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Why the G7 have China in their sights

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C) and Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (2L), posing for a family photograph with other delegates during the G7 foreign ministers meeting in London on May 5, 2021. (AFP)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (C) and Britain's Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (2L), posing for a family photograph with other delegates during the G7 foreign ministers meeting in London on May 5, 2021. (AFP)
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09 May 2021 05:05:50 GMT9
09 May 2021 05:05:50 GMT9

While the G7 was originally conceived in the 1970s to monitor developments in the world economy, this year’s UK-hosted events are showcasing the body’s often under-appreciated importance as an international security linchpin.

This was highlighted at the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in London, where international security issues framed the agenda.  The group called out the significant Russian troop build-up on Ukraine’s border; agreedon further tough measures on Myanmar if the military there refuses to change course; committed to future support for the Afghan government, conditional on progress on the peace process; and issued fresh condemnation of human rights abuses in Xinjiang, plus a commitment to tackle forced labour camps.

China and Russia dominated the session with the foreign ministers discussing how the club of democracies can forge broader alliances to combat their disruptive activities.  While Russia is a big concern here, it is China that is perceived as the stand-out challenge and the G7 communique agreed on the need to improve resilience to the nation’s “arbitrary, coercive policies and practices.” 

The single biggest initiative is a US-led plan for the West to try to coordinate an alternative infrastructure plan to rival China’s massive Belt and Road initiative (BRI).  The reason this economic project is such a geopolitical concern is that it is increasing Beijing’s influence in key countries. 

According to official data from China, about 140 nations in five continents have signed BRI cooperation agreements with China.  Since 2013, China has spent about $690 billion in overseas investments and construction contracts for projects in more than 100 countries.

The rival G7 scheme being debated is unlikely to be a similar state-led scheme to fund projects such as ports and rail routes across the globe, for fear of being mired in ventures that are not economically viable.  Instead the intent is to encourage well-governed private sector projects, showing developing nations that there is an alternative to Chinese money while boosting economic growth and trade.

Various blueprints have already been published on what the specifics should be.  For instance, the Council on Foreign Relations think tank released a report in March recommending that Washington promote with allies high-quality and environmentally sustainable infrastructure development, ensuring that companies from different nations can fairly participate in financing and construction.

The single biggest initiative is a US-led plan for the West to try to coordinate an alternative infrastructure plan to rival China’s massive Belt and Road initiative (BRI).  The reason this economic project is such a geopolitical concern is that it is increasing Beijing’s influence in key countries. 

Andrew Hammond

This year’s strong emphasis by the G7 on geopolitics is by no means unusual.  The 2017 G7 summit, for instance, was dominated by the aftermath of the Manchester terrorist attacks and development of a new terrorism action plan, plus nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula. 

The G7’s involvement in this multitude of geopolitical dialogues is not without controversy given its original macroeconomic mandate.  For instance, China has strongly objected to the foreign ministers’ communique,with accusations of “blatant meddling” in its internal affairs, including Xinjiang.

Beijing also slammed the G7 call for “meaningful participation” by Taiwan in World Health Organization forums, and the recognition of the island’s “successful contribution” toward tackling of the pandemic.  Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded by saying that Taiwan’s participation in international organizations had to be handled in accordance with the “one China principle” given that Beijing regards it as a key part of its own territory.

Given these controversies, it is sometimes asserted, especially by developing countries, that the G7 lacks the legitimacy of the UN, or even G20, to engage in these international security issues, or is an out-of-dateconstruct given the rise of new powers, including China.  However, it is not the case that the international security role of the G7 is new.

For example, during the Cold War it helped coordinate Western strategy toward the Soviet Union.  Moreover, following the September 2001 attacks, it assumed a key role in the US-led campaign against terrorism.

One of the reasons that geopolitics and international security have become a more salient part of the G7 agenda in the past half decade is that this has helped to patch over cracks on other issues. This was especially so during the Trump presidency. On international trade, for example, Donald Trump was sometimes isolated 6-1 with his protectionist stance. Another example is climate change, with the US again isolated from the rest of the G7 after Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord.   

Post-Trump, the divisions in the West are not as stark today, but the emphasis on geopolitics nonetheless remains.  Such international security issues will therefore be a major feature of the leadership summit in June,with Joe Biden keen to make his mark in the first overseas visit of his presidency.

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

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