OPINION – China’s Multilateralism, Great Power Diplomacy and its Vision of Global Governance

The recent remarks made by the political leaders of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on multilateral institutions have revealed that multilateralism is an indispensable part of China’s “great power diplomacy” and its vision for “global governance.”

On November 13, Premier Li Keqiang delivered his speech in the ASEAN’s online commercial and investment conference, praising the role of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) in contributing to economic globalization and integration in the Asia-Pacific region. He added that China would be delighted to strengthen strategic relations with the signatories, promote the PRC’s Belt and Road initiative, and propel an increase in trade and investment of ASEAN states in a win-win situation. Li also remarked that the PRC insists in the protection of multilateralism, free trade, and world peace and development based on creating a “common destiny for the mankind.” 

The RCEP was signed on November 15 by 10 ASEAN states, in addition to China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. The PRC media hailed the RCEP agreement as a victory of multilateralism. India did not join the RCEP because of its concern about the impacts of Chinese exports on its local products. On June 29, India banned Tik Tok shortly after a violent military clash along the Indo-China border.

However, China attaches great importance to RCEP, because it aims at countering the US foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region. During the Barack Obama administration, the US adopted a unique geopolitical strategy toward Asia, consolidating bilateral security ties, engaging emerging powers like China, using multilateral institutions to bind the PRC to observe the rules and norms in international organizations, expand trade and investment, and advocate human rights and democracy. China saw this US policy as “containment.” Interestingly, the US under Donald Trump suddenly adopted a self-protective approach, emphasizing unilateralism and withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in January 2017. 

In March 2018, the other eleven countries of the TPP decided to revise the agreement into Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which came into force in December after Australia, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Mexico and New Zealand ratified it. The forthcoming new Joe Biden administration in the US may join the CPTPP, whose main signatories and leading countries like Japan are perhaps keen to witness the American return.

On November 20, the PRC President Xi Jinping gave a speech in the APEC’s video conference, expressing China’s interest in joining the CPTPP. President Xi added that economic cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region is by no means a zero-sum game, and that it is a developmental platform for all countries to achieve a win-win situation. He also remarked that China would like to promote anti-poverty work in Asia and assist other countries in the development and exchange of vaccines to contain the spread of Covid-19. At a time when the US presidential transfer of power is in transition, China is seizing this golden opportunity to enhance multilateralism and develop closer relations with other countries through its vaccine diplomacy.

On the night of November 21, President Xi elaborated on the PRC’s vaccine diplomacy further in the G20 Summit’s video conference. He emphasized that the world must construct “a firewall against Covid-19” and that China is attempting to make its vaccines available as “public goods” for other countries. Moreover, the PRC raised the issue of establishing a mechanism through which a worldwide health code can be recognized internationally after the nucleic acid testing Covid-19 is conducted for world citizens. This global public health mechanism suggested by China is unprecedented, reflecting how the PRC is trying to use multilateral institutions as platforms to promote its vaccine diplomacy.

Other issues stressed by President Xi in the G20 Summit included the global need to care about women interests, food crises, climate change, and the development of digital economies. One main theme is to reduce the debt of developing states through economic assistance. Overall, President Xi emphasized the need for countries in the world to achieve sustainable development.

The recent PRC’s emphasis on multilateralism is part and parcel of its great power diplomacy. China has been perceiving the US as a hegemonic power. At a time when the US under the Trump administration has been withdrawing from multilateral cooperation, China is determined to fill the void by taking the global leadership. Multilateralism is, according to Zhang Guihong of Fudan University, “a golden key” of China’s great power diplomacy. Apart from the determination to join multilateral international organizations, the PRC is determined to forge close relations with its neighbours, exploring the possibility of forming regional multilateral institutions that can be built on stronger bilateral and trilateral ties.

A good example of this approach is China’s relations with Japan and South Korea, especially the long negotiations among the three countries to reach a free trade agreement since 2012. Although the idea of establishing the free trade agreement between the three states could be traced back to 2002, the sudden “nationalization” of the Diaoyu Island (Senkaku Island in Japanese) by Japan in 2012 plunged the Sino-Japanese relations into a tense situation. In 2017, the decision of the South Korean government to deploy the US-made THADD anti-ballistic missile system to protect itself against North Korea triggered the opposition from the PRC. 

