Great powers try to keep it casual

If there is one thing upon which members of group of eight industrialised states can agree, it is that they do not want to allow any new members into their elite club.

Ever since Russia joined in the late 1990s, any serious discussion on expansion has been taboo. Indeed, Moscow’s drift from the democratic values that are meant to unite members is one of the main reasons why the club’s founders oppose considering even China, the most obvious candidate to join.

Yet the G8 leaders set to gather on Wednesday at Heiligendamm, on Germany’s blustery Baltic coast, also know they have a big problem. Unless they in some way engage more fully with non-members, especially emerging powers such as India and Brazil as well as China, they will lose legitimacy as a grouping and, more importantly, fail to resolve challenges that top their agenda.

As Angela Merkel, German chancellor and summit host, told the German parliament 10 days ago: “We don’t want to turn the G8 into a G13. But we know that without the emerging economies, progress on issues such as climate change, the [Doha] world trade round and intellectual property rights is unimaginable. We want to build a common understanding that goes beyond lowest common denominators.”

In some ways Ms Merkel’s points are familiar. G8 summits have regularly invited other leaders for consultations and since 2005 have asked the same five emerging powers – China, India, Brazil, South Africa and Mexico – briefly to join their talks. Yet in two important respects, Heiligendamm could mark a turning point in the old rich world’s awkward courtship of the new economic powerhouses.

Most immediately, Germany is proposing that the G8 formalise its relationship with the “Outreach 5”, as the group of emerging countries is known, via regular meetings between summits and the creation of a secretariat at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to manage “G8-O5” contacts. More importantly, the idea is evidence that the G8 process, founded in 1975, may be reinventing itself for the 21st century as a vehicle for informal problem-solving between the most powerful countries of today and tomorrow.

“It’s clear the G8 has become an important centre of global governance,” says John Kirton, international relations professor at Toronto university. He argues that the G8 is evolving into a year-round forum of top officials and ministers, as well as government leaders, whose deliberations influence decision-making in more formal international bodies such as the United Nations.

Officials outside Germany caution that there is a delicate balancing act to maintain. “The beauty of the G8 is that it is not a formalised institution where countries feel forced to take rigid positions,” says a G8 diplomat. For this reason, the German proposal has met with opposition and may be watered down to prevent a “Group of 13” emerging “through the backdoor”, as another western official puts it.

Yet Ms Merkel’s scheme, even if modified, shows how far the G8 has come. As recently as 2000, G8 leaders at their summit on the Japanese island of Okinawa felt the need to keep their invited guests at arm’s length, holding a separate meeting with the guests in far-off Tokyo.

G8-watchers point to the UK’s Gleneagles summit two years ago as decisive in cementing a role for the five emerging powers present again this week, and in defining the G8 itself as an informal process to complement existing international institutions.

On climate change, for instance – still a difficult issue only days before Heiligendamm – Gleneagles established an informal G8 dialogue with the O5 and several other countries on energy and global warming, running parallel to the glacial UN talks on curbing emissions. Germany has taken this further by asking the O5 for the first time to send envoys to a pre-Heiligendamm meeting in Berlin on climate change. Ministers from O5 countries have also attended meetings of G8 environment and labour ministers.

The G8 has involved the emerging economies in other recent decisions. A G8 statement on the Lebanon crisis at last year’s St Petersburg summit won China’s support and later formed the basis of a UN Security Council resolution. Parallel efforts on trade at the same summit, however, could not prevent the Doha round collapsing soon after.

Katharina Gnath, of Berlin’s DGAP foreign affairs institute, says the G8 has “turned itself into a political co-ordination centre. The annual summit is just the tip of the iceberg”.

The negotiations since last autumn between the eight envoys on sensitive issues in this week’s final G8 communiqué “were a process of testing out each other’s positions, which helps speed up talks in other forums separate from the G8”, says Ms Gnath.

There is also a clear political edge to the G8 embrace of the emerging powers. From climate change to intellectual property rights to development aid, the industrialised countries want the big developing economies to more fully recognise their global responsibilities, analysts argue. Indeed, Bernd Pfaffenbach, Ms Merkel’s G8 envoy, was candid recently about the overall aim. Referring to China in particular, he said Beijing “needed to be made to feel more responsible” for its actions, for instance on its energy explorations in Africa.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the emerging economies are performing their own balancing act in response to the G8 overtures. As an exercise in exerting influence and gaining technical knowledge, the O5 value the chance to engage more closely with the G8. “We value the extra chance to get our messages across, to bring new perspectives to the table,” says one Asian diplomat.

Yet there is also caution about being too closely identified with what is still seen by many countries – and many campaign groups – as an unrepresentative elite club. Such identification could damage the reputation of O5 members in standing up for less powerful developing countries. As a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman puts it: “We are a developing country and for a fairly long time to come, we will remain a developing country.”

For this reason, Germany’s idea of more formalised structures is problematic, says Prem Shankar Jha, a leading Indian commentator. “The more flexible and non-structured a body is, the more effective it is.”

In addition, both India and Brazil resist the idea of a secretariat based in the OECD, which they see as another elitist western club. Everton Vargas, a political secretary in Brazil’s foreign ministry, says the issues raised by the G8 “are certainly of interest”, but whether the OECD should play a role “is still a matter of negotiation”.

Yet the G8’s courtship of the emerging economies may slowly be paying off. Mr Kirton, who has followed G8 summits since the 1980s, says it is highly unlikely that Japan, next year’s G8 host, will omit to invite the O5 again. “It’s like a one-way street, there’s no turning back.”

Additional reporting by Richard McGregor in Beijing, Jo Johnson in New Delhi and Jonathan Wheatley in São Paulo

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.