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U.S. President Joe Biden will host the leaders of Japan, Australia and India in Washington next week for the “Quad” grouping’s first in-person summit, the White House has announced, with China’s growing assertiveness expected to be high on the agenda.

The meeting, the first since online talks between the four countries’ leaders in March, will also be a chance for outgoing Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga to assuage any continuity concerns among the grouping as he prepares to step down from his post just days after the summit.

Biden will hold talks with Suga, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Indian leader Narendra Modi on Sept. 24 at the White House, spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement Wednesday.

“The Biden-Harris Administration has made elevating the Quad a priority, as seen through the first-ever Quad Leaders-level engagement in March, which was virtual, and now this Summit, which will be in-person,” she said.

Hosting the Quad leaders demonstrates the Biden administration’s “priority of engaging in the Indo-Pacific,” Psaki added.

On Wednesday, Japan’s top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, also confirmed the visit, saying that Tokyo hopes the four leaders “will hold candid discussions on common challenges facing the region, such as realizing a free and open Indo-Pacific region and fighting the novel coronavirus.”

After the United States’ hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of war, the White House is hoping to show that it remains committed to shifting its focus to the Indo-Pacific region.

The White House said Quad leaders will be focused on deepening ties and “advancing practical cooperation” in areas such as combating COVID-19, addressing the climate crisis, partnering on emerging technologies and cyberspace, and promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Although the announcement did not specifically name China, it did reference Japan and the United States’ Indo-Pacific policy, which is widely viewed as a way of countering Beijing’s growing influence in the region.

Sino-U.S. ties have deteriorated in recent years as the rivalry between the two economic and military powerhouses has heated up, leaving some fearing the possibility of a new Cold War. Tokyo has also faced off with Beijing, including over the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands and over China’s crackdown on Hong Kong and its alleged human rights abuses in its far-west Xinjiang region. Australia, which is embroiled in a bitter trade dispute with China, has voiced similar concerns.

India, which has traditionally been uncomfortable with any public mention of Beijing, has moved closer to its three Quad partners in its views of China, as an at times ferocious border dispute between the two neighbors has roiled ties.

U.S. President Joe Biden walks out of the Oval Office with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of a news conference at the White House in Washington in April. | REUTERS
U.S. President Joe Biden walks out of the Oval Office with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga ahead of a news conference at the White House in Washington in April. | REUTERS

China, for its part, looks warily at the Quad, variously criticizing it as “an anti-China front line” and a “mini NATO.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday at a regular press briefing that “any regional cooperation framework should go with the trend of the times and be conducive to mutual trust and cooperation between regional countries. It should not target any third party or harm their interests.”

The U.S. and Japan have attempted to fend off these critiques by focusing on “concrete” deliverables such as infrastructure aid and help with producing and delivering vaccines to countries in the Indo-Pacific region.

Suga is also hoping to use the summit as a final chance to hold bilateral talks with Biden, a senior Japanese government official said, though nothing has been decided.

But Suga, with just days left in office, may find himself in an awkward position at the summit — relegated to the position of messenger — as his ruling Liberal Democratic Party is set to select his successor as president, and effectively Japan’s prime minister, on Sept. 29.

Despite his relatively short time in office — and concerns that his foreign policy initiatives might have been overtaken by the urgency of the coronavirus pandemic — the outgoing prime minister has compiled an enviable list of diplomatic achievements. These have included being the first foreign leader to meet Biden in person, holding the first Quad leaders’ summit and joining the U.S. in singling out for the first time in decades the importance of “peace and stability” in Taiwan.

The lion’s share of these achievements have underscored Japan’s central role in U.S. efforts to face down China, and Suga is expected to convey to Biden, as well as the other Quad leaders, that Japan’s policy will not change even as the country’s prime minister does.

“I think there is a general consensus among all of the candidates to replace Suga that the Quad and the Indo-Pacific focus will remain important,” said Corey Wallace, an assistant professor at Kanagawa University who focuses on Japanese politics and international relations.

All three contenders who have formally entered the race — former Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, vaccine czar Taro Kono and ex-internal affairs minister Sanae Takaichi — have voiced harder-line stances on China, stressing the importance of the rule of law and the alliance with the U.S.

But Wallace dismissed concerns over Suga’s appearance as a lame duck, saying that not holding the long-planned Quad summit would have threatened the momentum that the grouping has built up over the past year and a half.

“There was a strong likelihood that the meeting would have to be delayed, or even canceled,” he said.

Holding the in-person Quad summit, despite the still raging pandemic, will represent a significant accomplishment and lock-in the progress it has made, Wallace said.

“Furthermore, it is a signal that even though Suga has had to stand down after one year as prime minister, Japan’s security cooperation with others will not be held hostage to the vagaries of Japanese domestic politics as it might have been in the past.”

Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.

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