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At the White House today, President Biden hosted the first face-to-face summit with leaders of a key group in Asia. The U.S., Japan, Australia and India grouping is known as the Quad and see themselves as a democratic bulwark against an increasingly assertive China. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sitting at tables facing each other in the East Room of the White House, President Biden described the Quad as a group of countries that share a worldview and have a common vision of the future.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We are four major democracies with a long history of cooperation. We know how to get things done, and we are up to the challenge.
KELEMEN: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pointed out that the group first came together to help in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Now, it is promoting a vaccine initiative that Modi says is serving the interests of humanity.
The Prime Minister of Japan, Yoshihide Suga, said the summit demonstrates a, quote, "unwavering commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific." That was echoed by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
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SCOTT MORRISON: We are liberal democracies that believe in a world order that favors freedom.
KELEMEN: Before reporters were ushered out of the room, the word China didn't come up. But concern about China is the main thing that unites this group now, says David Shullman, a former CIA analyst now with the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.
DAVID SHULLMAN: The Biden administration and leaders in the other three countries have put a lot of work into getting the Quad to this point, this first in-person leaders summit. But China really gets the lion's share of the credit for making this happen.
KELEMEN: He says China has become increasingly aggressive in the South China Sea and elsewhere.
SHULLMAN: China's doubled down on aggression along the border with India last summer. It has singled out Australia for economic punishment. That has backfired. So all of this has really ensured the staying power of the grouping.
KELEMEN: China has tried to paint the Quad as a NATO-allied (ph) group trying to start a new Cold War, says Carla Freeman of the U.S. Institute of Peace.
CARLA FREEMAN: That seems to be the subtext of a lot of China's commentary. You know, at the same time, China is trying to downplay in a lot of its press the potential impact that the Quad can have on China. For example, today, the People's Daily says the Quad is incapable of inflicting substantial harm to China.
KELEMEN: Still, China doesn't like all the talk about a rules-based order. Freeman says China sees that as an attempt to preserve America's primacy in world affairs.
FREEMAN: China does not want to have to adhere to rules that it sees as crafted by the United States to serve its own interests and so is trying to set up other opportunities, other ways of promoting its interests, through different multilateral groupings, different arrangements, including the Belt and Road Initiative.
KELEMEN: President Biden has insisted that he's not seeking a new Cold War or a world with, as he puts it, rigid blocs. A former undersecretary of state, Paula Dobriansky, says she views the Quad as an attempt to avoid conflict.
PAULA DOBRIANSKY: I see this as a type of deterrent and containment given the actions that have already taken place emanating from Beijing.
KELEMEN: The agreements announced today are more about soft power, focusing on COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, emerging technologies and infrastructure. There are also new fellowships for students from Japan, Australia and India to come to the U.S. for STEM programs.
Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.
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