As Scott Morrison fronted the media to tout a "rather unique opportunity" for a trilateral meeting with his US and UK counterparts during the G7 leaders summit, the first question from a journalist came as no surprise.
"That is not a usual opportunity," the Australian prime minister said of the three-way discussions, his first in-person meeting with the new US president, Joe Biden.
But there was one word on everyone's mind.
"How many times did the word China come into the trilateral meeting?" asked a reporter with the first question from assembled media in the UK on Saturday (local time).
Mr Morrison dodged the question, saying the leaders discussed "the Indo-Pacific situation more broadly". But the pointed question highlighted the overwhelming – and at times unspoken – focus of the leaders summit: countering the rise of an authoritarian China.
"Have they got your back on China?" another reporter asked.
"Well, I think I would put it this way. Our alliance with the United States, the relationship we have with the United Kingdom, has never been stronger. We see the world in similar ways," Mr Morrison replied.
"And we see the challenges in similar ways and we stand together always."
While Australia has grown increasingly uneasy about China's military expansion in the region and its use of economic coercion, the government must walk a diplomatic tightrope as it seeks to thaw icy relations with its major trading partner.
However, the Group of Seven leaders – the US, UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan – did not hold back as Western leaders took direct aim at the Chinese Communist Party.
Leaders chide China, call for renewed Covid probe
The seven leaders scolded China over human rights abuses against religious and ethnic minorities in its Xinjiang region, called for Hong Kong to keep a high degree of autonomy and demanded a full and thorough investigation into the origins of the coronavirus in China.
After discussing how to come up with a unified position on China, leaders issued a highly critical final communique that delved into what are for China some of the most sensitive issues, including Taiwan.
As part of that, the alliance wants a deeper dive into the origins of the pandemic and called for a transparent phase two of inquiry to be convened by the World Health Organisation – a move that will no doubt rankle Beijing.
"We haven't had access to the laboratories," US president Joe Biden lamented to reporters.
Biden said it was not yet certain whether or not "a bat interfacing with animals and the environment ... caused this Covid-19, or whether it was an experiment gone awry in a laboratory."
It comes weeks after Biden said US intelligence agencies were split on the theory the disease leaked out from a Chinese virus lab in Wuhan.
Leaders call for China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms
The rise of China – considered one of the most significant geopolitical events since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 – has unnerved the US. Biden vowed to confront China's "economic abuses" and push back against human rights violations at the summit.
"We will promote our values, including by calling on China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, especially in relation to Xinjiang and those rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration," the G7 communique said.
The G7 also underscored "the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, and encourage the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues" as fears grow that China's intention to reclaim Taiwan could spark a heated conflict.
"We remain seriously concerned about the situation in the East and South China Seas and strongly oppose any unilateral attempts to change the status quo and increase tensions," they said.
Painting a picture of world affairs reminiscent of the Cold War, Biden said democracies were in a global contest with "autocratic governments", and that the G7 had to deliver viable alternatives.
Before the G7 criticism emerged, China pointedly cautioned its participants that the days when "small" groups of countries decided the fate of the world were long gone.
Beijing has repeatedly hit back against what it perceives as attempts by Western powers to contain China.
It says many major powers are still gripped by an outdated imperial mindset after years of humiliating China.
Morrison subbed for one-on-one meeting with US: Penny Wong
On Sunday, senior Labor frontbencher Penny Wong said Mr Morrison's refusal to embrace net zero emissions by 2050 had left him isolated at the summit.
The shadow foreign affairs spokesperson said she was disappointed the prime minister failed to secure a one-on-one meeting with US President Joe Biden.
Mr Morrison's stubborn refusal to sign up to net zero emissions has left him isolated and left Australia isolated," she told reporters in Adelaide.
"I suggest Mr Morrison reflect on whether or not his stubborn refusal to sign up to net zero emissions along with so much of the rest of the world, is really delivering for Australia and for Australians."
Due to its largely pro-fossil fuel position, the Coalition government faces a difficult predicament on the world stage as global powers rally leaders to ambitiously reduce emissions.
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