UK plans early G7 virtual meeting and presses ahead with switch to D10

By Patrick Wintour

Boris Johnson is planning to host a virtual G7 summit of world leaders within weeks of Joe Biden becoming US president in an attempt to set an ambitious agenda covering climate change, a worldwide vaccination programme, future pandemic preparedness and relations with China.

He is also pressing ahead with plans to convert the face-to-face annual summit of the G7 in June into a D10 of leading democracies. It is due to be the first in-person meeting of world leaders for nearly two years, after the US-hosted G7 was cancelled and the Saudi-hosted G20 meeting moved online last year.

The proposal to expand the G7 into a wider group has met resistance from some European states concerned it will be perceived as an anti-China alliance and a means of diluting the power of EU countries. Concern has been expressed within French and Italian diplomatic circles.

An early virtual meeting of the G7 would provide Biden with a platform to show renewed US commitment to multilateralism.

Johnson secured agreement to turn the UK-hosted G7 summit in June into a D10, an idea that has been circulating in US thinktanks for nearly a decade. As a result, South Korea, India and Australia are to be invited to all sessions of the event, which is due to be attended as usual by the US, Italy, France, Japan, Germany, Canada and the UK.

Johnson’s expansion of the G7 is partly motivated by a wish to dovetail with Biden’s interest in promoting democracy as superior to authoritarianism. Biden has long proposed a summit for democracy in the first year of his presidency, and the D10 summit could provide a platform or a way station for a larger event. The prime minister is also keen to see the D10 combine to form a technological rival to China, and more broadly sees the G7 as a golden opportunity to show UK global leadership post-Brexit.

Johnson, perceived by some Biden staffers as a Trumpian populist who has damaged multilateralism, knows he has work to rehabilitate himself with the new US administration, although the degree of tension has reduced due to the UK leaving the EU without a hard border on the island of Ireland.

No country sought to block the British plan for the D10, partly as it is the host’s prerogative to organise the summit in the form they prefer. It is common, for instance, for other countries to be invited to some sessions.

But diplomats from Italy, one of the countries with strong economic links with China, have expressed concern that this new format will be perceived as a building block of a new anti-Chinese alliance in the Indo-Pacific. Europe has shown notable determination to run its own China policy, last month agreeing an investment deal with China that angered the incoming Biden administration.

Italy wants to ensure the G7 is not being transformed permanently, and French policy thinkers have questioned the D10 format. In a paper for the Institut Montaigne, Michel Duclos, a former ambassador, and Bruno Tertrais, a political scientist, wrote: “It goes without saying that Prime Minister Johnson will not fail to prepare an agenda for the G7 likely to please the Americans, thus including a ‘pro-democracy’ dimension. Let us not be surprised, moreover, if London tries to exploit the exercise for the benefit of ‘Global Britain’, by seeking in practice to downgrade the place of the European Union.”

Johnson had been due to fly to India to discuss the format of the summit with Narendra Modi this month but has felt forced to postpone the visit owing to the scale of the coronavirus crisis. One of Johnson’s goals for the new group is to develop 5G technologies to prevent China dominating this critical element of 21st-century digital infrastructure, a goal already set by Biden advisers.