New-look summit dominated by old-style troubles

G8 meeting in Birmingham: Blair's hopes for a laid-back atmosphere and new agenda have been set back by three crises from Asia
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The Independent Online
IT WAS supposed to have been a new-look summit - with a sharply narrowed agenda, and much time spent in a rural retreat, allowing leaders of the world's eight leading powers to step back a moment from the onrush of events and consider the Big Picture. Some hope.

When Tony Blair welcomes his seven guests to Birmingham today for the annual G8 summit, three major concerns from Asia threaten to dominate proceedings: the continuing financial crisis in the region, the worsening turmoil in Indonesia - the planet's fourth most populous country - and, above all, the prospect that Pakistan will respond in kind to India's nuclear tests this week and escalate what is already the subcontinent's most dangerous arms race in its history.

Behind them looms a scarcely less daunting set of issues: the state of near war in the Serbian province of Kosovo, fresh steps to reduce the debt burden that is choking the world's poorest countries, and the Middle East. And, of course, the two subjects which Mr Blair once promised would be the centrepiece of the occasion: international crime and how to create new jobs in an ever more automated and electronic era.

To some extent, Mr Blair has succeeded in changing the format after last year's gathering in Denver, Colorado, where "declaration diplomacy" plumbed new depths of absurdity. This 24th such summit since former president Giscard d'Estaing inaugurated the tradition in France in 1975 will, for once, be without parallel sessions of finance and foreign ministers, which further encumbered proceedings.

These were held a week ago in London. As a result, the final communique from the leaders of the United States, Russia, Japan, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy and Canada was a modest eight pages long. They will spend virtually the whole of tomorrow at the retreat of Weston Park. But their minds may very well be in Asia.

Most urgent of all, the eight will do their utmost to persuade Pakistan not to carry out nuclear tests of its own. More problematic is the matter of retaliatory sanctions against India. The US and Japan have already acted, but Russia and Britain, among others, oppose such retaliation. The summit would convey "the dismay of the international community", Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday; Britain's job as host was to find "the maximum unity" on the sanctions issue.

But Indonesia, and the resulting further unrest in Asian financial markets, will come a close second, with the crucial unknown of just how far the eight will publicly express their private conviction that President Suharto should step down quickly, if that is the best hope of restoring order. The G-8 will again oppose any reversion to protectionism by countries embroiled in the crisis.

The leaders are also under intense pressure to take concrete steps to reduce the debts of the poorest countries - if not to cancel them outright, then at least to ensure they do not find themselves repaying more old debt than they are receiving in new aid. But the International Monetary Fund and Germany in particular are adamant that there is no point in forgiving debt until countries stop wasting the financial resources they do have.

That line does not go down well with international aid and human rights groups - and even worse with the demonstrators who will be making the same point this weekend outside Birmingham's International Convention Centre where the G8 is meeting. Mr Blair has promised "concrete measures" to reduce debt, but would give no details.