Battle to save multilateralism amid Sino-US tension

Rivalry between Washington and Beijing is likely to persist, so can Europe uphold the multilateral, rules-based system?

In the midst of a ravaging pandemic, the world’s great powers, the US and China, have been locked into a contest of dominance characterized by aggressive bipolarity. This could be readily seen in speeches given by Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at the 75th general assembly of the United Nations (UN). 

Trump hammered China for causing the spread of the deadly SARS-CoV-2 virus and for its behaviour in a host of other areas such as climate change and trade. Striking a more conciliatory tone, Xi underscored the importance of international cooperation to meet global challenges while rejecting the Trump administration’s “America First” policy. But Xi’s message of harmony was belied by China’s hostility towards Australia, whose prime minister joined the UN event by teleconference to repeat his country’s calls for an independent inquiry into the outbreak of the Covid-19 in Wuhan.

Given the intense rivalry for global leadership between the US and China, happening in the midst of a pandemic still unchecked in much of the world, it is a good time assess the impact that the pandemic has had on the bilateral relationship, and what this means for the future of international relations in a post-Covid-19 world.

With the election of Joe Biden as president of the US, a marked change in style and content in the US leadership can be expected. The president-elect has vowed to listen more intently to international partners and restore US participation in international agreements, such as UN Convention on Climate Change agreed in Paris 2015. Yet, it is difficult to see how the rivalry between the US and China on trade and other issues will dissipate.

From a European perspective, it is essential to ask whether the dismal outlook for international cooperation poses an insurmountable challenge to the European Union (EU), which has grounded its regional integration approach on interdependence and common interests among states. Is the (re)introduction of aggressive power politics undermining the EU’s approach to multilateralism, a rules-based international system and sustainable development?

This question is raised at a moment when the EU and its member states have agreed on the European Green Deal. This ambitious and wide-ranging strategy to tackle climate change and achieve a long-term sustainable social and economic development, is an excellent example of how the EU can lead on multilateral solutions to global problems.

But the success of this strategy will depend on generally improving the conditions for international trade – and for the EU more specifically, it will require ensuring a level playing field globally, including in the area of environmental rules and standards, as the greening of the EU economy moves ahead.

Before focusing on the changes evident this year and their possible impact on multilateralism, a rules-based international system and sustainable development, however, it is important to acknowledge that international relations started to change already some 10 to 15 years ago, prompted by the emergence on the world scene of the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

Post-corona world order

The rise of these economic and political powers signalled a transformation of the liberal world order. The COVID-19 pandemic has not in and of itself, therefore, been a driver of the new world order as it takes shape in the post-Corona world, but rather highlights, and possibly exacerbates, some of the more insidious aspects of this new world.

The rise of new powers in the international system has had profound consequences for the liberal world order as we have known it from the end of the Second World War up through the mid-2000s, when new powers began making their mark on the international system. These powers sought inclusion in the international order through membership in international organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

At the same time, they were not shy about their intention to challenge some of the most important aspects of the international system – chiefly the rule of law, multilateralism and human rights – while demanding that their interpretation of international norms and principles be taken into account.

Because of their economic clout (China, in particular), but also owing to their military might (China and Russia), the inclusion of these powers already indicated a shift of the balance of power in the international system. The further weakening of the liberal world order was then precipitated four years ago with the election in the US of President Donald Trump, which meant the loss of the US as the order’s chief proponent and protector. A number of fundamental shifts in the principled stance of the US in international affairs, undertaken by the Trump administration, have further undermined international norms and principles.

The rise of new powers in the international system has had profound consequences for the liberal world order as we have known it from the end of the Second World War up through the mid-2000s, when new powers began making their mark on the international system.

It is important to bear in mind, as we analyze the reactions of the international community to the pandemic, that the profound transition of the liberal world order predates the onset of Covid-19. Three aspects of this shift are particularly important to an assessment of how the world community has dealt with the pandemic.

First of all, international relations are increasingly characterized by power politics and great power rivalry. Second, international relations are no longer positive-sum, as geopolitical rivalry has transformed them into a zero-sum game. And finally, the mandates and operations of international organizations have been undermined, with serious consequences for global solutions in the face of the pandemic.

