HIROSHIMA, Japan Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven leading countries gathered in the Japanese city of Hiroshima on April 10-11. The first such meeting in Asia in eight years came at an apt time, amid rising tensions and rivalry in the region. High on the agenda was the situation in the East and South China seas, with the group unanimous in their condemnation of China's conduct, prompting an immediate and furious rebuttal from Beijing.
In an unambiguous reference to Chinese activity in the region, ministers stressed in their Statement of Maritime Security that they oppose "any intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions that could alter the status quo and increase tensions."
China claims almost the entire South China Sea and in recent years has started reclaiming land on and around reefs to bolster its claims, alarming a number of neighboring countries with competing claims. The statement also said the G-7 nations "urge all states to refrain from such actions as land reclamations, including large-scale ones, building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes and to act in accordance with international law including the principles of freedoms of navigation and overflight."
It did not take long for China to bite back.
"There is no problem at all with the freedom of navigation and overflight in the East and South China seas." China's foreign ministry spokesman said on April 12, showing clear unease with the G-7 statement.
The spokesman added that the "G-7 should have focused on global economic governance and cooperation instead of hyping up maritime issues and fueling tensions in the region," and that China urges G-7 members to "make [a] constructive contribution to regional peace and stability."
G-7 ministers made no explicit reference to China in their statement, nor did they refer to China at the news conference following the meeting, carefully wording their responses not to mention any country by name.
Japan's Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida was clearly at pains not to refer to China, even when responding to questions directly relating to Beijing. Instead, he emphasized that the statement is directed at "all states" that undermine the current order.
What lies behind the discretion is the importance of China's role in the other key item on the agenda at the meeting: dealing with North Korea.
Pyongyang's nuclear test and ballistic missile launches in recent months are an apparent attempt at bringing the international community to the negotiating table regarding economic sanctions on the reclusive state.
While the G-7 countries implicitly condemned China for its maritime activities, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also anxious to emphasize the importance of Beijing's cooperation in dealing with the Kim regime.
North Korea is at "the top of our priority list," Kerry said. "My hope is that [we can do this] together with China particularly, because China obviously has an important connection to North Korea -- it's a supplier of food [and a] banking connection to the world. China has an enormous ability to send a message to and have an impact on North Korea."
Grave concerns over the situation in the Korean Peninsula are shared by all parties, including China. The G-7 ministers agreed to "demand North Korea not conduct any further nuclear tests or launches that use ballistic missile technology, nor to engage in any other destabilizing or provocative actions."
Condemnation of North Korea was reiterated in the Hiroshima Declaration on Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation and two other documents adopted at the meeting.
The declaration strongly and specifically condemned North Korea, saying G-7 countries' commitment to a safer, non-nuclear world is made difficult "in particular by North Korea's repeated provocations."
The declaration also stated that, "No state should conduct a nuclear test explosion."
The extent to which the talks focused on regional issues demonstrates that the instability in Asia is far more than a regional concern. But ensuring peace and stability will require China to play an active role.
The salient point emerging from the meeting is that the G-7 will have a delicate balancing act to play with the world's No. 2 economy, collaborating on the one hand while keeping its maritime ambitions in check on the other.