In the official communique that rounded up the three-day G7 summit, statements on China were more muted than many had anticipated, sparking an only moderate response from Beijing.

There had been hopes and fears in different quarters that the summit, held in the seaside resort of Carbis Bay, Cornwall, would further fuel the animosity between rising economic superpower China and the US along with its democratic allies.

But while Beijing may be on a values-based collision course with the West, trade and economic interest continue to ameliorate the fury. This creates a dilemma for the US.

Washington has been frustrated in its attempts to build anti-China coalitions in the Indo-Pacific. Seoul and Tokyo are forever divided, while “The Quad” lacks military teeth. Now, indications from Corbis Bay are that the world’s leading democracies are also split over their approaches to an increasingly assertive China.

Multiple press reports from the summit citing an unnamed US official said Biden led the charge against China, supported by the UK, France and Canada. However, Italy, Germany and the EU were more reticent, the reports said.  

Table-banging in Cornwall may well have reflected wobbles that have long been shaking the EU since the advent of the Donald Trump presidency, and which do not appear to be steadying under his successor Joe Biden. The fear is that Brussels is being tugged into a multi-faceted brawl between Beijing and Washington.

Xinhua noted that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wary of the confrontational rhetoric coming from Washington. Photo: AFP / Olivier Hoslet

The Center for European Reform, in a paper last year, urged the EU to “Work intensively with both the US and China to prevent the escalation of tension between them.” The conflict-avoiding stance of certain EU members may explain the moderate tone of the G7’s official messaging.

More talk than walk

The 70-paragraph communique, which is reproduced in full on the White House website,   started off typically with talk of commitments to “international cooperation, multilateralism and an open, resilient, rules-based world order.”

It then covered global health and the Covid-19 crisis. That section included one statement that looks likely to anger Beijing: the G7 called for a “timely, transparent, expert-led, and science-based WHO-convened Phase 2 Covid-19 Origins study including, as recommended by the experts’ report, in China.”

On arguing for a stronger role for the WTO, the communique called for moves against  “market-distorting actions of state-owned enterprises, and harmful industrial subsidies, including those that lead to excess capacity” – a likely reference to Chinese practices.

But when it came to international relations, there was more talk than action.

In the section on “Global Responsibility and International Action,” China was the subject of the leading paragraph. Nevertheless, the reported divergence within the G7 appeared to be reflected in a lack of clear strategy.

The G7 would merely “continue to consult on collective approaches to challenging non-market policies and practices which undermine the fair and transparent operations of the global economy,” the statement said.

The G7 also said it would “promote our values” by “calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms.” In that regard, the statement specifically referenced Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

The G7 called for a phase two of the Covid-19 origins study. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

On the concept of a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” the G7 underscored “the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues.” It also remains “seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions.”

However there was no action plan for these areas.

There was also little of substance in another key area of contention between the US and China: supply chains. The G7 said it would “consider mechanisms and share best practices to address risks to the resilience of global supply chains, in areas such as critical minerals and semiconductors, reflecting on models used elsewhere such as stress testing.”

Borrowing from the Biden administration’s campaign statement, the G7 pledged to “Build Back Better” after the pandemic. In an obvious counterpoint to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is building infrastructure worldwide, notably across Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and Africa, the G7 pledged to raise $100 billion from the IMF for African projects.

That is unlikely to horrify anyone in Beijing’s BRI control tower.

China returns fire

Chinese officialdom returned fire, not with blazing rhetoric from its Foreign Ministry, but via its embassy in London. A statement entitled “Embassy Spokesperson’s Remarks on the So-called ‘Rules-based International System’ Advocated at the G7 Summit” adopted an anti-imperialist tone – but was nevertheless measured.

“The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone,” the six-paragraph statement read. “There is only one system and one order in the world, that is, the international system with the United Nations at the core and the international order based on international law, not the so-called system and order advocated by a handful of countries.”

The genteel tone of that statement may reflect recent guidance from President Xi Jinping to tone down the aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy of recent years – notably by Chinese officials adopting an aggressive and even mocking tone on social media – that has raised hackles around the world.

That guidance may also be based on an appraisal that China has lost, rather than won, the goodwill it reasonably might have accrued during the years of the Trump administration – an administration which not only unleashed upon China, but also irked multiple allies.

 “We must pay attention to a good grasp of tone, as well as be open, confident and humble, try our utmost to portray an image of a reliable, lovely, respectable China,” Xi was quoted as saying at a Politburo session, according to multiple reports early this month.

Xi Jinping has urged his country to be more aware of tone when dealing with foreign nations. Photo: Xinhua

Xinhua, reporting from Cornwall, focused on divisions among the countries represented, noting especially that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is wary of the confrontational rhetoric coming from Washington.

It also quoted Cambridge academic Martin Jacques. “I think it’s a mistake for the G7 to do what they did,” Jacques told the Chinese news agency. “They should be seeking ways of developing cooperation with China, not thinking to contain or rebuff China.”

A less measured tone was in evidence in the Global Times, an English-language tabloid produced by the part-controlled People’s Daily, that is noted for its nationalistic stance.

“This has been the most systemic condemnation against and interference in China by major Western powers,” the newspaper thundered in an editorial

Even so, the paper toned down its rhetoric with an analysis that might have been drawn from Western newspapers’ interpretation of the summit.

“Almost every issue on which the US has recently attacked China has been mentioned in the communique,” Global Times wrote. “On the other hand, the language of the communique was somewhat softer than that when the US slandered China.”

Alleging that the United States seeks to maintain its hegemony while the European powers are tilting more toward cooperation, “the strategic differences between the US and Europe on China are insurmountable,” Global Times concluded.

Relatedly, a Chinese cartoonist’s painting, The Last G7, has gone viral across the Chinese internet.

Based on, and clearly satirizing Leonardo da Vinci’s famed 15th century painting of Christ’s last supper with his disciples, it shows the national animals of the participating nations sitting around the US eagle at a table and above them the legend, “Through this we can still rule the world.”

Image: Global Times

The mocking messaging implicit in the piece has been widely dissected by Chinese netizens, with media commenting on the apparent lack of unity amid the G7

In NATO’s sights

Still, there is plenty of ground for further dispute.

China will also be under discussion as North American and European leaders meet at the NATO summit in Brussels on Monday. The military-centric meeting may be less diplomatic than the G7.

With the customarily Atlanticist organization looking towards its future and the “NATO 2030 Agenda”, NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg has made extensive references to China in recent addresses.

“Almost all the proposals in NATO 2030 are relevant for how NATO could address the rise of China,” he said in a January 4speech carried on the organization’s website.

And NATO is looking far beyond its customary boundaries.

Stoltenberg added that NATO was engaging in “more political consultations among Allies, strengthening deterrence and defence, investing more in technology, sharing technology, facilitating the development of new technology, resilience, reaching out to new partners, working with partners in Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea.”

[This report includes AFP agency reporting]