Power and rivalry

In her state of the union address in mid-September, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen referred to China as a “systemic rival,” echoing language in the EU strategy paper issued in March 2019. The president’s address came shortly after an official visit to Europe by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during which tensions between China and the EU were apparent. But the tensions paled in comparison to the intense rivalry that has emerged over the last few years between China and the US.

Because of the reconfiguration of the international system that began with the rise of China in the mid-2000s, the US has seen its dominant position in the world order challenged. In order to head off more extreme reactions from the US stemming from this challenge, the Chinese first advocated a multipolar world order in which the EU would provide the third pole.

In this early phase, from around 2005 to 2010, the Chinese pledged their support for the reigning principles of international cooperation and abided by the norms of global diplomacy.

With time, however, China has become increasingly insistent that its understanding of international relations, premised on a traditional balance of power perspective, be taken into account in international politics and strategic bilateral partnerships. This is a stance that the EU, during its twenty-odd years of engagement with China, has come to learn the hard way as the table turned and China would no longer let itself be socialized into western norms but insisted that its norms and outlook on the international system be respected.

US concerns about losing its dominant position to China, which have been brewing for some time, have now come to dominate American foreign policy. With the increasingly authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping on the one hand, and four years under an inexperienced, combative and unprincipled American President, China and the US have been locked in an increasingly tense struggle for global dominance. Among many world leaders, Xi and the outgoing American president foremost among them, aggressive power politics have combined with the personalization of foreign policy.

Ironically, the Chinese leadership, under what has now become known as “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy,” insists internationally that it wants peace and fruitful win-win relations with other countries, but it practices a nationalistic domestic rhetoric and do not refrain from punishing countries which, in China’s eyes, do not respect its principles of international engagement. 

In a recent paper for the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, Björn Jerdén and Viking Bohman detailed how China’s government and its embassy in Stockholm have since early 2018 conducted “an intense campaign of public criticism of Swedish media outlets, journalists, scholars, human rights activists, political parties and authorities.” The researchers noted that the campaign by China “may be part of a government-directed strategy to pressure Swedish authorities and public opinion to be more accommodating towards Beijing’s concerns.”

The stance of China and the US contrasts sharply, meanwhile, with the EU’s radically different foreign policy approach, which is based on consensus-seeking and a functional policy orientation. While the EU approach produces a more cumbersome and complex policy-making environment, which may not always be optimal in a crisis situation, it avoids the pitfalls and extremes of politicization.

During the Covid-19 pandemic this year, international politics have become highly politicized by world leaders. In this process, nationalism spills over into foreign policy, and national interests are increasingly defined in short-term cycles and in a short-sighted manner. The pursuit of international status has resulted in political posturing toward audiences at home, with the result that national interests are increasingly defined by domestic politics, and by the standing and personal interests of the national leaders themselves.

The result of such selfish and self-seeking behavior on the international scene has been to severely impede trust among states. In the case of China, the political regime has widely advertised its supposed successes in fighting Covid-19 while lambasting the perceived failures of the response of other countries. In the US, meanwhile, President Trump has overtly blamed China, talking in his UN address of a “great global struggle” against the “invisible enemy, the ‘China virus’”— a naked attempt to shift the blame away from his own administration’s botched response to the pandemic.

Selfishness rules

In this respect, China and the US have both provided recognizable patterns of selfish and self-seeking behaviour. Take, for example, the way egoism has driven the procurement of essential treatments in the midst of the pandemic, as in June when the US purchased the entire three-month global supply of the drug Remdesivir, shown to speed recovery from Covid-19. Or consider how President Trump pushed against established safety standards for the development of a vaccine ahead of the November 3 election, a policy bound to have a detrimental effect on a public already fearful of unsafe vaccines.

China, which long-delayed joining the World Health Organization’s COVAX program, which promotes equitable global access to Covid-19 vaccines, has reportedly leaped ahead with vaccine testing in an all-out bid to beat the US in a race to showcase its scientific prowess, what has been dubbed “vaccine nationalism.” Generally speaking, vaccine nationalism seems to be the order of the day for both the US and China.

