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When the diplomatic emissaries of the Group of Seven nations met virtually late last month to prepare the ground for the leaders summit in June, one problem cropped up over and over again: what to do about China?
Over three days of video conferencing for their second so-called sherpa meeting, officials from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Japan and their European partners discussed topics ranging from human rights and international development to trade and climate change, according to a diplomat’s account of the meeting. China was a factor in many of the conversations.
With Beijing viewed in different contexts as either partner, competitor or adversary — or some combination of these — one participant summarized the challenge as finding a common position over how to relate to the world’s second-biggest economy, the diplomat said. Another emphasized that establishing a shared perspective is important because competition with Beijing will shape geopolitics for generations to come.
Some European government officials have warned of the danger the G-7 comes to be seen as an anti-China alliance, especially with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson inviting India, Australia and South Korea, all of which have a level of friction with Beijing, to this year’s meeting. Chinese officials have claimed the same, saying Beijing is being unfairly targeted as its economic and strategic clout grows.
But the tensions between Beijing’s approach and the democratic values underpinning the G-7 are becoming increasingly hard to gloss over, with international scrutiny trained on the treatment of the Uyghur minority in China’s northwest and the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
So this year’s talks, like much of the international agenda, are set to be defined by the one major power not at the table.
A spokesman for the British government, which holds the G-7 presidency this year, said the sherpas’ meeting covered an array of topics from the Covid pandemic and future health threats to gender equality and climate action. A North American official described China as an overarching issue that touches many of the topics discussed.
One subject that highlighted the fault lines over China was the “open societies statement,” which the U.K. hopes will be one of the key outcomes of the leaders’ summit in Cornwall, England.
The U.S., the U.K., Canada and Japan see the document as an opportunity to address explicitly what they view as uneven competition between democracies and non-democratic regimes, the diplomat with knowledge of the talks said. Germany, France and Italy were concerned that such language would be seen as overtly antagonizing in Beijing and wanted instead to praise the merits of democracy while also maintaining a constructive attitude toward China.
“The majority would be in the direction of expressing more concern about China,” Kunihiko Miyake, a former Japanese diplomat and now adviser to Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet, said in an interview. “We are somewhere in the middle,” said Miyake, who is not directly involved in the G-7 talks.
With South Africa also invited to certain sessions alongside the representatives from Seoul, Canberra and New Delhi, some of the wider group also want to see a reference to tensions in the Indo-Pacific region, where China has been involved in border…