Indo-Pacific leaders hold first Quad nations meeting

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has met with the leaders of the US, Japan and India for the first face-to face meeting of the Quad nations in the White House.

Mr Morrison stressed the importance of a free and open Indo-Pacific with the four leaders also announcing significant initiatives on vaccine diplomacy, climate change, infrastructure and space exploration.

“The Indo-Pacific is 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 and accordance with international law,” Mr Morrison said.

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Mr Morrison said talks about vaccines concentrated on the distribution process, especially for island nations and how to get doses to them on the ground.

“Vaccines are already flowing and they are going to continue to flow. I do want to stress – It is one thing to get the vaccines, the thing you’ve got to do is deliver on the ground, the cold chain distribution networks,” Mr Morrison said.

“You think about the countries right across our region, think about Australia – it is a big country, there is a lot of distance, there is a lot of terrain. You think about the archipelago, the hundreds and hundreds of islands and moving through the region.

“How you get the vaccine into the arms – the medical professionals and health professionals that are needed, the PPE equipment and all of those things that are necessary.

“Vaccination programs are more than just the doses, it’s everything that goes into it, and there was a lot of focus on that element today.”

Mr Morrison and his fellow leaders— US President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — are all grappling with a rising China that Mr Biden has accused of coercive economic practices and unsettling military maneuvering.

He had one clear message for China after today’s meeting.

“The Quad is a partner, whether it be for China or any other country that is in the Indo-Pacific region. We are there to make the region stronger, more prosperous, more stable, a positive initiative designed to lift the wellbeing of the people of the Indo-Pacific,” he said.

“We talked about how to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific, and the way you do that is that countries like Australia and India and the United States and Japan, we stand up for the values that we believe in, and we resist any suggestion or any pressure that would come on any of us to be anything different to what we are.”

Mr Morrison said all countries in the Indo-Pacific, whoever they are, value sovereignty and independence and those ideals should be shared by all.

© AP Photo/Evan Vucci Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during the Quad summit with President Joe Biden, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House.

Mr Morrison said Australia reaching 80 per cent full vaccination would be key in getting more Australians stranded overseas home.

“Once we hit 80 per cent vaccinations, that means Australians will be able to travel in those states that are opening up, they will be able to get on planes and go overseas and come home, and that means Australians who are overseas who are vaccinated with the vaccines that are recognised in Australia will be able to get on planes and come to Australia,” he said.

“The caps at the airports for vaccinated Australians to return will be lifted, and that means there will be the commercial demand for those flights to be put on. I don’t think Qantas will have to be encouraged to start running those flights and putting people on seats, and I’m looking forward to them getting on with that job, because that’s the business they are in.”

Mr Biden declared the alliance are showing they “know how to get things done” in an increasingly complicated corner of the globe.

They made no direct mention of China as they opened the group’s first ever in-person meeting, but the Pacific power was sure to be a major focus as they headed into private talks.

On broader issues, Mr Morrison and his counterparts have repeatedly made a case that Australia and likeminded allies need to deliver results on the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and other fundamental matters with the world in what Mr Biden deemed a race between democracies and autocracies.

Mr Morrison and the others seemed to pick up that message as they opened today’s summit.

“We are liberal democracies, believe in a world order that favours freedom,” Mr 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.”

Before the gathering, Mr Biden sat down with Mr Modi in the Oval Office. He was also to have a one-on-one with Mr Suga, who is soon to step down from his post.

With Mr Modi by his side, Mr Biden played up ties to India — referencing Vice President Kamala Harris’ Indian heritage and even his own family ties to the subcontinent.

The president also made clear he saw tightening relations with the world’s biggest democracy — one that shares a neighborhood with Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and China — as vital for both sides.

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© AP Photo/Evan Vucci President Joe Biden speaks during the Quad summit with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, in the East Room of the White House.

“I’ve long believed the US-India relationship can help us solve an awful lot of global challenges,” Mr Biden said.

Mr Modi, who met with Ms Harris and American business leaders on Thursday, noted the importance of the Indian diaspora for the US economy and said he wanted to find ways the two countries could work together to strengthen their respective economies.

At the afternoon summit, the Quad leaders were expected to announce a coronavirus vaccine initiative and plans to bolster semiconductor supply chains.

Mr Biden announced the Quad had created a program to bring graduate students in science and technology to US universities.

The Quad is an informal alliance formed during the response to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed some 230,000 people.

Mr 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 US, 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.

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© Patrick Semansky/AP Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, second from left, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, top right, in the Vice President’s ceremonial office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House campus.

Tensions between Mr 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 stabilise 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.

Beijing has also sought to push the notion that creation of the alliance indicates the US will favour Australia in the Quad at the expense of Japan and India, said Bonny Lin, senior fellow for Asian security at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

China also has tried to undercut the Quad as out of step with other nations in Southeast Asia and portrayed members of the Quad as “US pawns,” Dr Lin said.

The White House meeting played out as China continues making shows of force in the region concerning Taiwan.

The meeting also concludes a busy week of wider diplomacy for Mr Biden, who addressed the UN General Assembly and hosted a virtual global summit on COVID-19.

Mr Biden and leaders of other wealthy nations face criticism about the slow pace of global vaccinations and the inequity of access to shots between wealthier and poorer nations. The pushback from leaders of low- and moderate-income countries come though Biden announced plans for the US to double to one billion doses its purchase of Pfizer vaccine to share with the world.

Mr Modi was expected to bring up Afghanistan during his meeting with Mr 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.

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Mr Suga was expected to discuss China, North Korea, Afghanistan, the COVID-19 response and climate change. He highlighted the alliance’s “strong solidarity between our four nations, and our unwavering commitment to the common vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

North Korea last week said it successfully launched ballistic missiles from a train for the first time, striking a target in the sea some 800 kilometres 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 1500 kilometres away, a distance putting all of Japan and US military installations there within reach.

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