With eyes on China, US and allies launch vaccine plan
The United States, India, Japan and Australia have launched a joint drive to ramp up the Covid-19 vaccine supply in Asia, mounting a challenge to China in the first-ever summit of the four democracies on Friday.
US President Joe Biden, who has vowed to reinvigorate alliances in the face of growing worries about China, was set Friday to speak virtually for around 90 minutes with the three nations' prime ministers.
Ahead of the talks, US officials said the so-called "Quad" nations have agreed to work together to produce up to one billion vaccine doses by 2022 as the world seeks to turn the page on the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"What we've tried to put together is a broad-based approach that addresses the acute shortage of vaccines across Southeast Asia in particular," a US official told reporters on condition of anonymity.
US officials did not immediately specify target countries but the initiative comes as China, where the deadly virus was first detected in late 2019, works to transform its image into that of a global healer.
China has shipped vaccines as far afield as the Dominican Republic and provided doses to international partners such as Pakistan and Zimbabwe.
The Quad format has been growing for more than a decade, but Friday's talks are the first at the leaders' level and come as all four democracies see relations with China deteriorate.
China over the past year has engaged in a deadly clash with Indian forces in the Himalayas, stepped up activity near islands administered by Japan and imposed sanctions on Australian products following a series of disputes.
The Biden administration, however, has been careful not to link the Quad explicitly to China -- a shift in rhetoric after former president Donald Trump's strident denunciations of Beijing.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said that the Quad is not focused "on any single issue".
"We have shared interests in standing up for universal values and rights. We have shared economic interests. We have shared security interests. We have deep people-to-people ties with all of these countries," Price said.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, said that China should not be concerned by the talks.
The Quad, Morrison told reporters, is about "liberal democracies standing up for our values, coming together and ensuring that we are an anchor for peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific."
Unparalleled' US asset
The Biden administration has said alliances -- many of which were badly rattled by the vitriolic Trump -- will be key in achieving its goals.
Earlier this month, the White House cast China as its top challenger and said the United States can help counter Beijing's "aggression" by "bolstering and defending our unparalleled network of allies and partners."
The Quad summit kicks off a flurry of such diplomacy.
Japan announced Friday that Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will become the first foreign leader to have White House talks with Biden, who has tried to set an example by limiting travel and meetings during the pandemic.
Conditions permitting, the trip will take place "as early as the first half of April," top government spokesman Katsunobu Kato told reporters.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are also paying a joint visit next week to both Japan and South Korea on their first foreign travel, with Austin continuing on to India.
After showcasing the alliance, Blinken and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet top Chinese officials in Alaska late next week in what the Biden administration has promised to be a blunt airing of US concerns.
Blinken has said he will press on trade and human rights, including China's sweeping new curbs on Hong Kong's elections and the mass incarceration of Uighurs and other mostly Muslim minorities, which both Biden and Trump have described as genocide.
China's state-run Global Times newspaper criticized the Quad summit as a US plot against Beijing, saying in an opinion piece that India -- which has rapidly warming relations with the United States but is not a treaty-bound ally -- should have maintained a distance.
"The Quad is not an alliance of like-minded countries as the US claims," the newspaper said, opining that the three other nations face "the embarrassment of being between the pressure from the US and their own interests with China."