Countering China is fast becoming a central element of Biden’s foreign policy, despite extensive trade ties and hopes for cooperation to combat climate change and other priorities.
But some of the leaders Biden is seeing for the annual G-7 session are less eager to prod Beijing over its labor practices. It appeared unlikely that Biden could persuade them to fully back his proposal to call out China for its use of forced labor, including of the Uyghur ethnic and religious minority.
A senior U.S. official who spoke with reporters after a morning session that was largely devoted to China described like-mindedness about concerns over China’s behavior but a difference of opinion about how to respond.
He listed Britain, Canada and France as having quickly backed Biden’s view, but it was not immediately clear where the others stood.
“There is a little differentiation, I think I would say, within — within, I think, the spectrum of how hard they would push on some of these issues,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to describe the conversation on the record.
The official predicted that a statement from the seven leaders would address the issue in some form. That statement is to be issued Sunday and was still being developed, the official said.
A European official familiar with the discussion said the group aired ways that the members could cooperate with China in some areas, such as climate change, while competing in other realms and contesting China’s actions where required.
Britain and Italy will co-chair a major international climate conference this year and are seeking China’s help to meet targets.
Earlier, another U.S. official had said that Biden was “pressing his fellow leaders for concrete action on forced labor to make clear to the world that we believe these practices are an affront to human dignity and an egregious example of China’s unfair economic competition.”
“ … [I]t’s an expression of our shared values to make clear what we won’t tolerate as the United States and as a G-7. So we think it’s critical to call out the use of forced labor in Xinjiang and to take concrete actions to ensure that global supply chains are free from the use of forced labor,” said that official, who also spoke with reporters on the condition of anonymity.
“And the point is to send a wake-up call that the G-7 is serious about defending human rights and that we need to work together to eradicate forced labor from our products,” the official said.
Germany, which exports millions of cars to China annually, is among allies concerned that a hard stance against China could backfire. Japan, a close neighbor and trading partner of China’s, also has been wary. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told Biden as much when they met at the White House in April. And Italy in 2019 signed a memorandum of understanding with China to join its “Belt and Road Initiative,” the sprawling infrastructure development project that the G-7 is now trying to blunt.
The White House issued a fact sheet Saturday about what it said was a G-7 agreement to offer other nations clearer alternatives to Chinese offers of road and other infrastructure development that come with a catch.
The “Build Back Better for the World” infrastructure development plan is “a values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership led by major democracies,” the White House said. It proposes millions of dollars in partnership with private industry to offer nations in Africa, Asia and elsewhere options to say no to China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road program. That program is a top priority for Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China is not a member of the G-7, whose leaders have gathered this year for the first time since 2019 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Competition with China is one subtext to the three-day G-7 conference here, where Biden is meeting with the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan. Biden, making his first foreign trip as president, will see many of the same leaders again next week for a summit of NATO nations. He ends his trip with a leader-to-leader meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The White House announced Saturday that the Putin meeting, which takes place Wednesday in Geneva, will include a larger working session and a smaller one but will not include a joint news conference by the two leaders.
The format is important because of recent history. President Donald Trump dismissed aides and even a note taker from some sessions with Putin, raising alarm about what was discussed. His deferential performance during a news conference with Putin at a summit in Helsinki in 2018 was widely considered a low moment of his presidency.
“We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward, and a solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting — both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns,” a White House statement said.
Biden held a friendly meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the G-7’s second day. Reporters saw the two sitting outdoors in the sunshine, the windy beach and aquamarine sea behind them.
It was their first formal meeting, although they have been getting to know one another at the summit and earlier by phone. Macron was elected shortly after Biden left office as vice president.
“We’re, as we say in — back in the States, ‘We’re on the same page,’ ” Biden said.
Macron had tried to use friendly persuasion to change Trump’s mind about leaving the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, to no avail.
Macron seemed relieved by Biden’s moves to reverse those decisions and the general mood of cooperation Biden has sought to project.
He cited the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and climate change, and said that “for all these issues, what we need is cooperation. And I think it’s great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate.”
Biden then offered a plug for the traditional alliances Trump disdained, including the European Union, the common market from which G-7 host Britain has withdrawn.
“I think we can do a lot, too. We — the United States, I’ve said before — we’re back,” Biden said. “The U.S. is back. We feel very, very strongly about the cohesion of NATO. And I, for one, think that the European Union is an incredibly strong and vibrant entity that has a lot to do with the ability of Western Europe to not only handle its economic issues, but provide the backbone and the support for NATO,” Biden said. “And so I — we’re — very supportive. Very supportive.”
Reporters then asked whether Biden has succeeded here in reassuring allies that his slogan “America is back” is true.
Biden, sunglasses in hand, gestured to Macron and said, “Ask him.”
“Yeah. Definitely,” Macron replied.
Macron’s remarks drew Trump’s attention. In a statement later Saturday, the former president raised his familiar complaint that Macron and other European leaders were “ripping off our Country.”