With the Group of Seven leaders expected to urge China again to act responsibly at their summit in Hiroshima later this week, Beijing has stepped up its defense, trying to deflect their criticism by highlighting possible rifts among the G-7 members.

On the back of a deepening China-U.S. rivalry and closer ties between Beijing and Moscow amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the world's second-largest economy has downplayed the influence of the group representing a handful of rich Western nations and urged some European countries to value their "strategic autonomy."

A Chinese national flag is raised at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Kyodo)

Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang visited France and Germany as part of his European tour last week, in an apparent effort to demonstrate Beijing's cooperation with them in economic and other areas and disrupt G-7 unity in dealing with China-related issues.

The Global Times, a tabloid affiliated with China's ruling Communist Party, quoted Zhou Yongsheng, deputy director of the Japanese Studies Center at the China Foreign Affairs University, as saying Monday that Germany, France and Italy take a different stance from "the comparatively extreme policies" of the United States and Japan.

The three European Union countries "still attach importance to benefiting their own economies and hope to strengthen economic relations with China," Zhou said.

Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University, also told the paper the G-7 members will be "more divided than united" in the future.

"Major EU economies with significant influence that highly value their strategic autonomy will be more reluctant to cooperate and the Europeans will not allow the G-7 to eventually turn into the G-1 -- a group controlled by the only superpower in the world," Li said.

Beijing has been cautious about any reference in G-7 statements to issues such as Taiwan and China's "economic coercion," with the Asian powerhouse stressing its position in the run-up to the summit.

China maintains Taiwan is part of its territory and the island issue is "at the core of its core interests" and a "red line that must not be crossed."

Last month, the G-7 foreign ministers reaffirmed during a meeting in Karuizawa, central Japan, the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and expressed strong opposition to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion.

China, which regards the self-ruled democratic island as a renegade province to be unified with the mainland by force, if necessary, is "carefully watching" whether the leaders will use even stronger wording on Taiwan, said John Lim Chuan-tiong, a Hong Kong-based scholar of international politics.

On economic coercion, or using economic means in pursuit of political objectives, Zhou said the G-7 nations adopt "double standards," with Washington and some of its allies cracking down on Chinese tech firms and imposing export controls.

The Global Times alleged in its editorial Sunday there is a "sinister intention" behind some Western countries' accusations that Beijing engages in economic coercion, saying they are attempting to "morally blackmail China so that they can provoke and harm China's interests without any worries."

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and his G-7 counterparts are seeking to issue a separate statement with language opposing economic coercion, with China in mind, officials with knowledge of the planning said Saturday.

Lim, who has called the U.S.-led AUKUS, Quad and Five Eyes frameworks "3-4-5 containment efforts against China" based on the number of member countries, said the G-7 is a forum that can show a strong unity and he believes Beijing is "concerned most about" it among other entities.

"The G-7 is the sharpest knife" in dealing a blow to China, the scholar said, compared with the smaller trilateral security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and the four-way body involving India, which often takes a different path from Western nations.

The leaders of the Quad members -- the United States, Japan, Australia and India -- are scheduled to meet in Sydney on May 24 following the G-7 Hiroshima summit.

The Five Eyes refers to an intelligence-sharing alliance involving Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States.

Although French President Emmanuel Macron, an advocate of strategic autonomy, recently stirred controversy by urging Europeans not to be "followers" of either the United States or China and cautioning against being drawn into a Taiwan crisis amid their rivalry, experts doubted the development marked a success for China's strategy to weaken U.S.-Europe ties.

The comments represented "a slip of the tongue" by Macron and "somewhat of an over optimistic view that France can separate trade and security" and that the Taiwan issue "can somehow be disconnected from France's foreign policy," said Stephen Nagy, professor at International Christian University in Tokyo.

Lim also said other European countries were unlikely to support what Macron said and China expects France to "return to a big Western family" of the G-7 and endorse the upcoming leaders' statement.

In addition to the G-7 summit, China will also be keeping a vigilant eye on a meeting of the leaders of Japan, South Korea and the United States to be held on the sidelines of the event, after a rapid improvement in Tokyo-Seoul ties and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's remarks on Taiwan that drew fire from Beijing, the Hong Kong academic said.

Beijing's relations with Seoul have deteriorated sharply since Yoon expressed concern in an interview with Reuters last month about increased tensions over Taiwan amid pressure from China.

On the other hand, ties between Japan and South Korea -- both U.S. security allies in Asia -- have recovered from their lowest point in decades since Yoon proposed in March a solution to a bilateral dispute over wartime labor compensation.

Yoon, who is eager to strengthen South Korea's ties with the United States, said in the interview, "The Taiwan issue is not simply an issue between China and Taiwan but, like the issue of North Korea, it is a global issue."

Lim said Yoon's comments were "more straightforward than Japan's stance," indicating a "major change" in the Taiwan policy of South Korea, which had not been vocal on the issue in apparent consideration of its strong economic ties with China. Therefore, Beijing is "very cautious about" discussions on the island at the trilateral summit, he added.