When the US looked for allies to issue an international rebuke to Beijing's decision to impose national security legislation on Hong Kong, it did not turn to the G7 but instead to English-speaking members of an intelligence alliance dating back to the 1940s.
Last week, Washington joined the UK, Australia and Canada to criticise Beijing for undermining the "one country, two systems" framework meant to determine Hong Kong's future for 50 years after its handover from British rule in 1997.
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The countries, which share a common language and history of UK rule, are members of the Five Eyes, an intelligence-sharing organisation (the fifth member being New Zealand).
They form a small, agile club that has proved easier to co-ordinate than other multilateral groupings, said a person briefed on the consultations. After New Zealand said it "couldn't agree in time", the other countries went ahead without Wellington. They are "our closest allies", said a diplomat from one of the signatory countries.
Nick Burns, a former senior state department official who attended the 1997 Hong Kong handover to China, said the Five Eyes could turn out to be a "powerful voice" on the issue, describing the signatories as longstanding allies, democracies and countries with a history of commitment to Hong Kong.
A state department official told the Financial Times: "This is about co-ordinating diplomatically to address a human rights issue of fundamental importance to all four countries, and about the long history of values we all share."
I was thrilled to see the US act like the leader of a rules-based order by signing on to support for binding international obligations and working through the UN
Kori Schake, American Enterprise InstituteThe effort is less about the use of intelligence collaboration as a public policy instrument than "fast action by the liberal countries most directly affected by China's intimidation policy", said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defence policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based conservative think-tank.
Each country has its own reasons to align with Washington against China over Hong Kong. Among other things, two Canadian nationals are sitting in Chinese jails following Ottawa's 2018 arrest in Vancouver of a senior Huawei official; Canberra has lately stoked Beijing's ire by calling for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic; and London, genuinely worried about the fate of its former territory, is intent on pleasing Washington while negotiating a new US-UK trade deal after Brexit.
Along with America's effort to force public discussion of Hong Kong at the UN Security Council last week, which China scuppered, it also marked a rare collegiality from an administration that has snubbed multilateralism.
"I was thrilled to see the US act like the leader of a rules-based order by signing on to support for binding international obligations and working through the UN," said Ms Schake, adding it was "wildly out of synch with the Trump administration's destruction of international obligations and institutions".
The statement was "evidence of how difficult it is to build a broad alliance in short order on China", said Karen Donfried, president of the German Marshall Fund, which promotes transatlantic co-operation.
The EU has struggled to find a common position on China, which has courted countries in central and eastern Europe. Germany is due to host an EU-China summit in September. As a result of diverging economic interests and views, the bloc's statement on China's behaviour towards Hong Kong only cited "grave concern".
Meanwhile, any hope of using the G7 as another venue to apply pressure on China appears to have disintegrated. Mr Trump pushed back any meeting to September after German chancellor Angela Merkel declined an invitation to attend an in-person gathering this month. Then Mr Trump proposed inviting Russia — ousted from the G8 after annexing Crimea in 2014 — which would almost certainly refuse to censure China.
In Asia, China has cajoled, intimidated and bought off potential opponents, said Michael Green, former Asia director at the National Security Council under George W Bush.
Mr Green said it was "smart" of Washington to turn to the UK, Canada and Australia. "America's pattern has been to scream loudly at China without building any coalitions at all."
- Financial Times