The latest meeting of the G7 foreign and development ministers took place in Liverpool, England, from December 10 to 12, 2021. For the first time, the G7 invited foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to attend, apart from Myanmar.
The chair’s statement after the expanded meeting confirmed “the importance of maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, which is inclusive and based on the rule of law.”
Regarding the situation in the South China Sea, “concerns were expressed on the land reclamations, activities, serious incidents in the area, including damage to the marine environment, which have eroded trust and confidence, increased tensions, and may undermine peace, security, and stability in the region.”
The G7 has endorsed the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept advocated by Japan and the United States. Cooperation with the ASEAN countries, which are geographically situated in the heart of the region, is essential.
Two ASEAN foreign ministers attended the summit in person, while others participated online. We would like to see the parties use this foothold to firmly establish the “G7+ASEAN” as a framework for regional cooperation, for example, in tandem with ASEAN meetings.
China held a special online summit with ASEAN leaders on November 22, at which it announced it was “upgrading” its diplomatic relations with ASEAN to a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
The meeting was hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping instead of Premier Li Keqiang, who usually participates, further impressing the ASEAN leaders as they marked the 30th anniversary of ASEAN-China dialogue.
Yet, the fact remains that China continues to ignore international law in the South China Sea and militarize the artificial islands it has created there. It is not in ASEAN’s best interest to cooperate with China.
The G7 chairman’s statement also evidenced concern about how China has taken advantage of legitimate infrastructure development needs in developing countries to saddle these nations with enormous debts so as to increase its influence.
For example, a high-speed rail link between China and Laos opened in December 2021. The project would have been impossible without Chinese assistance, and there are doubts that it can ever turn a profit. Enhanced collaboration between the G7 and ASEAN could safeguard developing countries from falling into such debt traps.
Giving priority to attending the Diet session, Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi returned to Japan on the second day of the G7 Foreign and Development Ministers Meeting, attending only the first part of the day’s expanded session with ASEAN ministers. He should have demonstrated more affinity and consideration to the ASEAN representatives.
In 1978, Japan was the first nation to become a dialogue partner with ASEAN. Since then it has engaged in multifaceted interchanges with the group that has earned it trust as an equal and reliable partner. It is therefore easy for Japan to speak up on behalf of ASEAN within the G7.
As friction intensifies with China, it is vital that Japan maintain face-to-face diplomacy and a keen awareness in its diplomatic stance with ASEAN.