June 8, 2023

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HIROSHIMA, Japan — As the leaders of the Group of Seven gather for their annual summit in Japan this week, three world-changing conflicts — past, present and potential — will converge. 

The atomic bomb that ended World War II destroyed much of the city of Hiroshima, where the leaders will meet. Today, Russia’s war in Ukraine is costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars as it drags on. And then there’s the risk of another horrifying catastrophe to come, as China threatens Taiwan. 

And it’s over China where the alliance may come unstuck. 

For hawks like the U.S. and Japan, the summit beginning Friday offers a timely opportunity to make the case to Europe’s leaders directly that it’s time to get off the fence when it comes to confronting China. 

“This G7 Summit will be an appropriate venue to also discuss security issues and our security cooperation not only in Europe, but also in the Indo-Pacific region,” Noriyuki Shikata, cabinet secretary at the Japanese prime minister’s office, told POLITICO. 

The U.S. is betting on at least the appearance of common ground with allies about the People’s Republic of China. Ahead of the summit, U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters: “You can expect to hear at the end of those discussions that all the G7 leaders are of a common mind about how to deal with the challenges that the PRC presents.”

But — beyond the inevitably bland diplomatic lines of a summit communique — getting consensus on meaningful security measures for the Indo-Pacific region will be hard, even in the symbolic setting of Hiroshima. 

East Asia is again descending into a state of growing security risks and military imbalance, this time due to China’s aggressive moves against Taiwan and the South China Sea. 

“There’s a feeling that there’s a little bit of a gap, perhaps, between where the Europeans are on some China issues and where the U.S. is,” said Zack Cooper, former aide to the U.S. National Security Council and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. 

Chief among the points of tension is how far to go in trying to stop a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, which could trigger world war and wreck the global economy. The self-governing island, which Beijing claims as its own, provides most of the world’s advanced computer chips that are vital to the tech and defense industries. Not all European governments are convinced it’s something they need to prioritize. “It’s going to be a continuing challenge,” Cooper said. 

Picking friends

NATO is set to extend its footprint in Asia and set up a new liaison office in Tokyo to better coordinate with regional partners, such as Australia, South Korea and New Zealand. 

However, French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called on NATO to focus only on the Euro-Atlantic theater, saying Asia — China — is not covered geographically. He also triggered an outcry with recent comments to POLITICO, suggesting that Taiwan’s security was not Europe’s fight, and that the EU should not automatically follow America’s lead.  

Justin Trudeau comes to the G7 following months of intelligence leaks that have painted his government as weak on foreign interference | Yuchi Yamazaki/AFP via Getty Images

Macron’s stance sets France — which is the EU’s biggest military power — apart from the U.S. and Japan, and also from the U.K., where Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to announce a new security deal with Japan during his visit.

“Ukraine today could be East Asia tomorrow,” Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said last year, not long after Russia’s full-scale invasion began. Last week, Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi made an even more explicit warning in a speech made to his 27 EU counterparts in Sweden.

“China is continuing and intensifying its unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force in the East and South China Seas. China is also increasing its military activities around Taiwan,” Hayashi said. “In addition, China and Russia are strengthening their military collaboration, including joint flights of their bombers and joint naval exercises in the vicinity of Japan.”

The Chinese-Russian ties will be part of the G7 leaders’ discussions, according to two officials involved in the process, who spoke on condition of anonymity because summit preparations are not public. While the Chinese authorities stop short of openly arming Russia in its war against Ukraine, a long-term strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow is unshakable for President Xi Jinping.

G7 countries such as the U.S. and Japan are expected to raise the need to sanction countries that work around Western trade restrictions on Russia, according to the officials. Chinese companies found to be selling dual use goods to Russia would be a top focus. 

Bully tactics

China’s willingness to throw around its economic weight is one area where there’s likely to be more unity between G7 allies. 

The need to fight back against economic coercion will take center stage at the summit. The EU, U.S., Canada and Japan are going to rally around calls to combat China’s use of its economic power to bully smaller economies that act against its political interests.

“The sense of urgency and unity is a force factor in and of itself. For example, never before has the G7 addressed economic coercion,” Rahm Emanuel, the U.S. ambassador to Japan, told POLITICO. 

“When measured against the recent past, the G7 and EU are more strategically aligned in key economic and military matters,” added Emanuel, who served as chief of staff to former U.S. President Barack Obama.

When it comes to the European view, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is clear that the bloc is “competing with China” and will need to up its game. “We will reduce strategic dependencies — we have learned the lessons of the last year,” she said in a press conference ahead of the trip.

Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, comes to the G7 following months of intelligence leaks that have painted his government as weak on foreign interference, specifically from China. He’ll be carrying Canada’s message that it can be a safe, non-authoritarian alternative to Russia and China for supplying critical minerals and energy, including nuclear power. 

Despite the toughening rhetoric on China, what still unites the G7 countries is an eagerness not to shut the door on talks with Beijing. 

US President Joe Biden arrives to attend the G7 Summit in Hiroshima on May 18, 2023 | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration has for months been seeking to secure a visit to China for top Cabinet members, such as Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, held eight hours of talks with the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign policy chief, Wang Yi, this month. 

Just before he left for Japan on Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden was asked whether his last-minute decision to truncate his trip abroad could be seen as “almost a win for China.” Instead of staying in the region for a summit of the Quad — Japan, India, the U.S. and Australia — Biden plans to return to Washington Sunday to deal with domestic issues. 

The president downplayed the move as something China could use to its advantage, noting he will still meet with Quad nation leaders in Japan. “We get a chance to talk separately at the meeting,” he said

Then, Biden was asked whether he has plans to speak with the Chinese president soon.

“Whether it’s soon or not, we will be meeting,” he said, before leaving the room. 

Cristina Gallardo in London and Zi-Ann Lum in Ottawa contributed reporting.

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