The United States plans to push democratic allies on Saturday to publicly call out China for forced labour practices as the Group of Seven leaders gather at a summit where they will also unveil an infrastructure plan meant to compete with Beijing's efforts in the developing world.
The provocative proposal is part of US President Joe Biden's escalating campaign to get fellow democratic leaders to present a more unified front to compete economically with China in the century ahead, according to two senior administration officials who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the plans for the seaside summit publicly.
The officials said Biden wanted G7 leaders to speak out in a single voice against forced labour practices targeting Uighur Muslims and other ethnic minorities. Biden hopes the denunciation will be part of the joint communique released at the summit's end, but some European allies have been reluctant to so forcefully split with Beijing. It may not be clear until the three-day summit ends later on Sunday whether the leaders will take that step.
The wealthy nations' leaders were all smiles and unity as they were welcomed to the summit on Friday by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the freshly raked sand of Carbis Bay in southwest England for their first gathering since 2019.
Last year's gathering was canceled because of Covid-19, and recovery from the pandemic is dominating this year's discussions, with members of the wealthy democracies' club expected to commit to sharing at least 1 billion vaccine shots with struggling countries.
China also loomed large over the meeting on the craggy coast of Cornwall. Biden's proposed critique of China's labour practices was to be raised as the allies unveil an infrastructure proposal dubbed "Build Back Better for the World," a name that echoes the slogan of the American president's election campaign.
The plan calls for spending hundreds of millions of dollars in collaboration with the private sector. It's designed to compete with China's trillion-dollar "Belt and Road Initiative," which has launched a network of projects and maritime lanes that already snake around large portions of the world, primarily Asia and Africa. Critics say the projects often create massive debt and expose nations to undue influence by Beijing.
Britain also wants the world's democracies to become less reliant on economic giant China. The UK government says Saturday's discussions will tackle "how we can shape the global system to deliver for our people in support of our values," including by diversifying supply chains that currently heavily depend on China.
Not every European power has viewed China in as harsh a light as Biden, who has painted the rivalry with the techno-security state as the defining competition for the 21st century. But there are signs that Europe is willing to put greater scrutiny on Beijing.
Weeks before Biden took office last year, the European Commission announced it had come to terms with Beijing on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment, a deal meant to provide Europe and China greater access to each other's markets. The Biden administration had hoped to have consultations on the pact.
But the deal has been put on hold, and the European Union in March announced sanctions targeting four Chinese officials involved with human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Beijing responded by imposing sanctions on several members of the European Parliament and other Europeans critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Biden administration officials see the moment as an opportunity to take concrete action to speak out against China's reliance on forced labor as an "affront to human dignity."
While calling out China in the communique wouldn't create any immediate penalties for Beijing, one senior administration official said the action was meant to send a message that the G7 was serious about defending human rights and working together to eradicate the use of forced labour.
An estimated 1 million people or more — most of them Uighurs — have been confined in re-education camps in China's western Xinjiang region in recent years, according to researchers. Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, systematic forced birth control, torture and separating children from incarcerated parents.
Beijing rejects allegations that it is committing crimes.
The leaders of the G7 — which also includes Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan — also hope the meeting at the seaside resort will energise the global economy.
Opening three days of talks, Johnson on Friday warned that world leaders must not repeat errors made over the past 18 months — or those made during the recovery from the 2008 global financial crisis. If not, he said the pandemic "risks being a lasting scar" that entrenched inequalities.
He said the G7 will announce a package of health measures aimed at reducing the chances of another pandemic. The "Carbis Bay Declaration" will aim for a 100-day goal to develop vaccines, treatments and diagnostics for future diseases and to bolster surveillance for new illnesses.
Johnson said the goal of the measures was "to make sure that never again will we be caught unawares."
Brexit will also cast a shadow on the summit on Saturday, as Johnson meets one-on-one with European leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron amid tensions over Britain's implementation of UK-EU divorce terms.
Macron will also hold talks with Biden — a meeting between allies who recalibrated their relationship during the four years of President Donald Trump's "America First" foreign policy.
Macron's preference for multilateralism was out of step with Trump's isolationist tendencies. But the Trump era was often framed by Macron as a clarifying moment — one in which Europe had to step forward as America drifted away from alliances and toward Trumpism.
Biden will end his eight-day European trip with a summit in Geneva with Russia's Vladimir Putin. Putin, in an interview with NBC News that aired Friday, said the Russian relationship with the US has "deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years".
But he added that while Trump was a "talented" and "colourful" person, Biden was a "career man" in politics, which has "some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements" by the US president.
To cap the day on Friday, Queen Elizabeth II — Britain's biggest global star — travelled from Windsor Castle near London for a reception with the G7 leaders and their spouses at the Eden Project, a futuristic botanical garden housed inside domes that features the world's largest indoor rainforest.
Senior royals — including heir to the throne Prince Charles, his son Prince William and William's wife, Kate — joined the leaders for the reception and a dinner of roasted turbot, Cornish new potatoes and greens with wild garlic pesto, cooked by a local chef.
The choice of an ecologically themed venue was deliberate. Climate change is also a top issue on the agenda, and hundreds of protesters gathered in Cornwall to urge the leaders to act, some dressed as sea creatures such as jellyfish. Demonstrators deployed a barge off the coast with two large inflatable figures depicting Biden and Johnson on board.