India’s leadership in providing the Covid-19 vaccine will be high on the agenda of the first Quad summit on Friday as the leaders of the four countries look for ways to build the group as a benevolent force for the region extending its role beyond the strategic as they confront China’s growing hard and soft powers.
“The leaders will discuss ongoing efforts to combat Covid-19 pandemic and explore opportunities for collaboration in ensuring safe, equitable and affordable vaccines in the Indo-Pacific region,” Modi’s office said.
Adding a few more details, the Japanese news agency Kyodo in a report from Washington quoting people familiar with the agenda, said: “The leaders plan to announce financial support to boost production capacity for vaccines in India, seen as part of efforts to counter China’s growing influence, which has been offering free shots to countries in Southeast Asia and Africa.”
Prime Ministers Narendra Modi of India, Scott Morrison of Australia and Yoshihide Suga of Japan, and US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris are to participate in Friday’s virtual summit.
Biden’s Spokesperson Jan Psaki said: “We expect the conversation to be about a range of global issues. It is not focused on China. Of course, China is a topic on the minds of many leaders in countries, but we expect they will talk about the climate crisis, about economic cooperation, about addressing Covid, a range of issues and discussions.”
While leaders of the Quad nations have met regularly at the levels of Foreign Ministers and other officials since its revival in 2017, this will be the first meeting at the summit level.
Coming so soon after Biden assumed office, it also shows the urgency the administration feels about the Indo-Pacific region as China looms as a threat, both militarily and diplomatically.
Explaining the group’s orientation, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said: “We recognise that Quad members are uniquely positioned to help lead the region out of crises and to help move the region towards the more positive vision we all seek, both to address these crises and to seize these opportunities that are presented to all of us collectively.”
He also said that the Quad was not focused solely on China.
Of course, maritime security is a key focus of the Quad, but it is a grouping that is predicated on shared interests.
“We have shared interests in standing up for universal values and rights. We have shared economic interests. We have shared security interests. We have deep people-to-people ties with all of these countries. And that’s what the Quad is about. It’s about more than any one particular challenge,” he added.
Biden’s attention to Covid-19 vaccines is driven by the advances made by Russia and China, whom the US considers its adversaries, in the vaccine diplomacy, which has left Washington and its European allies behind.
Apart from those two countries, only India has been a player in vaccine diplomacy.
While India has directly donated vaccines to several countries and sold to others, it is also the main supplier to the World Health Organization-sponsored COVAX that has already provided them to more than a dozen countries and plans to cover more than 140 countries.
Biden has been criticised by several commentators for his ‘America First’ policy on Covid-19 vaccines, no different from that of his predecessor Donald Trump, refusing to share vaccines with the rest of the world while speaking of international cooperation.
He has pledged $2 billion to the COVAX but to part with vaccines.
A New York Times editorial said: “It is very much in America’s national interest not to cede a critical ‘soft power’ advantage to autocratic rivals like Russia or China… Poor countries will remember who came to their assistance, and when.”
The same editorial denigrated India’s efforts asserting that it was only donating vaccines because it could not distribute them domestically.
Collaborating with India in making and distributing vaccines under the aegis of the US and the Quad would be a way for Biden to claim the high ground in vaccine diplomacy, while also hanging on to the domestic supply.
Vaccine diplomacy would be a return to the philanthropic roots of the Quad, which started when the four countries began to collaborate on regional tsunami relief in 2004.
(Arul Louis can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @arulouis)