For U.S. President Joe Biden, uniting the Group of Seven nations to counter Chinese influence in the world may prove a daunting challenge — something that was on full display as the summit concluded over the weekend.
At the summit in England, G7 leaders agreed to a joint communique that singled out China by name a handful of times, but did not overtly condemn Beijing. The resulting statement signaled divisions between a more confrontational U.S.-led side and another looking to work with the Asian powerhouse on certain issues such as climate change.
Amid allegations of crimes against humanity and the genocide of China’s Muslim Uyghur minority, as well as the crackdown in Hong Kong, the G7 leaders urged Beijing 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 joint statement also mentioned the East and South China seas and — for the first time ever — noted the increasingly volatile situation around self-ruled Taiwan, underscoring “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and encouraging “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.”
China, which regards Taiwan as a “core issue” on which it is unwilling to compromise, has ramped up its military activities near the island, sending warplanes on near daily sorties into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. Beijing views the island as an inherent part of its territory, a renegade province that must be brought back into the fold — by force if necessary.
Although senior U.S. officials highlighted the references to Beijing, noting that “China wasn’t even explicitly mentioned” in the 2018 G7 communique despite “whole paragraphs devoted to countries like North Korea, Russia,” many of the references in the leaders’ communique were watered-down versions of the G7 foreign ministers’ statement in May.
Unlike Sunday’s communique, the foreign ministers’ statement, typically seen as a jumping off point for G7 leaders’ discussions, devoted an entire section to China. It also used stronger language on, among other topics, the Xinjiang issue, expressing concern over “the existence of a large-scale network of ‘political re-education’ camps, and reports of forced labor systems and forced sterilization.”
This toned-down language was apparently the result of what U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan described after the summit’s conclusion Sunday as “different levels of conviction about the depth of the (China) challenge” among G7 leaders.
Asked whether the U.S. side had worked to try and convince other leaders to get on board with tougher language on China, Sullivan set the scene differently.
“It’s been framed up a bit as ‘Joe Biden walked in to convince everybody else on China,’” he said. “And I think that’s not quite accurate. Each country has its set of concerns that it emphasizes vis-a-vis China. And what the president sought to do was bring all of that together into a common picture of what we need to do collectively as democracies to respond.”
Biden had reportedly pushed to specifically call out Beijing’s alleged forced labor practices but was forced to compromise, with the leaders agreeing to separate the issue into one section raising concerns about human rights issues in China and another warning about forced labor practices without directly mentioning the country.
Still, Sullivan said U.S. officials were happy with the compromise, calling it “a great example of how we are all converging around a common strategy” and that there was “a broad view that China represents a significant challenge to the world’s democracies on a number of different dimensions.”
“The idea here is not to score rhetorical points; the idea here is to get agreement,” he said.
Speaking at a news conference in Tokyo on Monday, Japan’s top government spokesman noted “multiple countries’ keen interest” in discussing China at the summit, including Japan.
“Prime Minister (Yoshihide) Suga expressed serious concerns about the current situation in the East and South China seas, the human rights situations in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and raised the issue of practices that undermine the free and fair economic system,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said, adding that Suga had pushed for G7 leaders to present a “strong message” on these issues.
China’s Embassy in the United Kingdom, meanwhile, reacted angrily Monday to the joint communique, accusing the G7 of “political manipulation” and interfering in China’s internal affairs.
“We urge the United States and other members of the G7 to respect the facts, recognize the situation, stop slandering China, stop interfering in China’s internal affairs, stop harming China’s interests, and do more things that are conducive to promoting international cooperation instead of artificially creating confrontation and frictions,” an embassy spokesman said in a statement.
Observers also said that although China was mentioned by name just a handful of times in the communique, implicit concerns about Beijing’s policies were linked to a number of issues discussed in the document, including forced labor and China’s signature Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.
In addressing the challenges presented by China, the G7 leaders had found “quite a lot of common ground, which will hopefully presage more joint action,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund think tank, wrote on Twitter.
Tetsuo Kotani, a professor of global studies at Meikai University, called the communique’s mentions of China “unprecedented” and “a great achievement for Biden,” despite the reluctance among some G7 members to directly condemn Beijing.
Still, he noted the elephant in the room: whether words will translate into action.
“The joint communique this time sent a clear signal to China,” Kotani said. “The question is whether or not it will be delivered by the G7 countries.”
Biden has made collective action with allies and partners a central feature of his administration’s strategy for dealing with China and other threats.
“The only way we’re going to meet the global threats … is by working together, and with our partners and our allies,” he told a news conference Sunday. “And I conveyed to each of my G7 counterparts that the United States is going to do our part. America is back at the table.”
Whether he can convince them to sign on to concrete actions remains to be seen.
At the very least, experts say momentum gathered at the summit toward more candid criticisms of China could see Beijing face increasing pressure in the coming months and years.
“Given the fundamental strategic differences between China and the G7 … these attitudes within the G7 are unlikely to soften over the next few years,” said Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, an adjunct professor at Temple University in Tokyo. “As a result, I would expect future statements, either at the G7 or bilateral summits, to include progressively more direct condemnations of Beijing.”
For now, though, Biden seems content with setting the agenda for taking on China. Asked if he was happy with the language of the joint statement, Biden was sanguine.
“I’m sure my colleagues think there’s things they think they can improve that they wanted,” he said. “But I’m satisfied.”
As for what’s next for the Biden administration, it may have been Sullivan who better encapsulated what the G7 summit achieved.
“We believe where we’re sitting today is not the end of the story,” he said, “but it is a good platform upon which to build.”
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report.
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