China, climate and Covid-19 — these were the three broad themes from the G-7 summit in the English county of Cornwall this weekend. Not everybody agreed on everything; US President Joe Biden used the opportunity to remind everyone that “America is back”. Least to say, China was neither amused nor impressed.
At the 2019 G-7 Biarritz summit, French President Emmanuel Macron, then host, “Trump-proofed” his summit by dispensing with the joint communique, preventing blow-ups between leaders, many of whom were there holding their noses. This time, however, Boris Johnson described the summit as “historic”. Royal Windsors and the ‘ancien-regime-on-a-makeover’ got along swimmingly well over barbecues and beach walks in Carbis Bay.
At its heart, the G-7 summit was all about China, even though some of the members attempted to temper the increasingly hard line that America has adopted. Senior British official briefing journalists suggested that the summit was “what we are about rather than who we are against.” It’s more democracies versus autocratic/authoritarian systems, Biden suggested. “We’re in a contest, not with China per se, but with autocrats and autocratic governments around the world as to whether democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.”
After the 2008 global financial crisis, George W Bush created the G-20 as a more representative global forum to steer the world economy. The revival of the G-7 is not that these countries pretend to be the top dogs of the global economy, but, with America in the lead, they are trying to cobble together a system of values that pools in resources, technologies and a common global outlook to push back against a growing China, whose growth once desired, is now mostly feared.
Mario Draghi, the Italian prime minister, was quoted as saying at the post-summit presser that G-7’s focus needs to be the challenge of China. “It’s an autocracy that does not adhere to multilateral rules and does not share the same vision of the world that the democracies have… We need to cooperate but we also need to be frank about things that we do not share and do not accept. The US president said that silence is complicity.”
Italy, in recent times, has grown deeply enmeshed with China — in early 2020, when the Covid epidemic broke out in Wuhan, it quickly made its way to northern Italy, ravaging the country in a matter of months, and revealing the deep inroads China had made into Italy’s fashion industry. Italy was also one of the first EU countries to sign up for China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as well as a space deal. Draghi has now promised to review that agreement.
Notwithstanding, G-7 is yet to stand fully behind this anti-China principle as evidenced by some rumblings about the language of the final communique. For instance, human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang found mention, but forced labour did not (many western companies outsource textile production to entities in Xinjiang). “We will promote our values, including by calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.“ The communique said.
It also raised concerns “about the situation in the East and South China Seas” where the G-7 opposes “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions”. “We reiterate the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo Pacific, which is inclusive and based on the rule of law. We underscore the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
The G-7 document maintained the pressure on China to reveal the origins of the coronavirus.
China was quick to scoff at the communique. “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone,” a Chinese embassy spokesperson in the UK said in a statement on its website. “We always believe that countries, big or small, strong or weak, poor or rich, are equals, and that world affairs should be handled through consultation by all countries.”
The G-7 even started off on a “green” infrastructure drive to rival China’s BRI. Recognising the need to address an infrastructure demand by the developing world, the G-7 came out with the Build Back Better World (B3W). This is intended to help with infrastructure building in different parts of the world as an alternative to the BRI.
India is likely to sign up for it, both as a recipient as well as an exporter of infrastructure. The developing world is still more interested in hassle-free loans for more traditional infrastructure/development needs, many of which don’t make the cut for G-7 lenders. They still prefer to go to China.
If global democracies want to provide a better alternative, they will have to craft a set of principles and rules of lending that are more attractive than the no-questions-asked alternative. Sri Lanka is an instructive example of it — the average citizen there is not agitating about the loss of sovereignty of Hambantota or Colombo Port city, which governments have signed away to China. Similar instances can be found in Cambodia, Laos and numerous African countries. But how do democracies craft a more efficient, burden-lite lending model for infrastructure?
India was once again an “outreach partner”, with PM Narendra Modi making interventions on health, technology and climate. India has been attending G-7 summits in this on and off fashion since 2003. India also signed the Open Societies Agreement along with other G-7 and outreach countries to embrace values of human rights, social inclusion, protecting civic space and media freedoms, opposing “politically motivated internet shutdowns” (even though the country has come under fire for imposing the maximum number of internet shutdowns in the world) as well as arbitrary detention and disinformation, promote economic resilience and free and first trade. Last month, India and Europe restarted a dialogue on human rights. Both these agreements make it easier for India and the developed world to hold discussions on tough issues that have traditionally held back the two sides.
The G-7, however, shied away from making big ticket gestures on Covid vaccines — between some of the world’s wealthiest countries, they added up individual contributions and funding to arrive at one billion vaccine doses for the poorest countries, but in the end were vague on timelines and production. The Quad summit in March had been more precise: 1 billion J&J doses to Indo-Pacific countries by 2022.
The G-7 has now marketed itself as a democratic alternative to China’s authoritarianism. But the world’s democracies have to work much harder to make themselves attractive in a world where the Chinese model of development is finding traction.
The positioning of the group is pitch-perfect. As the US NSA, Jake Sullivan put it “We made historic commitments to end the pandemic, make giant multinational corporations pay their fair share and invest in the middle class, and announced Build Back Better World – a bold infrastructure initiative for the developing world that will be values-driven and transparent.” Now they just have to deliver.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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