G7’S softened stance on East and South China seas welcomed

Significant change in the language may have been a nod to concerns over the rising heat of rhetoric or a reluctance to stoke the issue further ahead of a Court of Arbitration ruling

PUBLISHED : Friday, 27 May, 2016, 11:44pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2016, 10:49pm

The foreign ministers of the Group of Seven advanced economies recently angered Beijing with a communique that alluded to China in opposing “intimidating, coercive or provocative unilateral actions” in the East and South China seas. The statement itself was arguably provocative, given that its focus on a regional question amid pressing global issues served the interests of host Japan, which is in dispute with China.

Yesterday their masters, at the end of a summit of G7 leaders in the central Japanese city of Ise-Shima, endorsed the foreign ministers’ statement. But that was in a face-saving last sentence of a relatively brief section on maritime security. It did not mask a significant softening in diplomatic language used to reiterate the G7’s stance.

G7 leaders express ‘concern’ about East and South China Sea disputes in closing statement

This may have been a nod to concerns among other G7 members including Washington about the rising heat of the rhetoric, or reluctance to stoke it further ahead of a ruling from the Court of Arbitration in The Hague expected to uphold a case brought by the Philippines, or a wish to set the stage for more rational debate by avoiding needless affront to the host of the upcoming and more important summit in Hangzhou of the Group of 20, which includes China and other fast-developing nations. But it is welcome regardless.

The G7 leaders made their point in a wordy preamble about maritime security generally in the global seas, without mentioning China. They reiterated their commitment to maintaining a rules-based maritime order in accordance with the principles of international law and respecting freedom of navigation and overflight.

The only mention of the East and South China seas emphasised the importance of the peaceful management and settlement of disputes. China, of course, claims it has international law on its side.

G7 leaders vow to send ‘clear signal’ over South China Sea row after Beijing warns it against ‘double standards’

Beijing is wasting no opportunity ahead of judgment in a case in which it has refused to participate in to rally international support or understanding. That includes an exposition in these pages this week by former chief executive Tung Chee-hwa of Beijing’s legal and historical position, in which he said the imperative was protecting the China-US relationship.

Meanwhile, rightly, the G7 leaders devoted a great deal more of their communique to a host of pressing global matters such as a fragile economy, the migration and refugee crisis, climate change, public health, energy and terrorism. That is a better forerunner to the G20.