The European Union said it had halted plans to ratify an investment agreement with China on Tuesday, as G7 foreign ministers met in London to hammer out a common response to a more assertive Beijing.
Valdis Dombrovskis, the EU trade commissioner, said the time was not right to seal the deal, which falls short of a fully fledged free trade agreement, after Brussels and Beijing hit each other with sanctions over the oppression of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.
“It is clear that in the current situation, with the EU sanctions against China and the Chinese counter-sanctions, including against members of the European Parliament, the environment is not conducive to the ratification of the agreement,” Mr Dombrovskis told Agence France-Presse.
Beijing retaliated with sanctions on members of the European Parliament after the EU imposed sanctions on officials implicated in human rights abuses against the Uyghurs. MEPs have said they would not now ratify the long mooted agreement.
Mr Dombrovskis’ comments suggest that the European Commission, which has long pushed for the deal, has accepted that political reality, despite Berlin pressing hard for the agreement.
In London, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and his counterparts from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US began their first face-to-face meeting in nearly two years with a 90 minute discussion of the challenge posed by China.
Dominic Raab said: “This demonstrates diplomacy is back.
“We believe in keeping trade open, we believe in standing up for open societies, for human rights and democracy, we believe in safeguarding and promoting public good, whether it is the environment and tackling climate change.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Monday evening that it was “not our purpose to try to contain China or hold China down.”
“What we are trying to do is to uphold the international rules-based order that our countries have invested so much in over so many decades to the benefit, I would argue, not just of our own citizens, but of people around the world including, by the way, China,” he added.
The communiqué to be agreed on Wednesday is expected to fudge its language on China, as the G7 walks a tightrope between trying to hold Beijing to account while maintaining cooperation on global challenges such as climate change and health.
Some governments, including Japan and Italy, are wary of talk of trying to constrain China.
Areas of consensus included the importance of protecting values and human rights, including strong condemnation of China’s abuse of its Uyghur population. British MPs last month declared that Beijing’s policies amounted to a genocide against the group.
There was also firm agreement on security issues, including around the South China Sea and East China Sea.
However, the need to cooperate and ensure a nuanced position on Beijing was stressed by some quarters.
The three-day round of intensive diplomacy sets the stage for a leaders summit hosted by Boris Johnson in Cornwall next month.
It will be the first G7 leaders’ since Donald Trump, the former US president, left office, and has been billed by the British government as an opportunity to restore the rules-based international order following President Joe Biden’s recommitment to Nato and the Paris Climate Accord.
The summit is also being attended by India, South Korea, Australia, South Africa and Brunei, the current president of the Association of South East Asian Nations, a choice of “guests” intended to signal Western commitment to alliance-building in the Indo-Pacific.
Delegates will also discuss global Covid recovery programmes on Wednesday.
However, they are not expected to announce further specific financial commitments for vaccine procurement.
There may also be tense conversations with some of the guest delegations over access to vaccine technology.
India and South Africa have both pushed for patent waivers for Covid-19 vaccines, a proposal so far resisted by G7 governments including the UK and the US.
Joe Biden said on Tuesday night he would like to hold his proposed summit with Vladimir Putin during his trip to the UK and Europe in June.
He said: "That is my hope and expectation. We're working on it." Mr Biden's first trip abroad as president is to attend the G7 summit in Cornwall and he will then fly on to Brussels.
The White House has said "additional elements" to the trip may be added.