WASHINGTON -- The leaders of the U.S., Japan, India and Australia -- known as the Quad -- met in person for the first time Friday, signaling the prominence of the informal grouping of like-minded nations as the key and critical format for discussing Indo-Pacific issues.
This time, they launched a new working group on space to join the three existing frameworks on "vaccines," "climate," and "critical and emerging technology" that they announced when they met online in March.
The space working group will exchange Earth observation satellite data, helping Quad countries better adapt to climate change and prepare for disasters, a fact sheet released after the meeting said.
The space collaboration will be for peaceful purposes, the Quad said. But space is seen as critical to the future of warfare, and the move highlights competition with China.
"We are four major democracies with a long history of cooperation. We know how to get things done. And we are up to the challenge," U.S. President Joe Biden said at the beginning of the meeting.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told reporters after the gathering that the leaders agreed to hold a summit annually. "This effort to bring Japan, the U.S., Australia and India together, initiated by Japan, has now completely taken root," he said.
The White House summit marked a new chapter in Biden's foreign policy. Speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, the president said America was moving from a period of "relentless war" to a new era of "relentless diplomacy."
That Biden invited Suga to attend, days before his successor is chosen in Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party presidential election on Sept. 29, shows how keen the American leader was to convene the Quad summit as soon as possible.
A joint statement released Friday evening said the Quad summit is "an opportunity to refocus ourselves and the world on the Indo-Pacific"-- a region the four nations called "a bedrock of our shared security and prosperity."
In an online summit in March, the Quad leaders agreed to boost COVID-19 vaccine production in India, and to distribute the doses throughout the Indo-Pacific with financial and logistical support from the other Quad partners.
Friday's joint statement noted that to date, nearly 79 million "safe, effective, and quality-assured vaccine doses" have been delivered to Indo-Pacific countries. The Quad nations pledged to donate over 1.2 billion doses globally.
On critical and emerging technologies, the Quad said it has been cooperating "to ensure the way in which technology is designed, developed, governed and used is shaped by our shared values and respect for universal human rights."
In partnership with industry, the four countries will advance the deployment of secure, open and transparent 5G and "beyond-5G" telecommunication networks, and foster innovation in new approaches such as Open-RAN, it said.
The four launched a new "Quad infrastructure partnership," under which officials will meet regularly to map the region's infrastructure needs.
With 13 months left to the midterm U.S. congressional elections of 2022, Biden's team wants foreign policy to focus on the Indo-Pacific, which a senior administration official described to reporters Thursday as an area where "the challenges of the 21st century will largely play out." These challenges will predominantly come from China, including in space.
In future conflicts, a single strike on the Global Positioning System could hobble the world's strongest military and erase the American warfighting advantage, given how heavily U.S. vessels, fighters, drones and missiles rely on GPS for positioning, navigation and timing.
In written congressional testimony from April, U.S. Space Command commander Gen. James Dickinson expressed concern about a Chinese satellite equipped with a robotic arm that could approach an enemy satellite to disable it.
"China also has multiple ground-based laser systems of varying power levels that could blind or damage satellite systems," he warned.
Japan, too, has turned its attention to space. In this year's Defense of Japan white paper, the Ministry of Defense added a special feature on "Challenges in the Space, Cyber and Electromagnetic Spectrum Domains."
"There is a growing risk that the functioning of satellites could be compromised due to the rapid increase in space debris and the development of anti-satellite weapons," it noted. "Thus, securing the stable use of space has become an important issue."
Other new programs for the Quad include a fellowship that will sponsor 100 students from India, Japan, Australia and the U.S. -- 25 from each Quad country -- to pursue master's or doctoral degrees at top American universities in areas related to science and technology. The senior Biden administration official described this as "a clear signal of the importance of these issues to all of our countries' futures."
The recent launch of AUKUS -- a security-focused alliance of Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. -- has pushed the Quad into nonsecurity fields.
The Quad "is not a regional security organization," the senior Biden administration official said, also stressing that it has no relation to AUKUS.
"It's important to underscore these are two completely separate initiatives," the official said. "They really have nothing to do with one another."
The emphasis on a nonsecurity angle is likely a nod to India, which has traditionally stuck with a policy of nonalignment. More recently, it has called the stance "strategic autonomy," under which it seeks to keep Indian decision-making insulated from external pressures.
But geopolitical consultant Rich Outzen, a retired U.S. military officer and State Department policy planner, said there will be calls to make the Quad more like the NATO military alliance.
"The U.S. needs a pooling of allies and partners to deal with China," Outzen said. "While the U.S. can defeat China in most parts of the world, the U.S. alone may not be able to win in China's periphery, including Taiwan."
"In the past, America's NATO allies such as Germany, U.K. and Turkey were indispensable in defending against Russia," he said. "Now they need a similar grouping for China."
Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, said Beijing has tried to sow discord among Quad members or offset Quad influence through other partnerships with different countries.
Traditionally, China has seen Australia as the weak link of the Quad and has targeted the country for retaliation and punishment, Lin said. But now, "since the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, China is increasingly viewing India as in a more vulnerable position and susceptible to its influence."
China has begun to suggest to India -- which needs to work with regional countries to stabilize the Afghan situation -- that Chinese cooperation on Afghanistan "will be dependent on India improving relations with China," Lin said. Beijing will use the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, to which both China and India belong, for such collaboration, Lin suggested.
Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at CSIS, said: "It is really interesting that the first Chinese move after the announcement of AUKUS and just before the Quad summit was China's request to New Zealand that it be allowed to join the CPTPP," or the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, formerly the TPP.