Hence, the politically unstable relations between Japan, South Korea and China have been hindering their economic cooperation and integration. According to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 86 percent of the Japanese held an unfavourable view toward China. Time is not yet ripe for the free trade agreement to be realized among Japan, China and South Korea.

On November 25, when the PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Japan and met Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, both agreed to promote economic cooperation and progress in developing the free trade region. However, they differed in their views toward the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. Wang Yi said that there were unknown fishing boats from the Japanese side entering the sensitive areas of the Diaoyu Islands. But Suga appealed to the PRC side to take “active action” to deal with those controversial maritime areas, adding that the official Chinese vessels went into the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands. It must be noted that on November 12, when Suga called Joe Biden and congratulated the latter’s presidential victory, he got Biden’s assurance that the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation would be applicable to the Senkaku Islands. Given the firm position of both Japan and China on the disputed islands, it may be a hindrance to future discussions of a free trade region and agreement.

From China’s perspective of being a great power, Northeast Asia’s denuclearization would be the common interest of Japan, South Korea and the PRC. However, so long as North Korea uses its nuclear weapons as both a deterrence against any US military threat and a bargaining chip for more economic concessions from the West, denuclearization in Northeast Asia remains a distant objective.

On November 26, President Xi Jinping called Biden and congratulated him for becoming the president-elect – a gesture to lay the groundwork for a more cordial Sino-US relationship in the coming years. President Xi emphasized in his congratulatory message that both China and US should promote stable and healthy relationships, and that both should maintain the principles of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and adopting the spirit of a win-win cooperation. The Chinese presidential message is very clear; it will be up to the new US president to change the explicitly ant-China approach adopted by Donald Trump.

On the same day, Wang Yi visited South Korea and met President Moon Jae-in. Wang said that both China and South Korea are like relatives, and that President Xi Jinping would visit South Korea when the time is ripe.

The recent remarks and actions of the PRC leaders have shown that multilateralism is an indispensable ingredient of the Chinese great power diplomacy. By engaging multilateral institutions, China hopes to dilute the anti-China sentiment of some countries in the world, project an image of a peaceful PRC, and to win more friends in the world through its emphasis on sustainable development. China’s vision of global governance is to adopt a two-pronged strategy, namely using multilateralism as a means to project the image of a peaceful China while forging bilateral ties to win the hearts and minds of more friends in the world. The ultimate objective of China’s global governance is to create “a common destiny for the mankind,” namely world peace, sustainable development, and prosperity.

Underlying the PRC’s great power diplomacy an its vision of global governance is a combination of Marxist international relations theory and Chinese perspectives. An article, which was published by the People’s Dailyon August 18, 2020 and directed at the party cadres of the PRC Foreign Ministry, wrote that Marxism remains the guiding ideology reminding the need for China to “struggle” in the diplomatic frontier. Specifically, China must struggle against hegemony on the one hand and unite more countries through multilateralism and bilateralism. The PRC, according to the article, has to construct the “common destiny for the mankind” so that countries in the world will go beyond the mentality of the Cold War, and that they will be inspired by the objective of creating “the common destiny for the mankind.” At the same time, China must fight against foreign intervention in its domestic affairs, including the matters of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. As such, the PRC is determined to protect its national sovereignty and security. The ultimate PRC objective is, as the article stressed, the realization of the Chinese dream and renaissance.

In conclusion, the recent Chinese emphasis on multilateralism is combined with the consolidation of its bilateral ties with countries in the world. The ultimate objectives are to generate the “common destiny for the mankind” and achieve the Chinese renaissance. Under this “common destiny,” China is determined to take the leadership of a rising great power, adopt the Marxist ideology of struggling against hegemony, and achieve its vision of global governance through mutual cooperation in all areas of sustainable development. Although this new Chinese great power diplomacy may sound strange and uncomfortable to some foreign countries, its defining features of combining multilateralism and bilateralism are prominent.