TOKYO — President Joe Biden opened his last day in Asia on Tuesday by holding talks with a trio of Indo-Pacific leaders that includes Australia’s new prime minister on his first full day on the job and India’s Narendra Modi, with whom differences persist over how to respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden, Modi and Japan’s Fumio Kishida launched the Quad summit by welcoming Australia’s Anthony Albanese to the club and expressing awe at his determination to join the informal security coalition by rushing to Tokyo immediately after being sworn in on Monday.
“I don’t know how you’re doing it,” Biden told Albanese. The U.S. president joked that it would be OK if the new premier happened to fall sleep during the meeting.
Turning serious, Biden said the leaders were “navigating through a dark hour in our shared history” because of Russia’s war on Ukraine. He added that it was ”more than just a European issue, it’s a global issue.”
Kishida, too, took note of Russia’s aggression and added: “We cannot let the same thing happen in the Indo-Pacific region.”
Modi, whose response to the Ukraine situation has disappointed Washington, did not address the issue in his public remarks as the summit got under way.
Biden will meet separately with Albanese and with Modi after the four-way gathering of the security group known as the Quad. The partnership has become increasingly relevant as Biden has moved to adjust U.S. foreign policy to put greater focus on the region and to counter China’s rise as an economic and security power. He held bilateral talks with summit host Kishida on Monday.
Albanese told his fellow Quad leaders he was dedicated to the group’s mission to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“We have had a change of government in Australia, but Australia’s commitment to the Quad has not changed and will not change,” Albanese said.
Looming over the Quad leaders’ talks is Biden’s blunt statement on Monday that the U.S. would intervene militarily if China were to invade Taiwan, saying the burden to protect Taiwan is “even stronger’ after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The White House insists that Biden’s unusually forceful comments about Taiwan did not amount to a shift in U.S. policy toward the self-ruled island that China claims as its own.
Biden has asked Modi not to accelerate the buying of Russian oil as the U.S. and other allies look to squeeze Moscow’s energy income. The Indian prime minister made no public commitment to cut off from Russian oil, and Biden has publicly referred to India as “somewhat shaky” in its response to the invasion.
Unlike other Quad countries and nearly every other U.S. ally, India has not imposed sanctions or even condemned Russia, its biggest supplier of military hardware. Facing Western pressure, India has condemned civilian deaths in Ukraine and called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. Yet it also has compounded fallout from a war that has caused a global food shortage by banning wheat exports at a time when starvation is a growing risk in parts of the world.
With Modi sitting nearby, Biden made the case that the world has a shared responsibility to do something to assist Ukrainian resistance against Russia’s aggression.
“The Russian brutal and unprovoked war against Ukraine has triggered a humanitarian catastrophe and innocent civilians have been killed in the streets and millions of refugees are internally displaced as well as in exile,” Biden said. “And this is more than just a European issue, it’s a global issue.”
The U.S. president has been making his case to Modi for weeks.
Biden and Modi spoke about the Russia invasion during a virtual Quad leaders’ meeting in March, and last month they had a short video conversation when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with their Indian counterparts in Washington.
“So it won’t be a new conversation,” White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said. “It will be a continuation of the conversation they’ve already had about how we see the picture in Ukraine and the impacts of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine on a wider set of concerns in the world.”
While Biden and Modi may avoid public confrontation over how to respond to Russia’s aggression, the issue remains a major one as the U.S. and allies are looking to tighten the pressure on Putin., said Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“It appears pretty clear the Biden administration is not looking for trouble with India and that most of these difficult conversations will be in private,” said Green, who was a senior National Security Council aide during the George W. Bush administration.
Some modest initiatives were expected to be announced by the Quad leaders, including a new effort to provide pediatric COVID-19 vaccines to countries most in need and a program to help nations improve security and environmental awareness of their territorial waters, according to a senior administration official who previewed the coming announcements on the condition of anonymity.
The Quad last year pledged to donate 1.2 billion vaccine doses globally. So far, the group has provided about 257 million doses, the official said.
Biden will meet with Albanese later Tuesday. They spoke by phone after the center-left Labor Party leader defeated Prime Minister Scott Morrison, ending a nine-year run of conservative rule in Australia.