By Wataru Okubo, economic reporter, Tokyo Bureau
I was in Taormina in southern Italy to cover the G7 Summit that took place on May 26 and 27. Conflict between the U.S. and the six other G7 nations over free trade and global warming prevention measures became apparent with the advent of the Trump administration, which upholds an “America First” policy.
The disintegration of cooperation among the G7, which share such universal values as freedom, respect for human rights, rule of law, will foment the rise of the hegemonic nations China and Russia, and this may seriously disrupt the international order. I believe Japan and the European countries should patiently persuade the U.S. about the importance of the G7 framework.
Trump gives priority to America
The key issues at this summit were free trade and global warming prevention. After his inauguration, President Donald Trump announced the U.S.’s withdrawal from the TPP and his plan to renegotiate NAFTA. He had indicated his intention to promote bilateral trade negotiations that will benefit U.S. industries and employment. At the summit, he was against including the usual passage on “fighting protectionism” in the G7 Leaders’ Communique.
As a result of coordination efforts that continued until the last minute, “fighting protectionism” was written into the communique, but “free, fair, and mutually beneficial trade,” as advocated by the U.S., was also included. While a Japanese government source was relieved that “a serious rift among the G7 nations has been avoided,” Trump had asserted on the first day of the summit that “mutually beneficial trade” meant that “if the other party imposes a 30% tariff, we should also impose a 30% tariff.” He took a tough stance and indicated that the U.S. would not hesitate to take retaliatory measures against what it regards as unfair trade.
Although the anti-protectionism clause was written into the communique, Trump has by no means changed his position. A Japanese government official involved with working-level negotiations at the G7 Summit said: “Mr. Trump only wants to promote U.S. economic interests. He prefers bilateral talks in which it is easier for the U.S. to negotiate the terms and does not appear to have any desire to deepen multilateral economic relations based on common rules.”
There was a clear gap between the U.S. position on global warming prevention measures and that of the other countries. Trump had declared during the presidential election campaign that he would withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, the new climate change framework, so at the summit the other G7 leaders tried to persuade the U.S. not to withdraw. Despite the expectations of the other nations – Italian Prime Minister said, “The Paris Agreement needs the United States.” – Trump announced the U.S.’s withdrawal on June 1 on grounds that it “disadvantages U.S. workers.” The withdrawal of the U.S., the world’s number two emitter of greenhouse gases after China, may render the international community’s global warming prevention measures ineffective.
Concerns about growing Chinese, Russian influence in the international order
All countries pursue their national interests. However, they will have to accept a certain cost for the sake of the sustainability and stability of the international community. I believe the role of the G7 is to find this middle ground.
What will happen to the international order if the unity of the G7 disintegrates? Of concern is that China and Russia may exploit this vulnerability to expand their influence. Chinese President Xi Jinping convened a summit meeting for the “One Belt and One Road” initiative, or a modern Silk Road economic zone, in Beijing in mid-May, just shortly before the G7 Summit. This was attended by Russian President Vladimir Putin and the leaders of 28 other countries, who lauded this new China-led economic framework that extends from East Asia to Europe. Trump, who has rejected the foreign policy of former President Barack Obama, also appears to be eager to move closer to China and Russia.
However, China oppresses the Tibetans and continues its reclamation of reefs in the South China Sea in defiance of international law, while Russia annexed Crimea in southern Ukraine through military intervention. Both countries affirm “changing the status quo by force.” They are incompatible with the common values shared by the G7.
In Italy, which hosted the 2017 G7 Summit, the Five Star Movement, a new political party founded by comedian Beppe Grillo, is growing in popularity as an anti-establishment party. I asked a taxi driver who supports the Five Star Movement if he was comfortable with entrusting the government to Grillo. His answer was: “Trump himself is a joke. With America being a comedy, anything is possible in this world.”
I felt that a world where values once taken for granted, such as freedom, respect for human rights, and the rule of law, can no longer be taken for granted is just around the corner. (Slightly abridged)