Features | Security | East Asia

What Next for the G8?

Can an organisation that excludes China legitimately take the lead on tackling the big security issues facing Asia?

After spending the opening day arguing over economics, the leaders of the Group of Eight leading industrial countries spent most of the second day of their annual summit last weekend trying to tackle the world’s most important security issues.

The meeting provided an opportunity for the attendees to express their collective assessment on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to peace-building in several statements including the final Muskoka Declaration. But perhaps inevitably, the volatile situation on the Korean Peninsula following the sinking of South Korea’s Cheonan warship was the focus of some of the most intense discussions.

Almost all of the G8 leaders urged attendees to back the efforts of the South Korean government to explicitly condemn North Korea over the incident, including Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan who called the alleged North Korean torpedo attack ‘a threat to the peace and stability of the region.’

But in pressing for this condemnation, G8 leaders also ended up highlighting arguably the most unusual feature of the very group itself—the exclusion of China.

Based on influence alone (including over North Korea), China should be a natural G8 member, but its authoritarian political system has made other G8 nations reluctant to admit it. Indeed, Russia itself only entered thanks to strong US pressure to reward Boris Yeltsin for his halting reform efforts and to try to bolster the beleaguered Russian president against his domestic critics. After his successor, Vladimir Putin, rolled back some domestic freedoms and adopted more confrontational foreign policies, calls arose from some Western politicians to remove Russia from the G8, but the group lacks a formal procedure for doing so.

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Reluctance over China joining the G8 cuts both ways though, with Beijing also being wary about throwing its hat in the G8 ring, presumably because of worries about attention being drawn to its non-democratic domestic policies (it also likely wants to keep its mantle as representative of developing countries, many of which object to the elite G8 acting as a global directorate).

Whatever the reasons for China’s absence, it left Russia to take the lead in resisting the efforts of Canada, Japan and the United States to show solidarity for the South Korean government in condemning North Korea over the sinking. An anonymous member of the Russian delegation, explaining his government’s reluctance to aggressively confront Pyongyang, said Russian investigators had yet to determine conclusively through their own independent investigation that a North Korean torpedo had caused the explosion. But the deeper reason for Moscow’s stance is that Russian officials, like their Chinese counterparts, fear that too confrontational a policy toward North Korea could backfire, driving Pyongyang further into isolation and risking the chaos that would ensue on their border if a war was to break out on the Peninsula or if Kim Jong-il’s regime collapsed.

Moscow’s opposition meant the Muskoka Declaration had to employ torturously compromising wording to meet competing national positions, and although the communiqué refers to the conclusion of the Joint Civilian-Military Investigation Group (the multinational investigation that identified a North Korean torpedo as the cause), and demands that North Korea not attack or threaten its neighbour, the text declines to explicitly identify it as responsible for the vessel’s sinking.

That said, the tone was still more critical than UN Security Council resolutions on the subject, with its insistence that North Korea ‘does not, and cannot, have the status of a nuclear-weapon state in accordance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,’ and calling on Pyongyang to ‘abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear and ballistic missile programs, as well as proliferation activities, in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner’ being unusually blunt for an international text of this sort.

This stern language has in turn increased pressure on China to induce North Korea to return to the Six Party Talks and support a ‘strongly worded’ resolution formally condemning Pyongyang for the sinking. This was apparently the main outcome sought by US President Barack Obama, who pressed visibly for a strong response in his one-on-one talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and at the follow-on G20 summit in Toronto with Chinese President Hu Jintao.

On Asia’s other nuclear holdout, Iran, the discussions were less contentious, presumably because they followed the adoption earlier in June of additional UN Security Council sanctions on Tehran supported by all eight governments. The Muskoka Declaration, while acknowledging Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, argued its government had to provide more information about its nuclear activities ‘to persuade Iran’s leaders to engage in a transparent dialogue about its nuclear activities and to meet Iran’s international obligations.’

Interestingly, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters that one force driving G8 action was the fear that ‘Israel will probably react pre-emptively’ if Iran doesn’t constrain its nuclear activities. It’s unclear how widely this view was shared among other gathered leaders, and it seems that the US is likely more motivated by a desire to ensure, in keeping with Obama’s Prague disarmament speech last April, that ‘irresponsible behavior’ must have consequences.

But issues of nuclear security weren’t confined to Iran and North Korea. The G8 addressed another concern of many Asian governments by calling on all countries to adopt the Additional Protocol of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). This document requires its parties to give the IAEA additional information about their nuclear activities, including by allowing IAEA inspectors access to non-declared sites where suspect nuclear activity may be occurring. Iran, India, Pakistan and other Asian nuclear powers have yet to adopt the Additional Protocol, which the Muskoka Declaration called ‘the new universally accepted standard for verification of peaceful uses of nuclear energy.’

