The year 2020 was an extraordinary one. The sudden outbreak of COVID-19 swept across the world, becoming the worst global public health disaster since World War II. However, the impact of the pandemic has gone far beyond issues of public health, triggering a domino effect in human life and setting new rules of the game in politics, economics, military, science and technology, and culture. Uncertainties and risks are both on the rise. Looking back into history, evolution of world situations is often accompanied by large-scale wars and turbulence. In addition to that, epidemics and crises have also affected the orientations of civilizations. This time, the combination of a once-in-a-century pandemic and changes unseen in a century is bound to reshape the world.
A container ship berths at the container terminal of the Lianyungang Port in east China’s Jiangsu Province, on December 23, 2020. It is to be loaded with 1,300 automobiles to be exported to Iran.
Multilateralism vs. Unilateralism
The raging pandemic demands united actions of the world to contain it. Meanwhile, the tug of war between multilateralism and unilateralism has exacerbated, and cooperation between major countries has been hard to achieve. Multilateralism, a global vision featuring the common well-being of all humanity, hopes to tackle global issues in an equal and balanced way. As for the zero-sum game mentality of unilateralism, beggar-thy-neighbor practices, the law of the jungle, and the belief that the winner takes all, constitute its main characteristics. The tussle between multilateralism and unilateralism will determine the future of the world.
Throughout the history of human civilization, mankind has undergone successive revolutions on agriculture, industry, and more recently information. Each has had a profound and far-reaching impact on human society. Since the 21st century, a new round of science and technology revolution and industrial transformation has accelerated with readjustments having taken place in world trade and the division of labor in the international industrial chain. At present, the world economy is at the convergence of old and new business cycles, seeing the conversion of old and new growth drivers. The balance of international powers has changed and taken on a certain tendency. The information age has generated the “global village” concept along with global interconnection, great mobility of people, and interdependence of countries in economy and trade. It is obvious that the trend of globalization is not subject to the will of humans and seems to be irreversible.
The outbreak of COVID-19 is not only a test for the governance capacity of countries, but also an examination of the global governance system. It should have forced countries to rethink and rationalize the internal logic and development trend of globalization, and reconsider the extreme importance of global governance. Sadly, escalating unilateralism, protectionism, and bullying behaviors have challenged the global governance. It is now urgent for humanity to reverse the growing global deficit in governance, mutual trust, development, and keeping peace, and reform the current global governance system.
Instead of advancing globalization and helping to improve capacity for global governance, politicians of some countries, represented by the United States, criticized globalization and complained about it going beyond their control. They introduced even more anti-globalization policies, turning a blind eye to the fast-spreading coronavirus across the globe. They assumed that “localization” and “regionalization” of relevant industries are the right choice at the moment, and thus encouraged their manufacturers to return to their home country, rather than seeking international cooperation on tackling the shortage of medical supplies. What is more, the United States withdrew funding from the World Health Organization (WHO) and undermined the role and contribution of the World Trade Organization (WTO), plunging global governance into an unprecedented dilemma.
Multilateralism or unilateralism, though contrary to each other, are both gaining global attention. In terms of the general tendency, multilateralism and globalization is still the mainstream trend of the times, since it has been repeatedly proved by history that multilateralism is by far the most reasonable approach to global governance, and multilateral cooperation is the most effective way to tackle global issues.
A million doses of China’s Sinopharm inactivated coronavirus vaccine arrive in Belgrade, Serbia, on January 16, 2021.
China’s Role in Defending Multilateralism
If we take a hard look at history, multilateralism has always played a key role in mitigating the trauma of war, promoting global development, and avoiding the recurrence of wars. As an important achievement of multilateralism, the United Nations, since its inception, has been committed to building global consensus, mobilizing global resources, and coordinating global actions. It has played a pivotal role in promoting world peace and development and has become the core mechanism for handling international affairs in a cooperative manner since the end of World War II. So far, 193 countries have joined this most universal, representative, and authoritative international organization, working together to formulate international rules, govern global affairs, and share the fruits of development.
As the first country to sign on the UN Charter, China has firmly defended the authority of the UN and actively supported various UN operations, from peacekeeping actions to the implementation of the Paris Agreement and international cooperation in research and development of vaccines. As a staunch defender and active practitioner of multilateralism, China has joined almost all intergovernmental international organizations and more than 500 international conventions, and firmly upheld the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. Five years ago, while attending the summits which marked the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed, “Let us unite more closely to build a new partnership for win-win cooperation and a community with a shared future for mankind.” It is highly consistent with the principle of multilateralism and the direction of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, and has been included in UN resolutions, Security Council resolutions, and other international documents.
The Chinese people unswervingly believe that only when the world is good, can China be well; and only when China is good, can the world get better. In upholding multilateralism, China has always followed the ancient philosophy of “learning by doing.”
To defend multilateralism is to defend the widely accepted international order of rules. In state-to-state relations, promises must be kept. International cooperation should be governed by rules rather than arbitrary behavior. To practice multilateralism is, first and foremost, to uphold the UN Charter, observe international law and basic norms governing international relations, and abide by mutually agreed international agreements. However, in recent years, some countries have repeatedly defied the basic norms governing international relations based on the UN Charter, which have seriously undermined the authority and sanctity of international law and harmed the common interests of all countries. Relations among countries and coordination of their interests must only be based on rules and institutions; they must not be lorded over by those who wave a strong fist at others. Major countries should take the lead in advocating and upholding the rule of international law, honor their commitments, and refrain from exceptionalism, double standards, or distorting international law to infringe on the legitimate rights and interests of other countries or undermine international peace and stability in the name of the rule of law.
Building a community with a shared future for mankind is a visionary goal, which can only be achieved by dedication of generations. The world is not peaceful today. Global issues such as terrorism and climate change are on the rise, the North-South divide is widening with threatening power politics. This pandemic, however, has reminded people again that the destiny of all countries is closely interlinked. Only if we surpass differences, pool resources, strengthen and improve global governance, can a community with a shared future for mankind be achieved and challenges be handled. This is the only way for human development and the ultimate goal of multilateralism, which China is willing to march forward together with the rest of the world.
In Manamah, the capital city of Bahrain, China’s inactivated COVID-19 vaccine enters 3rd-phase clinical trial on September 16, 2020. The trial ushers in a special volunteer, Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad.
HOU YUXIANG is dean of the School of Middle Eastern Studies of Beijing International Studies University.
WU SIKE is a senior diplomat and China’s former special envoy on the Middle East.