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The G7 summit in Ise-Shima, Japan, delivered the usual pictures of the leaders smiling and shaking hands in a display of unity, but many are asking whether the 41-year-old club can still do its job if it excludes key powers like Russia and China.

Critics argue that the format - comprising Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United States - is lacking because it excludes these key players, who have critical roles in volatile hotspots, like Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea.

Russia was evicted from the group - then the G8 - of leading industrialized nations in 2014 in response to its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. Unlike the previous two summits, there was no talk this year of reversing that decision.

But, without Russia at the table, the G7 made little progress on the crisis in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin's alliance with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad makes him a key interlocutor.

"In order to achieve peace and stability in the Syrian situation, I consider it important to maintain dialogue with president Putin," Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe noted after the summit.

Excluding Russia was a mistake, former German ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger told dpa this week. "The G7 group is not in a position to resolve big international crises alone. Neither the Ukraine crisis nor the Syria conflict can be resolved without Russia," he said.

But the biggest elephant in the room was China, as leaders discussed Beijing's claims in the South China Sea - home to one of the world's busiest shipping routes, with overlapping claims by five neighbouring states - as well as trade issues and economic challenges involving the country.

"Our economic ties with China will play a major role during these two days in Japan," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker predicted on Thursday.

"China is one of the very big actors," added German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "Depending on how you count, it is the [world's] largest or second-largest economy."

In a barely veiled message to Beijing, the leaders threatened to use a "broad range of trade policy instruments" to protect their steel producers against oversupply and market-distorting subsidies, while also urging countries to refrain from "competitive devaluation."

The G7's efforts to boost global growth also addressed a problem in which China arguably has a central role, as an economic slowdown there has had global knock-on effects.

The larger G20 summit of leading and developing countries in September will be a new opportunity to raise such issues. China is not only a member, but is hosting this year's event, in its eastern city of Hangzhou.

The G7 has its roots in a 1975 meeting to tackle a global economic crisis. It originally comprised the world's six richest industrialized countries, with Canada joining a year later. Since then, its remit has expanded to deal with crises of all kinds, although several of its members have slipped in the global rankings.

Proponents of the format argue that it allows the group of like-minded countries to prepare for more decisive meetings such as the G20, agreeing a common line on the main issues.

The G7 "is a place where true democracies and like-minded countries come together for frank and private discussions on the biggest issues that we face," said British Prime Minister David Cameron.

Merkel highlighted the importance of being able to discuss global developments aside from headline-grabbing issues in a more intimate atmosphere.

"A lot of it is psychology," she added. "It is important to build up trust."

That trust was on display as Merkel posed with US President Barack Obama for one of the many summit snapshots.

"We love your chancellor," Obama called out to the German photographer, grabbing Merkel by both hands. She responded with a relaxed smile, visibly pleased.

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