The canceled G-7 summit this week, unfortunately, is no great misfortune. Though it’s a shame that the group of seven major industrialized nations’ leaders were not able to gather amid the raging global pandemic—and perhaps, even more likely, due to mounting tensions between the United States and its allies—the grouping was always unlikely to achieve much with U.S. President Donald Trump at the helm. That’s why it proved so easy for world leaders to miss.
Trump seemed to recognize this dated 1970s format was insufficient when he proposed inviting India, South Korea, Australia, and Russia to join a rescheduled summit in September. However, including a hostile actor like Vladimir Putin’s Russia in this group of leading democracies was obviously a nonstarter—especially since the G-20 already exists as a separate, broader grouping that includes both Russia and China.
But creative thinking across the Atlantic at No. 10 Downing St. is heading in the right direction. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been actively considering the right idea: consolidating a new D-10 group of 10 leading democracies (the current G-7 members, plus South Korea, India, and Australia) for addressing both 5G mobile communications and vulnerable supply chains. While the idea behind a D-10 is not a novel one—a group organized by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington has been promoting it for years with regular working-level meetings between officials—it has a new impetus amid the coronavirus pandemic.
As Beijing attempts to deflect away from its own mishandling of the virus’s initial outbreak in Wuhan and its lack of transparency, it is also engaging in “wolf warrior” diplomacy, propaganda and online disinformation campaigns against the United States and its allies and partners. Stories of faulty Chinese-made masks and other vital medical equipment have also circulated widely around the world. That has drawn new attention to the risks associated with relying on Chinese-made 5G infrastructure and critical supply chains. Countries from Canada to Britain to Germany are already rethinking whether to allow Huawei to build out their next-generation 5G networks. Meanwhile, the United States, the European Union, and Japan are all currently considering options for reducing dependence on China for the supply of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment, and possibly other critical sectors as well.
The United Kingdom’s D-10 is the right size and shape: neither too big, which reduces coherence; nor too small, covering only the Cold War West. The D-10 is not an anti-China alliance. Instead, by narrowly focusing on the two defensive issues all democratic powers broadly agree they have a problem and cannot solve on their own—5G and critical supply chains—it is a platform that could relatively quickly get off the ground. Moreover, the D-10 is attractive to both foreign-policy “restrainers” as well as “competitors” alike, as actively reducing these two strategic vulnerabilities and heated public concerns can work to lessen future tensions with Beijing.
Britain is well suited to play a key role in such an effort. After flip-flopping on its decision from January to allow Huawei a limited role in building out Britain’s next 5G wireless network, Downing Street is now signaling resolve to reverse prior over-reliance on China. British foreign policy is regaining confidence over Hong Kong: a case in point being London’s offer to provide open-ended residency and thus pathway to citizenship to over 2.5 million Hong Kong citizens, should Beijing impose the regressive national security law it passed on the city. The British government is also planning a tightening of its foreign investment screening legislation. Britain is also regaining trust with its Five Eyes allies, which have been strained due to London’s previous unwillingness to question its dependence on China. Britain’s convening power is returning too, as a recent joint letter signed by the U.K., Canada, Australia, and the United States addressing the situation in Hong Kong indicates.
D-10 is a golden opportunity for London to put some meat on the bones on the still unproven “Global Britain” concept pitched by Johnson and others in the wake of Brexit. To further advance the D-10, the U.K. should seek to convene its first summit in London by early next year. In an effort to put differences over Brexit aside, London should reach out to Paris and Berlin to explore if there is interest in jointly proposing the D-10, with the EU and other European powers attending including Italy, which is also a G-7 member, but also Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Poland as occasional participants depending on the topic at hand. This would be in the long-standing format of the G-7 summits: The leaders of nine non-member states, including India and Australia, attended the 2019 summit in Biarritz, France.
The focus of these discussions should be, firstly, on developing cost-effective and technologically sophisticated 5G alternatives to Huawei by enhancing government and industry collaboration within the group of like-minded countries. But they can also tackle how to promote more diverse global supply chains in critical areas while also building new capacities for sourcing components and shifting certain production to outside of China in a coordinated fashion that avoids becoming a slippery slope toward protectionism or U.S.-style “decoupling”.
Britain’s new thinking might be the right move for the EU, too, when it comes to trans-Atlantic relations—regardless of who wins the U.S. presidential election in November. First of all, the D-10 is an insurance policy to bind democratic partners together in two areas where they can actually work fairly constructively with the Trump administration. This was most recently demonstrated by the fact the United States joined the G-7 AI group to set shared ethical guidelines for the use of the emerging technology. Last year, the Trump administration also expressed appreciation for the EU’s efforts to address 5G security risks. Additionally the D-10 opens the door for Europeans to quickly add working groups on climate and multilateralism to the agenda should Trump’s challenger Joe Biden win in November. Looking ahead, the D-10 also offers the United States the perfect platform to implement Biden’s foreign-policy agenda should he win—adding working groups on security, corruption, and human rights—and could grow into a grouping that either formally superseded or met in parallel with the G-7.
The case for trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific democratic allies and partners to join hands in an age of growing great-power competition against China is clear. Quickly building a limited action-oriented D-10 focusing on core issues and not just another talking shop would aid this work while also making it harder for Washington to pursue unilateral approaches or zero-sum thinking toward China.
London is still needed. Despite Brexit, Britain’s role as a bridge between the democracies is far from over: By engaging the other G-7 members on the D-10 idea, it should now work to update Hastings Ismay’s 1949 strategic maxim on NATO, to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” for a world of 5G and fragile supply chains—a grand strategy for the democracies that will work to keep China in check, India close, and the United States steady in the turbulent years to come.