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International relations

China and Russia's authoritarian challenge hangs over G-7 meeting

India, Australia, South Korea and ASEAN to attend London summit as guests

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson hosts a virtual G-7 meeting in February. This week's gathering of foreign ministers will be the group's first in-person meeting since COVID-19 hit. (File photo by pool/AP)

LONDON -- The authoritarian challenge of Russia and China will be a major talking point when Group of Seven foreign ministers meet at an expanded gathering of democratic nations in London this week.

The first in-person meeting of G-7 members in two years comes ahead of a leaders summit in June in Cornwall, England. In addition to the seven members -- Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the U.S. and U.K. -- and the European Union, the hosts have invited India, Australia, South Korea, South Africa and the chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

The addition of the Asian nations is in line with post-Brexit Britain's tilt to the Indo-Pacific region.

In March, the U.K. published a major strategic review of security, defense, development and foreign policy, detailing that systemic competition would be a defining feature of the next decade. One of its core aims was to be a "force for good," working with like-minded allies to promote and protect open societies and to "build back better" from COVID-19.

A major theme of the May 3-5 meeting will be defending democracy and human rights, and sustaining the recovery from the pandemic. China and Russia are likely to feature in discussions, both in the plenary session and bilateral meetings on the sidelines.

"The G-7 needs to have the right group of countries around the table to deal [with] global challenges... the biggest challenges we face today is from authoritarianism, including China and Russia," Ash Jain, senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and a former U.S. State Department official, told Nikkei Asia.

"We need to have Asia-Pacific powers on board to cooperate in an era where the challenges from Asia are going to be front and center," Jain said.

It was initially reported that the U.K. wanted to expand the G-7 to become a "D-10" to include the invited democratic partners, but such plans appear to be on hold.

The Atlantic Council, a U.S. think tank, has been advancing the concept of a D-10 format for nearly a decade. Jain said that while he supported U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson's move to invite more nations to the summit, he felt it would be necessary to ensure that strategic interests of India and South Africa aligned with the rest when it came to China and Russia before considering permanent membership.

The formation of a "democratic group" raises questions about which nations should be included or excluded based on democratic credentials.

Professor Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director-general of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies think tank in the U.K., said it will be interesting to see whether a joint statement will include the non G-7 democratic nations.

"It's easy to make a statement of democracy in very general terms, but the devil is always in the detail because once you come down to making specific comments, not least in the Indo-Pacific in relation to what is happening, for example in Myanmar, or Xinjiang or Thailand or other states, then you get quite significant disagreements between states," Chalmers told Nikkei.

The strengthening of global health resilience and access to vaccines will be a priority topic at the meetings.

Volunteers and relatives prepare to cremate the bodies of coronavirus victims on the outskirts of Bengaluru, India, on May 2. The G-7 ministers are expected to discuss India's crisis.   © Reuters

The U.K. will be seeking a commitment on the next stage of fighting the pandemic, including equitable vaccine access and collaborating on therapeutics and diagnostics.

The current COVID-19 crisis in India is also likely to be high on the agenda.

India is "incredibly important" in global health discussions, Chalmers said. "India is central, for example, to maximizing the production of vaccines on a global basis... they've also got an enormous emergency on their hands."

For Chalmers, Joe Biden's inauguration as U.S. president is one the most significant aspects of this year's summit. With Biden, unlike predecessor Donald Trump, keen to work with allies and engage in multilateralism, progress could be made at these meetings, he said.

"I think that in many ways the most important element of this [summit] will be the opportunities provided for the American secretary of state to meet directly with his counterparts in these countries in person," Chalmers said.

Action on climate change will be another theme, as well as gender equality. The U.K. is due to also host the United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) later this year, and is pushing for countries to commit to a target of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

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