Joe Biden’s forthcoming meeting with the leaders of Australia, Japan and India signals Canberra doesn’t “stand alone” at a time of intense pressure from China, experts say.
But while regional challenges are expected to be top of the agenda for the first leaders’ summit of the “Quad” countries later this week, the White House has also indicated the climate crisis will be part of the talks – reflecting the US president’s desire to ensure all countries lift their level of ambition.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, said on Wednesday he “couldn’t be more pleased” with the planned virtual meeting, scheduled to occur early Saturday morning Canberra-time, saying Australia had been pushing to elevate the status of the Quad, including in his first one-on-one phone call with the US president last month.
Morrison said the leader-level talks were important because the “peace and stability that all Australians rely on for their freedom and for them being able to live their lives in the way that they wish to in a liberal democracy such as Australia depends on the peace and stability of our region”.
The Quad grouping is not a formal alliance but brings together key maritime democracies in the Indo-Pacific. It is viewed warily by Beijing, which sees it as an effort to contain China’s rising regional influence.
The White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, told reporters the virtual meeting among Biden, Morrison, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and India’s Narendra Modi would discuss a range of issues, “whether it’s addressing the climate crisis, whether it’s working together to address the global pandemic or of course economic cooperation”.
“Formed in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami, and formalised in 2007, the Quad has met regularly at the working and foreign minister level; however Friday will be the first time the Quad is meeting at the leader level,” Psaki said at a daily press briefing.
“That President Biden has made this one of his earliest multilateral engagements speaks to the importance we place on close cooperation with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific.”
Prof Rory Medcalf, head of the national security college at the Australian National University, said the first Quad leaders’ meeting was “a historic step” that signalled “a new level of political determination to balance together against Chinese power”.
“It normalises security cooperation among the four countries and will encourage their bureaucracies to accelerate a practical program, despite obvious national differences,” Medcalf told Guardian Australia.
He said the leaders’ summit was also “proof that the Quad will outlive Donald Trump, and indeed could thrive better without his confrontational style”.
“For Australia, the Quad summit is an important sign that we do not stand alone in resisting Chinese pressure,” Medcalf said.
The announcement of the meeting comes two days after China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, called for “true multilateralism” and argued against exclusive groupings or “selective multilateralism”.
In a possible reference to the Quad, Wang said on Monday: “Building small circles in the name of multilateralism is in fact ‘group politics’.”
However, the Australian trade minister, Dan Tehan, played down the potential for further trade retaliations against Australian exporters, after a year in which Chinese authorities took actions against a range of sectors including coal, barley and wine amid a worsening diplomatic dispute.
Tehan told the ABC the forthcoming meeting was “about making sure that markets remain open, and the trading is done on a free basis”.
Dr Jeffrey Wilson, the research director at the Perth USAsia Centre at the University of Western Australia, said the elevation of the Quad to a leaders’ meeting, even if only as a one-off, would expand the group’s agenda beyond defence and security issues.
Wilson said the meeting would likely focus on vaccine distribution and the defence of democratic institutions.
“However, with the Quad now unshackled from security issues, its future agenda can now evolve more freely. A number of shared problems – particularly economic coercion, and foreign interference – are likely to become part of the Quad’s language.”
Wilson said the move offered some advantages for Australia, allowing the government “to coordinate with a group of powerful and likeminded friends on pressing issues on the foreign policy agenda, such as recent trade coercion by China”.
But he said it also carried the risk of “diluting the Quad’s agenda, which has for the last decade been tightly focused on maritime security”.
“With finite diplomatic and political capital to spend, whether broadening the Quad agenda will be effective remains to be seen.”
Biden has vowed to use every diplomatic lever to rally increased global action “in the face of this existential threat”.
Among the Quad grouping, the US and Japan have committed to net zero emissions by 2050, while Australia has expressed a preference to achieve the goal without making a firm pledge. India has also not committed to net zero by 2050 but has promised to exceed expectations.
On Monday the US and the UK issued a joint statement urging all countries “to take the steps needed to keep a 1.5C temperature limit within reach, including through ambitious nationally determined contributions and long-term strategies to cut emissions and reach net zero”.
Biden’s special presidential envoy on climate, John Kerry, has cited the 2019-20 bushfires in Australia as evidence of the need for urgent action on the climate crisis. Last month Kerry publicly acknowledged “differences” between the US and Australia in tackling the climate crisis while calling for a faster exit from coal-fired power around the globe.