A “free and open Indo-Pacific is essential,” US President Joe Biden said Friday in a near-certain reference to an increasingly assertive China.
Biden made the remarks during a historic meeting of the leaders of Japan, India and Australia, a group formally known as the Quad. Friday’s session marks the first leader-level meeting since its inception in what is a sign of its growing importance.
“The United States is committed to working with you, our partners, and all of our allies in the region to achieve stability,” Biden said in opening remarks as the virtual meeting began. “The Quad is going to be vital in our cooperation in the Indo-Pacific and I look forward to looking closely to working with all of you in the coming years.”
The Quad leaders announced in a joint statement issued shortly after their meeting concluded that they will meet for a second time later this year in what will be an in-person gathering.
Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security advisor, told reporters the leaders “addressed key regional issues, including freedom of navigation and freedom from coercion in the South East China Sea.”
While China was not explicitly mentioned, it is squarely the target of the statement with its maritime policies in the region that have included manufacturing islands to expand its sovereign territorial claims at the cost of its neighbors’, particularly Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as Taiwan.
The leaders also discussed North Korea’s nuclear program, and the coup in Burma, according to Sullivan.
“The foreign leaders did discuss the challenge posed by China, and they made clear that none of them have any illusions about China, but today was not fundamentally about China. Much of the focus was on pressing global crises, including the climate crisis, and COVID-19,” he said.
“The Quad, at the end of the day, is now a critical part of the architecture of the Indo-Pacific. And today’s summit also kicks off an intensive stretch of diplomacy in the region,” added Sullivan.
Shortly after the meeting concluded the Quad said in a joint statement that member states would work to bolster vaccination in the Indo-Pacific region “in close coordination with the existing relevant multilateral mechanisms including WHO and” the UN’s vaccination program, the White House said in a statement.
“Drawing on each of our strengths, we will tackle this complex issue with multi-sectoral cooperation across many stages of action, starting with ensuring global availability of safe and effective vaccines,” it said.