The EU and China Should Strengthen Their Cooperation to Advance Multilateralism

26 October 2020   ·   Dingding Chen, Yu Xia

Multilateralism today is endangered by the great power rivalry between the United States and China. To advance multilateralism, the EU and China should expand their cooperation, including on climate change, global health, and reforming existing multilateral institutions. It is important to include middle powers and non-state actors into such reform efforts.

The discourse of China’s rise in the past decade is concomitant with the growing discussion of great power competition between the US and China. The tensions appear to escalate these days, as the warning of a new Cold War prevails, seemingly posing a threat to global governance under the framework of multilateral institutions. In the recent General Assembly of the United Nations, US President Donald Trump blamed China for the epidemic of COVID-19 while threatening to suspend US membership in the World Health Organization (WHO). UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres claimed that, “we have a surplus of multilateral challenges and a deficit of multilateral solutions”. Indeed, given the death toll by the coronavirus has risen to more than one million globally, international cooperation is sorely missing. Multilateral institutions are faced with an unprecedented crisis.  

Some Worry China Will Free Ride Rather Than Contribute to an International Order  

It has seemed like, in the past few years, the two great powers, the US and China, have held opposite attitudes towards multilateral institutions. Under the rhetoric of “America First”, Trump’s administration has decided to withdraw from 11 multilateral institutions and agreements since inauguration in 2016, including the Paris Climate Agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even the WHO, despite the backdrop of a severe global public health crisis. By contrast, China is more actively engaging in multilateral cooperation. Not only did China play a leading role in passing the Paris Climate Agreement, WHO, and WTO reform, it also initiated new multilateral institutions such as the Belton Road Initiative (BRI) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), thereby acting a defender for the established international order.  

Still, some observers worry that as China’s power grows, it will free ride rather than contribute to an international order that it did not create. In 2017, renowned scholar Joseph Nye warned the US to avoid the “Kindleberger trap”: Charles Kindleberger, an intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, argued that the disastrous decade of the 1930s was caused when the US replaced Britain as the largest global power but failed to take on Britain’s role in providing global public goods. The result was the collapse of the global system. Today, as China’s power grows, there is a risk that it would make the same mistake as the US did in the 1930s.  

It Is Time for the EU and China to Leave the Hegemonic Stability Framework  

Yet, the Kindleberger Trap is not necessarily unavoidable. As the US shuns its responsibility on protecting the existing international order, a global power vacuum emerges. Small countries have little incentive to pay for global public goods, but the largest powers can see the effect and feel the benefit of their contributions. So it is rational for the great powers, not just China alone, to lead.  

Rather than seeking to amend the collapsing multilateral system resulting from the unwillingness and incapability of the US to continue to maintain dominance, it is time for the EU, China, and other major powers to leave the hegemonic stability framework and to work on a new approach to guarantee the supply of public goods in peace and security. In fact, such a new approach is already in progress, as the EU released a European Green Deal aiming to be “climate neutral” in 2050 while China announced its goal to reach such neutrality in 2060, after the US withdrew from the Paris Agreement.  

Climate Change, Health: China and the EU Have A Lot More Room for Cooperation  

In strengthening the multilateral system and providing global public goods, China and the EU have a lot more room for cooperation. For instance, both sides could achieve more effective governance rules through the interaction of their own multilateral institutions, like the Asia-Europe Meeting and the Belt and Road Initiative. The EU should consider making more support for Chinese multilateral institutions like the AIIB and BRI conditional on binding commitments to the climate and financial sustainability of their projects. Moreover, cooperation on climate governance is one of the most successful examples for the EU and China to defend multilateralism and should be further promoted. Importantly, in the pandemic's shadow, the EU and China should actively engage and cooperate on targeted global health projects and research, while encouraging more countries to get involved and share the outcomes.  

Reforming multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the WHO, and the WTO is also a key issue for sustaining the system itself. Existing multilateral institutions seem to be antiquated when tackling today’s global challenges, given most of them are based on American leadership and traditional fields, such as NATO in the field of security. Thus, these multilateral institutions need to be reformed while rules and laws adapted to new developments should be introduced. For example, 5G and artificial intelligence are emerging technologies whose development moves far beyond the formulation of international standards and regulations. Technological revolution is overwhelmingly changing the world landscape, filling gaps between states of different size and strength. As a result, more actors need to be included in revising and designing new institutions.  

Pay More Attention to the Middle Powers and Involve More Non-State Actors  

When it comes to the multilateral system, it is also wise to leave the hegemonic stability framework and pay more attention to middle powers and other entities. After the US retreated from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Japan, Singapore, and eight other countries did not abandon the project but pushed for a signed agreement. This demonstrates middle powers’ willingness to shared commitments and their independence from following great powers. An active engagement of middle powers could be powerful support for strengthening multilateralism. Besides, non-state actors are also important participants and key initiators in multilateral cooperation. From multilateral trade governance, global climate governance, to regional peace mediation, non-state actors should not be ignored and should be encouraged to fully participate in reforming multilateral cooperation. For instance, non-state actors have played a key role in global climate governance leading up to the Paris Agreement. Moreover, they have great impact on improving the legitimacy, justice, and effectiveness of the Agreement. Thus, more engagement of non-state actors in agenda-setting, decision-making, as well as implementation in multilateral cooperation are to be promoted.  

Lastly, the intensifying great power competition would be responsible for the collapse of multilateral cooperation. Endeavours to make changes to the multilateral order could be greatly dampened as the two strongest countries refusing to work together. From China’s perspective, with the aim of reviving multilateralism, it is significant to avoid the Thucydides trap with the US and to get conflict under control. 

In sum, multilateralism is now endangered by great power rivalry and the failure of the mechanism of great power stability. Still, there are solutions. Apart from preventing great power conflict, the EU and China should take responsibility and expand cooperation. More reform and renewal of the existing institutions should be pursued, while more actors, including middle powers and non-state actors, should get involved.

Europäische Union Multilateralismus China

Dingding Chen

Dingding Chen is Professor of International Relations at Jinan University, Guangzhou, China and Non-Resident Fellow at the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) Berlin. @ChenDingding.

Yu Xia

Yu Xia is an assistant researcher of Intellisia Institute, a privately-run and independent think tank in China led by Dingding Chen.