G7: Worries loom over China’s militarization of East, South China Seas

Although the Group of Seven (G7) gathering of foreign ministers in Karuizawa, Japan, focused primarily on tackling the Russo-Ukraine crisis, the shadow of China’s military actions still loomed heavily among ministerial talks. 

Foreign service officials from the US, Canada, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, the UK as well as the High Representative of the European Union (EU) prepared a joint communiqué for the meeting’s conclusion on April 18 expressing the need “to uphold and reinforce the free and open international order based on the rule of law”. Notably, the communiqué would serve as the template for G7 leaders to follow for the upcoming summit in Hiroshima next month. 

Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi told reporters that the communiqué by G7 was a “strong objection to unilateral attempts to change the status-quo anywhere in the world,” alluding to Chinese actions in favor of a multipolar world order. 

Moreover, the 21-page communiqué urged China to: “abstain from threats, coercion, intimidation or the use of force. We remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas. … There is no legal basis for China’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea, and we oppose China’s militarization activities in the region.”

While the G7 ministers urged China “to act as a responsible member of the international community,” Hayashi, host of the summit, tried to soften his tone a little, highlighting the importance of “working together with Beijing” on global challenges as well as areas of common interest and “building a constructive and stable relationship.”

These statements by host Japan and the rest of the G7 leaders came amid recent controversies surrounding French president Macron’s remarks on Europe’s need to distance itself from the China-Taiwan fray affecting Sino-US relations, as well as the EU’s need for “strategic autonomy” from the US. In response to Macron’s statements, some in the US and Europe began to openly doubt France’s commitment to aligning with EU interests.

Although Paris has attempted to address the global outcry, insisting that France’s stance on Taiwan remained unchanged, it is undeniable that Macron’s visit to China and his subsequent statements unveiled divisions among G7 nations, according to Paul Nadeau, adjunct professor of political science at Temple University’s Japan campus.

“Each member of the G7 still wants a bit of autonomy in the way they pursue their relationship with China,” Nadeau told AFP. “They don’t want to overcommit, they want to maintain some freedom of maneuver.”

Furthermore, Macron’s conciliatory tone towards Chinese leader Xi Jinping can be juxtaposed with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s firm stance against Chinese actions in the Taiwan Strait during her own China visit. Baerbock maintained that her views were “in the name of Europe” and claimed that she expressed “the common European conviction that a unilateral change of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, and in particular a military escalation, would be unacceptable.” 

“A military escalation in the Taiwan Strait … would be a horror scenario for the entire world,” Baerbock cautioned. 

The April 16 to 18 gathering of G7 leaders took place after China’s three-day war games around Taiwan in retaliation for Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s meeting with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in California. Beijing staged military drills including air and sea blockade training, as well as simulated warplane strikes with live ammunition under “actual combat conditions.”

China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) also announced plans to start naval military drills lasting three days around the southern Chinese province of Hainan in the South China Sea on April 21. The exercises are scheduled to begin at 6 pm local time and end at 8 am local time on April 23. During the drills, a temporary navigation ban will be enforced in the surrounding waters. 

Even though China and Taiwan have been ruled separately for over seven decades, Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province and has pledged to reunite the island with the mainland, by force, if necessary. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has lashed out at foreign forces intervening in what it claims are its “internal affairs.” 

Following the G7 leaders’ criticism of Chinese actions in the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Wenbin hit back at the G7 for having “grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs and maliciously smeared and discredited China.” Besides, an enraged Wang claimed that the joint G7 statement manifested the group’s “arrogance, prejudice and deliberate desire to block and contain China. We deplore and reject this and have made a strong démarche to the host (of this year’s G7) Japan.” 

Wang further maintained that Taiwan was “part of China’s sacred territory” and the one-China principle was “what underpins peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.” Additionally, Wang alleged, to ensure “real peace” in the Taiwan Strait, it was “absolutely essential” to “unequivocally oppose and stop any act for ‘Taiwan independence’.”

Also, the Chinese minister broached the topics of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, which he claimed were “purely China’s internal affairs” and that Beijing would “not tolerate interference by any outside force under any name or in any way”, adding: “The situation in the East China Sea and the South China Sea remains stable on the whole. Relevant (G7) countries should earnestly respect the efforts of regional countries to maintain peace and stability, stop sowing discord between regional countries and provoking confrontation between camps.”

On April 20, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said that his country desires “constructive and stable” relations with China, calling on Beijing to act “responsibly”.

Sino-Japanese relations have plummeted in recent years, with Japan labeling China as its “greatest strategic challenge ever”, as it ramped up its defense expenditure. 

“We’re facing the most challenging, complex security environment since the war and what must be prioritized, I believe, is proactive diplomacy with China,” Kishida told reporters. 

Japan wants a “constructive and stable relationship” with Beijing, “which requires efforts on both sides,” he added.

“We will continue to call on China to act responsibly.”

Kishida met Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit in 2022, and the Japanese foreign minister was in Beijing this month, the first such trip since December 2019.

However, Tokyo declared it was joining Washington in unveiling export controls on semiconductor equipment, perceived by many as targeting Beijing, and with a Japanese businessman being detained by Chinese authorities on charges of spying.

Kishida urged China to “ensure transparency in the judicial process” and return detained Japanese nationals. The Japanese premier also posited that China had room for improvement to guarantee a “transparent, predictable and fair business environment”. 

“In addition to guaranteeing the safety of the Japanese citizens, the legitimate business activities of Japanese companies should also be ensured,” he elaborated. 

Kishida pointed out that the “stability” of Sino-US ties is “extremely important for the international community”, while assuring that Japan would hold China accountable in fulfilling its duties “as a major power in the international community”.

China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies respectively, and Beijing is Tokyo’s biggest trading partner. Notwithstanding closely connected Sino-Japanese economic ties, Tokyo’s plan to double defense spending over five years has been Japan’s largest intended military overhaul since the Second World War. Such a move was made to deter China from invading Taiwan or surrounding Japanese islands.

Photo credit: iStock/ Bet_Noire

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