WASHINGTON: Ahead of the Quad summit, US President Joe Biden held separate bilateral meetings with prime ministers Boris Johnson of United Kingdom and Scott Morrison of Australia to discuss the situation in the Indo-Pacific region and Afghanistan along with climate change and COVID-19.
Biden met Morrison in New York Tuesday on the sideline of the UN General Assembly session and hosted Johnson at the Oval Office later in the evening in Washington.
"The leaders also discussed our ongoing work on Afghanistan, as well as developments in the Indo-Pacific and the critical role of European allies and partners, including NATO and the EU, in the region," the White House said in a readout of the bilateral meeting.
This meeting reaffirmed the strong bond between the United States and the United Kingdom, as the leaders agreed to continue working together to fulfill the vision set forward in the Atlantic Charter, it said.
Biden and Johnson reviewed their cooperation on shared global challenges, including, building consensus for action to address the climate crisis, promoting global health security, supporting democracy and human rights, and developing a more inclusive economic future for all countries, the White House said.
In their meeting in New York, Biden and Morrison affirmed their commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific region, based on shared values and mutual interests, and agreed on the importance of working with allies and partners around the world, including through historic partnerships and organisations and new configurations, to defend against threats to the international rules-based order, the White House said.
"They discussed the critical role European allies and partners, including NATO and the EU, play in the Indo-Pacific and ways to deepen that cooperation and joint work," it said.
"The President and Prime Minister Morrison committed to take steps to strengthen the resilience of our respective economies and their mutual commitment to work through the Quad. They also discussed the upcoming Quad Leaders Summit, including efforts to expand access to vaccines in the Indo-Pacific and to cooperate to address the climate crisis," the White House said.
"We have a big agenda to discuss today, starting with our partnership to advance our vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And this conversation that we're going to continue with Japan, India. And India, on Friday, and in the first in-person Quad leaders meeting is a historic event.And we're. I think we're all looking forward to it," Biden told reporters on top of his meeting with Morrison.
"The United States and Australia are working in lockstep on the challenges: ending Covid, addressing the climate crisis, defending democracy, shaping the rules of the road for the 21st century. Because I meant what I said: We are at an inflection point; things are changing. We either grasp the change and deal with it, or we're going to be left behind, all of us," he said.
During the day, Biden also spoke with Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada to congratulate him on the Liberal Party's victory in the federal elections.
"The two leaders underscored the strong and deep friendship between the United States and Canada, and discussed their shared commitment to strengthening the resilience and competitiveness of the US and Canadian economies and coordinating on COVID-19 pandemic response," the White House said.
The possibility of a 9/11-type attack has diminished over the last 20 years, but the Taliban victory in Afghanistan could embolden U.S.-based extremists at the same time that the FBI is confronting increasing threats from individuals motivated by racial and political grievances, top national security officials warned Tuesday.
Christine Abizaid, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before the Senate Homeland Security Committee that the terrorism threat to the country is less "acute" than it was two decades ago, and that the danger posed in Afghanistan by groups like al-Qaida and the Islamic State is at the moment primarily a regional threat.
And FBI Director Christopher Wray said that though extremist groups have never stopped plotting attacks against the U.S., the FBI is better positioned to stop them.
Even so, the officials said, the collapse of the Afghanistan government and the potential ascendancy of foreign terror groups there could inspire Westerners to commit acts of violence.
That's on top of a domestic terrorism caseload that Wray said has "exploded" since the spring of 2020 from about 1,000 investigations to around 2,700.
"We are concerned that, with developments in Afghanistan, among other things, that there will be more inspiration to the first bucket," Wray said of the international terrorism threat.
"So I think we anticipate, unfortunately, growth in both categories as we look ahead over the next couple of years."
U.S. officials say they're monitoring the situation in Afghanistan following the speedy Taliban blitz, particularly with an eye on how al-Qaida or IS could rebuild to the point of being able to conduct an attack targeting the U.S.
"I think it is fair to assess that the development of those groups' external operations capability, we've got to monitor and assess whether that's going to happen faster than we had predicted otherwise," Abizaid said.
"Afghanistan is a very dynamic environment right now."
Officials also defended the vetting process they have in place to screen the backgrounds of Afghanistan refugees seeking entry into the U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said the number of refugees denied entry has been minimal because "we have not found many people with derogatory information relative to those who qualify for admission to the United States by reason of their status."
"The (screening) architecture that has been built over 20 years since 9/11 remains in place and has only strengthened," he said.
"We have a screening and vetting architecture. We have greater cooperation amongst the federal agencies in the counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement communities. We remain ever vigilant in that regard."