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Quad Leaders Announce Effort To Get 1 Billion COVID-19 Vaccines To Asia

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The U.S., Japan, Australia and India have announced a major initiative to get 1 billion vaccines to countries in Asia. The Biden administration says this is just one example of what these four countries, known as the Quad, can do if they work together. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the first summit of this diplomatic group.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: The summit was virtual, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan says President Biden made a point of gathering the leaders of the Quad for the first time ever to show that Asia is a priority for him.

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JAKE SULLIVAN: Each of the leaders independently in the course of the meeting referred to this event as historic because it cemented a group of strong democracies that will work together going forward to secure a free and open Indo-Pacific.

KELEMEN: This group of four countries first came together to respond to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The Trump administration saw it as a useful group to counter China's rise. But China wasn't even mentioned in today's joint statement or the public remarks by President Biden and his counterparts from Australia, Japan and India.

TANVI MADAN: It's the Voldemort of the Quad. It's the country that shall not be named.

KELEMEN: That's Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution.

MADAN: I think the countries want to show a positive face to the region that has had some concerns about the Quad being just an anti-China bloc.

KELEMEN: There's a reason for this, says Evan Feigenbaum of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, another Washington think tank.

EVAN FEIGENBAUM: The problem that the United States has had for the last several years is that while many countries share American concern about the trajectory of Chinese policy and thereby, to use a medical metaphor, share the American diagnosis, they do not necessarily share the prescription.

KELEMEN: He says other members of the Quad have to live with the consequences of a confrontational approach to China, and China is a major trading partner for almost everyone in the region. Feigenbaum says, to remain relevant, the Quad needs to show it can help the region solve problems.

FEIGENBAUM: The ultimate test of the Quad is not whether they can just send political signals to China but whether they can actually pool their capacity in ways that move the needle on difficult economic and transnational challenges in the region and do it in a way that's meaningful for others.

KELEMEN: Today's vaccine announcement is a good example of that, says Madan of the Brookings Institution.

MADAN: It pulls in the strengths of these four countries. U.S. companies have developed these vaccines. The Japanese and the U.S. as well would be financing it. The Indians have the production capacity. They are the largest producers of vaccines in the world and can do so affordably, and the Australians have the logistics and distribution network.

KELEMEN: And she says that could counter China's narrative that democracies have stumbled during the pandemic. China has also tried to portray the Quad as a destabilizing force in the region. National security adviser Sullivan rejects that.

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SULLIVAN: The Quad is not a military alliance. It's not a new NATO, despite some of the propaganda that's out there. What it is is an opportunity for these four democracies to work as a group and also with other countries on fundamental issues of economics, technology, climate and security.

KELEMEN: Quad leaders also discussed the February coup in Myanmar, calling on the military to restore democracy. Today, the Biden administration announced that it will offer temporary shelter to citizens of Myanmar currently in the U.S. who fear returning to a country wracked by protests and violence.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.