Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2021.05.27

Is the G7 foreign ministers’ joint communique worth reading?

the japan times on May 8, 2021

International Politics/Diplomacy

Whenever I read diplomatic statements, I try to read between the lines. I have especially been doing this ever since I left the Foreign Ministry in 2005. I know policymakers rarely discuss sensitive issues in public documents, and the communique of the May 3-5 Group of Seven foreign ministers’ meeting in London was no exception.

The latest G7 foreign ministers’ communique of more than 12,000 words was so long that a great majority of high-ranking diplomats from the group’s member states may not have time to read the entire document. With that said, this paper is worth reading, since G7 foreign ministers have not produced a joint communique since April 2017.

Many in Tokyo believe that the document was focused on China. Japan’s Jiji Press, for example, reported that the foreign ministers adopted “a joint statement that expressed deep concern over China,” underscoring “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” whose reference “is extremely unusual for G7 documents.”

Although China was singled out in the foreign ministers’ communique this year, the matter of China was just one of many important issues also mentioned. Jiji’s reporting was not wrong but may be misleading. Is the joint communique still worth reading? Probably. Here are some of my personal observations:

An exceedingly long communique

G7 foreign ministers do not issue joint communiques every year. As I wrote earlier, there was a three-year hiatus of such communiques because the Trump administration placed little value and showed no interest in the meetings. When Russia was a G8 member, foreign ministers seldom issued official communiques, releasing chair’s statements instead.

Last week’s communique was the longest and most detailed that has been issued in the past decade. The document deals with 40 important issues including several involving European nations, the Indo-Pacific and three problematic Asian countries, together with six African countries. It also covered such global issues as nuclear nonproliferation and climate change.

Many issues at hand

The joint communique first discussed Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and the Western Balkans, probably because the U.K. was the host of the G7 meeting this year. Then it dealt with the Indo-Pacific region, China, North Korea, Myanmar and the East and South China seas. The document also referred to Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, and the list goes on.

There are 87 paragraphs altogether in the communique and the issue of China was discussed in only six of them. The attention of journalists varies depending on which nation or region they cover. No wonder, South Korean media focused on the paragraphs about North Korea while Western papers paid more attention to those on Russia and the Middle East.

China mentioned by name

With that said, China was the hottest topic during the three-day G7 meeting. While stating “We encourage China, as a major power and economy with advanced technological capability, to participate constructively in the rules-based international system,” the document was still very critical of Beijing.

The foreign ministers, for example, called on China “to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms,” said they are “deeply concerned about human rights violations and abuses in Xinjiang and in Tibet,” and even expressed support for “Taiwan’s meaningful participation in World Health Organization forums and the World Health Assembly.”

As expected, Beijing’s Global Times harshly rebutted the charges, writing “the more the Western countries strengthen their antagonistic alliance against China and Russia, the more the two countries will be inclined to jointly deal with it.” Still, Beijing should be concerned. They have never been named in official G7 communiques before.

A special U.S.-U.K. relationship

The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly circulated a paper encouraging other G7 members to jointly counter China’s attempts at economic coercion. Washington wanted “a consultation mechanism” to coordinate responses to Beijing’s actions.

Washington and London, as they often did in the 1980s and 1990s, seem to be working together once again.

What about Japan?

When the G7 foreign ministers were gathering in London, Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper focused on the “distance between Tokyo and other G7 capitals,” quoting anonymous Japanese government officials who said, “It’s no good to corner China” because “Japan is an Asian nation, and its position is different from other G7 nations.”

This, however, is another typical example of the Japanese media reporting that Japan is “isolated” and “trapped in a quandary.” The U.K.’s Guardian report came closer to capturing the reality of the situation, noting that the G7 foreign ministers “refrained from spelling out any concrete steps to confront China, amid concern among some members — especially Italy and Germany — over reprisals if their language was too threatening.”

Japan’s position vis-a-vis China has been and will continue to be consistent. The joint communique reiterated the foreign ministers’ commitment to “look for opportunities to work with China to promote regional and global peace, security and prosperity”. In other words, each member can take its own measures to counter Beijing.

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken said earlier “Our purpose is not to contain China, to hold it back, to keep it down.” I was convinced that G7 summit diplomacy is back. And although it is evident Japan will have to deal with smart and tough G7 negotiators in the future, I came out of this a little bit more optimistic about the G7 summit process.