of a billion Indian-made doses distributed globally by late 2022. The Quad nations say they are also exploring ways to compete with China on semiconductor manufacturing and next-generation telecommunications technology, a field led by Huawei.

“India would welcome anything that counters China in its backyard,” said Lisa Curtis, who headed South and Central Asia policy in the National Security Council during the Trump administration. But after the events of the last month, Biden needs to assuage Indian concerns about terrorism on its western flank and carefully manage alliances as he pivots to the Pacific, she added.

“A lot of goodwill has already evaporated in Europe,” Curtis said.

Indian and Western officials say India, which was informed of the AUKUS announcement in advance by Australia, has not expressed objections to the nuclear deal, which strengthens a navy that could help challenge China’s rapidly modernizing fleet. But some observers in New Delhi saw another question mark over whether America could be trusted.

In a widely read op-ed this week, Arun Prakash, formerly the highest-ranking Indian military officer, wondered whether “Anglosphere nations … inspire more confidence in each other,” and why India had been denied sensitive American technology for years despite making similar requests to obtain nuclear propulsion and stealth fighters.

“American offers of help ‘to make India a great power,’ ” Prakash concluded, “must be taken with a generous pinch of salt.”

Indian officials say they are sticking broadly to their decades-old policy of not sliding too far into the orbit of any one major power. Indian diplomats have recently ramped up discussions with Washington’s rivals and critics, including Russia, Iran and the military junta in Myanmar. And despite U.S. protests, India is expected to receive $5.4 billion worth of Russian surface-to-air missiles in the coming months, which could trigger U.S. sanctions.

“We cannot put all our eggs in one basket,” said Shyam Saran, a former foreign secretary.

Tanvi Madan, head of the India Project at the Brookings Institution, said the formation of AUKUS and the Quad summit this week showed the outlines of two anti-China blocs emerging in parallel. While AUKUS has the appearance of a more hard-edge military pact, the Quad is emphasizing soft-power projects like vaccine distribution in Southeast Asia, where many governments resist the idea of choosing between Washington and Beijing.

In Asia, Madan said, “the era of coalitions is here to stay.”

Shih reported from New Delhi.

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