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Biden meets 'Quad' leaders as U.S., allies step up efforts to counter China

The group, which also includes India, Japan and Australia, held its first leaders' summit virtually due to coronavirus restrictions.
Image: Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks during a virtual meeting with Indo-Pacific leaders from the White House on Friday.Alex Brandon / AP

President Joe Biden on Friday took part in the first leaders' summit of the informal international alliance known as the "Quad" as his administration steps up efforts to deal with China's growing influence.

The group, which also includes India, Japan and Australia, met virtually due to coronavirus restrictions.

Biden began the summit meeting by emphasizing the need for a “free and open” Indo-Pacific region.

"The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all our allies in the region, to achieve stability," he said.

In a joint statement after the meeting, the four leaders reaffirmed their commitment to cooperating on Covid-19, security challenges and climate change.

"Today, we pledge to respond to the economic and health impacts of COVID-19, combat climate change, and address shared challenges, including in cyber space, critical technologies, counterterrorism, quality infrastructure investment, and humanitarian-assistance and disaster-relief as well as maritime domains," they said.

The leaders also restated their commitment to denuclearizing North Korea and agreed that their nations would establish a "vaccine expert working group" to help with Covid-19 distribution, among other things.

The four counties made a commitment Friday to deliver up to 1 billion doses of the Covid-19 vaccine to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Indo-Pacific countries by the end of 2022 using Indian manufacturing, U.S. and Japanese funding and Australian logistics, national security advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters at a White House briefing.

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Each country also has been at pains to make clear they're not an anti-Beijing club.

"It was established not to counter one single threat or to focus on one single issue," State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters on Thursday, but "to showcase what democracies can deliver together, both for our own populations and for the broader world."

Despite these protestations, the alliance is widely viewed as an effort to combat Beijing's growing military and economic power.

"It's a group of countries all concerned about China, and all trying to hold the line for an open, democratic non-Chinese way forward," author and China analyst Bill Hayton told NBC News.

However, he added, the "Quad" is not a formal alliance in the same way as NATO and thus carries no strict duty to defend one another.

Representatives for the four members of the "Quadrilateral Security Dialogue" met sporadically after it was formally established in 2007.

But the group was revived by former President Donald Trump, whose Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attended meetings as Washington sought to reinvigorate the alliance amid escalating tensions with Beijing.

Relations between the world's two largest economies have deteriorated with clashes over trade, Covid-19, Hong Kong's autonomy, Taiwan and alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

In a sign that the Biden administration will continue to take a tough stance, Secretary of State Antony Blinken labeled China America's "biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century."

It's not just the U.S. that has been clashing with China, however.

India, Australia and Japan have all faced security challenges of their own, strengthening their interest in the four-nation alliance.

Japan has had long-standing grievances over contested islands and maritime claims, while Indian and Chinese troops engaged in deadly border clashes over disputed territory in the Himalayas last year.

Australia has faced trade pressures from Beijing and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Friday the "Quad" meeting was "an historical moment" and an opportunity to "create a new anchor for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."

The group's revitalization also gained a boost last year after India invited Australia to join naval exercises with it, the U.S. and Japan.

For the group to offer an effective counter to an increasingly assertive Beijing, said China analyst Hayton, the Biden administration should try to offer more than just security heft. Instead it should look to match the "full spectrum engagement" that China offers to countries in the region, such as aid and vaccines, which were all "utterly lacking under the Trump period," he added.

"The idea that you can somehow contain China is just ridiculous but I think it's a way of trying to make sure that China doesn't set the agenda totally," Hayton said.

Unsurprisingly, Beijing is not a fan of the alliance.

Chinese officials have not directly commented on Friday's meeting but have previously denounced the group and warned against "exclusive cliques."

"To Beijing, this is all bad news," said Michael Shoebridge, director of defense, strategy and national security at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a thinktank.

"The Quad's exactly the kind of multilateral cooperation Beijing fears and finds hard to orchestrate."

Image: Aviation Electronics Technician 3rd Class James Benzel signals an MH-60R Sea Hawk to disengage its rotors on the flight deck of the USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) as USS Mustin (DDG 89) steams alongside in South China Sea
The 'USS Ronald Reagan' shown in the South China Sea last July with another U.S. Navy ship alongside. Maritime tensions will be on the agenda at Friday's virtual summit.Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Erica Bechard / U.S.Navy / AP file

The virtual summit comes amid a U.S. diplomatic flurry in Asia.

Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Japan and South Korea next week in a push to solidify key alliances. And Japan's prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, will travel to the U.S. to meet Biden in April.

Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will also meet with top Chinese officials next week in Alaska, the first high-level in-person contact between the two countries since Biden took office.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told press on Thursday that Beijing hoped Washington would move relations back onto a "healthy and stable" track.

He said China was asking the U.S. to "reject the Cold-War and zero-sum game mentality, respect China's sovereignty, security and development interests and stop interfering in China's internal affairs."