China and the G-8: The Way Ahead


2013-06-15 by Richard Weitz

Why is the People’s Republic of China not a member of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrial countries, who are holding their 39th annual heads-of-state summit in Northern Ireland on June 17?

China has the world’s largest population and second-largest national economy. The PRC belongs to the larger and separate G-20 as well as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and World Trade Organization. While the PRC’s share of global GDP in 1990 was 5.7%, it is now 3-4 times greater.

China’s policies exert considerable influence in areas of concern to the G-8, especially those dealing with international energy, economics, and peacekeeping.

Beijing’s support is also essential for addressing climate change, Africa’s development, nuclear nonproliferation, and other issues that regularly appear on the agenda of the G-8 summits.

Although the relationship between the PRC and the G-8 has generally been cooperative, tensions have arisen over Beijing’s policy of providing generous loans to African nations with minimal conditions. G-8 finance ministers worry that the lax terms of these agreements will lead to excessive borrowing by African countries, to which G-8 lenders had recently written off billions of dollars of unpaid debts.

After years of debate among the existing G-8 members regarding how to deal with China’s rising economic power and diplomatic weight, the French invited President Hu Jintao to participate in some discussion session at the Evian les Bians summit in 2003. Following this step, it became difficult to “disinvite” China’s leader from future meetings without making it seem a gratuitous insult in the absence of any particular egregious Chinese behavior.

The Chinese have never been formally offered full G-8 membership, nor have they shown any official interest in receiving it. Is it now time to do so?  Credit Image: Bigstock 


At the July 2005 summit at Gleneagles, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the G-8 should grow to include China as well as India, but acknowledged opposition to the suggestion by some of the other leaders.

The following year, the new French president, Nicholas Sarkozy, said that China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico should gradually become G-8 members. Sarkozy later explained that, “I think it is not reasonable to continue to meet as eight to solve the big questions of the world, forgetting China — one billion 300 million people — and not inviting India — one billion people.” Sarkozy warned that the continued exclusion of these two powers could weaken the G-8’s legitimacy by increasing concerns about its unrepresentativeness (dominated by the Western industrial powers).

Yet, the Chinese have never been formally offered full G-8 membership, nor have they shown any official interest in receiving it.

The main obstacle to China’s acquiring full G-8 membership status has been its authoritarian political system.

Allowing Beijing to enter would challenge the institution’s commitment to the shared values of democracy and respect for human rights.

China’s political system does not respect the liberal democratic principles formally shared by the other G-8 adherents.

Critics of allowing China in have already cited Russia’s entry in the 1990s as having a subsequently deleterious effect on the G-8 given its government’s deviation from certain liberal democratic principles.

Since then, critics of some Russian policies have periodically called for Russia’s expulsion from the G-8. Putin is expected to deviate from the G-8 mainstream next week by defending Assad’s regime in Syria and calling for more generous terms to entice Iran’s new leadership to negotiate a deal with the West to constrain Tehran’s nuclear program.

But Russian citizens still exercise more civil rights than Chinese nationals. The PRC is a one-party state that imposes tight control over media access and its people’s civil rights. Its entry into the G-8 would more directly raise the issue of the organization’s political value.

In addition, as shown with the case of Russia and the G-8, it is easier to deny a country membership in an international organization than to expel it after that state has joined.

Indeed, one reason why the Chinese government might not be eager to join the G-8 is that its membership would provide critics with additional opportunities to attack the regime for failing to adhere to the Group’s core principles of democracy and human rights.

At the 1989 “Summit of the Arch” in Paris, the then-leaders of the G-7 announced collective sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square incident, when the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) forcefully repressed non-violent students and workers who had demanded political liberalization and other changes.

Furthermore, the Chinese leadership may not wish to enhance the status of an institution, the G-8, that could potentially compete with the United Nations, where the PRC enjoys elite status as one of five permanent members of the Security Council —and the only one from East Asia.

In a “G-9,” China would have to share that status with Japan. Given Tokyo’s closer ties with most of the other G8 members, Japan could well enjoy superior influence to China. In fact, Tokyo would likely not support full membership for Beijing without receiving reciprocal PRC support for Japan’s aspirations to become a permanent United Nations Security Council member.

At present, Tokyo receives enhanced international status as the G8’s only Asian member. Japanese leaders have consciously sought to defend Asian values and interests at G-8 summits. Japanese officials have also arranged formal pre- and post-summit briefings for other Asian governments.  Given all of this, it is fair to assume that Tokyo would not want to share its special diplomatic position with Beijing.

The reactions of developing nations to China’s becoming a G-8 member might also be deterring Beijing from trying to join.

PRC officials would presumably try to characterize their entry as helping them to better promote the interests of developing countries within an important global forum. But joining the G-8 could also lead to criticism that Beijing was abandoning its commitment to the developing world in order to join a “rich man’s club.”

It is possible that the PRC might be given a status similar to that of Russia in the 1990s, where the Russian (Chinese) president would be allowed to participate in some sessions as a formal member but not others. Although Boris Yeltsin attended the political sessions during that decade, Russia’s global economic capacity was minimal at the time, so Yeltsin was excluded from the economic sessions.

Obviously, Beijing’s growing economic clout would suggest that the PRC president has more of a place at these sessions then did Russia’s leader two decades ago.