China looms large in G7 talks, Trudeau-Biden dialogue

How to deal with a more economically assertive and sometimes politically belligerent China dominated the official and unofficial dialogue among G7 leaders on Saturday, senior Canadian and U.S. administration officials said.

PM also raised the detention of Michael Spavor, Michael Kovrig with U.S. president

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, right, and U.S. President Joe Biden spoke about China on the margins of the G7 summit on Saturday, senior Canadian and U.S. administration officials said. (The Canadian Press)

How to deal with a more economically assertive and sometimes politically belligerent China dominated the official and unofficial dialogue among G7 leaders on Saturday, senior Canadian and U.S. administration officials said.

The subject also featured prominently during a brief face-to-face conversation between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Joe Biden on the margins of the summit.

A senior Canadian official, speaking on background, said in both discussions, the prime minister raised the plight of two Canadians — Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — detained by Beijing in what is widely believed to be retaliation for the arrest of a senior Chinese telecom executive, Meng Wanzhou.

Trudeau and Biden spoke directly about the ongoing work to secure the release of the two men. There was also a further, broader discussion among all the G7 leaders about the ongoing detention and the international show of solidarity that accompanied their trials, said the Canadian official, who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Border reopening also discussed

Separately, the prime minister and the president also talked about the steps both countries are considering to cautiously and gradually reopen the border.

It is the first time the two have met face-to-face since Biden was elected president last November, although they have had virtual conversations.

Trudeau, left, and Biden meet virtually in February. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Late Saturday, a senior U.S. administration official said there appeared be a strong consensus among the leaders on "the need to respond to China's non-market economic practices that are harmful and distorted to the global economy." 

They also strongly agree on the need "to speak out on human rights abuses," the official said.

It is expected China will feature prominently tomorrow in the summit's final communiqué.

Among the G7 leaders meeting at Carbis Bay, along England's southwest coast, the challenge that was front and centre was the struggle of how to compete with Beijing's increasingly aggressive drive to sign up developing countries for economic infrastructure projects.

Known as the "Belt and Road" initiative, the Chinese government has been financing the construction of key infrastructure projects — ports, railways and airfields — in strategic locations around the world with the intention of extending influence.

The U.S. is advocating for a G7 initiative that is being dubbed "Build Back Better for the World," a global infrastructure plan where the world's leading democracies would offer an alternative to the Chinese plan.

"As we come together on this partnership, our G7 partners have agreed that our real purpose here is to demonstrate that democracies and open societies can come together and deliver a positive choice to meet some of the biggest challenges of our time, not just for our people, but for people all over the world," said the U.S. administration official, who also spoke on background.

Leaders of the G7 pose for a group photo on overlooking the beach at the Carbis Bay Hotel in Carbis Bay, St. Ives, Cornwall, England on Friday. Leaders from left, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, European Council President Charles Michel, U.S. President Joe Biden, Japan's Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italy's Prime Minister Mario Draghi, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. (Phil Noble/The Associated Press)

'The risk is there,' expert says

Following the morning session, the Canadian official, briefing journalists travelling with Trudeau, said there was broad consensus on the overall strategic approach to China.

The official, however, tried to downplay the obvious divisions between the more strident U.S., Britain and Canada, on the one hand, and somewhat lukewarm European G7 members, some of whom have shown interest in Chinese infrastructure projects.

The World Bank estimates there is a cumulative need for $40 trillion of new and renewed infrastructure in the developing world through 2035.

An expert on China at the University of Alberta said G7 countries are walking a fine line because Beijing has shown no hesitation about pushing back when its interests are threatened.

"The risk is there," said Gordon Houlden, who is director emeritus of the school's China Institute.

The trick, he said, will be to avoid plunging the world into another Cold War-style competition. Houlden said in an interview prior to the summit one possible approach was to adopt a "Cold War mode" and attempt to outlast China economically.

But, he said, "for someone with children and caring about civilizations, plural, I'm nervous about slipping on a peel and we drop the ramparts and we go full Cold War.

"China is a very large and powerful country. It has its vulnerabilities for sure. But that could lead to a very rocky 21st century."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.