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The ‘Quad’ Aims for Up to a Billion Vaccine Doses for Southeast Asia

Indian men wait in an observation room after receiving the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine at a government hospital in Hyderabad, India, Friday, March 12, 2021. Pandemic-weary and sequestered mostly in their homes for a year, India's elderly are now…
Indian men wait in an observation room after receiving the Covishield COVID-19 vaccine at a government hospital in Hyderabad, India, Friday, March 12, 2021. Pandemic-weary and sequestered mostly in their homes for a year, India's elderly are now…

U.S. President Joe Biden and the prime ministers of Japan, India, and Australia are meeting virtually Friday for a summit of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, where they will discuss strategies to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region, including an offer to match Beijing’s ambitious vaccine diplomacy.

The Quad is launching a financing mechanism to ramp up production of up to a billion doses of vaccines by 2022 to address a shortage in the Indo-Pacific region, mainly in Southeast Asian countries, a Biden administration official said in a briefing call to reporters Thursday.

The group has put together “complex financing vehicles” to dramatically increase vaccine production capacity the official said. A second administration official said the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation is working with companies in India and the governments of Japan and Australia to increase production of vaccines already authorized by the World Health Organization.

The administration did not say whether this Quad vaccine mechanism would be separate from, or part of, COVAX, the global mechanism to distribute 2 billion doses of vaccines to 94 poorer countries by the end of the year, partly by using AstraZeneca/Oxford University-developed vaccines manufactured by the Serum Institute of India.

COVAX is co-led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, a public–private global health partnership funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gavi has been the dominant player in the financing and distribution of various vaccines since its founding in 2000, but it is unclear whether Gavi will be involved in the Quad vaccine mechanism.

Biden has been under pressure to respond to Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy as he seeks to vaccinate all Americans first by ensuring that the U.S. vaccine stockpile is “over-supplied,” to prepare to vaccinate against new variants, and to vaccinate children. There is currently not enough data to determine which of the three vaccines authorized for emergency use in the U.S. is safe and effective for children.

Chinese President Xi Jinping proclaimed in May that Chinese-made vaccines would become a “global public good”. Since then, Beijing has pledged roughly half a billion doses of its vaccine to more than 45 countries, according to a country-by-country Associated Press tally. After China's initial failures in handling the outbreak, some see Beijing’s vaccine diplomacy as a face-saving tactic and a means to expand its influence.

Countering China

The Quad is not a formal military alliance but often seen as a counterweight to growing Chinese military and economic influence in Asia. The 90-minute Friday meeting would be the first leaders’ summit since the Quad’s first meeting in 2004 following the tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia.

“President Biden has worked hard to bring these leaders together to make a clear statement of the importance of the Indo-Pacific region,” the administration official said. The official added that during the leaders’ meeting, there will be an “honest, open discussion about China's role on the global stage.”

Analysts say there is wide expectation that the summit will elevate the Biden administration's agenda in the Indo-Pacific.

“This is a pretty big signal that this is a high priority for the new administration,” Sheila A. Smith a senior fellow for Japan studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said.

Following the Quad summit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel together to Japan and South Korea next week, followed by a solo trip by Austin to India.

Without providing details on the timing, the administration also announced that Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga will be the first leader to visit Biden at the White House in person.

The U.S. wants to return to strong U.S. alliances in the region to project strength to China, according to Bonnie Glaser, director of China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The Biden administration has crafted this arrangement to signal that it is engaging from a position of strength," she said.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged Thursday that over the course of recent years these alliances “in some cases have atrophied, in some cases, they have frayed."

In November 2017, former President Donald Trump in Vietnam outlined the U.S. vision for a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

While the Trump administration’s strategy in the region focused largely on maritime security and trade, the Biden administration is seeking a more comprehensive approach, including cooperation to defeat COVID-19, combat climate change, ensure a resilient supply chain and post-pandemic economic recovery.

“It’s a whole – how does the region look going forward, and how do we maintain the prosperity that has long been part of the Indo-Pacific?” Smith said.

After the series of meetings with regional allies, Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan will meet their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska, on Thursday.