U.S. President Donald Trump announced the postponement of the proposed a face-to-face G7 Summit scheduled for June 10 because of acrimony ranging from the COVID-19 epidemic to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s unapologetic refusal to attend and raging anger over racial discrimination across the United States.
Trump also said he would invite Russia, the ROK, Australia and India to attend the face-to-face gathering, saying that the G-7 doesn’t properly represent what’s going on in the world and is an outdated group of countries.
These seemingly straightforward announcements convey meaningful messages at multiple levels.
First, the U.S. and its allies are living in parallel realities. Merkel apparently rejected attendance because she considers dealing with the ongoing epidemic in Germany her most pressing priority and she needs to stay at the helm at home. Her office indicated that she wouldn’t attend unless there was some positive change in the COVID-19 situation, according to media reports. For Trump, on the other hand, hosting an in-person summit is synonymous with a return to a semblance of normalcy. It has symbolic significance backing his message that his administration is up to the job and has the situation under control. This, in turn, builds up momentum for reopening the U.S. economy and bolsters his reelection campaign.
Second, the proposed G7+ pattern prompts unmistakable speculation that this is about the encirclement of China. The White House has publicly stated that the G7 gathering would discuss the future with regard to China as one of its themes. The four countries on the guest of honor list are all China’s close neighbors or partners in the Asia-Pacific region. As the G7+4 shuts out China, the implication couldn’t have been missed. The perceived intention of the U.S. to contain China is already fueled by a succession of recent developments — announcement to revoke Hong Kong’s special trade status over the national security law, a ban on Chinese students “with military ties,” a probe into Chinese companies listed in the U.S. citing “hidden and undue risks associated with financing Chinese companies” and termination of the U.S. relationship with the World Health Organization on the grounds that China has undue control over it.
Third, the creation of a new brand of “selective multilateralism” or “selective isolationism” is in the making in the Trump administration.
Notable rapprochement in relations with Russia has been a hallmark of Trump. In April, the two countries issued a rare joint statement to commemorate the link-up of U.S. and Soviet troops during World War II. The previous time leaders of the two states jointly celebrated that anniversary was back in 2010, when President Obama was seeking to reset relations with Russia.
On many occasions, Trump has suggested that Russia should be brought back to the fold given its strategic importance. But it remains unclear whether Canada, France and the other G7 members would reverse their past stance to exclude Russia over its annexation of Crimea in 2014.
As a matter of fact, the Trump administration has repeatedly resorted to the unwieldy G7 to coordinate policy responses since the outbreak of the coronavirus. This could be interpreted as a snub of the more representative G20. The announcement of guests of honor, implying that this could be the pathway to a more formal relationship, could be a sign to watch. At this moment, it is unclear whether the juxtaposition is meant to be an ad hoc setting or a bid to foster a permanent new structure with the U.S. at the center.
The word “eventful” is not sufficient to capture the depth and intensity of the sea change going on in China-U.S. relations and the implications for the world at large. The world political landscape as a whole has been upended in the past few years, not only bilateral relations. People worry that China -U.S. relations are headed into free-fall because of the simmering flare-up of trade tensions, threats to sanction China and Hong Kong SAR officials for the enactment of the national Security law and the U.S. decision to terminate relations with the WHO because it is “China centric” — not to mention the persistent and relentless China bashing and stigmatization in the wake of COVID19 outbreak.
China is a regular theme cutting across U.S. foreign policy on multiple fronts. Worries about a “new cold war” between China and the U.S. are not unfounded. Progress in relations is being chipped away, bit by bit, in the looming wave of McCarthyism in the U.S.
It is imperative that visionaries who can see the world as it should be and can be prevail over irrational conventional wisdom at a time like this. As the two biggest economies in the world, China and the U.S. stand to gain from cooperation, and stand to lose from confrontation.
“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” Shakespeare wrote. In this vein, we must explore converging interests between China and the U.S. despite the differences in culture, social systems and development paths, rather than succumb to a single-minded approach to handling a bilateral relationship as complex as ours. Effective global coordination is premised on the engagement of key actors, as well as consultations on an equal footing. Let’s hope that multilateralism remains open, fair and inclusive, as anything short of that will become a parody that fails to capture the world as it is.