G7 leaders outline pandemic pact, eye foreign policy threats

G7 leaders are set to agree a declaration Saturday aimed at preventing another pandemic, and try to showcase Western democratic cohesion on China and Russia, at their first in-person summit in almost two years.

The group of leading economies — Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States — will be largely consumed by the global health crisis at their gathering at a beachside venue in Cornwall, southwest England.

But as the agenda broadens to foreign policy issues, they will also be joined by the leaders of Australia, South Africa and South Korea, with India taking part remotely.

The big powers’ first face-to-face meeting since 2019 — after the pandemic led to the cancellation of last year’s summit — will aim for a more unified stance towards an increasingly assertive Beijing and recalcitrant Moscow.

The leaders opened the three-day meeting Friday with expectations of a pledge to donate one billion vaccine doses to poor countries this year and next, which campaigners said was much too slow to end the crisis immediately.

US President Joe Biden arrived with a message of solidarity and resolve in stark contrast to the isolationist stance of his predecessor Donald Trump.

After an opening session on “building back better” from Covid-19, the leaders spent the evening at a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth II at Cornwall’s Eden Project, a renowned attraction showcasing the world’s ecological riches.

The G7 will on Sunday discuss tackling climate change and safeguarding global biodiversity, laying the groundwork for the UN’s pivotal COP26 environmental summit in Scotland in November.

– ‘Alternative vision’ –

On Saturday’s foreign policy agenda, this year’s coup in Myanmar and crackdown on pro-democracy supporters in Belarus are expected to figure, alongside tensions with Russia and China. 

Biden is expected to press allies to bolster cooperation in dealing with Beijing in various areas, from offering an alternative to its trillion-dollar Belt and Road infrastructure initiative to confronting its alleged forced labour practices.

“This is not just about confronting or taking on China,” a senior White House official said. “This is about providing an affirmative, positive alternative vision for the world.”

He added Biden would be urging “concrete action” on the forced labour accusations, calling them “an affront to human dignity, and an egregious example of China’s unfair economic competition”.

The US president will also seek to address frayed relations with Moscow, in particular over its cyber activity.

“There’s uniform recognition that ransomware and the abuse of virtual currencies is an urgent threat and escalating threat,” the US official said, noting the issue would feature prominently in every key meeting during Biden’s eight-day overseas tour.

Most of the leaders will reconvene Monday in Brussels for a NATO meeting, before Biden heads on to his first summit with President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, vowing to deliver a blunt message about Russian behaviour.

“I’ll tell you (about it) after I’ve delivered it,” Biden told reporters Friday.

In a rare interview with US media, Putin voiced hope Friday that Biden will be less impulsive than Trump, who faced criticism for being too soft on the Russian leader.

“It is my great hope that, yes, there are some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements on behalf of the sitting US president,” Putin told NBC News.

– ‘Pandemic radar’ –

The G7 is expected to finalise the “Carbis Bay Declaration” comprising a series of commitments to prevent a repeat of the devastation wreaked by Covid-19.

“For the first time today the world’s leading democracies have come together to make sure that never again will we be caught unawares,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in remarks released ahead of the summit’s second day.

“That means learning lessons from the last 18 months and doing it differently next time around.”

The declaration will be published Sunday alongside the G7’s final communique, following a beachside barbecue on Saturday night.

The collective steps include slashing the time taken to develop and license vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for any future disease to under 100 days, while reinforcing global surveillance networks.

The leaders will vow to boost genomic sequencing capacity, and support reforms to strengthen the World Health Organization, according to Johnson’s government, which like the US wants China to allow new access to WHO experts to determine how Covid-19 first emerged.

WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, criticised in some quarters for being too accommodating of China, welcomed the health pact.

And he said the UN agency would examine a British proposal to create a “Global Pandemic Radar” to send early warnings of future outbreaks.

“The world needs a stronger global surveillance system to detect new epidemic and pandemic risks,” Tedros said. 

However, Oxfam said the declaration “does nothing to address the fundamental problems that are preventing vaccines being accessible to the vast majority of humanity”. 

“It’s welcome that G7 leaders are planning measures to end future pandemics faster, but the lack of urgent action to end the current crisis is unforgiveable,” its health policy manager Anna Marriott said.

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