G7 leaders adopted a sharp new tone toward China on Sunday, calling for a fresh investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and reprimanding Beijing over human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, among other barbs targeting the authoritarian state.
In a joint statement, the Group of Seven wealthy democracies called on China to respect human rights and freedoms in both Xinjiang, where the Communist Party maintains a vast system of indoctrination camps, and Hong Kong, where Beijing has destroyed much of the territory’s former autonomy.
In another, more oblique, reference to Xinjiang – in the region, factories have been erected adjacent to indoctrination camps – the leaders said they would direct their trade ministers to work to eliminate “all forms of forced labour in global supply chains.”
The final communiqué also expressed concern about tensions in the South and East China Seas, and specifically around Taiwan, after an escalation of Chinese military activity in the area. China claims Taiwan, which has governed itself independently since 1949, as a renegade province.
Even the G7′s headline announcement – a promise to donate one billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines to countries in need – was, in part, a response to Beijing’s own efforts at “vaccine diplomacy.” China has been accused of using its supply of domestically produced vaccines to press countries to side with it on geopolitical issues, including on Taiwan.
Recent G7 declarations had avoided specifically criticizing Beijing, but U.S. President Joe Biden arrived at this year’s summit in the English resort of Carbis Bay looking to rally his country’s allies to take tougher stands toward authoritarian governments such as those in China and Russia.
“As I’ve told [Chinese President] Xi Jinping myself, I’m not looking for conflict. Where we co-operate, we’ll co-operate; where we disagree, I’m going to state this frankly, and we are going to respond to actions that are inconsistent,” Mr. Biden told a postsummit press conference. “I think China has to start to act more responsibly in terms of international norms on human rights and transparency.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau separately told reporters that the G7 had come together to “speak with one voice” to Beijing. “Canada led the way on a common approach to addressing the challenges posed by China. As partners, we must stand strong and united, and at this week’s summit, we agreed to the action needed to do just that,” he said.
But even as China emerged as a key topic of the weekend meetings, the wording of the final declaration was noticeably less forceful than that used by the U.S. delegation in its briefings, reflecting the desire of European leaders not to provoke Beijing at a time they are hoping China’s economic might will help pull the world out of a pandemic-induced recession.
And while the communiqué affirmed the G7′s opposition to the practice of arbitrary detention, no specific mention was made of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been held in China since December, 2018. They were detained in apparent retaliation for the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on a U.S. extradition request.
Mr. Trudeau said there was “a very clear consensus around the table” that the detention of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor was wrong and could have happened to the citizens of any of the G7 countries.
On Saturday, the Chinese embassy in London released a statement criticizing the G7, saying “the days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone.” China denies accusations that it runs indoctrination camps or uses forced labour. Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor were formally accused last year of espionage, a charge widely viewed as concocted.
Perhaps the most controversial part of the 70-point G7 declaration was the demand 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.”
The wording reflects a debate inside the U.S. intelligence community about whether COVID-19 originated in nature before jumping to humans, or whether it was the result of some kind of accident at the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“It’s important to know the answer to that,” Mr. Biden said.
Most experts believe the coronavirus had natural origins and China, which has tightly controlled access by experts to the Wuhan region where the disease was first detected in 2019, is certain to reject the demand for a new investigation.
The G7 also announced an infrastructure-building plan, dubbed Build Back Better for the World. It is intended to rival China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative, which has seen Beijing partner with more than 100 countries since 2013 to build ports, highways and other infrastructure.
“I really feel very strongly, I prefer we have a democratic alternative to the Belt and Road Initiative,” Mr. Biden said, adding that the G7 infrastructure plan would be based on “values that our democracies represent, rather than the autocratic lack of values.”
The final communiqué contained few details about how the infrastructure program would work, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she hoped the plan could be fully developed by next year’s G7 summit, which Germany is due to host.
The joint statement also contained sharp criticisms of Russia, calling on Moscow to “stop its destabilizing behaviour and malign activities” including the Kremlin’s “interference in other countries’ democratic systems,” its crackdown on domestic dissent, and the presence of Russian troops in and around Ukraine.
Mr. Biden will attend a meeting of the NATO military alliance on Monday in Brussels, followed by a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in Geneva. The U.S. and its allies, Mr. Biden said, were in “a contest … with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century.”
Ms. Merkel, who was attending her 13th and final G7 before she steps aside as chancellor this fall, praised the leadership Mr. Biden provided to the grouping. The past two in-person summits before the pandemic were marred by squabbling between former U.S. president Donald Trump and the other leaders.
Mr. Trudeau also remarked on the more collegial mood at this summit.
He favourably compared it with the 2018 summit he held in Charlevoix, Que., which he said was “made famous by a tweet from an airplane” in reference to personal attacks Mr. Trump levelled at Mr. Trudeau on Twitter after leaving the meeting.