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The 2021 "Build Back Better World" G7 Summit: Global Recovery or Power Rivalry?

The COVID-19 pandemic has been present among us for almost two years since its outbreak in 2019, resulting in over 200 million cases worldwide (WHO, 2021). All countries, especially the middle and low-income ones, continue to struggle with crippling economies, a surging number of cases and deaths, poor access to healthcare and many other economic and social issues. With the end of the pandemic still a distant sight on the horizon, the member countries of the Group of Seven (known as the G7) convened in Cornwall, UK, under the motto of Build Back Better World (B3W). This 2021 summit aimed to generate practical solutions to speed up the global recovery both in terms of economy and public health (Council on Foreign Relations, 2021; McCarthy, 2021).

However, despite its focus on the world’s current health and economic crises, the U.S. – backed by its allies in the G7 – and its challengers, China and Russia, seemed to be unable to put aside issues of strategic competition. China’s rapid economic growth and military buildup, in addition to Russia’s unpredictable behaviour, have become the West’s main concerns, shaping 21st century international affairs, with tensions becoming clearer and more urgent as seen in this year’s G7 Summit. With China and Russia dominating its targeted agenda, the 2021 G7 Summit seemed to have asserted the West's more aggressive stance towards its Eastern rivals, despite the potential of considerable impact on the dynamics of their diplomatic relations. With that in mind, this article will elaborate more on how the Group, especially its recent Summit, has and will affect the current dynamics of international relations, – particularly highlighting its effort in countering and containing its Eastern rivals.

The G7 Summit: Origins and Purposes

The Group of Seven (G7), consisting of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, is the exclusive grouping of the so-called most advanced global democracies, which meet annually to discuss transnational issues. First established as an ad hoc meeting in 1970s, the Group was originally composed of six countries whose aim was to informally discuss the inflation and recession caused by the OPEC oil embargo. Canada joined the following year, followed by Russia in 1997. In 2014, Russia’s membership was suspended due to its Annexation of Crimea. Since its establishment, the Group has expanded its scope of discussion from an exclusive focus on economics to an inclusion of foreign policy and international security issues such as climate change, human rights, democracy, and other matters relating to the common interests and values of these nations. The Group also has the European Union as the non-enumerated member, and often invites guest countries to attend their annual meeting (Council on Foreign Relations, 2021; McCarthy, 2021; The Indian Express, 2021).

The 2021 “Build Back Better World” G7 Summit: Actions and Responses

This year’s G7 Summit was different, both in terms of main focus and technicalities. Unlike last year, the leaders decided to meet in-person in Cornwall, UK on 11-13 June 2021 for its 47th summit, following the Ministerial meeting held in May. Under the leadership of the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the summit focused on countering the COVID-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts. Adopting the B3W as its motto, the G7 countries committed to boosting the public health schemes and rebuilding the economies of low-income countries by donating 1 billion vaccines – in addition to the overall contribution of USD 650 billion worth of foreign aid. This comes in addition to their tackling of other pressing global issues such as climate change, corporate tax, and socio-economic issues which have been exacerbated in the wake of the virus outbreak (McCarthy, 2021; Reuters, 2021a).

However, the global pandemic, economic woes and the climate crisis were not the only focuses of this summit. Under Biden’s presidency, the U.S.’ ambition to retain its hegemonic status has become more tangible as it appears eager to control the global (and the Group) leadership after several years of apparent decline under the Trump administration (Lemire, Madhani, et al., 2021; The Indian Express, 2021).

