TOKYO -- While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expresses deep faith in the Group of Seven nations, the solidarity among the world's richest democracies faces a serious challenge in light of waning U.S. influence, the rise of China and Russia's entanglement in the Syrian crisis.
"The G-7 is a gathering of champions of universal values such as freedom, democracy, basic human rights and the rule of law. This is a forum that should discuss and determine the direction in which the world should go," Abe told The Nikkei and The Financial Times in a recent interview.
The intricate web of conflicting national interests makes confronting threats posed by the Islamic State, the Syrian civil war, the refugee crisis and slowing emerging economies all the more daunting. Yet, as this year's chair of the G-7, Abe is eager to lead the group and leave his mark on the global stage.
In reality, the G-7's relative importance is declining. Though the seven nations accounted for 65% of the world's nominal gross domestic product in 2000, their share fell below 50% in 2011 and is believed to have hit 46% in 2015. At the same time, the Group of 20 nations, which includes Russia and China, is turning more vocal.
Economic interests often interfere with G-7 unity. The U.S. and Japan declined to join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, citing an inadequate oversight mechanism, but the U.K., France, Germany and Italy decided to participate.
The lure of China's economic might seems irresistible. The U.K. invited Chinese President Xi Jinping as a state guest last year and inked agreements on massive economic projects such as construction of nuclear power plants and high-speed rail. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande also visited China.
Japan and the U.S. are intent on taking the lead in maintaining regional security and creating economic rules in Asia. The two nations assailed China's maritime expansion and put together the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, which excludes Asia's largest economy. While keeping China's influence in check, Washington and Tokyo hope to incorporate the country into a free trade framework that protects human rights and honors environmental rules.
China can be persuaded by "the rule of law" and other values Abe advocates only if the G-7 is united in pressuring Beijing. Yet in Europe, shielded from the geopolitical implications of Beijing's policies, economic interests tend to take precedence.
Europe, reliant on Russian energy resources, also has economic considerations in dealing with Moscow. Japan, on the other hand, wants to resolve the territorial dispute over the southern Kuril Islands -- claimed by Tokyo as the Northern Territories -- while the U.S. insists on maintaining a hard line.
While stressing the need for Russia's constructive involvement in confronting the Islamic State, the prime minister plans to keep lines of communication open with Russian President Vladimir Putin. "With respect to issues unique to Japan -- territorial issues and the conclusion of a peace treaty -- appropriate dialogue with President Putin is very important," Abe said in the interview.
America's declining international standing is partly to blame for the G-7's increasingly fragile alliance. Washington has been unable to devise effective responses to the Syrian crisis and the Islamic State threat. To force China and Russia to fulfill their responsibilities as global powers in dealing with the troubled Middle East and North Korea, the G-7 needs to coalesce around the U.S. Forming a united front is easier for the G-7 than for the United Nations Security Council, where China and Russia wield veto power, or for the more expansive G-20.
Japan, the G-7's only Asian member, should work to elevate the group's standing, and doing so also would empower Japan diplomatically. The group's Ise-Shima summit this year will be Abe's first test.