India will produce more than one billion more Covid vaccine doses by the end of next year in an initiative launched Friday with the United States, Japan and Australia, challenging China as the four leaders held their first-ever joint summit.
US President Joe Biden, who has vowed to reinvigorate alliances in the face of growing worries about China, met virtually with the three nations' prime ministers as they pledged together to defend a "free and open" Indo-Pacific region.
"We're renewing our commitment to ensure that our region is governed by international law, committed to upholding universal values and free from coercion," said Biden, who like the others made no explicit, but plenty of implicit, mentions of China.
Vowing to show concrete results, the so-called Quad announced that Indian company Biological Ltd. would manufacture at least one billion additional vaccine doses by the end of 2022, focusing on the single-shot, US-developed Johnson & Johnson jab that was approved Friday by the World Health Organization.
Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, called the plan a "massive joint commitment" and said that Southeast Asia would be the priority to receive the shots, which should come well after the United States is largely vaccinated.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the vaccine initiative showed that the Quad is "a positive force for global good and for peace, stability and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific."
India, a global pharmaceutical hub, is already sending vaccines to 70 nations and called the Quad initiative a vindication.
"We believe that this will speed up the process of post-pandemic recovery and enable families and businesses to put the Covid-19 crisis behind them," Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla told reporters in New Delhi.
The White House said that Japan and the United States would provide favorable loans to allow the Indian production, with Australia stepping up to nearly US$500 million funding to administer vaccines Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
The plan 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.
- 'New dawn' -
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 nations 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.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the summit marked "a new dawn in the Indo-Pacific."
"As four leaders of great liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific, may our partnership be the enabler of peace, stability and prosperity, and to do so inclusively with the many nations of our region," Morrison said.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, speaking to reporters afterward in Tokyo, said he raised "strong opposition to China's unilateral attempts to change the status quo" and voiced concern over Myanmar's coup.
"They supported each of my remarks," Suga said of the other leaders.
China has denounced the Quad as a US plot against it and put particular pressure on India, which under Modi has increasingly aligned with the United States and shed its historic non-alignment.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called on all nations to "refrain from forming closed and exclusive cliques and act in a way that is conducive to regional peace, stability and prosperity."
- Flurry of diplomacy -
The Quad summit kicks off a flurry of diplomacy by Biden, who promised an in-person meeting with the other three leaders this year.
The Biden administration says it largely agrees with previous president Donald Trump's hawkish line of China but that it is taking a more tactful approach that includes a renewed focus on alliances -- many of which, especially in Europe, were badly rattled by the vitriolic Trump.
Japan announced that 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.
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 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.