China and Russia — the two major powers not among the Group of Seven industrialized nations — were among the topics that were a major focus of discussions at the annual summit of G-7 leaders that wrapped up early this week in the Bavarian Alps. In their final statement at the end of the two-day meeting, the G-7 leaders managed to create the appearance of a united front in warning against China’s aggressive posture in its maritime territorial row in the South China Sea and in linking economic sanctions on Russia to the fate of the shaky ceasefire in eastern Ukraine.
How much leverage the G-7 has on these issues is far from clear, however. The group’s influence on international economic and security affairs has been declining in relative terms over the years, and it remains to be seen if the message adopted at their annual gathering will make much of a difference in deterring China’s maritime assertiveness and Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — as the likely host of next year’s G-7 summit that will be held in Shima, Mie Prefecture — is said to have taken the lead in including in the leaders’ declaration some tough rhetoric against China’s massive land reclamation activities in disputed areas of the South China Sea. Expressing their commitment to “maintaining a rules-based order in the maritime domain based on the principles of international law,” the G-7 statement said the participants “are concerned by tensions in the East and South China Seas” and “strongly oppose the use of intimidation, coercion or force, as well as any unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo, such as large-scale land reclamation.”
During the talks, Abe also broached the topic of China’s initiative to create a new regional bank to promote investment in Asia — to which the G-7 members have been split in their response. Britain, Germany, France and Italy signed up as founding members of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), but the United States, Canada and Japan opted out, citing concerns over the governance of the institution that will be established by the year’s end. While saying he did not intend to criticize countries who joined the Chinese initiative, Abe emphasized that transparency in AIIB’s management and lending standards must be ensured. The G-7 leaders reportedly concurred that they would ensure close coordination over the AIIB issue.
But the lack of mention of China by name in the statement’s reference to tensions in the South China Sea, where Beijing is engaged in bitter territorial disputes with several countries in the region, appeared to symbolize the limitations of G-7 unity on the issue. The sense of crisis held by Japan and the U.S. over China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, where Chinese ships have repeatedly made incursions into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands, is believed to be not shared by the European G-7 members, which seem to put priority on economic ties with the world’s second-largest economy — as illustrated by their participation in the AIIB.
The G-7 statement reiterated the leaders’ “condemnation of the illegal annexation of the Crimean Peninsula” by Russia in March 2014 — which led the group to suspend Moscow’s participation in what had been since 1998 known as the Group of Eight. They expressed their concern over the recent increase in fighting between Ukraine and Russia-backed separatist forces in the eastern part of the country, and said that the sanctions imposed on Russia will continue to be linked to Moscow’s full implementation of the February ceasefire accord and respect of Ukraine’s sovereignty. They warned that further sanctions could be imposed “in order to increase the cost on Russia should its actions so require.”
Before attending the G-7 summit, Abe flew to Ukraine, making him the first Japanese prime minister to visit that country. There he condemned Russia’s annexation of Crimea, saying that Japan “will not tolerate any attempt to alter the status quo by force.”
Still, each of the G-7 members has its own interests in dealing with Russia. The geographical proximity and natural gas supplies from Russia make it tough for the European members to take stronger action on Moscow. Japan, which hopes to resolve the territorial row with Moscow over the Russian-held islands off Hokkaido, continues to explore the possibility of a visit to Japan by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The annual summit of major industrialized powers was launched in 1975 initially among five countries — the U.S., Japan, Britain, France and West Germany — to deal with global economic uncertainties following the 1973 oil crisis. Its membership and agenda have since been expanded — until Russia was suspended last year over the Crimea annexation — but its relative clout in global affairs has declined with the rise of China and other emerging powers — especially after the advanced economies were severely hit in the global recession in the wake of the 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers.
It is still significant for top leaders of the G-7 countries — which supposedly share the values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and respect of human rights — to discuss global affairs in regular meetings. However, the seven member-states alone can no longer set the course of the world economy or control the global security landscape. The G-7 members not only need to maintain unity among themselves to rebuild their influence in international matters, but also need to engage other parties through dialogue to increase their leverage. As the host of the next G-7 summit, this will be a major challenge for Japan.
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