Commentary: Why the West has problems defining a clear China policy
The beginnings of a G7 policy on China must reconcile many pushs and pulls, given interests within the western block may not always sync up, says Shruti Pandalai.
NEW DELHI: Asked if he would call Chinese President Xi Jinping from one “old friend to (another) old friend” to open up the investigations into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic to the World Health Organization (WHO), US President Joe Biden said:
Let’s get something straight. We know each other well, we’re not old friends. It’s just pure business.
Biden was responding to media queries in Geneva, after an eight-day tour of Europe where he held three key meetings involving partners at the G7 summit, the NATO meet and the US-European Union (EU) summit.
These meetings were important politically to reassure US allies and the global audience that “America was back” — prioritising repairs in the transatlantic alliance, including building a consensus on how to manage China.
CALLING CHINA OUT
The G7 summit comprising the US, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Italy and Japan - certainly grabbed headlines not just for the soothing pictures of camaraderie among leaders of the richest democracies in the world, but also for what was seen as a breakout communique which “called China out”.
The detailed statement demanded China respect human rights in Xinjiang and freedoms in Hong Kong, urged a transparent investigation of the origins of COVID-19 in China, highlighted in a first, the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, and even mentioned security concerns in the South China Sea.
In addition to the communique, G7 nations also signed an Open Societies Statement with the other four invitees - India, Australia, South Korea, and South Africa - to reaffirm their “shared belief in open societies, democratic values and multilateralism.”
Judging purely by the optics of what these meetings set out to achieve, the strategic messaging stands out: China, you’re on notice.
That wasn’t lost on China which responded instantly, warning the G7 leaders that “the days when a ‘small’ group of countries decided the fate of the world were long gone”.
The Global Times published an image titled: “The Last G7" - a satire on the mural last supper – that went viral on Chinese social media site Weibo with one user responding:
With different positions, for various interests of their own, these countries and regions can’t form a real league against China.
The Cornwall meeting sure touched a raw nerve. Interestingly, on the right corner of the table sits an elephant (representing India) on a drip like a patient.
The diplomatic drama however did not sideline the G7 summit’s achievements in securing tangible commitments pledging to donate 1 billion COVID-19 vaccines to developing countries.
They also allocated US$100 billion through the International Monetary Fund (IMF), among other funding sources, to support the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative - seen as an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - offering more transparency and a green passage to investment in ports, roads and digital infrastructure, apart from the post-pandemic recovery.
Perhaps if nothing else, the episode underscores how this mammoth effort to build common baselines on China with strategic partners, while welcome, must reconcile many pushes and pulls, and the G7 will have its task cut out.
LOOMING VACCINE NATIONALISM
Case in point: Criticism has already been levelled on the G7’s vaccine pledge. Critics argue the fine print on the commitment covers only 870 million doses directly donated, of which only half will come in this year and also include past pledges.
The G7’s commitment thus appears to fall short, especially considering the WHO has said it needs 11 billon doses to end the pandemic. The WHO also warned that “the vaccine rollout is needed now not next year”.
Yet the gap couldn’t be starker. In terms of doses administered, the imbalance between the G7 and low-income countries, as defined by the World Bank, is 73 to one, according to media reports. Questions are abound on why influential democracies could not yet muster the numbers.
Add to this the reality that G7 countries are still collectively undecided on whether intellectual property rights should be waived on COVID-19 vaccines even after countries like India and South Africa proposed this at the WTO, supported by the US.
READ: Commentary: Some soul-searching needed in China’s fresh push to make friends and influence people
And so China has opportunistically taken aim and labelled these actions “vaccine nationalism” never mind the controversy around third-country procurement conditions imposed by Beijing over Sinopharm and worries over its efficacy.
Meanwhile, it has publicly advertised its supply pumped up to Southeast Asia, Latin America and some African nations. With WHO approval of Sinopharm and future clearances of Sinovac expected, China also declared that it could produce up to 5 billion doses of the vaccine by the end of this year.
COUNTERING THE BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE: PRACTICAL CHALLENGES
Take this second G7 announcement: Experts have highlighted how the decision on the development of a new global infrastructure initiative, the Build Back Better World, while welcomed, will face practical challenges.
The US$100 billion commitment to provide sustainable and quality infrastructure alternatives to the developing world will have to “resonate with leaders in developing countries”, according to US-based think-tank Centre for Strategic and International Studies.
In particular, the rollout of these initiatives will have to incentivise recipients given how “B3W projects might present more public scrutiny, higher up-front costs, and longer timelines for project delivery”.
This stands in sharp comparison to China’s approach, “which often promises speed and low up-front costs”.
While the effort calls for private funding, the scale is staggering with Asia alone requiring US$26 trillion in infrastructure investment through 2030, according to the Asian Development Bank.
Contrast this with what China has already invested— more than US$770 billion since the BRI's inception in 2013— according to the Green Belt and Road Initiative Centre.
TRANSLATING BROAD CONVERGENCE TO POLICY
Zero-sum comparisons to China’s ability and scale to offer vaccines and infrastructure financing are clearly unhelpful and impractical. But add to that the more difficult task of translating broad converges into tangible cooperation.
Take for example, Armin Laschet, frontrunner to become Germany’s next chancellor “warning of the dangers of a new cold war against China, agreeing with Angela Merkel that Beijing was as much a partner as a systemic rival”.
Laschet opined that many in Europe were sceptical of "Biden’s hawkish attitude to China". Merkel has been long been cautious because of significant economic ties to Beijing that may be jeopardised in a potential trade war.
Recently, after the US-EU summit, many commentators pointed out that a coordinated strategy between Washington and Brussels on economic cooperation with China would not be possible until the flash points in ongoing trade disputes between the US and EU are resolved. This despite ambitious plans —including forging of a new tech alliance.
Yet the end of the Boeing-Airbus fight was a good sign, pointing to effort being exercised to iron out longstanding issues.
The G7 summit was a worthy first step to build congruence on a China policy among the world’s most advanced democracies.
But the world will continue watching how its members will reconcile their internal differences over how much to push China and how hard given their economic relationships and how this translates into concrete action.
As is true after any summit, expectations will have to be tempered.
Shruti Pandalai is a Fellow at The Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses tracking India’s Foreign and Security Policy including sharp power competition in the Indo Pacific.