The summit meeting is expected to begin at 7 p.m. IST on Friday
Access to COVID-19 vaccines, cooperation on technology, and climate change are at the top of the agenda as Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join U.S. President Joseph Biden, Australian PM Scott Morrison and Japanese PM Yoshihide Suga for a virtual summit of the Quadrilateral Framework (Quad) on Friday — the first time leaders of the Indo-Pacific grouping are meeting.
The meeting is also one of Mr. Biden’s first multilateral engagements, which the White House said denoted the importance of the U.S.’s cooperation with “allies and partners in the Indo Pacific”.
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The Quad meeting, that China has referred to as an “Indo-Pacific NATO”, will be watched most closely for signals on how the grouping will deal with the challenge from Beijing’s recent moves in the Pacific as well as at the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. Also of interest is whether the four leaders will issue a joint statement at the end of the meeting, which would be another first, as all Quad engagements thus far have come out with four separate readouts indicating differences in their positions.
Ahead of the summit, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will visit Japan and South Korea next week, said he expected to “see something on vaccines” as an outcome of the summit meeting, expected to begin at 7 p.m. IST on Friday.
In the Quad ministerial summit in February, the four countries had discussed the need for international cooperation to ensure equitable access to vaccines, especially in developing countries. India, the world’s largest manufacturer of vaccines, that has already shipped out more than 48 million doses worldwide, primarily through commercial shipments and the global COVAX alliance, but also as grants, is expected to request Quad investment in order to scale up its outreach further. In addition, India would like to see Western countries, led by the U.S., dilute their opposition to its proposal at the World Trade Organisation to waive Trade Related Intellectual Property (TRIPS) guidelines, so that more vaccines can be produced generically.
In its statement ahead of the summit, the Ministry of External Affairs had said the leaders would discuss cooperation towards maintaining a “free, open and inclusive” Indo-Pacific region, as well as challenges such as “resilient supply chains, emerging and critical technologies, maritime security, and climate change.”
Also on the agenda are talks about managing regional crises, including Myanmar, where military rulers continue to ignore global pleas against its decision to jail the elected government and the brutal crackdown on protestors, as well as Afghanistan, where the U.S. has outlined its latest plan to promote talks and chalk out a possible exit of its troops from the conflict.
The timing of the Quad summit is also significant, as it comes amidst ongoing talks between India and China on the disengagement process at the Line of Actual Control, after a nearly year-long standoff between troops in Ladakh.
It also comes just ahead of Mr. Blinken’s travels to the region, after which he will fly to Alaska, along with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for the first meeting of the Biden Administration with Chinese counterparts Wang Yi and Yang Jiechi. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who will join him in Tokyo and Seoul will then travel to Delhi. As a result, the Quad summit’s outcomes are expected to bear a message on India-China, India-US and US-China relations as well.
Mr. Wang, who has been sharply critical of the Quad in the past, referred to the upcoming Quad summit in more oblique terms this week, cautioning against “selective multilateralism” and “group politics” in the region.
Experts said India’s messaging on the Quad has thus far been mixed, referring to it as one of many multilateral arrangements in the region, which should not be “conflated” with India’s Indo-Pacific policy, that encompasses many more countries including the EU, UK, France, Russia and others.
“India’s position has been mature. We have understood that these public platforms are created for certain requirements,  provided they are transparent and open and they respect the international order,” former Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale said at a seminar on India-China relations organised by Carnegie India, adding that China’s opposition to the Quad is unwarranted, given that the Quadrilateral Framework has “no treaty, no structure, and no secretariat” at present.