World leaders grapple with how tough to be on China

It has been a back-and-forth that reflected the divisive theme China has become among its Western allies – even with what Europeans see as the welcoming presence of US President Joe Biden – as leaders move on with the rise the country as a geopolitical and economic counterweight to the democracies that they represent.

“This morning we wanted to dig a little deeper into some of the … more difficult elements within the G-7 positioning, how hard it is to push, and highlight some of the actions China is taking,” said a senior US government official.

The final language will be revealed on Sunday at the end of the G-7 summit, held for the first time since 2019 after the 2020 meeting was canceled during the pandemic. And, despite the differing positions, the final text will likely be the largest G-7 language on China since President Xi Jinping became Chinese leader in 2012.

There are two sections under discussion on China – one that could deal with human rights and another that could offer countries funding alternatives to Beijing’s so-called Belt and Road Initiative, a global infrastructure development project.

It is the first section that was a struggle for consensus for diplomats.

While the US and its European allies agree that China’s human rights behavior must be addressed aggressively – indeed sanction the country together in March because of the treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang – they debated the rhetoric they are supposed to use against Beijing, partly for different economic reasons.

For example, the EU previously signed an investment deal with China, but later put the deal on hold amid mounting tensions with Beijing.

According to the senior US government official, France largely supports singling out China for its forced labor practices, but EU, German and Italian diplomats have been more reluctant.

Chancellor Angela Merkel said the discussions about China were “very exciting and interesting” and emphasized her view that the G-7 should try to find a balance.

“On the one hand, we know that the social systems of the G-7 countries and China are different. We criticize human rights issues in China, be it Xinjiang or the restriction of freedoms in Hong Kong, of course, calling for free access to international waters. These are very important issues, “she said.

“On the other hand, we are also cooperative on many issues. I would like to mention climate issues and biodiversity issues, for example, but also free trade,” she told reporters on Saturday evening.

Merkel said the G-7 countries had all committed to a “rule-based international and multilateral cooperation mechanism” in dealing with China with the participation of international organizations.

“The subject of forced labor will certainly be addressed,” she added. She also defended the EU-China investment agreement, noting that it referred to the core standards of the International Labor Organization.

At the end of the day, a second US official said the countries had bridged some of their differences in the language of the communiqué without offering details. But in a statement, the official said there is “growing convergence” among G-7 countries when it comes to highlighting China’s “human rights violations, including in Xinjiang.”

“Since some members did not even want to mention China three years ago, this is a big change in a short period of time,” the official added.

Another human rights issue at stake is whether certain Beijing inmates should be named in the communiqué.

Canada has followed the issue vigorously and has tried to mention both Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been incarcerated in China since late 2018.

“Western democracies belonging to the G-7 should not hesitate to take all these measures, where appropriate, even to challenge them,” said Canadian High Commissioner Ralph Goodale to reporters on Friday.

The seven countries tend to agree on another area: global infrastructure finance.

Diplomats finalize the wording of what they call “Build Back Better for the World” (a nod to the domestic slogans of Biden and Prime Minister Boris Johnson). It is an initiative to free up hundreds of billions of dollars from both the government and the private sector for developing countries that may be inclined to accept funds from China.

The G-7 have criticized Beijing for driving countries into debt with its Belt and Road loan offers, depriving them of many of the benefits of new infrastructure or economic investment.

The White House said it wants the G-7 countries to commit to a “higher quality” alternative to belt-and-road funding and offer investments that meet better climate standards and labor practices. It would be funded in part with existing US contributions to infrastructure funding abroad through the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

“The United States and many of our partners and friends around the world have long been skeptical of China’s Belt and Road Initiative,” said the second US official. “We have seen that the Chinese government has shown a lack of transparency, poor environmental and labor standards and an approach that has put many countries worse off.”

The official added, “But until now we have not offered a positive alternative that reflects our values, our standards and the way we do business.”

The White House declined to indicate how much money the US would contribute and said it was still negotiating with other countries. The US is already investing billions of dollars in funding overseas infrastructure and plans to work with Congress to do more.

While all sides work out a final text, the other big actor – Japan – veiledly urged Europe to act more economically.

“We have helped with the European Union in a number of their discussions on various topics such as economic behavior, market distortion measures and also China’s economic aid that are incompatible with international regulations,” the Foreign Ministry Tomoyuki Koshida affairs spokesman told reporters. “We hope that Europe and Japan and other like-minded countries will deepen such discussions in the future.”

Stuart Lau reported from Brussels and David M. Herszenhorn from Falmouth, England.

Anna Isaac, Esther Webber, and Rym Momtaz contributed to this report.

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