The efforts of the Chinese leadership to push back on global criticism of its handling of the pandemic’s early phase, and its glorification in its domestic propaganda of its claimed successes in reigning in the virus, are further examples of self-serving response. To stave off criticism and defend its record, China has launched public relations campaigns among pandemic stricken countries in Europe, Africa and Asia. Dubbed “face-mask diplomacy,” these efforts to shift the global narrative on Covid-19 in China’s favor have in many cases backfired.

Even China’s swift implementation of a new national security law in Hong Kong, which has drawn a wave of criticism from the US and countries in Europe, can be seen in the light of the US-China rivalry, as an act of urgent self-interest on the part of the Beijing leadership in asserting and reaffirming its sovereignty over Hong Kong in the face of American criticism and possibly even indirect involvement.

Summing to zero

The liberal world order was built on norms and principles which would, it was thought, facilitate and guarantee international cooperation and the long-term commitment of states to international agreements. The weakening of the liberal world order is not only mirrored in the retreat of democracy and unabashed breaches of human rights around the world, but also in the flouting of international rules-based regimes and international treaties and conventions.

In the face of the more self-interested, transactional, and nationalistic postures taken by global powers, broader arguments about international cooperation and altruism, not only as a norm but as a long-term win-win strategy, seem rapidly to be losing ground.

Beyond the obvious argument that countries must cooperate in the race for a Covid-19 vaccine, a deep mistrust of other states and their willingness to abide by commitments has undermined the global trading system, international cooperation in science and technology, and the ability of states to deal a range of other pressing concerns, including climate change, sustainable development and poverty relief. This lack of trust will have severe consequences for rebuilding national economies ravaged by the pandemic, and will potentially also impact the management and financing of global vaccine distribution.

Throughout the pandemic, we have often witnessed an opposing behaviour being pursued by political leaders, of which the aggressive bipolarity emerging between China and the US has been the most detrimental for building trust and constructive partnerships among states. This could be readily seen in the concerted effort by the Trump administration to seek a global de-coupling from the Chinese economy, potentially engendering an even deeper slowdown of economic globalization.

On a more general level, we also witness an uptick in spying, including digital espionage, and the spread of fake news and disinformation to destabilize the liberal world order, further feeding distrust among nations. Western leaders tend to blame this distrust on an increasingly a more assertive China and Russia, as well as on countries like North Korea and Iran, but as others have pointed out, much of the blame lies also with the failure of Western governments to uphold the values underlying the liberal international order.

And the actions of the US president have been particularly damaging. As one analysis from Australia’s Lowy Institute noted in July this year, “The actions of Donald Trump, in particular, have undermined transatlantic unity, damaged the moral authority of the West, and weakened global governance.”

The blame-game being waged between the US and China is a dangerous distraction from real problems – most acutely, finding a solution to the spread of Covid-19 and preparing for future pandemics. The critical question is whether international leaders will be capable of agreeing on new rules and regulations that can sustain global public health policies and prevent further economic and technological de-coupling that might lead to a fragmentation of trading systems and regional internets.

Liberal world

The erosion of the liberal world order and the onset of the US-Chinese rivalry have negative consequences for international organizations as they seek to deliver on their policy mandates. China has followed a twin-strategy on the international level.

On the one hand, it has built competing organizations outside the reigning liberal order, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and diplomatic networks, such as the 17+1 grouping in the framework of China’s Belt and Road Initiative. On the other hand, it has sought to fully utilize the opportunities offered by established international organizations, in particular its membership of the WTO.

China continually pledges its support for international trade and for the WTO as an organization, but fails to fully comply with its rules, in particular as concerns intellectual property rights. In a study on China’s WTO membership published late last year with the Center for European Policy Studies, economist Hu Weinian noted that while China “relinquished most special and differential treatment provisions at its accession,” the problem lies in China’s “lack of faithful compliance with certain accession commitments, such as notification and transparency.”

Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the US made it its hallmark to withdraw or otherwise undermine the same international organizations it helped to establish and once upheld. The WTO is a case in point. The US has undermined the WTO by blocking the appointment of a new secretary general and sabotaging its appellate body by withholding the appointment of judges.

To circumvent the US intransigence, the EU, Australia, Singapore and over 20 other members, including China, recently launched an interim appeal arbitration system. Nevertheless, the global trading system is under siege by rising economic nationalism (seen in China, the US and the EU), transactional tit-for-tat deals and regional investment strategies built on mercantilist logic. Together, this has undermined the WTO in its capacity to uphold a rules-based global trading system and develop global free trade in new areas, such as government procurement, IP – and indeed global health.

