By Chris Devonshire-Ellis
US President Joe Biden is a man on a mission. He and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who’s hosting the Group of 7 (G7) top global economies, in the UK as this year’s presidency of the bloc, are looking to save “Western civilisation” from the rise of the East. This perceived threat is mainly arising out of Asia in the form of China’s fiery-dragon economy, Russia’s militarily-confident bear and the plethora of other so-called competitor powers, as first identified by the US 2018 National Security Strategy, in the form of Iran, North Korea, among other so-called “revisionist” parts of the developing world including Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Sudan among others. This notorious list of countries is almost as lengthy as the economic sanctions Western governments have piled up on an increasingly “dissident” developing world.
Reawakening the Western alliance in the post-Trump era
The G7, in 2021, is the first face-to-face meeting of Western world leaders since the G7 hosted by French President Emmanuel Macron back in 2019, at the exclusive Biarritz resort in southern France. In fact, it is Biden’s first international visit since coming to office, following four years of a Trump Whitehouse which largely ridiculed, ignored and criticised fellow Western G7 leaders. Following in the wake of what some observers call Trump’s quasi-isolationist and anti-global institutional policy stance, amid the ongoing domestic fracas in the United States between the ruling Democratic Party and their Republican Party opposition, Biden has arguably a lot on his shoulders in advancing the cause of American and western leadership of the world.
In support of his efforts to re-engage with allies and like-minded democracies, America’s closest ally and having the cherished “special relationship” in the form of Johnson’s UK government, has invited four other world leaders to the event. These include two from Asia, being Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, alongside South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Modi, Ramaphosa and Morrison also attended the 2019 G7, where Macron – having fallen out with Trump in the early part of their presidencies – invited a significantly wider group of guest representatives of the developing world. These included various African countries, the African Union commission, and several international institutions, possibly making that G7, one of the most inclusive events staged with the developing world in mind.
On this occasion, Johnson seems to have opened the door to a seemingly more select group of non-G7 countries, alongside an invitation to arguably the most privileged developed world regional international institutions of all – the leaders of the European Commission and European Council. The rationale behind staging such a relatively small grouping, notwithstanding the global pandemic currently afflicting much of the developing world, may be to promote one of this G7’s principal credos and objectives, namely, to unite the world’s leading democracies in “building back better by championing shared values including democracy and human rights”.
Can Biden’s message to the developing world and beyond be taken seriously?
Almost as soon as Air Force One had hit the tarmac, on early Wednesday evening in the UK, Biden opened his first pre-G7 meeting salvo, engaging in an open criticism of China, Russia, and other perceived anti-western powers in his referring to the need for democracies to expose the false narrative “that the decrees of dictators” can meet the challenges of the 21st Century. One can take this as a thinly veiled reference to China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, along with the ambitions of other developing world countries’ plans in cooperating with these two transcontinental infrastructure, trade, and investment programs in building a vast integrated economic space.
As an olive branch to the many developing countries which have been largely ignored by Western governments hoarding vaccines for their own use, Biden promised to supply a half billion doses of the Pfizer vaccine to countries struggling with limited supplies. This is as China and Russia have already been providing free vaccines, of their Sinovac and Sputnik V varieties, to over 57 countries in the developing world, across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, in addition to their contributions to the international Covax facility. Russia has even seen its vaccine being rolled out in EU countries, including Hungary, Slovakia, and Austria, where its chancellor has criticized the European Medical Agency, as the regulatory body overseeing medicines, as being too slow in making its approvals, while Germany and Italy are looking at setting up centres for its production.
India and South Korea – G7 allies don’t always make for genuine friends
For India and South Korea, as the two Asian countries perceived by the G7 as bona fide democracies with whom they supposedly share the same values, the questions fundamentally to be asked are the extent to which they will be genuinely welcomed as equal partners within this elite grouping? Yet, even before the start of the summit, recriminations are already flowing between various established members and the guests.
Reports from Japanese media indicate that its Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga, has no plans to meet bilaterally on the sidelines with President Moon, especially after recent meetings where they failed to bridge differences over accusations surrounding longstanding wartime issues. While a bilateral format may not proceed, the two are under pressure from the White House to meet in some other form, possibly a trilateral arrangement also involving Biden as peacemaker, in a desperate bid to unify his allies. According to the US national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, just the small space alone at the G7 venue, holding only a dozen attendees, should make a meeting of sorts happen.
Meantime India’s Modi had already called off his attending the G7 summit in person, given the situation of Covid-19 in the country. Instead, Modi is expected to attend parts of the summit in virtual calls. The cancelation comes on top of Johnson having twice reneged on plans to visit Modi in India, while India’s external affairs minister was forced into self-isolation when physically attending the G7 foreign ministers’ meeting in London, in early May, as a result of members of India’s delegation being tested positive for Covid.
In spite of Modi’s virtual attendance at the Summit, Johnson has been under pressure from the British business community to take a tough stance following recent disputes involving UK firms, such as Vodafone and Cairn Energy incurring retrospective taxes meaning that budget planning for India became subject to huge questions over what would and would not be levied in future – a huge question mark over fiscal uncertainty for UK (and other) investors. That has subsequently been resolved, and it seems, fairly so.
While Modi has not escaped criticisms, he is tolerated. But then such is the lot of a powerful leader voted in to uphold Indian specific, and not global values. That creates some tensions, however there is no doubt that the Indian Prime Minister may yet mellow given the opportunity to grasp an India valued on the world stage. Conservative politicians from the All-Parliamentary group have written to Johnson warning that future relations between the two countries are “dependent on respect for the rule of law and protection of investors”. However, the Indian Supreme Court appears to have sorted that debate out to mutual satisfaction.
Are the G7’s shared values superior because they’re rich?
The G7 meeting will touch upon several global issues, including climate change and the environment, managing the global recovery and furthering resilience to future pandemics, promoting prosperity through free and fair trade, while advancing comprehensive global tax reform including a minimum corporate tax on multinational corporations’ activities around the world. All these are admirable objectives. Each will involve cooperation between the rich world, in the form of the G7 and the developing world.
But they cannot do it in isolation of one another, through the creation of barriers, as encapsulated in the G7’s championing of shared values, when much of the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily sign up to those values in the guise often trumpeted by the rich world. According to the IMF, the G7 are expected to generate about £36 trillion in economic activity in 2021, while the developing world is forecasted to generate about £20 trillion. While the rich world still collectively accounts for the bulk of global output, the developing world, especially China, Southeast Asia , South Asia and now Africa, are beginning the process of fast catching up.
In this context, many of the ideas discussed at this elite gathering will have to also be run through the broader G20 grouping of nations if they are to become globally accepted and effective in their roll-out. And they are crucial to the survival of this planet. But they’re not going to work for the developing world if the rich world continues to treat most of these countries like pariahs because they don’t also hold to the West’s belief that only they can have a monopoly of superior values.
Chris Devonshire-Ellis is the Chairman of Dezan Shira & Associates and the Publisher of Asia Briefing.