Why the rich world can no longer dictate its terms at the G7

When is a global elite not a global elite? When it excludes two of the six biggest economies in the world, writes Mary Dejevsky

You could hardly wish for a more emblematic farewell to the old world order than the gathering taking place in Japan this weekend. The leaders of the Group of Seven, or G7 – that exclusive club of the world’s richest countries – are holding their annual get-together in Hiroshima, the city that was devastated by the first of only two atomic bombs ever used in war, and which has now been resurrected as a thriving industrial and memorial centre.

Yet for all the miraculous passage from destruction to renewal that Hiroshima stands for, and for all the renewed relevance of the nuclear debate, this year’s familiar G7 line-up looks more like a relic of the postwar era than the future-shaping task force it purports to be.

Here we have the United States, which emerged from the Second World War as top dog and which, for a time at least, will remain so; the UK and France, which lost empires, but still claim global roles; the defeated axis powers, Germany, Japan and Italy, which forswore their pasts to build modern democracies, and Canada, which had squabbled with the Allies.

But how far do they still share the same interests and objectives? And how far can they justify any claim to global leadership, if ever they could? There are two reasons why this year’s G7 might feel more antiquated than before. The first stems from one, if not two, glaring absences. The second from the Ukraine war.

This is a summit of economic powerhouses that excludes two of the six biggest economies in the world. According to last year’s IMF figures, China is the world’s second-largest power; India its sixth. Yet neither has a place at what is dubbed the world’s top table, unless as an occasional dinner guest. Their absences were less obvious when the last two summits were held in Europe. But this year the seven leaders are in Hiroshima, and China looms across the sea.

There are many means of calculating economic might. The seven members of the G7 are among not just the largest but the richest economies, as calculated by GDP per head. Calculations by purchasing power skew results further. But combine China’s size and the pace of its growth, and it cannot be ignored.

China has increasingly made itself felt not just as a regional but also a global economic power. Beyond the West, its “Belt and Road Initiative” is respected and broadly welcomed. A downside is the risk of debt and economic dependence, as well as the lack of new employment, as the Chinese contractors bring their own workforce. The upside for many is rapidly built infrastructure with no ideological strings attached.

Now, though, it has begun projecting its power militarily, by way of a vastly enlarged and brand-spanking new modernised navy. China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy has become more ferociously assertive. Beijing has taken a harsher line to enforce its writ in Hong Kong, and there are fears not just in Washington that China’s short-term ambitions could extend to the enforced incorporation of Taiwan.

The cracks in the top table are evident, and widening. As president, Joe Biden has continued Donald Trump’s tough economic line, with added military warnings and precautions. Japan has territorial and security interests of its own to protect and will cooperate with the US to constrain China’s reach, but only up to a point. That point, perhaps, being direct military engagement.

France, Germany, Italy and the UK are different again. Trade is their prime consideration, with any military threat seeming much further away. Their desire is for the US to step back from its aggressive brinkmanship. The erratic swings of UK policy, from George Osborne’s “golden age” foray eastward to Liz Truss’s hawkish approach, as heard now in Taiwan, to James Cleverly’s recent efforts to combine engagement with vigilance, show the difficult juggling act the G7, and the rich world as a whole, faces in presenting a united front to China. That is surely one of the most precious aims of this weekend.

The G7’s difficulties with China extend to the wider diplomatic field, which is where Ukraine comes in. At the UN and other international gatherings, China is fast becoming something of a lodestar for those many countries not aligned with the “political West”. Russia is another beneficiary of anti-Western resentments, which is how Western efforts to isolate Moscow after it invaded Ukraine largely came to sputter.

Having successfully brokered an agreement on the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, China has turned its attention to Ukraine and has put forward a plan for a ceasefire. President Xi Jinping presented it to Russia’s President Putin during a recent visit, to some acclaim. He discussed it in a long phone call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky, who has not dismissed it. Most intriguingly, the US and UK, having initially rejected Beijing’s intervention, are now saying they rule nothing out.

If some of the early fractures in the West’s Ukraine response have been papered over, China’s plan, and indeed the very idea of a role for China in closing a European conflict, would surely rip them open again. Many European countries outside the G7 want no cessation of the Ukraine war without Russia’s total defeat. On the other hand, the domestic will of the US to maintain current levels of military help to Ukraine is surely in doubt, given rumblings in Congress and the rapid approach of next year’s presidential election.

Diplomatic hatchets can be buried. Drafted communiques cover all manner of disagreements, and those emanating from this year’s G7 will be no exception. Yet the very real differences in national interests that the two subjects of the moment expose – namely the rise of China and the war in Ukraine – suggest that, in Hiroshima, the G7’s status as any sort of useful grouping may be reaching the end of its run.

Mary Dejevsky is an Independent columnist on foreign affairs, having previously been the title’s foreign correspondent in Moscow, Paris and Washington. She has written about the collapse of communism from inside Moscow, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Iraq War and is a key authority on Russian politics, and on diplomatic relations between the Kremlin and the west.