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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and the leaders of the U.S., Australia and India are expected to meet online Friday for the first “Quad” leaders summit, in what is shaping up to be a crucial moment for U.S. President Joe Biden to crystallize his administration’s commitment to the Indo-Pacific region in the face of China’s growing assertiveness.

Known officially as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the Quad is an informal strategic forum of the four nations that holds semiregular meetings, joint military drills, and discussions about regional economic and development assistance. The framework itself was established in 2007, but it took on a new level of importance in 2019 with a discussion among foreign ministers amid Beijing’s expanding influence.

The four nations’ top diplomats held a teleconference last month to rebuke China’s moves to deploy forces in the region and agree on the need to restore a democratically elected government in Myanmar. In October, top envoys convened in Tokyo for a rare in-person meeting amid the coronavirus pandemic.

In a sign that the region is among Biden’s top foreign policy priorities, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin will visit Japan next week for talks with Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.

The Quad meeting will be the first of many challenges for the Biden administration as it seeks to demonstrate leadership in navigating Indo-Pacific affairs. Washington will also face hurdles as it seeks to bring a potentially reluctant India further into the fold in order to defy China’s push to expand its territorial and maritime influence.

“The U.S. positions its policy toward China as the No. 1 pillar in its foreign policy, and since the Biden administration wants to tackle various issues regarding China by working with allies and pro-U.S. nations, it sees the Quad as one effective tool and wants to promote it,” said Tetsuo Kotani, an expert on international security at Meikai University.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato announced Wednesday that Suga, Biden, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will discuss the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” responses to the pandemic and climate change, as well as “regional affairs,” a veiled term directed at China. The meeting was organized at the request of Washington, Kato said.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on Feb. 5. | REUTERS
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in Washington on Feb. 5. | REUTERS

Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. ramped up its harsh rhetoric toward China and embedded itself deep in both the Quad and the idea of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, which was welcomed overall by their partners in the region. At the same time, the administration’s unabashed move to pull the country out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Paris Agreement, as well as its demand that the host nations dramatically increase payments for U.S. military bases in Japan and South Korea, engendered skepticism of American leadership in the region.

Although Foreign Ministry officials in Tokyo did not publicly admit it, they were concerned that the Biden administration would prioritize repairing alliances with countries in Europe that deteriorated under Trump and thus put U.S. military and economic interests in Asia on the back burner.

The Biden administration’s emphasis on increasing cooperation with allies and friendly nations will signal it has a different strategy toward China from that of Trump, giving Japan, Australia and India “a sense of relief,” Kotani said.

The Quad is “one of the important tools to keep the U.S. drawn to the region” from a Japanese and Australian perspective at the very least, said Mie Oba, a Kanagawa University professor of international politics with a focus on the Asia-Pacific region.

“It’s been roughly a month and a half since the Biden inauguration, and Japan and Australia see holding a Quad leader summit at this point as very important to demonstrate (the U.S. commitment) politically,” Oba said.

On the topic of national security, the four leaders are expected to discuss Beijing’s increasingly hostile behavior, including its recently implemented coast guard law. The law allows the Chinese Coast Guard to take “all necessary measures,” including the use of weapons, against foreign organizations or individuals that violate Chinese sovereignty or jurisdiction, stoking concern of a possible conflict in the East China and South China seas.

After the law went into effect, Chinese Coast Guard ships have been frequently entering contiguous zones and breaching Japan’s territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyu, in the East China Sea.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on March 5. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaks during a news conference in Tokyo on March 5. | POOL / VIA AFP-JIJI

Both Tokyo and Washington are alarmed by Beijing’s moves and concur that Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security treaty would be applicable to the Senkakus. The article states that the U.S. would defend territories under Japan’s administration in the event of an armed attack.

Likewise, Australia is being vigilant over China’s rise and its expansive political and economic influence on the Pacific Islands, a region that Canberra regards as critical to its national interests. Morrison described the Quad as an “anchor of peace and stability in the region.”

India will be a trickier partner for Biden as the U.S. seeks to encourage New Delhi to deepen security cooperation through the Quad framework. Since the days of the Cold War, the world’s largest democracy has upheld a posture of “nonalignment.” And while the nation, like the other three Quad countries, supports a Free and Open Indo-Pacific and has been disquieted by China’s appetite for influence in the region, it is worried about exacerbating tensions with China.

The two countries clashed over a border dispute in the Himalayan region last year. In that incident, 20 Indian soldiers were killed in the deadliest confrontation between the two countries since 1975. Last month, however, the two sides pulled their troops out of the contested area to de-escalate the situation.

Oba said even if the four countries are not on the same page, holding the leaders meeting is politically important in the short term. The Quad, she added, can function as a framework to deepen cooperation among the four countries.

Kotani, however, said that New Delhi may be apprehensive about the Biden administration’s diplomacy centered on human rights. Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has been accused by human rights groups of orchestrating a harsh crackdown of dissidents and discrimination against Muslims in Kashmir.

Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Kolkata on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI
Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Kolkata on Sunday. | AFP-JIJI

India might have been motivated to take part in the Quad leadership meeting in order to gain Washington’s trust early, Kotani said.

“If (India) leans forward on the Quad, that would give China an excuse to provoke along the borders,” he said. “Despite that, the fact that India agreed to be on board with the top-level summit meeting at a relatively early stage shows its concern for the Biden administration’s human rights diplomacy.”

Suga on Tuesday laid the groundwork for the Friday meeting through a teleconference with Modi. The two leaders discussed deeper bilateral and Quad cooperation to achieve the Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, according to a readout from the Prime Minister’s Office in Tokyo.

During the talks Friday, the four leaders are expected to reach a financing agreement to boost the COVID-19 vaccine made in India to be distributed to developing Asian countries. The deal will assist Indian companies that manufacture vaccines for American drugmakers Novavax Inc. and Johnson & Johnson in order to facilitate vaccinations in Southeast Asia, according to Reuters.

China has been providing coronavirus shots for free to more than 50 nations through a bout of vaccine diplomacy, a campaign that has been met with apprehension from the Quad, who fear that Beijing is taking advantage of the program to wield geopolitical power.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers the keynote address during the AFR Summit in Sydney on Tuesday. | BLOOMBERG
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison delivers the keynote address during the AFR Summit in Sydney on Tuesday. | BLOOMBERG

The four countries will likely be able to cooperate fairly easily on vaccine distribution and they should be able to formulate an alternative to China in global COVID-19 measures, Kotani said.

The move to encourage Indian vaccine supply is seen as a campaign by the other three countries to draw New Delhi closer in a bid to curb China’s domination.

Beijing views the Quad as an attempt to contain its rise.

In a news conference on Sunday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi upbraided the U.S. for “willfully interfering in other countries’ internal affairs in the name of democracy and human rights” that has created “lots of troubles … turbulence and conflict” while insisting that Japan and China be “partners, not threats” to each other, and that India and China be “each other’s friends and partners, not threats (to each other) or rivals.”

Kotani believes Beijing “wants to drive a wedge between the United States and its allies and friendly nations even a little bit by wheedling (U.S. allies) to stop them from deepening ties.”

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