“Flattery with a catch” is the best way to describe Donald Trump’s call to include Australia in an expanded Group of 7 meeting, or G7.
No doubt Canberra would love a seat at the top table. But the US President has also proposed bringing Russia back into the fold – which will be about as welcome as a “shirtfront”, you might say, given Moscow was booted from a then G8 back in 2014 over the annexation of Crimea, added to Trump’s own turmoil about Russian ties, and Australia’s still unresolved efforts to find justice for the victims of MH17.
But the Russia challenge is far from the most awkward question Canberra must consider.
The US president is effectively inviting Australia to make choice – to join in a forum which historically had a mission to smooth the management of the world economy, but one which would now deliberately exclude Australia’s largest trading partner, China.
Trump’s expansion plan very pointedly does not include China. Given the President’s justification for expanding the G7 is that the membership is “very outdated” (true) and does not properly represent “what’s going on in the world” (also true), excluding the world’s second biggest economy from the talks makes it clear he isn’t motivated by a desire to reflect a more contemporary spectrum of global economic power.
So the US president is effectively inviting Australia to make choice – to join in a forum which historically had a mission to smooth the management of the world economy, but one which would now deliberately exclude Australia’s largest trading partner, China. A China Trump has cast in increasingly hostile terms. And a China that is already a member of what had previously been touted at the next big thing in economic diplomacy, the G20.
Which leads to the next question. What, exactly, would a G7+ intend to do? Does it have an economic agenda? Or a broader purpose, more akin to managing a world where the US has simply “cut off the whole relationship” with China, as Trump put it this month? Is it supposed to represent unity among leading democracies. But again, why Russia?
Presumably Trump wouldn’t have publicly floated his expansion plan without first having secured the in-principle support of Australia, Russia, South Korea and India, the four countries he mentioned. Although with Trump, you can never be sure. A so-called D-10 had been mooted last week around telecommunications, involving Australia, India and South Korea, but Trump seems to have added Russia to the roster alone.
And will this proposal be backed by the Democrats? Trump has flagged delaying the G7 to September, just two months before a presidential election that might see him defeated and Joe Biden win the White House.
But the biggest problem with multilateral summits in recent years has been practical; settling on an agenda to make all the effort worthwhile. So much energy has instead been devoted to questions of membership – who is in, who is out, or who will get to host the next meeting. Then there is the cost involved in providing security for thousands of officials, media and delegates at other associated talkfests. The actual work by leaders themselves has become stale, a series of rote presentations of already established positions, at least in the formal meetings. This has been a common complaint about the G20. And Trump famously refused to sign on to the communiqué of one G7 meeting.
The coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on travel might be an excuse to get rid of the circus-like aspect of summiteering. The time of leaders is valuable (or should be) and the diplomatic calendar is already too crowded with leadership summits that appear to privilege the gathering far more than the outcome. Scheduling the time of presidents and prime ministers to fly across the world to converge can be a nightmare, so perhaps this is a chance to cement the virtual meeting, as Southeast Asian nations have done, with their ASEAN Plus Three talks involving China, Japan and South Korea.
But again, with Trump, it’s hard to imagine he’d be willing to surrender the stage and pageantry involved. He had wanted to host a G7 next month at Camp David to signal what he called “normalisation”, despite the US still struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak.
So if Australia does back the G7+, adding another meeting to the PM's schedule, something else may need to give. Could it spell the end for the G20? Likewise APEC, which was cancelled last year, and failed to reach an outcome the year before? The East Asia Summit now appears an optional extra, while the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, despite the fervent hopes of Brexiteers, is a zombie that has refused to die.
Participation always sends a signal. As head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Peter Varghese used to deploy a neat formula, “Six + Two + N”, to describe Australia’s then priorities in diplomacy. The “six” represented key relationships: the US, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, India, and yes, China. The “N” stood for neighbourhood, Australia’s special ties in the Pacific. The “two” was for the multilateral summits considered most vital, the EAS and G20.
Now the challenge is to rebalance that equation.