Of particular interest to G20 power India, meanwhile, was the G8 decision to renew for another year their collective prohibition on the sale of enrichment and reprocessing technologies and equipment to countries that haven’t signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT). The US and other governments have sought to include such a ban in the guidelines of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG), but they failed to secure the approval of all 46 members at last month’s NSG meeting in Christchurch. They therefore again decided to use the smaller G8, whose members are also leading nuclear technology exporters, to generate pressure for a more comprehensive ban.

Concerns about nuclear security issues also extended to terrorism, although G8 leaders for some reason ignored the calls of international security experts, endorsed by the Canadian and US governments, to renew and extend their Global Partnership Against the Spread of Weapons and Materials of Mass Destruction, which they adopted in 2002. Under this programme, the G8 pledged to spend $20 billion over the following decade on efforts to reduce WMD threats. Most of this money has funded projects in Russia, though in recent years the deal has also supported non-proliferation projects in Ukraine.

G8 governments decided to defer deciding on any renewed programme until next year, a troubling decision as extending the Partnership another decade, while expanding its geographic reach and the types of WMD threats it addresses, will be an essential part of tackling threats that will almost certainly persist well beyond 2012. A renewed programme could address WMD threats in Asia, including the old ones inherited from the Cold War—such as the decaying Russian nuclear-powered submarines based in Russia’s Pacific ports—and new ones relating to the nuclear programmes in Pakistan, India and other post-Cold War nuclear powers.

There was, of course, more to the discussions on Iran and North Korea than their nuclear programmes, with the Muskoka Declaration urging ‘the Government of Iran to respect the rule of law and freedom of expression, as outlined in the international treaties to which Iran is a party,’ while also castigating Pyongyang’s human rights policies. But perhaps the most explicit criticism of an Asian government was reserved for Burma, which, like the North Korean regime, suffered from not having Chinese leaders at summit deliberations to defend it.

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As well as reaffirming the desire of many of their absent colleagues that Afghan President Karzai use this month’s international conference in Kabul to show that he’s meeting the commitments made at the January 2010 London Conference to introduce political, military, and other reforms needed to assume leadership of the Afghan War, the Muskoka Declaration also pointed to progress regarding the new G8 Afghanistan Pakistan Border Region Prosperity Initiative. It noted, for example, that the two projects selected for priority development by the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan—a Peshawar-Jalalabad expressway and a feasibility study for a Peshawar-Jalalabad rail link—have already received support from international donors.

The Initiative was launched on March 29 in the hopes that increasing border trade would improve the socio-economic situation of the local Pashtun communities along both sides of the impoverished Afghan-Pakistan border, the main base of operation of both the Afghan and the Pakistan Taliban. But the oft-presumed link between poverty and violent extremism has always been suspect, and can anyway be overwhelmed by other socioeconomic forces, such as tribal nationalism and political alienation from the non-Pashtun dominated governments in Kabul and Islamabad.

More broadly, though, G8 leaders should be considering the very future of the institution itself now that the G20—whose members, thanks to its inclusion of Asian economic heavyweights like China and India, account for 85 percent of global GDP—has taken charge of international economic matters.

Canadian Prime Minister Harper and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev expressed strong support for addressing international security, climate change, global health, development assistance and other issues unrelated to addressing current economic problems—the purview of the G20—within the G8 format.

Underscoring this view, Harper told the media that, ‘I think all the leaders at this point would be pretty strong in their view, based on the discussion we had, that the G8 is a pretty essential organization going forward.’

Yet the exclusion of Brazil, China, India from the G8 has led many to challenge the institution’s legitimacy and even relevance. Indeed, the exclusion of China when addressing nuclear threats such as North Korea is especially glaring, and prompted the Japanese prime minister’s spokesperson to suggest that Beijing’s role in the G8 be expanded beyond the traditional group outreach sessions to give it ‘ an even larger sense of responsibility.’

The precise division of labour between the two institutions is evolving, but it appears unlikely that the G20 will forever abstain from addressing international peace and security issues. Like the G8, which also was originally established to manage primarily economic issues but was soon issuing policy guidance on regional crises and transnational threats, the G20 has already found it impossible to avoid addressing security issues related to its predominately economic agenda. For example, the shock of the September 11 terrorist attacks led the G20, then an informal dialogue mechanism on financial policy, to adopt an Action Plan against Terrorist Financing that committed members to work with one another and other international institutions to block terrorist access to financial systems.

All this makes it seem inevitable that G20 members such as Brazil and India, who remain excluded from the G8 and the UN Security Council, will be especially inclined to try to bring additional issues within the G20 agenda to give them a greater voice in the resolution of these many fundamental issues that concern them.