When the leaders of the Group of Seven countries meet in-person later this week for the first time in about two years, one question will stand out: Can U.S. President Joe Biden unite the globe’s top democracies in taking on China’s growing military and economic assertiveness?
At the G7 summit in Cornwall, England, from Friday through Sunday, Biden will be working to rally the world’s democratic nations — and counter China — as the globe struggles back from the COVID-19 pandemic. But he will also be looking to repair the United States’ tattered image in the eyes of partners and allies after four tumultuous years under former President Donald Trump.
“In this moment of global uncertainty, as the world still grapples with a once-in-a-century pandemic, this trip is about realizing America’s renewed commitment to our allies and partners, and demonstrating the capacity of democracies to both meet the challenges and deter the threats of this new age,” Biden wrote in a Washington Post editorial Sunday.
China will be at the top of the G7 summit agenda, with discussions likely to focus on its assertiveness near Taiwan and in the East and South China seas, its alleged human rights violations against the Muslim Uyghur minority in its Xinjiang region and growing concerns over its coercive economic practices.
In terms of economic moves, Biden will join the other leaders in announcing a “new initiative to provide financing for physical, digital and health infrastructure in the developing world,” according to U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan.
The initiative will be a “high-standard, climate-friendly, transparent and rules-based alternative to what China is offering,” Sullivan said, and “will cover all of the significant regions of the world.”
China has come under fire from the U.S. and others over allegations of conducting “debt-trap diplomacy” by using its signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative with a view toward extracting economic or political concessions when countries cannot pay back loans for the projects.
Media reports have said that at least part of the G7 plan could be what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is calling the “Clean Green Initiative,” a strategy that would be modeled on the principles of the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Europe’s economies after the devastation of World War II.
While the initiative would reportedly provide a framework for supporting sustainable development and a green transition in developing countries, it is unclear if G7 countries will make specific monetary pledges at the summit.
Absent concrete pledges, it is questionable just how effective these measures will be as a rival to the Belt and Road, some experts say.
“Although there has been movement toward cooperation on quality infrastructure investment, much remains to be done if the G7 aims to provide a meaningful alternative to Chinese initiatives,” said Kristi Govella, an assistant professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii.
But while Biden is unlikely to see any trouble in getting G7 leaders on board with the infrastructure moves, he may have a harder time convincing them to join Washington’s more overall adversarial approach to dealing with Beijing — at least in terms of tangible measures that target China.
Biden’s approach to China, which has built on Trump’s hard-line stance, has won plaudits in parts of Asia, especially in Japan and Australia. But some G7 members — Germany, in particular — are likely to remain wary of working too closely with a more hawkish U.S. due to different priorities.
The reluctance from Germany, the world’s No. 4 economy, stems from fears that stronger, Cold War-style rhetoric could endanger its deep economic ties to China, the second-ranked economy and a major market for many of its companies.
It’s unclear how deep the reluctance goes, and Beijing’s relationship with a number of G7 members has suffered over the past year. The ratification of a major EU-China investment has been halted due to sanctions and countersanctions over the Uyghur issue, while the U.K., France and Germany have shown more willingness to confront China’s maritime assertiveness, dispatching or announcing plans to send navy ships to the disputed South China Sea as part of a U.S.-led campaign promoting freedom of navigation.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called the U.S.-China relationship “the most complicated and most consequential that we have,” while apparently signaling earlier this week that the Biden administration could be prepared to go it alone in taking on Beijing in at least some areas.
“There are adversarial aspects to it, there are competitive aspects, there are cooperative aspects,” Blinken told news website Axios in an interview Monday. “And we have tremendous sources of strength when it comes to each one of those aspects. We have our allies and partners, but most important, we have ourselves.”
The University of Hawaii’s Govella said that although G7 nations “certainly welcome” Biden’s renewed embrace of multilateralism, “when it comes to building a coalition to challenge China, there is likely to be divergence in their willingness to take concrete action that might jeopardize their economic ties to China.”
Still, Biden will have one thing going for him as he attempts to corral G7 support: he’s not Trump.
The mercurial former president, whose “America First” policy threw U.S.-led multilateralism into chaos, mocked the G7 last year as “a very outdated group of countries,” stoking anger and raising eyebrows among members.
“I don’t feel that … it properly represents what’s going on in the world,” Trump said at the time. Russia, South Korea, Australia and India, he added, should be invited to the summit.
Despite his unnerving comments, the grouping — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — seems to have taken his advice to heart this year, with the leaders of Australia, India, South Africa and South Korea invited as guests.
Although Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga are expected to hold a bilateral meeting on the summit’s sidelines, the Japanese delegation has all but ruled out a formal meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in amid the two nations’ ongoing row over history issues.
Still, the two sides and the U.S. have left the door open to the possibility of a trilateral leaders meeting.
“We don’t currently have a trilateral scheduled between the United States, Japan and South Korea,” Sullivan said Monday. “But I will tell you there’s a possibility for virtually anything in these small spaces where you have just … in this case, 10 or 12 leaders in person there in Cornwall.”
A trilateral meeting between the three would be the first time for Suga and Moon to meet. It would also be the first such meeting since 2017, when Trump, Moon and then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
At the summit, members are also expected to endorse the importance of “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” in their communique, echoing the statement by the countries’ foreign ministers last month.
Tensions have soared in the strait that separates Taiwan from mainland China, as Beijing continues to heap military and diplomatic pressure on Taipei.
But perhaps the place where the most progress is expected will be a strong push to halt the spread of the deadly coronavirus — while simultaneously taking on China’s own “vaccine diplomacy.”
Britain’s Johnson has called on G7 nations to make a commitment to vaccinate the entire world by the end of 2022, saying that doing so “would be the single greatest feat in medical history.”
Sullivan said that Biden would “join with his fellow leaders to lay out a plan to end the COVID-19 pandemic with further specific commitments towards that end.”
The White House has said that the U.S. would offer an “arsenal” of vaccines for the rest of the globe, but the specifics of what it, together with other G7 nations, will propose and how any endeavor will be funded remain unclear.
Ultimately, the G7 summit could serve as a portent of how successful the U.S. blueprint for uniting democracies and dealing with China will be.
“This is a defining question of our time: Can democracies come together to deliver real results for our people in a rapidly changing world? Will the democratic alliances and institutions that shaped so much of the last century prove their capacity against modern-day threats and adversaries?” Biden wrote in his Washington Post editorial.
“I believe the answer is yes,” he answered. “And this week in Europe, we have the chance to prove it.”
But whether this will go beyond mere words and translate into concrete actions will be a key point of interest.
“The difficulty lies not at the rhetorical level but in terms of taking concrete collective action toward China,” said Govella. “G7 countries seem increasingly willing to sign on to broad statements calling for stability across the Taiwan Strait or condemning China’s actions in Xinjiang, but the question is whether these countries are willing to impose costs on Beijing for its actions at the risk of inviting retaliation.”
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