The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

G-7 takes stronger stand against China, at U.S. urging

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden step off Air Force One at Heathrow Airport in London on Sunday en route to Windsor Castle to meet with Queen Elizabeth II. (Patrick Semansky/AP)
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CARBIS BAY, England — As Group of Seven leaders wrapped their three-day summit here on Sunday, President Biden said democratic governments face a defining challenge: to show they can meet tests such as global health crises and climate change better than autocracies such as China and Russia.

“I think we’re in a contest, not with China per se, but a contest with autocrats, autocratic governments around the world, as to whether or not democracies can compete with them in a rapidly changing 21st century,” Biden told reporters during the first news conference of his first foreign trip as president.

He singled out China and Russia for reprobation after working here to enlist U.S. allies in what he has repeatedly cast as the existential battle of the 21st century.

The theme is hardly a new one for Biden, who returns to it frequently and has used several key moments in his presidency to outline what he views as the generational struggle between democratic and autocratic nations.

The question of how to deal with China is divisive, and while Western leaders have criticized Beijing’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, in briefings with reporters during the summit, it was clear there were tensions over the language the group should adopt.

President Biden and first lady Jill Biden meet with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II at Windsor Castle on June 13. (Video: The Washington Post)

Biden urged the leaders of the G-7 industrialized nations to take a harsher public stance, confronting China over its use of forced labor. But some leaders, including those of Germany, Italy and Japan, have been reluctant to take on China too forcefully.

“We recognize the right of China to be an important economy,” Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said Sunday, “but we question how China does it.”

Senior U.S. officials on briefing calls with reporters stressed that the White House was trying to offer an approach that was more carrot than stick by presenting the world with an alternative more appealing than the approach of China.

Biden asks G-7 to take a tougher line on China, but not all allies are enthusiastic

In the summit-concluding communique issued Sunday, G-7 leaders announced they would create alternative funding to China’s massive “Belt and Road Initiative,” a trillion-dollar infrastructure program focused on the developing world.

They also said they would work together to challenge China’s “non-market policies,” and they called on Beijing to respect human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, pushed for greater transparency on the origins of the coronavirus and raised concerns about tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.

The language fell short of an explicit condemnation of China’s human rights practices.

Still, Beijing has chafed at the group’s new focus on the country. “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone,” a spokesman for the Chinese embassy in London said Sunday. “We always believe that countries, big or small, strong or weak, poor or rich, are equals, and that world affairs should be handled through consultation by all countries.”

The G-7 leaders also endorsed a global minimum tax on multinational corporations and pledged to donate 1 billion vaccine doses to poorer countries. Biden hinted that the United States might make another substantial donation of doses next year.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson rejected criticism that the G-7’s vaccine pledge didn’t go far enough. Former prime minister Gordon Brown has said 11 billion doses are needed.

“We are going flat out, and we are producing vaccines as fast as we can,” Johnson said.

Biden implored China to allow the international community access to laboratories in Wuhan, the city where the coronavirus was detected in December 2019. Biden said he has not reached a conclusion about whether the coronavirus spread from a lab leak or from animals, but he said transparency is critical to preparing for future pandemics.

“We have to have access,” he said. “The world has to have access.”

Biden, in the middle of his eight-day, three-country trip abroad, flew overseas determined to demonstrate leadership on the world stage and, in turn, competence and command back home.

Save for coronavirus logistics — social distancing, sporadic face masks, rigorous testing for the U.S. delegation — perhaps the most striking part of the first G-7 summit in the post-Trump era was its sheer normalcy, and even the bland scriptedness that undergirded most of the proceedings.

Gone were the threats to invite Russia back into the group or to withdraw from NATO, hallmarks of the combative diplomacy favored by former president Donald Trump.

Yet the shadow of Trump lingered, with the leaders having watched the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and being fully aware that another populist figure, from the left or the right, could easily emerge victorious in 2024.

What are the key issues at stake at the G-7 summit?

Biden’s message, which he delivered repeatedly — to U.S. troops on arriving in Britain on Wednesday, to French President Emmanuel Macron in scenic Carbis Bay on Saturday, to reporters on Sunday — was “America is back.” European leaders received it with a mixture of skepticism and relief.

Biden also used the trip to reassert his brand of personal diplomacy, rekindling relationships he nurtured for years as a senator and vice president, and spending one-on-one time with leaders such as Johnson and Macron, whom he knows less well.

The leaders used their three days in Cornwall — a picturesque but surprisingly poor part of the country — to discuss challenges such as the coronavirus and climate change.

The United States said it would contribute 500 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, half the group’s vaccine commitment to poorer nations. The effort, which some health experts described as an encouraging start but insufficient for getting control of the pandemic globally, will help counter charges of a “vaccine apartheid,” in which a small group of wealthy nations hoards doses and fares better than poorer countries.

On Sunday afternoon, Biden traveled to Windsor Castle, about 25 miles west of London, for tea with Queen Elizabeth II.

Biden, 78, told reporters afterward that the 95-year-old monarch reminded him of his mother.

“I don’t think she’d be insulted, but she reminded me of my mother, the look of her and just the generosity,” he said.

Biden will continue on to Brussels for a NATO summit and European Union meeting this week, before finishing his trip with a high-stakes encounter Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Parker reported from Cardiff, Wales, Pager from Washington and Hudson from Brussels. Anne Gearan in Cardiff contributed to this report.

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