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Multilateralism –

with Chinese Characteristics

Fraser Cameron

Dr Fraser Cameron

If you were to read the speeches and articles of Chinese leaders you might conclude there was no country on Earth more committed to multilateralism.  Certainly, China has benefited enormously from the rules-based, international system established after 1945.  How genuine is China, along with the other major powers assembled at the United Nations, in its commitment to multilateralism – 21st century-style?

China’s commitment to multilateralism is, unsurprisingly, a mixture of world-view and self-interest. This is especially true in the area of trade.  In the two decades since it joined the WTO, China regularly achieved annual growth over 10% as it became a global manufacturing powerhouse, and built up the largest foreign reserves in history. China is now the world’s second largest economy, poised to overtake the US in the 2020s.

But now that the WTO is under attack from the US President, China has been slow to respond to proposals from the EU, supported by Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, to reform and strengthen the global trade organisation in light of changes in the world economy. It is reluctant to discuss rules for e-commerce and proposals to tackle state subsidies, one of the main reasons Western powers refused to grant China market-economy status which, it claimed, was due to it after 15 years of WTO membership.

The conundrum extends beyond trade. While professing respect for international law, China ignored the Hague Tribunal in 2016 which dismissed Beijing’s claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea. It has subsequently been dragging its feet over agreeing on a code of conduct with ASEAN states. South East Asian leaders have also not forgotten the outburst of the Chinese foreign minister in Hanoi in 2016 when he stated: “you are all small states and China is a big state – do not forget this”.

In the UN system more broadly, China has improved its engagement and its budget contribution.  It supplies more ‘blue-helmets’ for UN peacekeeping than any other P-5 member state. It still uses its veto to defend its clients on occasion, but it has been broadly supportive of the work of UN agencies. It signed the Paris climate change agreements, and it supported EU-led efforts to agree a nuclear deal with Iran.

In the area of international finance, China arguably would not have hived off and established its own institutions if the US Congress had agreed to modest changes to China’s voting rights in the IMF and World Bank. But as a result of the US attitude, Beijing set up the Asia Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB), along with other banks, to fund its flagship Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). China describes this as a ‘multilateral initiative’, but the reality is that 90% of all such projects are China-financed. China has also been rightly criticised for paying insufficient attention to environmental and financial sustainability of BRI projects.

China continues to attend BRICS summits but has concluded that this brings little added value to its policy aims. It also views its membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SC) largely in defensive terms, unwilling to cede influence in Central Asia to Russia. It holds irregular summits with African states, continuing to portray itself as a developing country, while seeking investment opportunities and votes at the UN.

Under the previous leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jibao, China employed slogans seen by many as vacuous – ‘peaceful rise’; ‘harmonious development.’ But with President Xi Jinping at the helm, China has taken a more authoritarian course. New slogans such as ‘a shared future destiny for mankind’ cannot cover up China’s its selective approach to multilateralism. Of course, China is in good company here with the US.

This leaves a small core of states aspiring to defend the liberal versions of the multilateral order which has been so beneficial to so many over the past half-century. China was not in at the ‘creation’, but it has been a major beneficiary. Someone needs to remind Xi Jinping that the alternative is anarchy, not something that it enjoyed in the 1960s under Mao.

This is not to dismiss the validity, both historical and contemporary, of China’s unique civilizational culture.  But it is to suggest that the 21st c. multilateral rules-based order requires a genuine and mutually-respectful dialogue between West and East, North and South.  China has huge potential to play a constructive role in that.

An area for New Zealand’s Centre for Global Studies to enter with insight – and circumspection ….

Dr Fraser Cameron, a former UK and EU diplomat, is Director of the EU-Asia Centre (Brussels) and a member of the Centre’s International Advisory Panel.

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