US and Asia allies launch major vaccine drive to counter China

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The US has crafted a plan with Japan, India and Australia to provide 1bn doses of Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccine to south-east Asian nations in a bid to counter Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

President Joe Biden and his counterparts will unveil the initiative on Friday when they convene the first “Quad” summit. Under the deal, the US and Japan will finance production of the vaccine in India, while Australia will help to distribute the jabs across south-east Asia.

One US official described it as a “historic deliverable” that would demonstrate the importance of the Quad, which emerged in 2004 when the nations co-operated on disaster relief after a tsunami devastated Indonesia.

“It’s deeply strategically significant,” the official said. “The fact that the Quad has rallied and engaged deeply, essentially around the clock, over the course of the last few weeks . . . is significant.”

The plan came together after weeks of shuttle diplomacy between Kurt Campbell, the top White House official for the Indo-Pacific, and the ambassadors representing the Quad nations in Washington. The Financial Times was the first to report that the four countries were working on a vaccine diplomacy initiative.

The plan will be couched as a positive effort to tackle the pandemic, but it is also part of a broader strategy of finding common areas where the countries can counter Beijing without seeming too anti-China.

Biden has made clear that he sees China as his biggest foreign policy challenge and that he would seek to work with allies to deal with Beijing.

The Quad meeting will be Biden’s first summit as US president. Next month, Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister, will be the first foreign leader to meet Biden at the White House.

Since holding its first “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” in 2007, the Quad had fallen dormant, particularly over concerns in India and Australia about antagonising China.

Michael Green, former Asia adviser to George W Bush, said Biden had to “reset the chessboard quickly” to deal with China, but warned that the US president faced constraints in a lack of consensus on trade policy and debates about levels of military spending.

He said the Munich Security Conference, at which German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Emmanuel Macron adopted softer approaches to China, reinforced the view that the “Europeans were still obstreperous” about crafting a common China policy.

“This was the fastest play on the board and they did it big,” Green said. “The provision of public goods is not something that China can call containment, but it shows the limits of Beijing’s influence.”

The US official said Biden wanted to take the Quad, which was resurrected by Donald Trump, “to the next level” with a practical initiative that would address the vaccine shortage in south-east Asia.

But the official added that the effort was also a critical test of whether the four-nation partnership could prove strategically important. “The thing that has brought all these countries together is an insistence on providing practical concrete help. If the Quad cannot constructively address these issues, we will quickly lose relevance.”

A second US official said the leaders would also create working groups to focus on areas such as climate change, emerging technologies and setting standards for crucial technologies.

Tanvi Madan, an India expert at the Brookings Institution, said the plan showed that the Quad could make a positive contribution that would help alleviate doubts about its effectiveness.

“It can be visible proof of concept for a grouping that has been dismissed by critics as . . . a meaningless talk shop,” she said.

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