When G7 leaders met last weekend in Cornwall, U.K., they had the opportunity, in the words of the communiqué, to reaffirm their commitment to “open societies and economies,” as well as “our shared values of democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.” But the opportunity was largely squandered with a weak statement and vague language. Things that should have been said were left unsaid.
First is the failure to take a clear and unambiguous stand against China. The language in the final communiqué is largely anodyne, and only mentions China three times in a 14,000-word statement. Although referring to the previous foreign-ministerial statement with much stronger wording against China’s human-rights abuses, the final communiqué fails to emphasize the ongoing genocide in Xinjiang, and only obliquely mentions the use of slave labour in the region, but without naming China. The section on Taiwan fails to mention China’s responsibility for the “unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions.” This subdued and evasive language is in sharp contrast to the strong and principled statements against Russia; the communiqué urges the latter to “stop its destabilizing behaviour and malign activities.”
The push-back and watering down of the language likely came from the European members of G7 that are reluctant to upset their trade relationships with Beijing, despite the recent shock of Chinese sanctions against European Parliament members and scholars, and the increasing — albeit gradual — recognition by the European political and diplomatic elite of the threat China poses to the liberal international order. It’s nevertheless a missed opportunity for the liberal democracies to draw a line in the sand against the human-rights abuses and aggressive foreign policy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Second, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau missed an opportunity to spotlight the plight of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who are being held hostage by China, instead settling for a general reference to arbitrary detention and the Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations. It’s particularly unfortunate, since, according to British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Trudeau took the lead in discussing China.
Clearly, trying to placate the CCP regime in the hopes of securing the release of Kovrig and Spavor is a fool’s errand. Including their names in the final communiqué would have been a major sign that the world’s leading democracies are standing with Canada against this hostage-taking. It wouldn’t lead to the release of the two Canadians right away, but it would have increased the reputational costs for the CCP regime significantly, while being a greater deterrent against future hostage-taking by a regime that’s very conscious of its standing in the international arena.
Some would argue that, in the end, actions are what matter, not words on a piece of paper. Words, however, draw the boundaries for which actions are thinkable, acceptable, and legitimate, and which are not. By not naming the state responsible for increased tensions in the region, and by refusing to point the finger at those responsible for genocide, slave labour, and hostage-taking — in other words, by not identifying the elephant in the room that is China — we weaken our case, both moral and practical, to tackle the problems. With that inaction, we reveal our reluctance to stand up to China’s human-rights abuses and aggressive international behaviour when China has a sufficiently large market for our goods and services.
If the world’s rich liberal democracies aren’t willing to pay modest economic costs for their values and principles, why would others not accept the fistful of dollars offered by the CCP regime? Words indeed have consequences, in their utterance as well as their absence. It’s a pity that the opportunity to draw a line in the sand on the shores of Carbis Bay was missed.
Balkan Devlen, PhD, is a senior fellow at the Macdonald Laurier Institute and adjunct research professor at the Norman Paterson school of international affairs at Carleton University.
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