G7 ‘extras’ guest list reveals UK foreign policy aims

Why Australia, South Africa, South Korea and India are joining the party.

G7 ‘extras’ guest list reveals UK foreign policy aims

FALMOUTH, England — If the G7 summit were a wedding, Boris Johnson’s “plus four” invitees would be the guests who get to attend the evening knees-up but not the ceremony itself.

Tradition dictates that the G7 host, in this case the U.K. prime minister, gets to bring along a cluster of other leaders who aren’t in the core group. So on day two of the gathering in Cornwall, a mini-procession of leaders from Australia, South Africa and South Korea trod the sandy boardwalk across the Carbis Bay beach to be greeted by Johnson and his wife Carrie. (Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was unable to attend in person because of the dire COVID situation at home.)

The group was carefully chosen, symbolizing one of the key intended messages of the summit — that there can be a wider alliance of nations outside the EU, and that alliance should serve as a counterweight to China. 

Climate diplomacy is also a factor. All four nations are big coal producers, and the U.K. will be hoping that in return for the high-level hobnobbing and sea views, it can do some early diplomatic cajoling ahead of the COP26 climate summit later this year in Glasgow.

But the line-up of “extras” has been greeted with a raised eyebrow by some who suspect the U.K. may be trying to remodel the G7 by the backdoor to serve its own foreign policy interests — though Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told The Atlantic there were no plans to formalize the expanded group.

Still, Global Britain has its own reasons for making nice with each member of the quartet, and the selection shows how much the U.K.’s immediate foreign policy has become dominated by two overwhelming concerns: trade and vaccine diplomacy.

Australia

A trade agreement in principle is expected as soon as next week between Canberra and London, with Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, due for dinner at Downing Street on Monday evening. It would be a personal triumph for International Trade Secretary Liz Truss, who is a fan of all things Aussie and has had to face down disquiet from within the Cabinet to bring the deal into view.

There are still kinks to iron out in order to get a deal over the line, however, according to trade officials. While the most public divisions have been about market access for agricultural goods, trade in services still presents sticking points.

The U.K. also strengthened its bond with Australia — and conveniently made the EU look bad in the process — when it facilitated the delivery of 700,000 AstraZeneca vaccines in April, after Italy had blocked a shipment during the low point of the vaccine wars. 

South Africa

As vaccine rollouts proceed more smoothly in the EU than earlier this year, attention at the summit has been fixed firmly on deploying vaccines around the world, albeit not as quickly or as efficiently as many would like. South Africa is key to that effort, and Cyril Ramaphosa, the country’s president — and until February the chair of the African Union — had every right to expect a berth of his own in Carbis Bay.

Britain has not trumpeted its African ties quite as loudly as it has done at previous summits, given that it is currently facing a backlash at home and side-eye from G7 partners for cutting its overseas aid budget. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t important upsides for the U.K. in having South Africa aboard.

Ramaphosa’s presence allows Johnson to signal that African countries are being included in the conversation on sharing vaccines, which is symbolically useful as long as no one points out that the U.K. continues to resist one of their main demands: the temporary lifting of patents.

Because all roads lead to China, South Africa’s attendance should also be viewed as an attempt to hug the country close and mitigate Beijing’s influence through infrastructure investment and the BRICS partnership (which also includes India, Brazil and Russia). Johnson made this overture explicit back in January when he said that he wanted the U.K. to be “Africa’s investment partner of choice.”

South Korea

Amid a global shortage of semiconductors, it’s only natural to invite China’s neighbour, and manufacturing rival, to the party. South Korea has a crucial role in global supply chains, particularly when it comes to manufacturing technological products that are vital for the world’s smartphones and cars. The country also announced that it would invest nearly half a trillion U.S. dollars in its semiconductor manufacturing earlier this month. 

South Korea is also regarded by some British officials as being an obvious base for expanding vaccine production in order to reduce Asian dependence on China’s vaccine factories, and raw materials. Its attitude to trade is also traditionally more open and less protectionist than that of India, which has halted exports of vaccines after COVID-19 infection rates in the country exploded.

But an attempt to use the summit to cool trade tensions with Japan may be another motivation. The impact on major economies of the global semiconductor shortage is becoming clear, affecting production at U.S. car companies like General Motors and Germany’s Volkswagen and Daimler. 

India

Being unable to come to the party in person is a not-so-subtle way to underscore how acute the impact of the pandemic still is in India. As an obvious counterweight to China in Asia, it’s a key plank of the U.K.’s Indo-Pacific tilt in trade and foreign policy. Britain is also trying to secure a trade deal with New Delhi in order to boost commercial and security ties with the nation. But it has not been plain sailing. 

Infection rates caused the country to be added to the U.K.’s red list, effectively banning travel and grounding Boris Johnson’s plans to meet Modi in person. India’s long-running reputation for protectionism was also underlined by its halt on exports of the COVID-19 vaccine from the Serum Institute in Pune. This is one of the world’s largest vaccine manufacturers and it was supposed to generate hundreds of millions of doses for poorer nations under the COVAX program. Not to mention 5 million more doses for the U.K.

David M. Herszenhorn and Karl Mathiesen contributed reporting.

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