As a result of the pandemic, countries have become even more aware of the fragility of global value chains for the procurement of personal protective gear and compounds for the production of drugs and vaccines. Countries need to strike a balance between self-sufficiency and resilience, and afflict damage to international trade by economic nationalism.

Under the presidency of Donald Trump, the US made it its hallmark to withdraw or otherwise undermine the same international organizations it helped to establish and once upheld.

In the context of the ongoing pandemic, the undermining of the WHO is deplorable. The organization has a cumbersome governance framework and has not been forceful enough in urging member states to share information, support joint funding schemes, and initiate scientific investigations into the origin and spread of the virus.

In different ways, both China and the US bear a heavy responsibility for undermining the organization. China has refused to allow scientific officers of the WHO to conduct meaningful investigations into the origin of Covid-19 in and around Wuhan, and it has punished Australia for being at the forefront in urging such an investigation.

The US, meanwhile, has refused to support the COVAX scheme of pooled procurement (joined by China only in October), which has been championed by the EU and other states around the world as a means of helping developing countries secure vaccines once they become available. The US has also announced its planned withdrawal from the WHO, saying it will redirect funding to US global health priorities while accusing the organization of being beholden to China. While this withdrawal will likely be reversed by the incoming Biden administration, it is unlikely that the US will play the same leading role in global health that it played before 2016.

On the question of the WHO and global health, we can see one of a number of areas – the Green Deal being another – where the EU is stepping up to fill the gap. In August this year, just weeks after the US formally signalled its intention to withdraw from the WHO, German Health Minister Jens Spahn announced in Geneva that Germany would pledge an additional 200 million euros to the organization.

His ministry stressed that Germany’s federal government was “committed to strengthening multilateralism,” and wished to “see the further development of a global health architecture with WHO in a central managing and coordinating role.” Both Germany and France have pressed for the reform of the WHO in order to address legal and financial weaknesses.

On November 12, the European Union announced that it would contribute a further 100 million euro to COVAX, the facility launched in April by the WHO, the European Commission and France, and seeking equitable access to vaccines against COVID-19. This brought the EU’s total contribution to 500 million euros. The Trump administration has refused to play a role in COVAX, though the incoming Biden administration has indicated it will meet with the facility and could reverse course.

Looking to the EU

Containing the spread of COVID-19 and avoiding the outbreak of future pandemics is a clearly a global public good. As with other public goods, global public health cannot be realized unless the world learns how to fight infectious diseases on all fronts, disregarding whether there is a direct and immediate benefit to one’s own country. In this way altruism is linked to self-interest – you will not be safe until everyone is safe.

In order for the international community to come together and fight COVID-19, China and the US must stop regarding one another as bitter enemies. Power, prestige and influence cannot be gained by short-term tit-for-tat rivalry, and the world is not equipped to handle great power tension and heightened insecurity.

Furthermore, the characterization of economic nationalism and scapegoating as matters of national interest, something both the US and China have done repeatedly in the midst of their ongoing rivalry, is certainly not conducive to building trust and conditions for cooperation.

For the EU as well as for the world at large, restoring the rules-based world order is paramount. Certainly, the EU’s take on multilateralism rooted in the experience of constructing a union of states based on rule of law, autonomous institutions and a credible commitment to agreed policy goes against those states, such as China, which regard outside interference as an anathema to national sovereignty.

The dogma of indivisible sovereignty, as upheld by both China and  Trump’s US, has so far made the prospects for a strong rules-based international system difficult to fathom as this system relies on enforceable rules upheld by international institutions with autonomous power in areas entrusted them, and therefore, entails a certain loss of limited sovereignty in exchange for joint management of global issues. Throughout history, small and middle-sized countries have understood this trade-off more acutely than have great powers.

The EU and its member states are at the forefront of the initiative to set up a global alliance for multilateralism. The first meeting of the Alliance for Multilateralism, established in April 2019, many months in advance of the pandemic, by the French and German foreign ministers, was held in September 2019 at the UN General Assembly in New York.

