G7 dysfunction makes unified action on Hong Kong near impossible

Trade wars, Brexit and other divisions threaten unity of bloc as summit gets underway.

G7 protest effigies
Leaders of the G7, comprising Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US, are gathering in Biarritz, France, where protesters are urging them to fight inequality [Regis Duvignau/Reuters]

As leaders from the Group of Seven (G7), an informal trade bloc of the largest industrialised nations, gather in the surfer’s paradise of Biarritz on the Atlantic coast of France, they’re bringing along some heavy political and economic baggage. And those issues promise to make this year’s meet-up a gnarly ride.

Intensifying global trade tensions – along with declining factory orders and investor confidence, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit, and recession warnings for a number of the G7 economies – will give the trading bloc leaders plenty to talk about.

Yet there is also another, nagging issue that just will not go away: China, and more immediately the political standoff in Hong Kong, where 1.7 million people marched in the pouring rain to attend an anti-government rally last weekend. More protests have been promised. Plus, fallout from the intensifying China-United States trade war is being felt by all the G7 nations on both the trading and factory floors.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 not only prescribed how the United Kingdom would end its rule over the territory, but also enshrined for a period of 50 years individual freedoms common to democracies. In 2017, the UK objected to Beijing declaring the treaty “a historical document” that “no longer has any practical significance, and it is not at all binding”.

The looming question is what, if anything, the G7 will do if Beijing orders the thousands of riot police it has amassed just north of the border into Hong Kong – which is, by treaty, a semi-autonomous territory and also one of Asia’s most important financial hubs.

“I do think that if China were to intervene in Hong Kong it would harden attitudes on both sides,” Douglas Irwin, a professor of economics at Dartmouth College in the US, told Al Jazeera. “I think there’d be pressure in Congress and elsewhere to be tough with China, even tougher than the [Trump] administration’s been. And then it would be tough – also difficult for China to sort of back down and try to accommodate on the trade side.”

But before the Hong Kong situation goes over the proverbial cliff, many believe the G7 leaders will be unable to unite to mount and manage an effective response to the situation in the special administrative region – or, for that matter, any other crisis.

The art of the possible?

The G7 comprises Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and the US.

Michael John Williams, director of the International Relations Program at New York University, told Al Jazeera, “The G7 is a group of the world’s leading liberal democracies that come together to address pressing challenges. The functioning of the G7, however, requires leadership and consensus – both of which are sorely lacking right now.”

The most recent example of the type of leadership to which Williams is referring was the G7’s 2014 response to a series of hostile and illegal actions in Ukraine, either carried out directly by or linked to Russia. They included the annexation of Crimea, an ongoing proxy conflict in the country’s eastern Donbass region, and a Russian-supplied surface-to-air missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, killing all 298 people on board.

Anti-extradition bill protesters march to demand democracy and political reforms, in Hong Kong, China August 18, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu
How to respond to the mass anti-government protests in Hong Kong of recent months could be a thorny issue at this year’s G7 Summit in Biarritz, France [Tyrone Siu/Reuters]

The G7 responded by tossing Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, out of the then-G8 group of nations and imposing an increasingly strict series of sanctions, which helped kick off Russia’s current years-long recession. To date, the conflict continues.

“China is a major trading partner for all of these countries and all of them will be worried about upsetting relations with the PRC [People’s Republic of China], especially given what seems to be a weakening global economy,” Williams said.

Germany, Europe’s industrial engine, saw its economy shrink in the second quarter and is bracing for more of the same. Global trade anxieties and China’s decreasing demand for German-made products are weakening the world’s fourth-largest economy, and are a reflection of what all of the other G7 members are currently experiencing to one degree or another.

Against Washington’s and Brussels’ objections, Italy in March signed a nonbinding agreement with China to increase trade and open the door to Chinese investment in Italy’s ageing infrastructure.

“Rome’s decision to sign an MOU [memorandum of understanding] on the Belt and Road Initiative highlights the decline of US influence and the increasing importance of the PRC globally. America’s liberal world order is unraveling at the seams,” Williams said.  

“Japan is at a crossroads. Can it depend on the US? Must it strike out on its own? Tokyo wants to be tough on China and is worried, but is also economically tied to the PRC. It is doubtful that Japan leads the charge against Beijing on Hong Kong.”

Blockers to G7 leadership and consensus

The G7’s economic woes and its deep trade ties to China have long proved to be barriers against it taking action when Beijing acts outside international norms. 

At this year’s summit, what does make responding to the crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong trickier than in prior years is the intensity of dysfunction in the relationships amongst the leaders in and of themselves.

At the top of the list of feared disruptors at the G7 Summit is US President Donald Trump, who hastily left last year’s gathering in Canada before the close, and who forbade any remaining US representatives to sign the usual end-of-session communique. And just before this session’s curtain is raised, Trump has called for Russia to be readmitted to the G7 by the 2020 summit.

g7 2018 canada
Despite the smiles, deep divisions emerged at last year’s G7 Summit in Canada [File: Eric Bolte/handout] 

Chad Bown of the Peterson Institute for International Economics said, “The Trump administration, whether it’s [on the] NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] or on trade, at various points in time has said the European Union is as big a problem for threatening the United States as China is. And so it’s gone beyond not only working with allies, but also kind of confronting them in needlessly conflictual ways.”

Trump is not alone in being deeply unpopular on the European continent. Well before he got the keys to 10 Downing Street, the UK’s new leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was an established foe of the EU, and he remains a stalwart Brexiteer.

In the days running up to the G7 summit, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron have played host to Johnson. Both publicly refused to entertain his attempts to renegotiate the Brexit deal that his immediate predecessor made, which the British parliament soundly rejected.

Most economists predict that Brexit, set to occur at the end of October, will harm the EU’s economy, but wreak havoc in Britain. Diplomats are reportedly nervous that Johnson, who has been a historically flamboyant politician, will use the summit’s oceanside venue to create a “big moment” to press his case.

Johnson could use the situation in Hong Kong as a rallying cry, but because the UK is expected to leave the EU without a parliamentary-approved deal, the nation’s economy will need all the trading partners it can get.

“A political sleight of hand by Johnson to distract from the train wreck that is Brexit, and his hollow promises, is certainly not beyond the imagination,” Williams said.

While the UK is the nation with the clearest claim for G7 action on behalf of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, Williams said, “Britain post-Brexit will need a good trading relationship with the PRC. It would be a risky proposition for Britain to aggressively go after China’s handling of the unrest in Hong Kong.”

Source: Al Jazeera