Brian Lee CrowleyCanada's developed-nation partners including the US and France are conducting naval exercises pushing back on false claims of sovereignty by China. This could be the cause that reunites the adrift G7, writes Brian Lee Crowley.

By Brian Lee Crowley, June 8, 2018

The G7 can sometimes appear as an organisation in search of a mission. This drift can only be exacerbated by the trade frictions that have come to a boil recently, pitting the US against the other six G7 members.

Yet the G7 can and should play a pivotal role in the world order. Given the deadlock at the UN Security Council occasioned by vetoes exercised by Russia and China, the G7 is the premier venue assembling those developed nations that carry the burden of leadership in protecting the liberal rules-based international order. A dysfunctional G7 riven by internal disputes is of no value to anyone except those who benefit from the undefended world order.

Repairing the G7 requires common projects all members can get behind. Responding to China’s repeated challenges to the international order, challenges that threaten the rule of law, freedom of the seas and a rules-based international order is an area where there is growing consensus for action. Canada is behind on this, but the G7 summit offers an opportunity to catch up and even assert leadership over an issue that actually matters.

Consider that China has unilaterally commandeered, expanded and militarised a number of islets, atolls and reefs in the South China Sea (SCS) as part of their campaign to claim Chinese sovereignty over these waters. This they have done in the face of condemnation from many of the littoral nations in the region who have unresolved claims to the area, as well the opposition of the United States and Japan.

Chinese President Xi promised, in the White House’s Rose Garden, no less, that China would not militarise these newly constructed islands. Yet in keeping with China’s strategy in so many areas, their approach has been to deny, deny and deny again their intentions while moving ahead in incremental steps until the “facts on the ground” are overwhelmingly established.

Each step along the way is carefully calibrated to be just below the threshold that might trigger international action. Each subsequent step is then too easily allowed to slide on the ground that no one acted on the earlier provocation, and this time the provocation is no worse than the last one. This so-called “salami-slicing” strategy has paid major dividends for China.

The Philippines courageously took China to the International Court of Arbitration to challenge its occupying of islets and reefs over which the Philippines also claimed sovereignty. The ICA unambiguously found in the Philippines’ favour and found China’s behaviour an egregious violation of international law. The fact that China subsequently bullied and bribed the Philippines not to carry the case further can be no excuse for accepting the status quo.

The Americans, the great defenders of freedom of navigation, have been regularly sending ships through the SCS, and particularly into those waters near China’s unilaterally commandeered and militarised islets, to China’s great displeasure. Now, according to the Wall Street Journal, just last week a French warship was dispatched by President Emmanuel Macron on a similar freedom of the seas mission. That warship, carrying a British helicopter detachment and European observers, including from Germany, sailed close to the Chinese-seized Spratly Islands. In one memorable confrontation, the French ship was radioed by the Chinese who baldly asserted that the islands were under Chinese sovereignty and asking the French to declare their intentions. The French, with all the aplomb of a Paris waiter looking down his nose at a hapless customer, responded that they were in international waters and the Chinese were not in a position to ask anything.

When questioned about the mission, the French defence minister asserted that “The [Chinese] fait accompli is not a fait accepted.”  France has been carrying out such missions in support of freedom of the seas for several years. The Japanese, long concerned about the dangers to their shipping from Chinese assertions of sovereignty over the SCS, have been anxiously looking for support on this issue from their allies.

Canada sailed two frigates through the SCS last year, and avoided going close enough to the disputed islands to trigger a Chinese response. This year Canada has made it official that they are not doing official freedom of navigation missions, defined as going within 12 nautical miles of the disputed islands.

That’s not enough. America and Japan are looking for allies in their contesting of Chinese aggression. The French and the British are on board and the Germans observing. This is an issue ripe for some leadership and who better to offer it than the chair of this year’s G7 summit?

A G7 united in defence of the rule of law, freedom of the seas and a rules-based international order and against Chinese assaults on all three would give the organisation a new lease of life and benefit the world.

Brian Lee Crowley is Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca).