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Foreign Policy

Trump’s G11 Gambit Won’t Work

Jun 13, 2020
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

The Trump administration’s attitude toward the G7 has changed unpredictably. In the U.S. president’s latest maneuver, the G7 Summit, originally planned for June, will be postponed to at least September. In addition, Trump wants to rewrite the guest list, inviting Russia, Australia, India and South Korea balloon this year’s summit into the G11.

The decision to delay and then expand the original G7 mechanism shows that the U.S. government still perceives this multilateral mechanism from a strategic perspective rather than an economic one. So, what’s the thinking behind the decision to delay and expand?

For starters, the domestic situation in the United States does not allow much in the way of opening doors to welcome guests. The country is still facing severe challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the gradual reopening of the U.S. economy and the easing of social distancing measures, the American people might face a second wave of the coronavirus.

Other G7 members also have to deal with this problem. Although the health outlook in Europe has improved, some countries have not yet fully lifted their international travel bans. If the G7 were to be convened as originally planned, it would pose a serious hurdle for convening leaders.

At the same time, the public murder of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked sustained protests in many cities and states across America. These anti-racism demonstrations could lead to a new wave of COVID-19 cases, which in turn could further damage the already fragile U.S. economy.

The dire situation has taken away Donald Trump’s ability to present a picture of prosperity to visiting foreign guests, nor can he host a gathering symbolizing a return to normal after the pandemic.

Awkwardly, Trump did not seek any input from America’s G7 allies when rescheduling the summit, and the abrupt announcement made it difficult for them to go along. In particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel made it clear that she would not participate in the summit given the overall pandemic situation. The absence of Germany, a leader in Europe, would render the G7 Summit virtually pointless. So Trump was forced to postpone the meeting to ensure the participation of all members.

Meanwhile, the U.S. would like to alter the G7 mechanism to build a strategic alliance against China. Trump intends to add four countries, with the goal of bringing them onto a strategic track that’s in line with the U.S. when it comes to competition with China.

Inviting Russia is an attempt to drive a wedge between China and Russia. Australia already prides itself on being in the vanguard of the anti-China crusade. India is trying to play a key role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy. And an invitation to South Korea is intended to pressure China on the Korean Peninsula issue.

But if the Trump administration tries to turn the G7 (or G11, as the case may be) into a tool of competition against China, the attempt will be in vain.

First, no country wants to be corralled into great power competition. European countries and the United States have different interests and concerns about China. The U.S. mainly considers and formulates its China policy from the perspective of safeguarding its hegemony, while Europe’s main concern is China respect for mainstream principles of global trade and support for the rules-based international order.

One can easily see the significant differences between the U.S. and Europe in their perceptions and policies toward China. Although both of them are thinking about China’s rise and how to respond, they are far from reaching consensus on strategic cooperation aimed at containing it.

Second, although the Indo-Pacific Strategy is an important part of the Trump administration’s overall effort to maintain a global competitive edge, Australia, India and South Korea all have their own considerations and may not be willing to follow suit. The regional countries are fully aware that the Indo-Pacific Strategy, initiated by the U.S., fully serves U.S. strategic interests, and they intend to take this opportunity to benefit themselves.

India wants to connect its own Act East Policy with the Indo-Pacific Strategy and is not willing to sacrifice its strategic independence for the sake of obeying the United States. South Korea has no interest in damaging its relations with China over excessive strategic binding with America. As for Russia, it will not join the anti-China chorus. It never sees eye to eye with the U.S. on the security architecture of Eurasia.

Third, whether or not the G7 expands, it is no longer capable of playing an effective coordinating role in tackling regional and global issues. It failed to deal with the global pandemic when its members, including European countries and the U.S., were overstretched by the coronavirus and unable to assist the rest of the world.

The Trump administration’s disdain for multilateral institutions has only deepened divisions within the G7. The U.S. announced its withdrawal from the World Health Organization, which is widely seen in Europe as a serious blow to an indispensable multilateral mechanism for combating the pandemic.

The conflict between multilateralism and unilateralism has become an insurmountable obstacle between the U.S. and its allies and partners. Under such circumstances, the G7 (or G11) can only become a venue for bickering and infighting, let alone promoting strategic cooperation against China.

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