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Foreign Policy

Present-day World Needs to Uphold and Rebuild Multilateralism

Aug 14, 2019
  • He Yafei

    Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs


During a recent personal discussion about multilateralism and in response to witnessing the ongoing chaos worldwide, former Slovenian President Danilo Türk stated to me that the world today is going “from hopeful to possible success.” From our conversation, we both came to the conclusion that although multilateralism is under attack and the global governance regime is porous, international collaboration can still be reborn and can ultimately succeed with support from such emerging countries as China and others.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic. Looking back on the diplomatic record of “new China,” we are keenly aware that, from the "independent and autonomous" diplomatic policies in the early days of the People's Republic to the country's decision to embark on the path of reform and opening up and to embrace globalization in the late 1970s — especially since the 18th CPC National Congress when current President of the PRC Xi Jinping put forward a series of new ideas about global governance: explicitly proposing the idea of major country diplomacy and connecting China's development with global development through concepts such as the “Belt and Road Initiative,” global partnership building, and creating a community of shared future for humanity — China has always steadfastly supported and preserved a “mutilateralist” philosophy and framework of democratization of international relations. Xi said global affairs should be handled with all parties engaging in consultation rather than global affairs being dictated by a couple countries. This is the core of multilateralism.

To sum up the 70 years of successes and experiences of “new China,” I would say: independence and autonomy are its cornerstones, fairness and justice are its beliefs, mutual benefit and a win-win outcome are its pursuits, and multilateralism is its fundamental principle.

First, at the 1955 Bandung Conference, the new China — then a newcomer on the world stage — proposed the Declaration on Promoting World Peace and Cooperation. This proclamation, which was approved at the meeting, put forward 10 principles for handling international relations that embodied the lofty ideals and wishes of Asian and African nations: national independence, unity and cooperation in preserving world peace. These principles have since become internationally accepted guidelines for a multilateralist approach to state-to-state relations.

Second, since the beginning of reform and opening up, China has adapted and comprehensively integrated itself into the new trends of deepening economic globalization, resolutely supporting the multilateral global governance regime with the UN at its core. China formally became a member of the WTO in 2001, rapidly grew into an indispensable part of the global production line, and currently stands as an important force behind world peace and economic growth.

Third, since the 18th CPC National Congress, Chinese diplomacy has witnessed a series of significant innovations both in theory and practice: yielding diplomatic thoughts of the new era with Chinese characteristics (i.e. the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, which promotes the building of a community of shared future for humanity with the goal of preserving world peace and promoting common development), the building of the "Belt and Road" under the principle of partnership and sharing, pursuing a path of peaceful development based on cooperation and win-win outcomes, facilitating the building of global partnerships on the basis of deepening diplomatic deployment, leading global governance regime reforms with fairness and justice, and actively promoting the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Multilateralism has permeated into all aspects of Chinese diplomacy.

Now facing “the time of changes not seen in a century,” the present-day world is at the most complicated, sensitive and volatile historical turning point in the post-Cold War era. The rules-based, multilateralist global governance regime is under siege, while unilateralism, populism, nationalism, protectionism are converging to undermine multilateralist ideas and mechanisms.

In disregard of international rules, the US and Trump administration have withdrawn from the Paris Agreement, Iran nuclear deal, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and have launched a trade war against China, with some American officials calling for a “decoupling” of the Chinese and US economies in an attempt to re-organize global production and values chains. Behind US unilateralism and protectionism are deep domestic populist and nationalist factors, as well as the incumbent power's all-round suppression of an emerging power out of “strategic anxiety.” Unfortunately, protectionism and isolationism are not an isolated phenomenon in the US: the new British prime minister insists on “hard Brexit” by the end of October; serious immigration/refugee problems, economic and debt crises in many European countries are tearing apart Europe's multilateralist framework, leaving the future of the EU and euro hard to predict; the combination of an increase in downward pressures on the global economy and the surging of financial risks is dealing a heavy blow to the global regimes of free trade and investment within the multilateralist framework; and the fate of the WTO won't be determined before the end of year. The US has just released a document insisting on unilaterally re-defining the category of “developing nations” under the WTO framework.

Meanwhile, the connotations and scope of multilateralism have both witnessed profound changes over the years. The overarching UN Charter has always been the compass for the rules-based multilateralist global governance regime. The main original purpose of the UN was to build a collective security regime based on consultations among major powers, so as to make sure humanity does not suffer from another major war. The UN and its Security Council have made invaluable contributions in this regard.

However, after WWII, especially the Cold War, multi-polarization has proceeded rapidly and relations among major countries have undergone profound adjustments:. economic globalization has deepened, as has the global economic landscape; international security challenges have become even more complex, with geopolitical conflicts escalating. Solving regional and global problems via multilateral consultation and negotiation has become a main path and channel for global governance, and the trend has gradually extended from political and security realms to such areas as economy, finance, public health, science and technology, standard making, outer space and the seas, cyber space, arms control, artificial intelligence, and climate change. During my term of office in Geneva, thousands of meetings or negotiations were conducted between inter-governmental organizations there; multilateralist ideas and mechanisms have become inseparable from countries’ diplomacy as well as from global governance.

From the perspective of mechanisms, multilateralism is “solution-oriented” and is not limited to such universal, global inter-governmental international organizations as the UN. Depending on different issues and subjects involved, countries and organizations with similar positions and interests may formulate various, increasingly diverse mechanisms. Such regional organizations as the ASEAN, African Union, EU, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Eurasian Economic Union, and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States have mushroomed in the past few decades. As a result of deepening multipolarization and global crises, the G7/G8, G20 and BRICS have come into being;more than 400 global and regional free trade arrangements have taken various forms and featured different emphases. Beyond the UN-centered international regime (more or less related to the UN), there have been numerous multilateral mechanisms. Some are very influential: the G20, for instance, has demonstrated incomparable functions during the 2008 global financial crisis and as “the foremost platform for global governance” afterward.

The year 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of the UN, and the UN General Assembly will for the first time review the implementation of the UN Agenda for Sustainable Development 2030 in September 2019. The UN Secretary-general António Guterres has has made a plan for UN75. Such new endeavors by the international community for preserving and improving the multilateralist global governance regime are targeted at sending the messages of “resolutely supporting multilateralism,” “firmly supporting the UN-centered international regime,” “only common development is real development,” and “only sustainable development is good development.”

As an emerging new power, China needs to both adhere to its 70-year-old diplomatic tradition as well as innovate and develop it. In particular China should — with the guidance of the Xi Jinping New Thought on Diplomacy developed since the 18th CPC National Congress that includes the Chinese solution to global governance — stick to multilateralism; rebuild multilateralism; support various UN proposals; play a leading role in such new multilateral mechanisms as the G20, BRICS, and SCO; strive to build a community of shared future for humanity; cope with the dramatic changes in our face; and find a beautiful future for all human beings.

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