The G7 foreign ministers convened in Japan last week. Although the countries’ heads of states won’t meet in Japan until next month, this meeting gave a hint of the priorities of the group, and more widely the West and its key allies in the Asia-Pacific region.
When John Kerry laid down the wreath at the Hiroshima memorial last week, the temperature in the region was turning up. Peace and security trump all other concerns in Hiroshima, as foreign ministers stood still to remember the spectre of the atomic attack over 60 years ago.
Peace and security were at the forefront of the G7 foreign ministers meeting in Japan. The G7 foreign ministers took China to task on maritime security and territorial disputes in South China Sea and North Korea on nuclear weapons.
South China Sea: Turning up temperature on China
Unlike the G20, G7 excludes major economies including emerging ones. Notably after March 2014, in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, Russia was excluded by what is now a political-economic enterprise dominated by the western countries. Also absent from the negotiating table is China, soon-to-be world’s largest economy. This presents an opportunity for the G7 group to put pressure on Beijing.
This year, the point of conflict is inevitably in the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Taiwan (which Beijing claims to be part of China) all lay claim to small, inhabited islands. China’s move to build artificial islands particularly angered other countries. This tug-of-war is turning into a dangerous game reflecting China’s growing political ubiquity and its neighbours’ unease with it.
As usual, China responded by reinforcing its ‘peaceful rise’ image and attacking the G7 for ‘intervention’ in its neighbourhood, saying: “We urge G7 members to abide by their promise of not taking sides on territorial disputes, respect the efforts by regional countries, stop all irresponsible words and actions, and make constructive contribution to regional peace and stability.”
Nuclear free world: Hiroshima remembers
The location of this meeting also inevitably leads to discussions surrounding nuclear disarmament. While the media focused largely on Kerry being the first US government official to visit Hiroshima, the Secretary of State fell short of any apologetic statement. But the narrative of a nuclear-free world is inevitable. G7 ministers have committed themselves (again, in the spirit of the non-proliferation treaty) to weathering the conditions required for multi-lateral nuclear disarmament.
Yet words mean little without deeds. Real action is in short supply from the G7 countries. Worse, their words mean little without the concurrence of China and Russia, two of the largest nuclear states in the world. Instead, the G7 turned their fire on North Korea. The recent tests and firing of missiles into the sea are seen as futile acts of rebellion against international sanctions, which crucially emerged with the backing of China.
G7 works, Asia-Pacific may not
In a time of volatilities and risks, the global economy will likely take the front seat at the G7 heads of government meeting in May. The gathering at Hiroshima, however, has shown that unlike the G20, the G7 is at least capable of agreeing on something. Its exclusivity (mainly regarding China and Russia) will continue to be its greatest weakness and strength.
Along with maritime security and nuclear proliferation, antiterrorism was also discussed. Hiroshima’s meeting sets out a clear position for the G7 on these issues, which is an agenda that can be shared by others for greater global cooperation, but also one that the group of seven is perfectly capable of practicing. In times of challenges from emerging economies and non-state actors for the West, the G7 might yet be its unlikely saviour.