CARBIS BAY, England (AP) — Leaders of the world’s largest economies on Saturday unveiled an infrastructure plan for the developing world to compete with China’s efforts, but the democracies didn’t immediately agree on how to publicly call out Beijing, including for its forced labor practices.
The proposal on labor practices is part of President Joe Biden’s escalating campaign to get fellow democratic leaders to present a more unified front to compete economically with China in the century ahead. But while they agreed to work toward competing against China, there was less unity on how adversarial a position the group should take with Beijing.
Canada, the United Kingdom and France largely agreed with Biden’s exhortation to condemn China’s forced labor practices, while Germany, Italy and the European Union showed more hesitancy in Saturday’s first session of the Group of Seven summit, according to a senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the plans publicly.
White House officials have said Biden wants G-7 leaders to speak in a single voice against forced labor practices targeting Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. Biden hopes the denunciation will be part of a joint communique to be released Sunday when the summit ends, but some European allies are reluctant to so forcefully split with Beijing.
China had become one of the more compelling sublots of the wealthy nations summit on the freshly raked sand of Carbis Bay in southwest England for their first gathering since 2019. Last year’s gathering was canceled because of COVID-19, and recovery from the pandemic is dominating this year’s discussions, with members of the wealthy democracies’ club expected to commit to sharing at least 1 billion vaccine shots with struggling countries.
The allies also took the first steps in unveiling an infrastructure proposal dubbed “Build Back Better for the World,” a name echoing the American president’s campaign slogan. The plan calls for spending hundreds of billions of dollars in collaboration with the private sector while adhering to climate standards and labor practices.
It’s designed to compete with China’s trillion-dollar “Belt and Road Initiative,” which has launched a network of projects and maritime lanes that already snake around large portions of the world, primarily Asia and Africa. Critics say China’s projects often create massive debt and expose nations to undue influence by Beijing.
Britain also wants the world’s democracies to become less reliant on economic giant China. The U.K. government said Saturday’s discussions will tackle “how we can shape the global system to deliver for our people in support of our values,” including by diversifying supply chains that currently heavily depend on China.
Not every European power has viewed China in as harsh a light as Biden, who has painted the rivalry with the techno-security state as the defining competition for the 21st century. But there are some signs that Europe is willing to put greater scrutiny on Beijing.
Before Biden took office in January, the European Commission announced it had come to terms with Beijing on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, a deal meant to provide Europe and China greater access to each other’s markets. The Biden administration had hoped to have consultations on the pact.
But the deal has been put on hold, and the European Union in March announced sanctions targeting four Chinese officials involved with human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Beijing responded by imposing sanctions on several members of the European Parliament and other Europeans critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Biden administration officials see the moment as an opportunity to take concrete action to speak out against China’s reliance on forced labor as an “affront to human dignity.”
While calling out China in the communique wouldn’t create any immediate penalties for Beijing, one senior administration official said the action was meant to send a message that the G-7 was serious about defending human rights and working together to eradicate the use of forced labor.
An estimated 1 million people or more — most of them Uyghurs — have been confined in reeducation camps in China’s western Xinjiang region in recent years, according to researchers. Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, systematic forced birth control, torture and separating children from incarcerated parents.
Beijing rejects allegations that it is committing crimes.
The G-7 leaders, the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and Italy, also hope three days of meetings at a seaside resort in southwestern England will help energize the global economy and sharpen a focus on combating climate change. The leaders were slated to attend a barbecue Saturday night and listen to sea shanties.
Hundreds of environmental protesters took to the Cornish seaside early Saturday in a bid to draw the attention to climate issues. A crowd of surfers, kayakers and swimmers gathered on a beach in Falmouth for a mass “paddle out protest” organized by Surfers Against Sewage, a group campaigning for more ocean protections.
British Prime Minister Johnson opened the summit on Friday by warning that the world must not repeat errors of the past 18 months , or those made during the recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis. If not, he said the pandemic “risks being a lasting scar” that entrenched inequalities.
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Johnson said the goal of the measures was “to make sure that never again will we be caught unawares.”
Brexit will also cast a shadow Saturday as Johnson meets separately with European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron amid tensions over Britain’s implementation of U.K.-EU divorce terms. Macron will also hold talks with Biden — a meeting between allies who recalibrated relations during the four years of President Donald Trump’s “America first” foreign policy.
Biden ends the trip Wednesday by meeting in Geneva with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. The White House announced Saturday that they will not hold a joint news conference afterward, which removes the opportunity for comparisons to the availability that followed Trump and Putin’s 2018 Helsinki summit, in which Trump sided with Moscow over his own intelligence agencies.
Only Biden will address the news media. Aides have suggested there was little interest in elevating Putin further by having the two men appear together in such a format. Others have expressed concern that Putin could try to score points on Biden, 78, who will be in the final hours of a grueling eight-day European trip.
Putin, in an interview with NBC News, portions of which aired Friday, said the U.S.-Russia relationship had “deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years.”
He added that while Trump was a “talented” and “colorful” person, Biden was a “career man” in politics, which has “some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements” by the U.S. president.