THE powerful block called “Group of Eight” started its journey back in 1975 as an alliance of six advanced countries of the West. In the course of 33 years, the G8 has twice been enlarged to accommodate other countries. The inclusion of Canada in 1976 did not create any controversy as the country belonged firmly to the western block and had been following an economic pattern that the West patronises. But Russia’s road to full membership had never been smooth, since the country, though recognised as a powerful player of global politics, had not been evaluated positively by others from the economic standpoint.
The alliance was seen to be maintaining a dual structure for a certain period of time over the last decade, as economic issues were discussed within the framework of G7 that excluded Russia, while on political matters Russia’s presence was obvious and welcomed.
With the passage of time, this gradually gave way to the realities of the world situation, and Russia, too, is now recognised as an active participant in the economic dialogues of the alliance, though some in the Western media still adamantly use the term G7 while focusing on economic matters of the group.
The rapidly changing world situation is now once again compelling the leaders of the G8 to rethink their strategy on the membership of what is seen as the exclusive club of the rich and powerful.
Newly rich countries like China and India are already knocking at the door. The G8 has coined a new term for the five aspiring nations that some within the group feel are ready to be accommodated as full members.
Known as “G8 outreach countries,” the five — China, India, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa — have registered tremendous economic advancement that allowed them to break away from the ranks they formerly belonged to.
All five now rank high in the world in economic ranking. China’s GDP is now the 5th largest in the world, bigger than that of Canada, France, Italy, Russia and the United Kingdom. India and Brazil rank 11th and 12th respectively in terms of GDP, and the robust growth rate the two countries are enjoying gives a clear idea that they are not very far from overtaking some conventional G8 members who are struggling with a stagnant economy and sluggish growth.
As for political influence, the position of Brazil, China and India, along with South Africa and Mexico, can easily be matched with those of less influential actors of the G8.
A number of G8 leaders are becoming increasingly vocal in favour of another expansion of the group, which would make room for the outreach nations to become full members. According to these leaders, the expansion would not only broaden the concept of the alliance, but would also embrace two-thirds of the world population within a new framework of G13. Two of the most vocal proponents of the idea are French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
But not all the leaders of the G8 are as enthusiastic as the two, and some, including the leader of the host nation Japan, are rather openly hostile to the idea of making room for the emerging nations.
President Sarkozy told Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda early in June, when the two met in Rome, that the G8 needed to increase the number of members if the alliance was to respond to changes going on around the world. Sarkozy has been advocating a G13 framework since taking office in May 2007, and Japanese officials are concerned that he will repeat his appeal when the leaders meet at Lake Toya in Hokkaido on Monday.
Some in the West consider his initiative timely, as the G8 is struggling to show meaningful leadership on climate change and soaring energy and food prices. Gordon Brown backed the idea when he commented in New Delhi early this year that the G8, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund should be restructured to reflect the growing influence of India and other Asian countries.
On the other hand, as the United States continues to maintain a cautious standing on this important issue by not making any open comment, Japan seems to be leading the small pack determined to block the entry of any newcomer to the exclusive club of the rich.
Some analysts believe that Japan’s concern has more to do with the apparent fear that inclusion of China and India in the G8 framework would rob the country of the special privilege it has been enjoying as the sole member from Asia.
The Japanese prime minister was rather blunt in replying to Sarkozy in June, when he made it clear that he did not agree with the French president, and that Japan would continue supporting the present setup.
His answer carried a rather racial tone as he had been quoted to have said that the summit offered valuable and meaningful opportunity for a limited number of leaders who assume great responsibilities for international society to frankly exchange opinions.
No elaboration of that “great responsibility for international society” has been given, neither by the prime minister, nor by any official of the Japanese government.
Japanese officials are concerned that the expansion of G8 could undermine not only the diplomatic advantage the country is enjoying as the only Asian representative, but also that it might jeopardise Japan’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. It should be noted that four of the five permanent seats at the Council are held by G8 members.
In addition, three G8 members representing two different geographic blocks are now vying for permanent seats at the Security Council. Moreover, of the five outreach nations, one is already holding a permanent seat and three others are potential candidates in case the membership of the council is expanded.
It is imperative, therefore, for the Japanese government to try hard to find a logical position to justify country’s stand on blocking the enlargement of the exclusive club. The Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura, commenting on the possible expansion of the G8, said at a press conference in late June that the summit started as a gathering of mature, advanced democracies and it was upon the members to decide which countries would qualify through a process that would take into account their origin and background.
So, some observers believe that due to the reluctance of the host the outreach countries once again would be joining the process, not as partners but as guests whose views would not be reflected in the joint communiqué to be released at the end of the three-day discussions.
Monzurul Huq writes from Japan.