China, Russia, climate change, AI: Crowded agenda awaits G-7 leaders in Hiroshima summit

Over their meetings through to Sunday, the leaders will try to forge a united front on China and Russia, both uninvited but also the largest elephants in the room.

Walter Sim

Walter Sim

The Straits Times


May 19, 2023

TOKYO – China, Russia, climate change, artificial intelligence and diversity are among the issues on a crowded agenda awaiting leaders from the Group of Seven (G-7) bloc of wealthy advanced democracies this weekend.

They arrived in a rainy Hiroshima on Thursday, though the wet weather did nothing to dampen their resolve to confront a series of pressing issues during their summit.

The G-7 comprises Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, with the European Union a “non-enumerated” member without right to the rotating presidency.

Over their meetings through to Sunday, the leaders will try to forge a united front on China and Russia, both uninvited but also the largest elephants in the room.

Their communique on Sunday is expected to highlight China’s “economic coercion”, while they are also set to discuss tougher sanctions on Russia, including the possibility of third-party sanctions, to choke off its ability to continue the war in Ukraine.

This has taken on urgency after Russia launched a series of fresh missile assaults on Ukraine in May, and amid President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear sabre-rattling.

Meanwhile, in a split-screen image epitomising the battle for influence in developing countries, Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday convened for the first time a two-day summit with five Central Asian nations.

The same day, China fired back at G-7 nations with a report on the US’ “coercive diplomacy”. The official Xinhua News Agency cited the report as saying China has never bullied others nor started trade wars.

China’s accusations were not without basis. Dr Tosh Minohara, chairman of the Research Institute for Indo-Pacific Affairs think-tank, told The Straits Times that the US had, in the 1980s, likewise taken aim at Japan when its economy was on the ascendancy, by accusing the country of unfair trading practices.

“It would be interesting to see where Japan stands on China,” he said. “Emotionally, it’s closer to Europe’s position and does not want to antagonise China. But on the other hand, it is allied with the US.”

As the G-7 leaders gathered, all of Japan was placed on high alert. Rubbish bins in major stations, not to mention vending machines, including those as far away as Ginza Station in Tokyo, were barred from use.

Police officers cut a dissonant presence along the rice paddy fields near Hiroshima Airport.

Drones attached to balloons hovered above Hiroshima, with traffic on roads and highways snarled as global leaders arrived. There was a sizeable presence of sniffer dogs, while police officers dotted the streets.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, which houses the Atomic Bomb Dome and a museum, has been sealed off for the summit.

Likewise, the tourist hot spot of Miyajima, renowned for the “floating” torii gate of the Itsukushima Shrine, is out of bounds to non-residents through Saturday, with G-7 leaders due to take their family photographs there.

Overall, 24,000 police officers – or one for every 50 residents in a city of 1.2 million people – were dispatched from around the country.

Japan is leaving absolutely nothing to chance, after the assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe in July 2022, and an attempted bomb attack on Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in April.

The summit kicks off on Friday morning, with Mr Kishida welcoming his G-7 counterparts at the memorial park, where they will lay wreaths in memory of those who died after the US levelled the city with the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Aug 6, 1945.

Hiroshima is also Mr Kishida’s home town and elected constituency. With relatives who died in the bombing, he has made a world without nuclear weapons his pet cause.

Yet, this remains a tall order, given that all G-7 nations have a relationship with nuclear arms. Japan, too, is protected by the US nuclear umbrella.

But he wants, through the summit, to push for more transparency and accountability of the world’s nuclear warheads.

US President Joe Biden will be the second sitting US leader to visit Hiroshima after Mr Barack Obama in 2016, though he likewise will not offer any apologies for the World War II nuclear strike.

A man offering prayers in front of a cenotaph in the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park on May 17, 2023. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

In a bid to drive engagement and multilateralism, Mr Kishida has invited the leaders of eight other countries to the summit: Australia, Brazil, Comoros, the Cook Islands, India, Indonesia, South Korea and Vietnam.

The G-7 is concerned by how, in an increasingly multipolar world, less developed countries in the so-called “Global South” are sympathetic to Russia and susceptible to Chinese influence.

Their communique will likely include a segment on China, with a rebuke for “economic coercion”, though G-7 leaders say their priority is not to promote decoupling, but “de-risking”, by enabling developing countries – hard-hit by food and energy crises amid the war in Ukraine – to play larger roles in supply chains.

“The G-7 will aim to repair fractures that have appeared in multilateralism in recent years,” Dr John Beirne, vice-chair of research at the Asian Development Bank Institute, told ST.

“And for developing economies, what they will be interested in is to mitigate risks, including in supply chains, without being made to choose sides.”

A series of bilateral and multilateral summits are scheduled.

Mr Kishida will meet South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol on Sunday for their third summit since March, amid a rapid thaw in ties. Together, they will visit a Korean atomic bomb victims’ memorial.

The duo will then meet Mr Biden in a closely watched trilateral summit the same day, as they seek to coordinate policy on North Korea and the Indo-Pacific.

Leaders of the Quad – comprising Mr Biden, Mr Kishida, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi – will meet in Hiroshima on Sunday.

Their planned summit in Sydney next week was cancelled after Mr Biden cut short his Asia-Pacific tour to deal with a debt ceiling crisis back home.

Mr Biden and Mr Kishida met in a 70-minute summit on Thursday, with the two leaders hailing their cooperation on new technologies such as chips, quantum computing and biotechnology.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right) welcoming US President Joe Biden prior to a bilateral meeting ahead of the G-7 Hiroshima Summit. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

US chipmaker Micron Technology on Thursday announced a 500 billion yen (S$4.9 billion) investment in Japan, including a new Hiroshima plant to make next-generation semiconductors.

Referring to the complex geopolitical environment and their security alliance, Mr Biden said: “When our countries stand together, we stand stronger. And I believe the whole world is safer when we do.”

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