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Indo-Pacific

First Quad summit mirrors Biden's pivot to Indo-Pacific

Group of democracies converge as China expands defense budget by 6.8%

The leaders of Australia, the U.S., Japan and India will meet online as early as next week for the first summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue. (Nikkei montage/photos by Reuters)

WASHINGTON/TOKYO -- U.S. President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison will meet online as early as next week for the first summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, signaling their continued commitment to cooperation in the Indo-Pacific.

The dialogue is the highest-level meeting ever of the Quad, a group of democracies that seeks to form a united front in the Indo-Pacific to push back against the growing influence of China.

It comes as Beijing expands its maritime capability, highlighted by the 6.8% increase in the 2021 defense budget it announced on Friday. The $208 billion budget is one quarter of the U.S. figure but four times larger than Japan's defense spending.

The U.S. Navy expects China’s navy, already numerically largest in the world, to continue to increase the number of warships in the years ahead. It estimates that the 360 battle force ships China had at the end of 2020 will grow to 420 in 2030, while the U.S. will only grow from 297 to 355 by 2034.

China may launch its third aircraft carrier this year, following the Liaoning, which it purchased second-hand from Ukraine and refurbished, and the Shandong, its first domestically built carrier. With three carriers, China can simultaneously have one in operation, one in repair and one in training, which is the ideal combination. 

On Thursday, a top U.S. Navy official warned that the next six years may be the time frame in which China takes action on Taiwan.  

"The period between now and 2026, this decade, is the time horizon in which China is positioned to achieve overmatch in its capability, and when Beijing could, 'could,' widely choose to forcibly change the status quo in the region," Adm. Philip Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, said at a talk hosted by the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute.

"And I would say the change in that status quo could be permanent."

These will be the realities the Quad leaders face when they meet. There are also plans jointly distribute coronavirus vaccines across the Indo-Pacific region to counter Beijing's vaccine diplomacy.

An U.S. Navy airman directs the pilot of a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force MH-60 Sea Hawk to take off from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 28. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Navy) 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday confirmed that the leaders will meet, though he did not give a date. "It will be four leaders, four countries, working together constructively for the peace, prosperity and stability of the Indo-Pacific," he said.

The summit comes ahead of a trip by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Japan, in their first in-person overseas trip under the administration of President Joe Biden.

The countries are planning for Blinken and Austin to visit Japan from March 15 to 17, where they will hold a "two-plus-two" meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi. The U.S. officials may also visit South Korea and Australia as part of the trip.

Biden has stressed the importance of U.S. alliances, and promised to listen to both allies and partners as he shapes U.S. strategy -- a stark contrast to predecessor Donald Trump's "America First" approach. Japan has welcomed the U.S. pivot toward the Indo-Pacific, which it considers an opportunity to demonstrate the strength of its alliance with the U.S. to the international community.

Senior diplomatic and security officials from Japan and the U.S. met online on Thursday. Participants shared their "deep concern" regarding China's coast guard law, which gave the force  upgraded quasi-military status in February, according to the U.S. State Department.

"Both sides reiterated their strong opposition to unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China seas," the State Department said in a statement.

One of Japan's immediate security concerns is the rise in incursions by Chinese coast guard vessels to waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. Tensions around the Japan-administered chain, which China claims as the Diaoyu, have only risen since the new Coast Guard Law took effect.

On Monday, China's Ministry of Defense issued a statement saying that it is "legitimate and indisputable" for Chinese official vessels to carry out law enforcement activities in the waters near the Diaoyu Islands, China's name for the Senkakus, and that such law enforcement activities "will continue as regular moves."

Since January, Tokyo and Washington have repeatedly affirmed that the U.S. commitment to defend Japan under their bilateral security treaty extends to the Senkakus

The U.S. and Japan's exact roles in regional security remain a topic for future debate. The Biden administration is focused on curbing the coronavirus pandemic and bridging political divides at home, and has little capacity to expand its security partnerships. There is speculation that Washington could urge Japan to step up its contribution.

The countries will also need to coordinate their response to human rights concerns in China. The U.S. has denounced China's crackdown in Hong Kong and against its Uyghur minority. Japan faces a delicate balancing act between its economic ties to China and its partnership, including on human rights issues, with the U.S.

Additional reporting by Tsukasa Hadano in Beijing.

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