At the second meeting, held again in September this year, UN Secretary-General António Guterres opened the session by saying that, “The pandemic has upended the world, but that upheaval has created space for something new.” The session’s host, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas emphasized: “Our choice is clear: multilateral cooperation remains the foundation for peace, prosperity and justice.”

The meeting discussed urgently needed action on a number of fronts, including specific plans such as the COVAX vaccine platform, the Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace (introduced in November 2018), and the Berlin Principles on One Health (introduced in October 2019, predating the Covid-19 outbreak by just a few months). However, the global powers must be involved in this restoration of a rules-based international order, and it is in this context that the aggressive rivalry between China and the US must be addressed, hopefully by the in-coming US leadership under President-elect Joe Biden.

Furthermore, restoring the authority of international organizations must become a priority, not just as concerns multilateral organizations, such as the UN, with wide-ranging mandates, but also for expert-oriented organizations with more limited but indispensable mandates in times of crisis – the WHO being a prime example. The competences and resources of these organizations must be tailored to reflect their mandates, and power politics should not be allowed to hamper their operation, especially not when it comes to the mechanisms of dispute settlement.

This is particularly urgent in the case of the WHO. Here, the EU is already playing an important and growing role, participating not only in the forging of international regimes but also in the funding of global schemes as well as the organization itself. Today, in fact, as multilateral efforts are under strain from great power rivalry, the EU and its member states are together by far the world’s largest provider of international aid and financial support to international organizations.

The EU’s quest for international norms and principled behaviour might indeed appear futile if we accept the brand of power politics that has spread through the world in the last decade. But for the EU as a union of states, the defence of these norms is an existential question. In an unpredictable international environment, the behaviour of the US, China and Russia, as well as the United Kingdom’s departure from the EU, have actually sharpened European minds, both at the EU and the member state level.

Remarkable progress

This has allowed for some remarkable progress in recent times. For example, the launch of the European Green Deal in 2019 was recently followed up by an agreement on the financial package in support for it.  The European Green Deal takes a systemic approach to tackling climate change and provides a road map towards a sustainable economy – an important step toward fulfilling commitments under the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference, as well as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Not least, the plans to mobilize at least 1 trillion euros to reach climate neutrality by 2050 will allow to EU and its member states over the next decade to invest in sustainable production and consumer patterns that will drive climate-friendly standards, digitalization and innovation.

In order to reach this ambitious goal, it will be in the EU’s interest to seek to extend its regulatory power globally, chiefly by facilitating or restricting access to its vast internal market and by insisting on including clauses concerning climate change and sustainable economic and social development in its many association agreements with countries throughout the world. With the financial backing of the European Green Deal the EU will have some financial leeway to assist developing countries along a sustainable development path.

Leaders in the EU pin great hope on the president-elect Joe Biden and his pledge to heal the transatlantic alliance and, especially the rift with the EU. There are certainly a number of areas where the EU and the future president could see eye-to-eye, such as on climate change, multilateralism, including the important role of international organizations, a rules-based international system and possibly also international security.

Rules-based system

However, the multilateral, rules-based system that the Europeans seek would be difficult to achieve without an understanding to that effect emerging between the US and China. Here, the EU could seek to take on a mediating role, playing the third pole in the international system, a position for the EU which the Chinese used to promote.

During the past four years, the EU has found a stronger voice internationally, designating China as a “systemic rival,” maintaining sanctions on Russia and not refraining from challenging the US in the WTO. During this period, the EU’s self-perception has changed from being a “normative power” doing good in the world to committing to principled pragmatism as the loadstar for its actions in the years ahead.

This less idealistic stance in international politics does not, however, mean that the commitment to values and principles, such as rule of law, democracy and human rights, has been lessened. Rather, it suggests that the EU will approach international politics with more realistic expectations, and perhaps in so doing, will assist in driving international cooperation forward and mitigating the enduring tensions between the US and China as they struggle for supremacy.

» This article first appeared in echowall on December 16. To read the original version click on this link.

Echowall is a collaborative research platform based at the University of Heidelberg’s Institute of Chinese Studies in Germany.

» Anna Michalski is an associate professor in political science at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and a visiting scholar at Hong Kong University. She is Chair of the Swedish Network for European Studies in Political Science.