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Build Back Better or Bring Back the Cold War? The G7's Stance on China at Cornwall

Alissa Wang, G7 Research Group
June 13, 2021

The G7 leaders' Cornwall Summit on June 11–13, 2021, had the theme of "build back better," referring to the G7's determination to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and to prepare for a post-pandemic recovery. While the communiqué released on June 13 emphasized a commitment to multilateralism and the principles of unity, shared beliefs and shared responsibilities, the summit set the stage for dangerous divisions both internally within the G7 and globally. The most significant issue in this regard was the G7's attitude toward China, which risks not only antagonizing China but also destabilizing international cooperation altogether.

Meeting in the middle of a global pandemic, G7 leaders focused their attention on issues of health, particularly vaccine distribution. They committed to drive an "intensified international effort" to vaccinate the world and distribute vaccines globally. However, G7 members, particularly the United States, have also discussed issues related to the pandemic and vaccines in a way that antagonizes China (and Russia). The US and Germany stated that they would not follow the approach of China and Russia "to trade vaccines for influence."  Specifically, Niels Annen, Minister of State at Germany's foreign ministry, stated that "China and Russia have been using the catastrophe of a global pandemic, which hit us all very hard, not to strengthen the multilateral system, but to try and look out for their own political gains." In US president Joe Biden's joint statement with UK prime minister Boris Johnson, he stressed that vaccines from the US will be provided with "no strings attached," in contrast to those from China and Russia. This rhetoric creates a firm divide in the provision of vaccines around the globe, effectively turning it into a geopolitical competition at a time when the world needs more international cooperation than ever.

Furthermore, on 12 June, the G7 leaders' working session on foreign policy specifically discussed measures to counter China. These discussions were sparked by both the long-term trend of China's growing influence globally, as well as recent events in Hong Kong and allegations of forced labour practices in the Xinjiang region in Western China. Specifically, While House officials stated that the US has been pushing the G7 to criticize China by name, especially with regards to forced labour practices in Xinjiang, in the communiqué as "an expression of [the G7's] shared values to make clear what we won't tolerate." The results of the G7's discussions were consolidated in the communiqué, which stated that the G7 "will promote [its] values, including by calling on China 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." Earlier this year, China agreed to an independent investigation by the United Nations into the situation in Xinjiang. The Chinese Foreign Ministry also confirmed that the Chinese government welcomed a visit by the United Nations. However, Chinese officials stated that the nature of the UN's visit should not be an "investigation with a presumption of guilt." China is also warning that countries should not use the issue to engage in political manipulation and attempt to destabilize China. Given the tense and highly political nature of this issue, the most legitimate course of action is to push for progress toward an independent investigation by international bodies such as the UN. Yet the pressure mounted by the US and its partners at the G7, with no mention of measures that support independent, international investigations, amounted to nothing more than an attempt by the US to win more allies in antagonizing China.

The US also proposed an infrastructure initiative at the G7 to counter China's Belt and Road project. The "Build Back Better World" or B3W initiative was launched at Cornwall as a project to mobilize private sector financing and to fulfil the infrastructure financing needs in the developing world, overlapping completely with the objectives of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). US officials also stated that this new initiative "will beat the BRI by offering a higher-quality choice," as financing projects will meet labour, environmental and transparency standards. In the Cornwall communiqué, the leaders endorsed the project in the abstract, highlighting that it orients development financing tools toward developing countries with an emphasis on green growth, a market-led approach, private sector capital, and strong standards for environmental, social and labour governance. This is the first time that the G7 has issued such a direct challenge to the Belt and Road project. Within the G7, this has already created divides between those who want to take a firm stance against China, led by the US and endorsed by Canada, Britain and France, and those who showed more hesitancy such as Germany, Italy and the EU. While the communiqué only outlined the project abstractly without any concrete and detailed plans, the G7 agreed to establish a taskforce "to develop practical proposals" in this direction.

The final shape and form of the US-led and G7 endorsed infrastructure project is yet to be seen. However, there is little hope that this western alternative to the BRI will lead to positive competition or friendly cooperation, particularly given the overwhelmingly confrontational tone of the summit. On issues of vaccines, human rights and infrastructure financing, the G7, led by the US, has advocated and endorsed a divisive approach to global affairs. Unfortunately, the long-term effects of this approach risks dismantling international cooperation, just at a pivotal moment.

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