G7 seeks common front on China in first talks since Covid
In support of US President Joe Biden's calls for a stronger alliance of democracies, host Britain welcomed guests from India, South Korea, and Australia for three days of talks in central London.
Following a welcome dinner Monday focused on Iran and North Korea's nuclear programs, the foreign ministers began formal talks at Lancaster House, a West End mansion, greeting one another with Covid-friendly elbow-bumps and minimal staff.
The G7's first session was devoted to China, whose growing military and economic clout, as well as the ability to assert power at home and abroad, have increasingly alarmed Western democracies.
"It is not our purpose to try to contain China or to hold China down," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Monday.
"What we are trying to do is to uphold the international rules-based order that our countries have invested so much in over so many decades to the benefit, I would argue, not just of our own citizens, but of people around the world -- including, by the way, China."
Blinken promised "robust cooperation" with Britain in pressuring China over the Xinjiang region, where Beijing's detention of one million Uyghurs and other Muslims has been labeled genocide by Washington and a crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong.
Cooperation where necessary
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab called for "keeping Beijing to the promises that they've made," including on Hong Kong, which was promised a separate regime until London handed over the colony in 1997.
However, in line with the Biden administration, which has softened the tone if not the substance of former President Donald Trump's hawkish stance on China, Raab also called for "seeking fruitful ways to work with China in a sensible and optimistic manner where that's possible," including on climate change.
"We want to see China stepping up to the plate and playing its full role," Raab said.
The G7 countries, which also include Canada, France, Germany, Italy, and Japan, generally express concerns about China, though some take different approaches.
Japan has long had tensions with China but has refrained from joining Western nations in imposing sanctions for fear of inflaming ties with its giant neighbor and trading partner.
Italy has been regarded as one of the most Beijing-friendly countries in the West, having signed on to China's massive infrastructure-building Belt and Road Initiative in 2019.
However, Rome joined EU peers in summoning China's ambassador in March, in a row sparked by questions about the treatment of Uyghurs.
Preparing for the summit
Russia, Myanmar, Libya, Syria, and climate change are among the topics on the formal agenda for the foreign ministers.
Blinken will travel to Ukraine on Wednesday to show support after Russia amassed and then withdrew 100,000 troops from border regions and Crimea last month.
The G7 is laying the groundwork for a leaders' summit in Cornwall, southwest England, next month, which will be Biden's first international trip as president.
They will also address Ethiopia, Somalia, the Sahel, and the western Balkans, which London described as "pressing geopolitical issues that threaten to undermine democracy, freedoms, and human rights."
"The UK's presidency of the G7 is an opportunity to bring together open, democratic societies and demonstrate unity at a time when it is much needed to tackle shared challenges and rising threats," Raab said.
Ministers are meeting under strict coronavirus guidelines, with reduced delegations and social distancing, including face masks and perspex screens between speakers.
Britain, which has lost over 127,500 people in the epidemic, is increasingly loosening virus restrictions as vaccination rates rise and cases decline, even as other countries such as India and Brazil experience new outbreaks.
The ministers will meet on Wednesday to discuss vaccinations, despite growing demands for Western nations to share their early achievements in immunizing their populations.