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A nation must think before it acts.
The annual meeting of the world’s seven most economically prosperous democratic countries—plus the European Union—that comprise the G7 always generates a good deal of anticipation. That was especially the case this year, given Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Originally founded in 1967 to address economic problems attendant on the first oil crisis, the G7 gradually took on new roles like the environment, food security, and human rights. Until recently, the grouping tread very lightly on matters of international relations. The organization was briefly a G8—Russia, despite being neither a leading world economy nor a democracy, was admitted in 1997 on the now naïve-seeming assumption that it might become both. Russia was expelled in 2014 after its invasion and annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Last year’s G7 meeting, in the Bavarian Alps, was dominated by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, as was this year’s, with added intensity as the war dragged on. All members save Japan are members of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), and NATO has announced its intention to open an office in Tokyo. For its part, Japan is clearly aware of the dangers that the de facto Russo-Chinese alliance poses for control of the waterways that are crucial to its continued economic prosperity. In what observers interpreted as a demonstration to Tokyo of Russian sovereignty over the disputed Kuril Islands, the Russian military conducted an air defense drill in the area just before the conference opened.
As this year’s host of the rotating presidency, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida chose Hiroshima as its venue. In addition to being his hometown, it is the ideal place to showcase Japan’s ongoing crusade to abolish all nuclear weapons. Mindful of concerns in the Global South that they are being neglected by members of richer states, Kishida invited the leaders of several of them—including India and Brazil, both of whom have thus far refused to condemn Russia’s attack on Ukraine—as well as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The latter was expected to attend virtually due to his need to direct the war effort and the dangers of travel, but arrived secretly via Saudi Arabia, thus enabling him to focus attention on his country’s plight in person and to shore up what seemed to be flagging support for Ukraine among certain European states.
Zelensky got much of what he wanted. The G7 declared unanimously that they would “support Ukraine for as long as it takes in the face of Russia’s illegal war of aggression” even as Kyiv readied for a counteroffensive. In addition, President Joe Biden announced a $375 million package of military aid, including artillery and armored vehicles. The United States also voiced support for joint allied training programs for Ukrainian pilots on F-16 warplanes, although Kyiv has not won specific, public commitments for delivery of the fighter jets. Mindful of American concerns about being drawn into a more direct confrontation with the Kremlin, Zelensky has promised that the F-16s will not be used to go into Russian territory.
Despite Biden’s pre-conference timidity, already in March two Ukrainian pilots were at a military base in Tucson to evaluate their skills using flight simulators and to assess how much time they would need to learn to fly various US military aircraft, including F-16s. Congress had already set aside money in the 2023 budget for such training. To preserve the appearance of the United States not directly entering the war, the planes will not come directly from America but from “surplus” F-16s in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, though it is possible that this could change in the future.
Just before the meeting, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that his country and the Netherlands were looking to form an international coalition to not only procure the jets for Ukraine but also to train Ukrainian pilots on the aircraft, which are more advanced than Ukraine’s Soviet-era fighter fleet.
Zelensky was able to meet with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the first in-person meeting of the two since the Russian invasion began. The Ukrainian leader seemed satisfied by Modi’s statement that India would do “everything we can” to help end the war, adding that he felt it was a humanitarian rather than economic or political issue. The meeting with Brazil’s Lula da Silva did not happen: Lula complained that the Ukrainian side had arrived late while Zelensky blamed a scheduling difficulty.
Although the G7’s communique had no hesitation in denouncing Russia’s “illegal war of aggression,” China is not specifically mentioned until sections 51 and 52, near the end of the forty-page closing communique. Still, the opening statement’s comments on support for a free and open Indo-Pacific and opposition to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion and its emphasis on an international order based on the rule of law were clearly written with Beijing in mind.
The Chinese response was twofold: first to denounce the G7 and second to host a counter conference of its own. With regard to the former, Beijing saved special venom for Japan. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong summoned Japanese Ambassador Hideo Tarumi to deliver a litany of complaints. As this year’s G7 president, said Sun, Japan had colluded with other countries in smearing and attacking China and grossly interfering in China’s internal affairs. This, he continued, violates the basic principles of international law and the spirit of the four political documents between China and Japan. He added that it also undermines China’s sovereignty, security and development interests. Sun explained that Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang are strictly China’s internal affair, and Taiwan “is the core of China’s core interests … a red line that cannot be crossed.” The communique’s so-called changing of the status quo through strength is “a departure from fact: it is the United States who is the initiator of breaking the international order and disrupting the world economy.” Japan should adopt a more “constructive stance.”
