At the intersection of diplomatic power and financial expertise, the G7 – an informal bloc of the world’s seven wealthiest democracies – should capitalize on the Middle East’s favorable diplomatic climate to promote a more stable region. How? By working closely with China where strategic objectives align, such as climate change, economic development, cyber innovation, supply chain resilience, and even counterterrorism.
This year’s Group of Seven (G7) summit came at a global, economic, and geopolitical juncture. The world is grappling with a plethora of issues that call for robust multilateral coordination and swift action. Strategic timing is further amplified by the fact that the G7 marks Joe Biden’s first stop on his inaugural foreign trip as president, preceding meetings with NATO, top EU leadership, and, most prominently, a one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva.
Equitable vaccine distribution, the post-pandemic global economic recovery, an accelerating climate crisis, reinvigorated diplomacy in the Middle East, and intensified geopolitical competition between the West and China are just a few of the issues that animated discussions as world leaders converged on the English coastline in Cornwall. The summit’s final communique specifically mentions China and that the G7 would continue to consider how best to challenge China’s behavior in the global economy. Beijing took little time in decisively responding: “The days when global decisions were dictated by a small group of countries are long gone,” a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in the UK said.
It is hardly a coincidence that the UK invited the leaders of Australia, Japan, and South Korea – Asian partners critical to counterbalancing Beijing – to the summit. The China question is particularly relevant to Middle Eastern states who perform a delicate balancing act between benefiting from a Western security apparatus and Beijing’s economic promise.
China is a global powerhouse. It was the only major economy not to contract in 2020, exporting over $268 billion in goods last November alone. Confrontational rivalry may become a reality if Chinese conduct induces it, but it is not something the West should embrace lightly without understanding the costs. Instead of seeking to counter China, the G7 should look to constructively engage with Beijing where interests align. In doing so, the West would enable Middle Eastern states to transcend their increasingly untenable dichotomy of Western military support and Chinese foreign investment. Unrestrained rivalry leads to security dilemmas that distort the behavior of states trapped within them – a reality the MENA region can’t afford. The depth and breadth of Chinese economic influence in the region makes the balancing act particularly challenging.
Beijing’s relationship with the Middle East is driven by energy security and its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a global infrastructure development strategy begun in 2013 with the aim of placing China at the heart of global trade networks. The BRI connects Asia with Africa and Europe, but more importantly improves regional integration, stimulates economic growth, and increases cross-regional trade. This entails sustained Chinese investments across multiple strategic sectors in the Gulf, such as logistics infrastructure in key ports, e.g., Khalifa in the UAE, Duqm in Oman, and Jazan in Saudi Arabia.
As GCC states navigate an awkward balance between Beijing and the West, they may be forced to take industry-specific sides. For instance, the Chinese government launched a digital sub-strand of the BRI called the Digital Silk Road (DSR) to promote innovation-driven development and intensify transnational cooperation in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and quantum computing.
Like the BRI, the DSR leverages the strengths of Chinese public and private sector conglomerates to further integrate Chinese technologies and standards into the digital ecosystems of frontier and emerging economies. This begets the possibility of further bifurcation between the West and China in global telecommunications infrastructure and digital technologies – areas with inexorable security and defense implications for host nations, as highlighted by the West’s recent effort to boycott Chinese tech giant Huawei.
Rather than exploring ways in which they can work with China on major global challenges, the Cornwall summit saw the G7 launch an independent infrastructure investment initiative dubbed Build Back Better World (B3W), an explicit, more environmentally focused retort to the BRI. While onlookers may interpret this as simply healthy competition, others will recognize obvious realpolitik suggesting a zero-sum equation with regards to infrastructure investment as a means of influence. This will come at the expense of socio-economic development progress in the Middle East where oil-reliant states may be forced to choose between rival initiatives. Alternatively, alignment and strategic synergy between both initiatives would maximize regional socio-economic growth potential, diversification efforts, and inclusive development.
Beyond infrastructure investment, the G7 and Beijing can find immediate common ground in combatting COVID-19. IMF estimates suggest that inoculating 70 percent of the world’s population by April 2022 would cost a mere $50 billion, just 0.13 percent of the G7’s GDP. In terms of increased global output, the cumulative economic benefit by 2025 would be $9 trillion, to say nothing of the many lives that would be saved.
COVAX, a multilateral initiative backed by the World Health Organization to provide vaccines to ill-supplied countries, is itself ill-supplied today. The Cornwall summit saw leaders of the G7 pledge one billion COVID-19 vaccine doses to low-income countries as a “big step towards vaccinating the world,” but most recent distribution trends indicate massive unmet potential. The Economist Intelligence Unit predicts that, if current distribution trends persist, substantive vaccine coverage in more than 85 low-income countries may not be possible until 2023. Preventing this dreary reality hinges on strategic cooperation with Beijing. For nations like Lebanon, Sudan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, vaccine-centric coordination between G7 nations and China is quite literally a matter of life and death.
Leaders of the G7 also reaffirmed a commitment to stop the Islamic Republic of Iran from building nuclear weapons. While there are signs that talks in Vienna involving the US, E3, China, Russia, and Iran are making progress, closer cooperation between Beijing and the G7 has the potential to stimulate broader thinking about stability in the Arabian Gulf through inclusive diplomatic dialogue.
Such cooperation would significantly improve the chance of negotiating an effective nuclear deal with material ramifications for Iran’s ballistic missile program and militant proxy network. Sino-Western efforts have the potential to extend across peacemaking and diplomatic initiatives – supporting fickle political progress in Sudan and Libya can be first on the agenda.
Rather than haggling over a hodgepodge of statements or anodyne communiques, G7 nations should aim for practical cooperation and strategic intersections that maximize transnational socio-economic development. At a moment when the pandemic and questions about the future of the Western liberal model are at the forefront of leaders’ minds, the Middle East’s path to prosperity should not be put on the back burner.
History suggests that pragmatic cooperation between China and the G7 is possible, with central bank coordination, climate change, P5+1 negotiations, and foreign aid as just a few examples. The G7’s claim of being a significant international force still rests on its ability to address cross-regional stability and economic development. Attempting to detach such global priorities from the byproducts of great power competition is, at best, untenable, and at worst, destabilizing.