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Foreign Policy

A Multilateral Foundation

Feb 08, 2021
  • Su Xiaohui

    Deputy Director of Int'l & Strategic Studies, CIIS

On Jan. 25, President Xi Jinping delivered a special address via video link at the World Economic Forum’s Virtual Event of the Davos Agenda. He summarized the main challenges faced by the international community and elaborated on multilateralism as the key to solving problems.

Xi did not refer directly to the U.S.-China relationship. However, some analysts thought the subtext was clear. The address was Xi’s first remarks to an international audience since the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. The world awaits a new phase in U.S.-China relations in the Biden administration.

In earlier contrast, Xi spoke in 2017 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, when Donald Trump’s election had already cast a shadow on globalization.

Since Biden took office, the United States has been planning to review the bilateral relationship. This involves a complex set of analyses by various agencies and consultations with Democrats, Republicans and allies to determine how to move forward. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said, the Biden administration’s approach to its China policy will be characterized by patience.

More broadly, the United States is adjusting its foreign policies overall. Trump’s “America first” agenda was criticized for sweeping aside cooperative and communal strategies on world trade, diplomacy and politics. On his first day in office, Biden signaled a desire to return to multilateralism through an executive action committing the U.S. to the Paris Agreement on climate change.

However, a U.S. review of its policies on China does not necessarily aim at a constructive relationship. The “multilateralism” in the U.S. vocabulary is consistent with power politics. Even worse, the U.S. may utilize the term as a disguise for unilateralism. Accordingly, the so-called support for multilateralism of the U.S. will not lead to the country’s increasing responsibility for world development. On the contrary, the U.S. effort to strengthen its alliances and sustain its own leadership will result in more uncertainties for peace, prosperity and international cooperation.

In this context, Xi’s special address sent clear signals to the United States in an effort to shape bilateral ties. First, China is proposing a new foundation for all countries, including for itself and the U.S., upon which new relationships can be built.

China is concerned about the U.S. attempt to provoke division and confrontation as it stresses the uniqueness of each country. In Xi’s speech, China for the first time outlined criteria involving a country’s history, culture and social system in light of whether those contribute to human progress, enjoy popular support and serve to deliver political stability, social progress and better lives for the people. President Xi reiterated the common values of humanity — peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom — as he stated in September during the general debate of the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly. Accepting uniqueness and maintaining mutual respect is the key to major countries’ contact and cooperation.

Second, China insists on following international law and international rules.

Washington frequently uses terms such as “rules-based international order” and “liberal world order.” Europeans believe that the body of rules is based on their values.

China emphasizes that international governance should be based on the rules and consensus reached among all, not on orders given by one or few. Xi reaffirmed in his speech that the Charter of the United Nations reflects basic and universally recognized norms governing state-to-state relations. Without international law and international rules that are formed and recognized by the global community, the world may fall back to the law of the jungle, with devastating consequences for humanity. It is impossible for China to abide by the rules set only by the U.S. and the Western world.

Third, China suggests constructive approaches for building trust.

It has been suggested that benign competition between the major powers is possible, but the idea has been met with some skepticism. Some officials and scholars think competition can only lead to confrontation, as it reflects a zero-sum mentality.

But China views competition as kind of driving force for improvement. It does not oppose competition but rather supports fair competition — “like competing with each other for excellence in a race, not beating each other in a wrestling arena.” It is the time for the U.S. to realize that the world is moving toward multi-polarization, and it is unlikely to contain China’s rise.

Last, China is warning the U.S. of potential of conflicts.

China opposes attempts to build small circles to start a new Cold War aimed at rejecting, threatening or intimidating others, to willfully impose decoupling, to disrupt supply lines or impose sanctions or to create isolation or estrangement. China will defend its national interest in sovereignty, security and development.

Analysis said that Xi’s speech shows that Biden is facing a very different China. It might be true. China is trying to work with the United States in a mutually beneficial way but at the same time is preparing for the worst-case scenario with effective counterbalancing measures.

With his explication of multilateralism, Xi’s special address has generated some reflection on global patterns and the international order, as well as major power relations. As for China and the United States, the two now have a window of opportunity to usher in a new phase in their relationship based on multilateralism. 

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