Commentary |
10 June 2021

We only have a guest seat at G7 table

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review. Australia has been invited to this gathering of friends, but has no say in any decisions about how to get China to play by the rules. That’s a risk for the years ahead.

Daniel Flitton
Daniel Flitton

John Howard once gave voice to the abiding fear of Australian prime ministers, to ensure that they have a seat at the top table where great global decisions affecting the country are made.

It was 1997, the challenge then, as it remains today, to decide how the world would tackle the threat of global warming.

“My concern,” Howard told a travelling press pack outside the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in Washington, “was that the Americans and the Europeans would get together at the G7 meeting in Denver and agree on a joint course of action in relation to climate change that would effectively pre-empt the discussions in Kyoto.”

In other words, the big players would strike a deal in their exclusive club, leaving a country like Australia peering through the window from the outside, as a rule-taker, not a rule maker.

But Howard was reassured on that sticky day in June. The US would not leave Australia on the outer. History records his government eventually won special exemptions to increase Australia’s carbon emissions in what became known as the Kyoto protocol.

All of which explains why the man with the PM’s job in 2021 was so delighted this week to don a face mask and fly across the globe to join the G7 as an “outreach partner” for the weekend summit hosted by the United Kingdom in Cornwall.

“There has never been a more important time for Australia to be at the table,” Scott Morrison declared on Wednesday before jetting off.

Yet the promise of such momentous meetings is almost always over-sold. Modern diplomacy suffers from a tendency to herd leaders together in search of a photo op answer.

Cornwall, for Australia at least, will be remembered less for the specific outcomes, and more for how the meeting underscores the shift of foreign policy priorities, away from the focus on engaging with Asia and a return to the comfort of historic ties.

It’s not that Australia is seeking to stand apart from its region. Just that Asia is no longer seen as a place of boundless opportunity, and is instead framed by threats.

And for all the talk about common liberal democratic values at the G7, Australia does not have a guaranteed seat at this particular table. That’s a risk for the years ahead.

While Morrison was at pains to stress the G7 is gathering at a time of renewed international strain, for a long time Australia regarded this organisation in a more sepia tone – a relic with a colonial tinge.

“From our point of view, we think G22 is much better, not only because Australia is a member of it,” said Howard about the need to respond to the collapse of Asian financial markets in the 1990s.

“It is a more broadly based grouping than G7, and of course G7, apart from Japan, does not include any Asian countries.”

It might have been a case of choosing the right forum to meet the challenge. Yet when the global economy melted in 2008, Kevin Rudd was also determined that the G20, as it was by then known, be centre stage.

“Action by the G7 was not enough,” Rudd reflected about the evolution of the grouping.

“There were a range of systemically important countries outside the G7 whose collaboration was required – both developed and developing.”

By which, read “China”, the country most pointedly not part of the G7 outreach in Cornwall.

Of course, the years since have seen remarkable change in the fortunes of global affairs. The G20 had the advantage in response to a financial crisis, as Tony Abbott liked to repeat in his time at the top, that its members covered “85 per cent of global GDP, 75 per cent of global trade and 65 per cent of the world’s population”.

For economic legitimacy, the G20 was hard to beat. For Australia, crucially, it was a standing member – a position shared with crucial regional partners, particularly Indonesia.

But what amounts to a good character test for participation in international organisations has changed.

China’s attitudes and actions pose a different type of challenge to the established order. Beijing clearly wants to bend the international rules in its favour.

The G7 has traditionally had more of a security agenda in addition to an economic focus. Its status as a club of democracies was tested until Russia was given the boot in 2014 (although Donald Trump wanted to bring Vladimir Putin back).

But when Morrison talks of the need to “renovate” the rules, plainly the desire is for Australia’s voice to be heard.

But will it be listened to? Australia has plenty of recent bitter experience to share as the focus of China’s attempted coercion. But the comfort that comes from being invited to sit around the table sharing stories with friends – who might still make final decisions among themselves – should not be a substitute for the hard work of persuading those with a different view.

That is the challenge of diplomacy. Hard negotiations, including with rivals, are more likely to provide an enduring foundation for all countries to respect the rules.

None of this is helped by China’s petulance, refusing to even take a phone call. So Morrison is right to signal that Australia is still willing to engage.

“This is not about drawing a closed circle around a particular club,” he said.

But Australia is happy to be a guest on the inside. For now.