Tarumi responded that unless China changes its behavior G7 countries would continue to voice their common concerns. The Japanese embassy quoted him as saying “If China does not want these issues to be referenced, it should first respond more positively.” In the hierarchy of inter-government disputes, this encounter was not actually especially serious: Sun is merely a deputy foreign minister, and recited the standard list of Chinese grievances with Japan while making no specific threats.
The second Chinese response was to convene a summit of Central Asia states concurrent with the G7. Held in the ancient capital city of Xi’an it was chaired by Xi, whose keynote address hailed a new era of China-Central Asia ties as a “community with a shared future.” He pledged that Beijing would provide $3.8 billion in financing support and free assistance to Central Asia, though without providing details. Beijing will also support construction of a cross-Caspian Sea international transport corridor, and will strengthen the construction of transport hubs for China-Europe freight train services. A formal security cooperation arrangement is believed to be a next step. Although China and the Central Asian states have a common interest in stemming terrorist activities, the initiative also has the potential to enhance Beijing’s control over the area while Moscow, which regards as area as its backyard, is distracted by fighting in Ukraine.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni had to leave the conference early due to disastrous floods in Italy that left an estimated 36,000 people homeless. Biden was periodically preoccupied with the debt crisis in the United States. He left the welcome dinner after barely an hour, with the White House explaining that he had had to return to his hotel for another briefing on the progress, or lack thereof, of talks to resolve the impasse.
Biden attended ceremonies at Hiroshima but, to the disappointment of hibakusha, survivors of the blast, did not issue an apology. He left the conference right after, also missing a scheduled trip to Nagasaki, where the second bomb was dropped. The president also cancelled a visit to Papua New Guinea and a Quad conference with Australia, Britain, and Japan that had been scheduled for Sydney. According to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, the conference will be rescheduled: Since the principals were all at the G7 they were able to meet briefly anyway. As for the meeting in Papua New Guinea, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken traveled there in Biden’s place, announcing the new US-Papua New Guinea Bilateral Defense Cooperation Agreement and a package of other cooperative programs. China, which had earlier signed such a treaty with the Solomon Islands and whose fishing fleets have caused annoyance in several South Pacific countries, warned against the introduction of what it called geopolitical games in the region.
Though his anti-nuclear agenda was upstaged by the drama of Ukraine, Kishida was able to draw at least some attention to the issue. The photograph of the Japanese prime minister side by side with Zelensky laying wreaths at the cenotaph for victims of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945 added a poignant note to the proceedings, as did interviews with several of the hibakusha.
At a press conference after the closing ceremony, Kishida praised the historical significance of the summit. He argued that it had demonstrated the organization’s resolve to protect the free and open international order based on the rule of law and boosted momentum in the international community toward nuclear disarmament. While self-congratulation is not unusual at the completion of such proceedings, Kishida would appear to be one of the winners in a group the New York Times described before the conference as a “club of unloved leaders,” whose approval ratings ranged from a high of 49 percent for Italy’s Meloni to a low of 25 percent for France’s Macron. The paper opined that they were glad to be away from their troubles at home, however temporarily. After the conference, approval for Kishida’s cabinet rose to 56 percent, exceeding 50 percent for the first time in eight months. By contrast, French voters, who are notoriously tough on their politicians, are unlikely to have forgiven their president for raising the country’s retirement age from sixty-two to sixty-four. Immediately after the conference, Macron left Tokyo for a visit to Mongolia.
Kishida’s words notwithstanding, the gathering had its detractors. Although Japan’s largest circulation daily center-right Yomiuri praised its accomplishments, the country’s second most-read paper, center-left Asahi, questioned whether Russia would have invaded Ukraine if G7 members had made a united effort to confront Moscow over the past several years. Since they had not, the divide between democracy and autocracy had in fact deepened. And Zelensky’s visit had overshadowed discussions on what the paper considered more important: cooperation with the Global South and efforts to achieve a world without nuclear weapons. An international order that respects the rule of law, it concluded, must be achieved through cooperation, not the use of force or intimidation.
Biden was optimistic, saying that he anticipated an imminent thaw in US-China relations. Some expressed hope that the arrival of the new Chinese ambassador to Washington, Xie Feng, would ease current tensions. Others however predicted that since the central theme of the G7 summit encompassed both Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how the West should deal with China, it will have the effect of driving the two powers closer together. As a result of G7 rhetoric, Beijing will not seek to mend fences with Washington but to strengthen its relationship with Moscow. China and Russia are in fact holding security and trade talks this week. Chinese sources have expressed fears that the United States intends to wage a proxy war against China similar to the one it sees being waged in Ukraine. Japan and NATO’s closer relations have reinforced that view. Separately, with Washington urging cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo, Chinese analysts express fears that an Asian NATO is being planned.
Next year’s G7 will be hosted by Italy. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine grinds on.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.