The just concluded three-day Group of Seven or G7 summit — comprising the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan — released an unusually long and detailed joint statement of 70 paragraphs and a separate Open Societies statement. The latter communiqué was on behalf of the G7 and the four invitees to the gathering: Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa. The G7 summit was only the first of the three key meetings involving the western countries this week. The NATO meet and the European Union-US summit were also hosted in Brussels.
Fortified by the display of unity and solidarity at these three summits, US President Joe Biden today meets his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for the first time after assuming office in February this year, in Geneva.
Biden’s attempt at broad consensus
From the US’ perspective, the objective of these summits was to herald that “America is back” and ready to lead the world, after the debilitating disruption of western alliances and partnerships and a retreat from global engagements during the Trump years. What Biden is signalling is that the revival of American leadership and diplomatic activism will be anchored in the web of its transatlantic relationships, even as it is the Indo-Pacific strategy that will be its key preoccupation, given the acknowledged challenges posed by China. The emphasis on the transatlantic alliance and partnership is also important in countering the Russian threat. While Biden has described China as a competitor, Russia is the “adversary” even though the US is prepared to work together with both in areas where there are convergent interests on global issues, such as climate change, cyber security and nuclear non-proliferation, among others. Has Biden succeeded in convincing his western allies and partners, and his adversaries that the US is back? The answer to that, going by the G7 joint statement, should be a yes. But then the Trump years is a low base to compare with.
Has Biden achieved a degree of western consensus in presenting a united front against Russia and China? Perhaps more on Russia and less on China. For example, the Build Back a Better World (B3W) partnership was launched as a “values driven, high standard and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies” but stopped short of explicitly posing it as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). There are few details on how this partnership is going to be funded beyond saying that this will be private financed but with “catalytic investment” from public and multilateral sources. We may conclude that there are simply not enough resources available to be deployed by the G7 that could match what China has been offering. Chinese credits and loans are welcome to developing countries despite there being concerns over lack of transparency and exacerbation of their debt overload.
There are several other references to Chinese misdemeanours which, taken together, do represent a broad western consensus on the need to confront Beijing. These include the importance of maintaining peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, “a free and open Indo-Pacific”, of avoiding “unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions in the East and South China Seas.” In addition, there are references to human rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, both of which are regarded as “core issues” by China. Overall, therefore, one could say that Biden has been able to fashion a broad consensus on acknowledging the Chinese security and ideological challenge.
Will this impress China? Up to a point. The economic and commercial relationship between Europe and China is deep and broad ranging as is between China and Japan. The European Union and China have been working together, for example, for several years on developing benchmarks for climate finance, including green bonds, disclosure norms and the running of carbon markets. The area of climate finance will assume critical importance as climate change action gets into high gear after the Glasgow summit later this year. There is a limit to disengaging from the world’s second largest economy and the central node in global supply chains.
China has reacted by dismissing the G7 stance by pointing out that a small group of countries cannot rule the world.
The revival of G7
There is another important shift the summit represents. After the global financial and economic crisis of 2008-09, it is the G20 which was established as the premier forum for international economic coordination. It worked very well in dealing with the immediate crisis but its role has steadily diminished since then. With renewed tensions between the US and China, and US and Russia, the utility of the G20 is not so obvious currently. This adds to the significance of the revival of G7 even though its economic heft is much less than in its heyday. It constitutes only about 30 per cent of the world’s GDP as against 60 per cent at the end of the Cold War. However, the global trading system and its financial infrastructure continue to be dominated by the G7, so one should not under-estimate its influence. It has the potential to emerge as the core of a broader coalition to achieve a degree of balance in the power equations that the emergence of China has upturned in the new millennium.
The adoption of the Statement on Open Societies reflects Biden’s renewed emphasis on the importance of preserving and promoting “open societies, democratic values and multilateralism as foundations for dignity, opportunity and prosperity for all.” For all the cynicism that attends the expression of such lofty statements, they have value in contesting China’s confident belief in the efficacy of its authoritarian ideology and system of governance. Biden is taking head on the prevailing pessimism about democracy within democracies themselves. One should welcome Prime Minister Narendra Modi being honoured as the lead speaker at the session on Open Societies. His remarks were unexceptionable and worthy of a leader of the world’s largest democracy. One hopes that this is followed by a renewed commitment to democratic values that are enshrined in the Constitution but also constitute, as PM Modi said, the civilisational values of India.
Shyam Saran is a former Foreign Secretary and a Senior Fellow at Centre for Policy Research (CPR). Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)