CARBIS BAY, England -- Leaders of the world's largest economies unveiled an infrastructure plan Saturday for the developing world to compete with nonmember China's global initiatives, but they were searching for a consensus on how forcefully to call out Beijing over human-rights abuses.
Citing China for its forced-labor practices is part of President Joe Biden's campaign to persuade fellow democratic leaders to present a more unified front to compete economically with Beijing. But while the leaders agreed to work toward competing against China, there was less unity on how adversarial a public position the group should take.
Canada, the United Kingdom and France largely endorsed Biden's position, while Germany, Italy and the European Union showed more hesitancy at the Group of Seven summit Saturday, according to two senior Biden administration officials. The officials who briefed reporters were not authorized to publicly discuss the private meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The communique that summarizes the meeting's commitments was being written, and the contents will not be clear until it is released when the summit ends today. White House officials said late Saturday that they believe China, in some form, could be called out for "nonmarket policies and human-rights abuses."
In his first summit as president, Biden made a point of carving out one-on-one time with the leaders, bouncing from French President Emmanuel Macron to German Chancellor Angela Merkel to Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a day after meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Macron told Biden that collaboration is needed on a range of issues and that "it's great to have a U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate." Relations between the allies grew strained during Donald Trump's presidency and his "America first" foreign policy.
Merkel downplayed differences on China and the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is to transport natural gas from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine.
"The atmosphere is very cooperative, it is characterized by mutual interest," Merkel said. "There are very good, constructive and very vivid discussions in the sense that one wants to work together."
White House officials have said Biden wants the leaders of the G-7 nations -- the U.S., Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Japan and Italy -- to speak in a single voice against forced labor practices targeting China's Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities, and hopes the denunciation will be part of the joint statement.
China became one of the more compelling subplots of the wealthy nations' summit, their first since 2019. Last year's gathering was canceled because of covid-19, and recovery from the pandemic is dominating this year's discussions, with leaders expected to commit to sharing at least 1 billion vaccine shots with struggling countries.
The allies also took the first steps in presenting an infrastructure proposal called "Build Back Better for the World," a name echoing Biden's campaign slogan, "Build Back Better." The plan calls for spending hundreds of billions of dollars in collaboration with the private sector while adhering to climate standards and labor practices.
It's designed to compete with China's trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative -- a top priority for Chinese President Xi Jinping -- which has launched a network of projects and maritime lanes that snake around large portions of the world, primarily Asia and Africa. Critics say China's projects often create massive enormous debt and expose nations to undue influence by Beijing.
Saturday's meeting came just a day after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is traveling with Biden, told his Chinese counterpart in a phone call that the United States would actively oppose "ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing" against Muslims in Xinjiang and "the deterioration of democratic norms" in Hong Kong. European leaders have largely avoided that terminology.
The divisions on how to regard China help explain why the West has until now failed to muster a coordinated response to Belt and Road. A recent study by the Council on Foreign Relations described Washington's reactions as "scattershot," a mix of modest congressional adjustments to rules governing the Export-Import Bank to compete with Chinese loans in high technology, and efforts to ban Huawei, China's telecommunications champion.
The risk for the American strategy is that dealing with a patchwork of programs -- and a Western insistence on good environmental and human-rights practices -- may seem less appealing to developing nations than Beijing's all-in-one package of financing and new technology.Gallery: G-7 summit, 6-12-2021
"Many BRI [Belt and Road Initiative] countries appreciate the speed at which China can move from planning to construction," said the council report, which was written by a bipartisan group of China experts and former U.S. officials.
Those countries, it added, also appreciate China's "willingness to build what host countries want rather than telling them what they should do, and the ease of dealing with a single group of builders, financiers and government officials."
Still, Biden senses an opening, as European nations have begun to understand the risks of dependency on Chinese supply chains and have watched China's reach extend into their own backyards.
Britain also wants the world's democracies to become less reliant on the Asian economic giant. The U.K. government said the G-7 would 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 Beijing as the defining competition of the 21st century. But there are some signs that Europe is willing to impose greater scrutiny.
