On Sunday and Monday this week, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States — convened in Toronto. At the conclusion of their deliberations, the ministers issued a communiqué, as is normal for G7 ministerial meetings.
The communiqué released on Monday this week contains one of the strongest international statements on the South China Sea we’ve seen since the group issued a separate declaration on maritime security in its Lübeck statement in April 2015. The paragraph on the East and South China Seas in the 2017 communiqué reads as follows:
We remain concerned about the situation in the East and South China seas. We reiterate our strong opposition to any unilateral actions that escalate tensions and undermine regional stability and the international rules-based order, such as the threat or use of force, large-scale land reclamation and building of outposts, as well as their use for military purposes. We urge all parties to comply with their obligations under international law, and call for the full and effective implementation of the commitments in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in their entirety. We emphasize the importance of ongoing negotiations for an effective code of conduct and welcome an agreement that does not derogate from the rights parties enjoy under international law or affect the rights of third parties. We also recognize that in order to secure stability in the region, such diplomatic efforts should lead to demilitarization of disputed features and a peaceful and open South China Sea in accordance with international law. We consider the July 12, 2016, award rendered by the Arbitral Tribunal under the UNCLOS as a useful basis for further efforts to peacefully resolve disputes in the South China Sea. We reiterate our concern regarding the destruction of marine ecosystems in the South China Sea, which threatens their sustainability and regional fish stocks, and reaffirm our commitment to increasing international cooperation to enhance protection of the marine environment. We reaffirm our commitment to further international cooperation on maritime security and safety, as well as the protection and sustainable management of the marine environment.
The statement basically covers the gamut in terms of what one could expect out of a communiqué like this. Without singling out China, it clearly highlights activities that China, out of all claimants, has been disproportionately pursuing, including the militarization of features. Additionally, the statement acknowledges progress made last year in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ long-running diplomatic process with China toward a code of conduct, but adds an important qualifier that the code should be “an agreement that does not derogate from the rights parties enjoy under international law or affect the rights of third parties.” That’s important since last year’s draft framework fell far short of what many Asian security analysts had hoped for. China’s charm offensive toward ASEAN, building on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot toward Beijing, has succeeded in considerably lowering the odds that a South China Sea code of conduct would be binding.
Monday’s statement is also the first from the G7 to mention the “Indo-Pacific region.” The focus here is again unsurprising given that among the group, Japan and the United States are forward-leaning proponents of a “free and open Indo-Pacific.” The principles the two countries — and the G7 — have emphasized in the past are reemphasized here in the context of the Indo-Pacific region, including “cooperative, international maritime governance” and “a rules-based maritime order based on international law as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The communique also includes language similar to what we’ve seen out of Japan, the United States, India, and Australia — the so-called Quad — on connectivity, taking a swipe at China’s Belt and Road Initiative without naming it. “We emphasize the importance of improving connectivity for fostering sustainable and balanced growth and for bringing countries, people, societies and economies closer together, particularly through new transportation infrastructure, energy infrastructure, digital links and cultural exchanges, among others,” the communique notes. “When financing and building infrastructure, we stress the critical importance of promoting quality and open practices, such as non-discriminatory procurement, a level playing field, free and open trade, transparency, and interoperability, as well as fiscally, environmentally and socially sustainable growth,” it adds.