The state of the world’s economy, terrorism, the refugee crisis, the uncertainty over Britain’s continuing membership in the European Union and, of course, the tension in the South China Sea are some of the main items on the agenda of the two-day G7 summit which began yesterday in Ise-Shima, Japan.
A day ahead of the summit, as questions were asked whether the summit would have the makings of an anti-China forum, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying in a preemptive broadside warned, “G7 should focus on its own duties, that is economic cooperation; it should not point fingers at something outside its portfolio.”
Given China’s economic and industrial might, it also should have been a permanent member of the group. But the elite group has its own standards, which China is unlikely to fulfil even if it becomes the world’s most powerful economy.
A net national wealth, a high Human Development Index and a commitment to liberal economic policies are the main requirements to be a member of this group which comprises the United States, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan. Together they represent more than 64 percent of the net global wealth ($263 trillion) and 46 percent of the global GDP.
The group was originally known as G6 following its first summit hosted by France in 1975 with the invitees being leaders of the United States, West Germany, Britain, Italy and Japan. It came be known as G7 when Canada joined the group in 1976, G8 when Russia became a member in 1997 and once again G7 when Russia was expelled from the group over its involvement in the Ukrainian crisis.
The expulsion of Russia brought out the fact that the grouping was as political as it is economic. Now with the inclusion of the South China Sea issue on the agenda, in spite of Beijing’s plea, the grouping appears to take a strategic outlook as well.
It is to this politically charged summit that Sri Lanka and Vietnam -- two countries that figure prominently in the strategic equation of Asia -- have been invited, together with few other non-G7 countries such as Indonesia, Bangladesh and Chad.
The Sri Lankan government sees in the invitation a rare honour and a rare opportunity to present its case and obtain economic assistance. Some 13 years ago, Sri Lanka’s then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe was in Japan with a similar mission. The world’s richest countries who attended the Tokyo donor conference convened by the European Union, the United States, Japan and Norway -- the co-chairs of the Sri Lankan peace process -- pledged US$4.5 billion aid. But the whole exercise collapsed when the then Sri Lankan President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved the Wickremesinghe government.
This is the first time Sri Lanka has been invited to a G-7 forum for meetings with world leaders on the sidelines of the summit. Usually, the invitations go out to leaders of fast-developing countries such as India, Brazil and South Africa, or oil-rich states such as Saudi Arabia.
Mind you, there is no free lunch in politics. It would be naïve to attribute any altruistic motive to the G7’s decision to invite President Maithripala Sirisena. It is certainly not to break bread with the leaders of the world’s richest liberal economies. Whatever pledges the G7 leaders may dangle to bail out Sri Lanka’s economy may come at a price – a commitment from the government to deny China, our largest donor, a strategic foothold in Sri Lanka.
The Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, after some early flirtations with the West, is now adopting the time tested non-aligned policy of friendship with all and enmity towards none. The United States and India apparently have some worries over Sri Lanka’s decision to rejuvenate its relations with China, but they appear to be content with Sri Lanka’s balancing act.
Certainly the presence of President Sirisena at the G7 summit will give hopes of a revival of Sri Lanka’s sluggish economy but it may also give the US and Japan, which are not uncomfortable with China’s assertive diplomacy in the South China Sea region, leverage to guide Sri Lanka’s China policy.
The invitation to Vietnam further confirms the argument that the summit was more China-focused. Vietnam is one of the countries that fiercely contest China’s claims of sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea. President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Vietnam ahead of his visit to Japan is more China-specific than symbolic. He announced in Hanoi that the US would lift the embargo on arms exports to Vietnam and improve defence cooperation with the United States’ one-time foe. Such close defence ties may give the United States Navy access once again to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay port, one of the key ports from which the US directed its military operations during the Vietnam War.
The White House said the Obama administration’s decision to give Vietnam access to US weapons was in no way influenced by China. But China’s state-run Global Times in an op-ed article dismissed the White House statement as a “very poor lie,” adding that the White House felt an urgent need to contain China.
Obama was the third US president to visit Vietnam since Bill Clinton made the historic first visit in 2000. President George W. Bush visited Vietnam in 2006. These high profile visits have also paved the way for closer economic ties between the two countries, with Vietnam being one of the first signatories to the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an economic pact the Obama administration has floated -- apparently to undermine China.
Vietnam also fought a war with China in 1988 and ever since the relations between the two countries have not returned to normal though trade and investment ties exist.
In 2014, Vietnam and China were on the verge of a military confrontation when tension escalated over China’s move to build oil rigs in the disputed Paracel islands in the South China Sea.
Vietnam and other littoral states in the South China Sea accuse China of creating artificial islands by filling reefs with sand and placing in these islands equipment of a military nature. China has arbitrarily drawn a u-shaped ten-dash curve to indicate the sea area that comes under its jurisdiction. Naturally, the action has angered Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines.
These states must depend on the US for their defence, if China uses force to assert its claims over the disputed islands. This is why Vietnam is inviting the US back to its naval base. This is why the Philippines wants the US back in the Subic Bay base. It is in this context that one has to look at the G7 summit, which is taking place nine days after Chinese aircraft intercepted US reconnaissance planes in the South China Sea. The summit also takes place against the backdrop of regular US naval movements close to the islands which China has created. Though the two countries are mature enough to avoid a war, none would rule out an accidental clash.
Sri Lanka needs both China and the G7 and should be prudent enough to continue its balancing act.