The third consecutive attendance for Australia demonstrates the country’s global importance and offers it the chance to collaborate on substantive matters
For the third consecutive year Australia has a seat at the G7 table. It’s a big deal. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has confirmed he will attend the Cornwall Summit – invited by UK prime minister Boris Johnson – in person.
It is symbolically significant for the self-proclaimed “regional power with global interests”, even as a guest. Bringing Australia shoulder to shoulder with global decision-makers, the G7 invitation offers a positive reflection of the country’s standing. In substance, it offers Morrison the chance to advance his views on pressing issues. And based on past experience, he will likely be an active participant. But it also puts a spotlight on Australian policy, particularly on climate change – a priority issue for the UK host.
Morrison appears unfazed. He has already made the point that he is “not one who rushes for the plane to attend summits. That’s not my style. I’d much prefer to be back working on issues domestically … While these events are necessary, my focus is always on Australia’s national interest at home.” Yet, Morrison is no stranger to summits. He recently participated in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue as well as US president Joe Biden’s much anticipated Leaders Summit on Climate.
But the UK-hosted G7 summit is particularly significant. First, the summit’s label as a “D10 meeting of the world’s leading democracies” resonates with Morrison’s broader foreign policy aspirations. And it explains why invitations have also been extended to India, Korea and South Africa.
Johnson’s intent to broaden the G7 as a ‘club of democracies’ makes it attractive to Australia. Alert to an emerging polarisation between authoritarian regimes and liberal democracies, particularly in the Indo-Pacific, Morrison has expressed an interest in looking towards opportunities for like-minded countries to “join together to push for freedom.”
DIPLOMACY AND RECOVERY
Just before the G7 foreign and development ministers meeting in May, Australian foreign minister Marise Payne tweeted about Australia’s intent to “discuss critical issues on advancing open societies and promoting global democratic values”.
The implicit agenda, of course, relates to China’s increasingly dominant role in the region. Over the past five years Australia’s bilateral relationship with this global powerhouse has deteriorated sharply, a trend likely to continue. Australia’s vocal stance on issues ranging from foreign interference to the origins of COVID-19 have been met with the ire of China’s wolf warrior diplomats and accompanied by targeted economic punishments. Australia will look to the G7 to build likeminded support to push back against a more aggressive China.
Second, the opportunity to talk through issues of COVID-19 response and recovery offers Morrison an opportunity to put concerns of equitable vaccine distribution firmly on the agenda. Australia’s competence in managing the pandemic has recently been overshadowed by a lagging national vaccine roll-out programme. The government blames much of that on EU measures blocking supply. Morrison claims that recent EU blocks on AstraZeneca supplies have hindered Australia’s ability to provide much-needed vaccines to neighbouring Pacific island states, including Papua New Guinea. This issue may well draw controversy, not least because EU members publicly reject Australia’s claims.
G7 leaders will likely devote greater attention to assisting India in its desperate plight to manage its current devastating COVID-19 outbreak. Here, Australia will no doubt attract criticism for closing its borders and imposing criminal charges against anyone, including Australian citizens, who try to enter the country from India.
On climate change, as his legacy issue, Johnson has made no secret that the G7 summit is an important diplomatic milestone for climate action on the road to the COP26 Glasgow summit he will co-host in November. Following Biden’s recent climate summit, the expectation that G7 and guests will lift their climate ambitions is high.
Already the EU, UK, US, Japan and Korea have declared their intent to reach net zero emissions by 2050, with many setting targets for 2030. Australia’s policy remains vague. Relying on rhetoric that speaks to technology-led solutions aimed at delivering jobs, Australia is an increasingly obvious outlier on climate action. Yet Australia may well be afforded a wide berth in the hope that Morrison will move towards an explicit commitment to achieve net zero emissions by Glasgow.
In short, the G7 agenda poses a mixed bag of opportunity and challenge for Australia. Despite his ambivalence towards global summits, Morrison, like other leaders, will undoubtedly relish the opportunity to connect personally with counterparts through the formal dialogues and informal corridor conversations. The potential for sideline catch-ups with the UK, as well as with Quad partners, while emphasising the strategic significance of the Indo-Pacific will be of particular interest. Substantive issues aside, this opportunity for personal interaction after a year of virtual engagement will be the most important aspect of Australia’s G7 participation.