Biden Gets G-7 Reset After Win on Vaccines, Tension Over China

President Joe Biden entered his first international summit looking for a breakthrough on vaccine pledges for low-income countries, a united front on China and to tee up his meeting this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It wasn’t perfect. But, for Biden, it was enough.

Biden left the U.K. on Sunday after a meeting with Group of Seven leaders who took pains to show unity, even in cases where they found themselves quietly at odds. Biden clamored for a crackdown on China before settling for a more modest condemnation, and emerged having quelled complaints about U.S. vaccine hoarding with a new donation.

Broadly, Biden sought to set a new tone after the tumultuous Donald Trump years. Other G-7 leaders were visibly relieved to have a return to a more predictable and traditional U.S. administration. France’s Emmanuel Macron welcomed him back to the “club.”

Biden Gets G-7 Reset After Win on Vaccines, Tension Over China

Yet under the surface, tensions remain. The bloc fell short of its own vaccine goal -- 613 million new doses pledged, instead of a billion -- and the leaders are at odds over how explicitly their group should be trying to counter China. But Biden took the outcome and called it a win.

“The bottom line is, I was very pleased with the outcome of the entire conference,” Biden said at a closing news conference Sunday. “I think we made some progress in reestablishing American credibility among our closest friends and our values.”

The success of a leader’s agenda at the G-7 is the communique, which is signed off on by every leader. On China, Biden said he was “satisfied,” but the verdict is mixed. He was pushing allies to agree to a multi-pronged effort to counter China’s influence around the world, including an ambitious infrastructure program and a campaign against Beijing’s use of forced labor.

Biden Gets G-7 Reset After Win on Vaccines, Tension Over China

But several leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, pushed back over worries about turning the G-7 into an anti-China group, suggesting any infrastructure program should be framed as a more positive, pro-environment effort.

“I welcome very much that a task force has been created today. But this is not about being against something, but for something,” Merkel said at one point in the summit, a rejection of any call to specifically line up against China. “It is the claim of the G-7 to have a positive agenda for many countries in the world, which still need to catch up.” She will visit Biden at the White House in July.

Macron also pushed back publicly, saying Sunday that the “G-7 is not a group that is hostile to China.”

The end-of-summit communique did include mentions of China, but not Beijing specifically when it condemned forced labor. The U.S. had pressed the G-7 to launch an infrastructure program to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative and to take other steps to counter Beijing.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said the communique’s response to China was greater than the sum of its parts and said every leader supported the need to compete with and counter China.

The outcome is a “significant move forward from where the G-7 has ever been before and reflects a growing convergence that wasn’t there a few years ago,” he told reporters on Air Force One during the Sunday flight to Brussels. “We believe where we’re sitting today is not the end of the story, but it is a good chapter upon which to build.”

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The final version skirted that, instead creating a task force to study how to spur infrastructure development abroad. It made no mention of Belt and Road, though Biden renewed his call in a press conference.

“I proposed that we have a democratic alternative to the Belt and Road initiative, to build back better,” he said, repeating a campaign slogan of his. “We put together a committee to do that and come up with that.”

Biden’s effort to look strong on China sometimes overstepped: the White House’s account of a meeting with Italy’s Mario Draghi said the pair discussed China. An official familiar with the discussion said it never came up at all. At a news conference on Sunday, the Italian prime minister told reporters Biden didn’t raise Italy’s China policy during their meeting.

Even so, the vaccine effort gave Biden some help with his China push. Biden has criticized China for a transactional brand of vaccine diplomacy, where the shots are being doled out for geopolitical advantage. Biden has called on democracies to counter China and Russia by donating vaccines equally and based on need, without seeking favors in return.

Biden’s debut summit was a closely choreographed affair at a beachside estate in St. Ives, U.K. The chance of gaffes was diminished by how little of the summit took place in the public eye. Biden hardly spoke in the rare snippets of summit sessions that unfolded before cameras, and met a series of leaders –- Merkel, Japan’s Yoshihide Suga, South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, a joint session with host Boris Johnson and Australia’s Scott Morrison -- without calling press in.

Instead, his appearances were brief and occasionally cheeky. A day before the summit, he met the newly wedded Johnson and cracked a joke about both of them having married above their station.

At the leaders’ photo on the first day, he joked they should jump in the ocean. He and first lady Jill Biden were spotted on a break at the summit cafe, with the president sporting white sneakers. They met Queen Elizabeth II briefly at a reception –- Biden first met her in 1982 -– ahead of a more formal meeting Sunday. He attended church before the summit’s final session.

Biden threw his arm around Macron the opening day and the two talked informally before holding a meeting the next day. After the Trump era, the European leaders were clear to welcome back a U.S. leader taking a less adversarial approach.

“It’s great to have the U.S. president part of the club, and very willing to cooperate,” Macron said. As press were taken away, Biden was asked whether America was back, as he regularly announces. Biden kicked the question to Macron, who replied, “definitely.”

Trump -- who strained the limits of the consensus-based G-7 and once blew apart a communique with a tweet after the 2018 summit -- gleefully fired back and accused Macron of “ripping off” the U.S. “If I were a leader of these countries, I too would like Biden far better than President Trump,” the former U.S. president, who remains banned from major social media sites, said in a press release.

Still, the jovial photo-ops and warm welcome for Biden soon gave way to thornier debates among the bloc. For instance, Biden leaves the U.K. without new announcements on border reopening, U.S. tariffs that remain in place, or the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that he opposes but has all but conceded defeat on.

Biden on Sunday traveled to Brussels for a NATO summit on Monday and European Union meetings on Tuesday.

Ultimately, for Biden, the G-7 summit itself and its photos of leaders standing together may have been enough. He aimed to present a united front to set the stage for his meeting on Wednesday with Putin -- one that will end without a joint press conference, according to the White House.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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