Unlike Trump’s isolationist policies, Biden shows a great concern over the U.S. global influence and multilateral leadership – especially among its long-time allies in the G7 – and to unite its allies in countering its adversaries, as proven in the recent summit. The rhetorical exchanges between the West and its Eastern counterparts became more pronounced following the summit, as seen when the Group explicitly called for a reinvestigation of COVID-19’s origin, implying a cover-up by the Chinese government. Furthermore, the West scolded China for its unilateral actions in the East and South China Sea, aggressive actions in the Taiwan Strait, its human rights violations in Xinjiang and its so-called “coercive economic policies” placing debt traps on many countries. Through this meeting, Biden also initiated a global, green-infrastructure plan consisting of climate and economic revival plan to compete with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (G7, 2021; Kyodo News, 2021; Lemire, Kirka, et al., 2021). Meanwhile, the Group also condemned Russia for its “destabilizing behavior” such as its alleged cyber-attacks, its actions toward Ukraine, its use of chemical weapons and its other aggressive behaviors that continue to trigger distrust (G7, 2021; Reuters, 2021b). Such condemnations also invited strong responses from both nations. China accused the U.S. of maintaining an “outdated Cold-War mentality” by trying to lure countries into its “war chariot with China”. Beijing perceives such claims as part of Western propaganda with the aim of antagonising China and the peaceful development and cooperation it promotes (Sharma, 2021). Putin, on the other hand, implied deteriorating relations between his country and the U.S. at “its lowest point in years” (TASS Russian News Agency, 2021).

Future Implications: What to Expect?

Though the international community is still battling the pandemic, the dynamics of international relations only seem to grow more complicated. The increasing hostility between the West and their Eastern rivals appears to have entered a new stage, as is made evident by Biden’s highly assertive stance toward China. The rivalry is perpetuated through continued antagonisation between leaders, with no signs of tensions dissipating. Regarding Russia, the Biden-Putin meeting in Geneva following the 2021 G7 summit did not attenuate political and military tensions, as seen from the recent series of military confrontations in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea (O’Connor, 2021; Stewart & Pleasance, 2021; WION News, 2021). The West's continued pressure on its ideological counterparts may have unintentionally adverse effects - indeed, this has only further solidified relations between Russia and China, where the “sky is the limit” (Gan & Westscott, 2021; Wang, 2021). The recent large-scale joint military exercise between Russia and China, their rejections of the West’s allegations, and China’s expansionist activity in the Indo-Pacific, sends an undeniable signal that these powers are eager to counter the U.S. and its allies, and that even a global pandemic will not be enough to sow the seeds of unity amongst an intensifying rivalry (Al Jazeera, 2021).

However, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the dynamics of current international relations, especially considering geopolitical context. Discord among the Group members on which strategy to adopt in dealing with China has further created contentious dynamics inside the Western countries’ alliance (Lemire, Kirka, et al., 2021; Sharma, 2021).

Overall, it can be said that the Group seems to have become more the West’s main platform to unite against perceived threats, demonstrating its global leadership while at the same time, challenging China’s rise and containing Russia’s growing unpredictability. In other words, the recent action items resulted from the Summit not only portray the group’s effort in flexing its global leadership amidst the pandemic, but also indicate its efforts in managing rivalries with rapidly growing China and Russia. Additionally, with European countries dominating the G7 and the Eurasian countries – Russia and China – as the challengers, the rivalry would likely affect the regional dynamics of Europe and Asia, and probably even the stances of the other countries divided between allegiances with the two groups.

Considering the continuous, borderless threats of COVID-19 and climate change, it would be better for countries to set aside this strategic rivalry and geopolitical tension to instead focus on cooperation, addressing wider issues that are more relevant and urgent. For example, the Group devote greater focus to countering the pandemic by allocating the USD 100 billion SDR to highly-impacted countries – a plan which has been put on hold due to disagreement with Germany and Italy, and by working to reach the minimum target of 11 billion doses as suggested by WHO (Daily Sabah, 2021; Dembowski, 2021). With serious warnings emitted by the planet itself, countries must also recenter their focus on developing a new comprehensive plan to tackle the climate change that has rapidly worsened over the past decade. Considering their economic and demographic significance, both China and Russia could also contribute to these plans by providing transparent financial and vaccine aid, avoiding covert motivations such as the so-called Chinese 'check-book diplomacy'. It is time for these 'great powers' to set aside their own interests, embrace international cooperation and lead the international community by tackling such issues.



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