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G7 meeting hit by COVID-19 scare as talks take aim at China and Russia

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The Group of Seven meeting in London was hit by a COVID-19 scare on Wednesday when India’s foreign minister and his entire team said they were self-isolating after two delegation members tested positive.

Britain hosted the three-day foreign ministers’ meeting – the first such G7 event in two years – which was billed as a chance to restart face-to-face diplomacy and an opportunity for the West to show a united front against threats from China and Russia.

India, currently undergoing the world’s worst surge in COVID-19 cases, is attending the G7 as a guest and had been due to take part in meetings on Tuesday evening and throughout Wednesday.

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“Was made aware yesterday evening of exposure to possible Covid positive cases,” Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said on Twitter.

“As a measure of abundant caution and also out of consideration for others, I decided to conduct my engagements in the virtual mode. That will be the case with the G7 Meeting today as well.”

The meeting concluded on Wednesday, accusing China of human rights abuses and a crackdown on pro-democracy figures, while voicing fears about Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Foreign ministers from hosts Britain, plus the United States, France, Germany, Italy, Canada and Japan also called on Tehran to release foreign and dual nationals they said were being held arbitrarily in Iranian jails.

They threatened the Myanmar junta which staged a coup in February with fresh sanctions, in a wide-ranging final communique covering the world’s most pressing geopolitical issues, including climate change and post-pandemic recovery.

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The ministers, who met in central London under tight coronavirus restrictions, committed to financially support the vaccine-sharing programme, Covax.

But there was no immediate announcement on fresh funding to improve greater access to vaccines, despite repeated calls for the G7 to do more to help poorer countries.

This week’s meeting sets the tone for the G7 leaders’ meeting in Cornwall, southwest England, next month, at which US President Joe Biden makes his international debut.

“We recognise we are meeting in an exceptional and fast-changing context,” the leaders said in a final communique totalling more than 12,000 words.

“We commit to working together, with partner countries and within the multilateral system, to shape a cleaner, freer, fairer and more secure future for the planet.

“We resolve to keep working on tangible issues and outcomes together and in partnership with many others.”

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China criticised

The G7 members’ top diplomats reserved their strongest criticism for rising China, urging the Asian giant to abide by its obligations under international and national law.

They said they were “deeply concerned” by human rights violations and abuses against the minority Uighur Muslim population in Xinjiang province and in Tibet, and urged an end to the targeting of rights protesters in Hong Kong.

But it held the door open for future cooperation with Beijing, adding: “We look for opportunities to work with China to promote regional and global peace, security and prosperity.”

G7 leaders underscored a need for a common stance to tackle global threats, in contrast to the increasing unilateralism of recent years and retreat from global institutions, including under former US president Donald Trump.

They called out Russia for what they said was “irresponsible and destabilising behaviour” by amassing troops on the Ukrainian border, “malicious cyber-activity”, disinformation, and malign intelligence activity.

“We… will continue to bolster our collective capabilities and those of our partners to address and deter Russian behaviour that is threatening the rules-based international order,” they said.

G7 countries have slapped sanctions on military generals who deposed the democratically elected leader in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi.

But they warned they were ready to “take further steps if the military does not reverse its course”.

Vaccine access

Campaigners have urged the G7 to step up efforts to tackle glaring inequalities in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, as Western countries ramp up vaccination drives and reopen their economies.

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More than 1.2 billion doses of COVID-19 vaccines have been administered globally, but fewer than one percent have been given in the least developed countries.

With support from most wealthy nations, the Covax programme, backed by the World Health Organization, is meant to share vaccines with the poorest nations.

But rich countries have also effectively elbowed out Covax in the early stages, striking their own deals with drug manufacturers, while pharmaceutical giants stall on making the drug patents available to all to tackle virus surges.

Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown has said far more is needed and urged the G7 to provide the bulk of $60 billion that he says is needed over the next two years to vaccinate the whole world and aid economic recovery.

The G7 said it recognised the need for an “inclusive and sustainable recovery” and backed “all existing” mechanisms for vaccine access, including through Covax.

The grouping has promised more than $10.7 billion already.

But there was no extra funding announced. Instead, ministers “encouraged all partners to increase their support as the next critical step in controlling the pandemic and strengthening health security”.

Additional reporting: AFP

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