Before Biden took office in January, the European Commission announced that it had come to terms with Beijing on a deal meant to provide Europe and China with 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 with penalties on several members of the European Parliament and other Europeans critical of the Chinese Communist Party.
Biden administration officials see an opportunity to take concrete action to speak out against China's reliance on forced labor as an "affront to human dignity."
One official addressing reporters on condition of anonymity said it's "an expression of our shared values to make clear what we won't tolerate as the United States and as a G-7. So we think it's critical to call out the use of forced labor in Xinjiang and to take concrete actions to ensure that global supply chains are free from the use of forced labor."
He added, "The point is to send a wake-up call that the G-7 is serious about defending human rights and that we need to work together to eradicate forced labor from our products."
While calling out China in the G-7 communique would not create any immediate penalties for Beijing, one senior administration official said the action would send a message that the leaders were serious about defending human rights and working together to eradicate the use of forced labor.
An estimated 1 million people or more -- most of them Uyghurs -- have been confined in reeducation camps in China's Xinjiang region in recent years, according to researchers. Chinese authorities have been accused of imposing forced labor, systematic forced birth control and torture, and separating children from incarcerated parents.
Beijing rejects allegations that it is committing crimes.
Britain's Johnson, the summit host, also welcomed the leaders from "guest nations" South Korea, Australia and South Africa, as well as the head of the United Nations, to "intensify cooperation between the world's democratic and technologically advanced nations."
The leaders planned to attend a barbecue Saturday night, complete with toasted marshmallows, hot buttered rum and a performance by a sea shanty troupe.
India was also invited, but its delegation is not attending in person because of the severe coronavirus outbreak in the country.
Biden ends the trip Wednesday by meeting in Geneva with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House announced Saturday that they will not hold a joint news conference afterward, which removes the opportunity for comparisons to the availability that followed Trump and Putin's 2018 Helsinki summit, in which Trump sided with Moscow over his own intelligence agencies. Only Biden will address the news media after the meeting.
Putin, in an interview with NBC News, said the U.S.-Russia relationship had "deteriorated to its lowest point in recent years."
He added that while Trump was a "talented" and "colorful" person, Biden is a "career man" in politics, which has "some advantages, some disadvantages, but there will not be any impulse-based movements" by the U.S. president.
A White House statement said: "We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward, and a solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting -- both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns."
'ON SAME PAGE'
Biden held a friendly meeting with France's Macron on the sidelines Saturday. Reporters saw the two sitting in the sunshine with the windy beach and aquamarine sea behind them.
It was their first such meeting, although they have been getting to know each other at the summit and earlier over the phone. Macron was elected shortly after Biden left office as vice president.
"We're, as we say in -- back in the States, 'We're on the same page,'" Biden said.
Macron had made an effort to use friendly persuasion to change Trump's mind about leaving the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, to no avail. He seemed relieved by Biden's moves to reverse those decisions and the general mood of cooperation he has sought to project.
Citing the challenges of the pandemic and climate change, Macron said that "for all these issues, what we need is cooperation. And I think it's great to have the U.S. president part of the club and very willing to cooperate."
Biden then offered a plug for the traditional alliances Trump disdained, including the European Union, the common market from which Britain has withdrawn.
"I think we can do a lot, too. We -- the United States, I've said before -- we're back," Biden said. "The U.S. is back. We feel very, very strongly about the cohesion of NATO. And I, for one, think that the European Union is an incredibly strong and vibrant entity that has a lot to do with the ability of Western Europe to not only handle its economic issues, but provide the backbone and the support for NATO," Biden said. "And so I -- we're -- very supportive. Very supportive."
Reporters then asked whether Biden has succeeded in reassuring allies that his slogan "America is back" is true.
Biden, sunglasses in hand, gestured to Macron and said, "Ask him."
"Yeah. Definitely," Macron replied.
Information for this article was contributed by Jonathan Lemire, Aamer Madhani, Jill Lawless, Danica Kirka and Sylvia Hui of The Associated Press; by Ashley Parker and Anne Gearan of The Washington Post; and by David E. Sanger and Mark Landler of The New York Times.