China’s growing economic and military role in global affairs raises the question as to why the PRC is not a member of the G8, the group of the influential industrialized countries whose leaders meet annually to offer advice on how to solve the world’s most important issues. China clearly now ranks among the top eight countries according to many indices of international power. The country’s population exceeds that of all the existing G8 members combined while China has become the world’s second-largest economy. Beijing has also become an increasingly important actor in many dimensions of international peace and security, as manifested by its contributions of military personnel to UN peacekeeping operations and importance for controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
From the perspective of the other G8 members, allowing China to join the group would in principle yield important benefits. Solving some problems of concern to the G8—global monetary stability, climate change, energy security—is inconceivable without Beijing’s support, which might be easier to obtain if China actually belonged to the body.
China’s entry into the G8 would help counter claims that the organization represents too small a share of the world’s population and economy to justify its position as a leading institution of global governance. A common objection to the G8’s influential role in world affairs is that an institution’s members comprise a small and unrepresentative minority of the world’s population. Critics argue that, as presently constituted, the G8 includes too many Western countries, especially from Western Europe, while lacking sufficient members from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and the Southern Hemisphere to be considered a genuinely representative body.
The lack of involvement of the world’s rising global economic powers, which also have some of the globe’s largest national populations, is also seen as calling into question the institution’s legitimacy. The original criterion for membership in the group was to include the largest players in the world economy. Since these countries exerted the greatest impact on the international economy, attempts to improve coordination of their decisions could be justified on the principle of efficiency, if not equity.
The G8 still includes many leading economies, and accounts for approximately half of the world’s global exports, industrial output, and assets in the International Monetary Fund. Yet, the extraordinary economic performance of China and some other nonmembers mean that the current roster of G8 countries no longer includes the eight largest world economies. Some countries retain membership due to their economic position as of the mid-1970s rather than today.
These considerations have led some G8 leaders to suggest incorporating China into the G8. Yet, although Chinese President Hu Jintao has attended many G8 summits since 2003 as a guest, the Chinese government has never been formally offered full G8 membership. Nor has Beijing expressed any official interest in receiving such status. Several considerations appear to account for this anomaly.
From the perspective of Beijing, China’s relations with the group suffered a serious setback in 1989, when the then G7 leaders endorsed the imposition of collective sanctions against the Chinese government—effectively freezing relations for the next decade.
Although ties between China and the G8 have improved in recent years, Chinese leaders still worry that their official presence would provide the regime’s foreign critics with additional opportunities to attack the government for failing to adhere to the liberal democratic principles that formally define the institution. Calls to expel Russia from the group have occurred in recent years as its government has adopted increasing illiberal foreign and domestic policies.
In addition, Chinese policy makers might fear that any Chinese President present at the exclusive leadership sessions could find it harder—or at least personally awkward—to resist pressure from his colleagues to adopt a consensus position on climate emissions, Zimbabwe, or other issues where China is an outlier.
In addition, the Chinese leadership may not wish to enhance the status of an institution that could potentially compete with the United Nations. At the UN, China has elite status of only one of five permanent members of the Security Council—and the only such member from East Asia. In the G8, China would have to share that status with Japan, and Tokyo could well enjoy superior influence to Beijing given its closer ties with most of the other G8 members. In fact, it remains unclear whether the Japanese government would support offering full membership to Beijing without receiving reciprocal Chinese support for Japan’s aspirations to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council or other concessions.
Chinese officials concern to maintain a special relationship with the world’s developing nations also dampens their G8 membership aspirations. Joining the G8 as its ninth member could also lead to criticism that China was abandoning its commitment to the developing world in order to join an elite club. Similarly, acceding to the G8 would make it harder for Chinese leaders to continue to characterize their nation as a developing country when arguing for exemptions from global climate and trade deals which apply to existing G8 members.
Another consideration weakening Beijing’s interest in G8 membership is that the country’s absence from the institution does not appear to have weakened its international influence. In recent years, moreover, the G8 has institutionalized the involvement of China and the other largest developing economies in summit discussions without extending full membership. The hosting government now typically invites the leaders of China and other important nonmember countries to special Outreach Sessions at the summit, where they can offer their perspectives on G8 agenda items.
Perhaps most importantly, the G20 has recently supplanted the G8 as the world’s preeminent global economic institution. At their September 2009 leadership summit in Pittsburgh, the G20 governments decided to make their forum the predominant leadership forum for addressing international economic issues.
Yet, most G8 governments have indicated they currently expect the G8 to retain its role as the main global leadership body for addressing international security questions. The G8 still includes those countries possessing the strongest conventional and nuclear forces. In addition, its smaller number of members should make it easier for G8 members to agree on a consensus approach towards international security and other issues than the larger G20, whose members also have a more diverse range of political systems and policy preferences than found in the G8.
A logical next step might be to involve China more in certain G8-sponsored projects that permit nonmember participation. One possibility might be the G8 Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction. At their June 2002 summit in Kananaskis, Canada, the G8 pledged to raise a total of $20 billion over ten years to support projects limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as well as related technologies and their means of delivery. More than a dozen non-G8 members have since joined the initiative as partners. At the 2012 summit in Camp David, the G8 members affirmed their support to expand the Partnership program to support WMD threat reduction programs anywhere in the world. China would make a natural partner for Global Partnership WMD threat reduction projects in East Asia and perhaps elsewhere.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute. His current research includes regional security developments relating to Europe, Eurasia, and East Asia as well as U.S. foreign, defense, homeland security, and WMD nonproliferation policies.