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Dealing with China and Russia at the G7's Cornwall Summit

Ninar Fawal, G7 Research Group
June 26, 2021

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's declared in his opening remarks at the Cornwall Summit he chaired that the G7 would primarily focus on "building back better" from the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the challenges of dealing with China and Russia proved to be among the most prominent themes of this landmark global governance event held on June 11-13, 2021.

Perhaps the earliest indication that an ideological, values-driven approach would take centre stage at the summit came at the meeting of Prime Minister Johnson and US president Joe Biden on the summit's eve. That meeting produced a new "Atlantic Charter" in the spirit of the 1941 statement signed by Prime Minister Winston Churchill and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which emphasized the ideals of the Trans-Atlantic partnership. President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson's revitalized charter emphasized that the two countries intended to "defend the principles, values, and institutions of democracy and open societies." In a pointed allusion to Russia, they reiterated their "shared responsibility for maintaining our collective security and international stability … against the full spectrum of modern threats, including cyber threats."

This reassertion of co-operative US leadership and multilateralism after the Trump years meant that it was likely that rival countries China and Russia would be addressed throughout the G7 summit, that was indeed what happened during its three-day weekend.

Accompanying this reinvigorated American and western posture on the world stage were repeated, intense condemnations of Chinese and Russian actions from a political, military and values standpoint. These culminated in a communiqué that summarized tensions between G7 members and the two countries. On Russia, it condemned the country's "destabilising behaviour and malign activities," and called on it to withdraw its troops from Ukrainian soil. On China, G7 members promoted their democratic values in calling for China to respect human rights and freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Reflecting the summit's geopolitical concerns, the document also expressed unease about the situation in the East and South China Seas as well as opposition to "unilateral" attempts to "change the status quo" in the region. In all the official documents coming out of the Cornwall Summit, China had 566 words dedicated to it, a larger amount than ever before.

What was most telling about the pronounced ideological tone of the summit, however, was President Biden's concluding remarks. He said that G7 and other democracies were engaged in a "contest" with autocratic governments around the world, presumably led by China. During the summit, the US and G7 proposed what Biden called a "democratic" alternative to China's Belt and Road Initiative, aptly named by the US the Build Back Better World Partnership. This financing mechanism, he said, would be an opportunity to export democratic values to developing countries and provide an alternative to autocracies' "lack of values."

Altogether, these developments signalled a departure from President Donald Trump's tendency to alienate US allies in Europe, something that had led Chancellor Merkel to say that Europe could no longer "rely on the US'' for its security. It seems that President Biden intends to reinvigorate the Trans-Atlantic partnership by again emphasizing its democratic, liberal and multilateralist character, a move warmly welcomed by the G7.

Despite this relief, however, G7 members still do not appear to agree on how exactly to engage with Russia and China. This could prove dangerous for the internal unity of the bloc. Germany, Italy and the European Union are hesitant to adopt such a hardline approach to China, especially in light of their already huge trade and investment deals with the country. Italy had actually joined China's Belt and Road program in 2019. Both President Biden and Prime Minister Johnson will have to contend with this difference in attitudes, even among a group characterized by members' likeminded values.

Even if latent, a firm reiteration of the G7's values and increased denunciation of China and Russia are signs that current geopolitical and diplomatic tensions are only going to be more entrenched in the future. How this will unfold at the upcoming G20 summit in Rome in October or, indeed, how it will affect global governance and international cooperation altogether, remains unclear.

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