President Joe Biden, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meets virtually with members of the "Quad" alliance in the State Dining Room of the White House on March 12, 2021.
CNN  — 

President Joe Biden will host the leaders of India, Australia and Japan at the White House on Friday for the first in-person meeting of “The Quad,” an informal group of countries that many see as an effort to push back against China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region – and one that Beijing has criticized as representing a Cold War mentality.

A senior administration official said the timing of the meeting was a “clear and emblematic indication” that the US was “doubling down on diplomacy” and moving in the direction for the country that Biden laid out in his speech to the United Nations earlier this week.

“We believe that the Quad will be a key and critical format and forum for discussion and joint purpose as we head into a challenging period,” the official said, speaking to reporters on background Thursday evening.

The four leaders held a virtual summit in March, but this will be the first face-to-face meeting for Biden, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga of Japan.

“I do want to underscore that The Quad is an unofficial gathering,” the official cautioned. “Although we have a number of working groups and we are deepening cooperation on a very daily basis, it’s also the case that it is not a regional security organization.”

The meeting comes after the announcement of a security deal among the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, known as AUKUS, that will eventually bring nuclear-powered submarines to the region – a move that set off a diplomatic firestorm with one of America’s closest allies, France, and raised the ire of Chinese officials. But a Biden administration official said the talks Friday would be “completely separate” from AUKUS discussions.

“They really have nothing to do with one another, even though there is some overlap with Australia, obviously,” the official said, “The Quad is a discussion and engagement effort around a number of practical matters.”

The official said the leaders would discuss issues like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change and Afghanistan, but added, “There is not a military dimension to it or security dimension” regarding the group. “It is an informal grouping, and the AUKUS obviously has been underscored and discussed in other venues.”

Asked about some countries in the region that may think the Quad initiative is “too aggressive against China,” the official pushed back, saying the leaders “are united in a strong belief that the Quad is meant to be complimentary to existing institutions.”

“I think you will hear tomorrow the leaders each talking about the importance to remain open,” the official said Thursday, before reiterating that The Quad is not a military alliance. “It’s an informal grouping of democratic states that are all committed to a free and open Indo-Pacific. I think over time … concerns have been dispelled. And I believe at a general level this initiative is welcome across the region.”

Still, conversations are expected to be “wide-ranging,” and a “number of issues” will likely come up. Biden, the official said, “believes that too often … these kinds of discussions are scripted,” and hoped this summit would be different.

“He really wants to be able to sit down and have a deeper conversation with all leaders in an environment where they can really share perspectives on what’s important to each of them as they go forward,” the official said. The official didn’t want to say exactly how long they expected the summit to last but did say they expect it to take a “good part of the afternoon.”

Announcements from the leaders will include a “5G deployment and diversification effort,” a fellowship program that will bring students from all four countries to top STEM colleges in the US, steps to help monitor and combat climate change – including a “green shipping network” – and “steps to bolster critical infrastructure against cyber threats, something that has plagued all four countries.”

Biden will also hold bilateral meetings with Modi and Suga after meeting with Morrison at the UN General Assembly earlier in the week.

Suga announced in early September that he was stepping aside after just one year in office, but Biden still wanted to meet with him to “indicate that he’s grateful for Prime Minister Suga’s leadership, and will promise to continue to work with whoever is elected as his successor,” the official said.

“I think the President views this meeting is having a couple of purposes,” the official continued. “One is, obviously, to have a discussion also about the Covid situation in Japan and the way forward, but, as importantly, the President is … a deeply human sentimental person, and I think it’s important to him to say to Prime Minister Suga directly how important that engagement with him has been.”

First lady Jill Biden, who Suga hosted for her visit to Japan for the 2020 Olympics, is coming back early from a trip to attend the meeting, according to the official.

“Frankly,” the official said, “the fact that the first lady is coming back to meet with the Prime Minister I think speaks volumes.”