Prime Minister Scott Morrison has emphasised the importance of a “free and open” Indo-Pacific as the influence of China remains the elephant in the room at a Quad meeting of Australia, the United States, Japan and India.
Mr Morrison is meeting with US President Joe Biden, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga and Indian leader Narendra Modi for the first face-to-face Quad summit at the White House.
The ABC reports Mr Morrison said the Indo-Pacific should be free from coercion, a reference to concern about China’s increasing assertiveness and influence in the region.
China has been flexing its influence and undergoing a massive military build-up which officials describe as a “deteriorating strategic environment”.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Mr Morrison told reporters the Quad was a “positive partnership” dealing with such issues as the pandemic, clean energy and supply chains.
“The reason we’re coming together is to make a positive and constructive contribution in the region … that supports the peace and stability across the region,” he said.
He said many countries in the region wanted to emulate China’s economic success, which had brought more people out of poverty than any other nation in the world’s history.
“Everybody gains from a stable Indo-Pacific … whether it’s in China, Japan, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, we all benefit.”
Mr Biden is seeking to pivot US foreign policy towards the Indo-Pacific in the face of China’s coercive economic practices and unsettling military manoeuvring in the region.
Australia is expected to join with India, Japan and the United States in a partnership to provide COVID-19 vaccines to Indo-Pacific nations.
Since the leaders’ March virtual summit, officials have been working on the details of a vaccine deal which would provide as many as a billion doses across the region.
There are also expected to be announcements in the areas of emissions reduction technologies, space cooperation, cyber security, scholarships for science students and secure semiconductor supply chains.
Before the summit, the Japanese and Indian governments welcomed a recent announcement that the US, as part of the AUKUS alliance with Britain and Australia, would equip Australia with nuclear-powered submarines.
It is a move that will allow Australia to conduct longer patrols and give it an edge on the Chinese navy.
Peking University’s Professor Han Hua wrote in an op-ed piece for the China Daily the Quad and AUKUS would destabilise the region.
“Security groupings or alliances might have served some purpose during the Cold War era, but they don’t have any use in today’s globalised world where no issue can be solved by one country or security grouping alone,” he wrote.
“Cooperation, rather than strategic competition, is the only way countries can meet the challenges facing the world, including climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.”
He said security groupings would inevitably prompt “rival” groupings to engage in an arms race to ensure their survival and security.