Blinken in UK as G7 foreign ministers discuss in-person Russia, China

US State Secretary Anthony Blinken arrives in London for the G7 ministerial meeting. [Twitter account of Anthony Blinken]

Britain this week hosts the first face-to-face meeting of G7 foreign ministers in two years, joined by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, as world powers tackle pandemic recovery plus growing tensions with Russia and China.

The Covid-secure gathering in London will prepare the ground for a G7 summit in southwest England next month, which will mark Joe Biden’s inaugural visit to Europe as US president. The G7 groups Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States, plus the EU. Russia was evicted from G8 after the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Both events will also be joined by Indian leaders.

Many of the G7 nations have rallied to India’s aid as the world’s most populous democracy confronts a terrifying surge of coronavirus cases, although the pandemic is ebbing elsewhere in the West thanks to mass vaccination drives.

After its Brexit withdrawal from the European Union, Britain is reorienting its foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific region, and British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will also play host this week to ministers from Australia, South Korea and the ASEAN bloc.

Raab said some of the barriers between the G7 and other like-minded countries needed to be broken down, so that there could be a broader network of allies that stood up for open markets and democracy.

Rapid response mechanism

In the face of Russian “lies and propaganda” over Ukraine and other fronts, Raab said he wants the G7 “to come together with a rapid rebuttal mechanism” against disinformation.

“So that when we see these lies and propaganda or fake news being put out there, we cannot just individually but come together to provide a rebuttal and frankly to provide the truth, for the people of this country but also in Russia or China or around the world,” Raab said.

Russia and China are trying to sow mistrust across the West, whether by spreading disinformation in elections or by spreading lies about COVID-19 vaccines, according to British, US and European security officials.

Russia denies it is meddling beyond its borders and says the West is gripped by anti-Russian hysteria. China says the West is a bully and that its leaders have a post-imperial mindset that makes them feel they can act like some sort of global policeman.

The British Foreign Secretary also said many of those allies wanted “to know how this pandemic started.” The novel coronavirus outbreak, which began in China in 2019, has killed 3.2 million people and cost the world trillions of dollars in lost output.

En route to Ukraine

Blinken is en route to Ukraine this week pledging “unwavering” US support after Russian troops had massed on its border.

In bilateral talks Monday before the G7 ministers sit down to a working dinner, Raab and Blinken will discuss Afghanistan, China, Iran and trade, according to the British Foreign Office.

Like Russia, China also stands accused by Western intelligence of unleashing trolls on social media, and of using foreign-language arms of its state media to channel an aggressive line on issues such as the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

On China, the US expects the G7 “to discuss how we can work closely with our allies and partners to address our collective challenges from a position of strength”, senior State Department official Erica Barks-Ruggles told reporters.

Anger over aid cuts

More generally, Raab said, “we’ll be taking action to ensure fair access to vaccines around the world, setting global girls’ education targets, agreeing ambitious action on climate change and developing new measures to prevent famine”.

However, Britain is facing an outcry from campaigners after slashing its aid budget, with United Nations agencies including the children’s arm UNICEF warning of a devastating impact for millions of people around the world.

But like others in the G7, Britain says it must cope with budget pressures brought on by enormous spending to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, even as the group promises funding towards equitable vaccine access for poorer countries.

In addition to the Asia-Pacific guests, South Africa will attend this week and June’s summit.

The last in-person meeting of foreign ministers from the world’s leading economic powers took place in the seaside resort of Dinard, northwest France, in April 2019.

When the G7 ministers reconvene for formal talks on Tuesday and Wednesday, they will have an on-site testing facility and Perspex screens to separate them in meetings, and Britain has enforced limits on the size of each delegation.

“The meetings will be a demonstration of how to conduct diplomatic business safely and successfully as we recover from the pandemic,” the Foreign Office said.

Britain is also gearing up to host the UN’s next climate change summit, COP 26, in Glasgow in November.

“The pandemic and the climate crisis are the latest reminders that we are bound together in a global community,” Barks-Ruggles said, after Biden restored the United States to global climate talks on replacing former president Donald Trump.

“Our history of shared values with our G7 partners will be a firm base as we work to meet these global challenges,” the US official added.

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