What Next for the G8?
Image Credit: White House / Pete Souza

What Next for the G8?


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.’

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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.

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.

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