In the UN context, “multilateralism” is commonly defined as coordinated diplomatic interaction by three or more states (or other actors) carried out within the framework of international organisations and in accordance with their rules. Often, “multilateralism” is used as a synonym for “multilateral system”, mainly referencing the system that evolved after World War II consisting of organisations like the UN, NATO, WB, IMF and EU. As such, “multilateralism” is the source of rules and standards for international cooperation (such as the SDG Agenda 2030 and the Paris Climate Agreement), while “multilateral system” in essence describes the liberal world order.
The Chinese government, in particular in its English-language communications, frequently highlights China’s commitment to “multilateralism”, citing the BRI as an example and stating that “more than 160 countries and international organisations have signed BRI cooperation documents with China”. Internally, however, China’s leaders describe the existing rule-based multilateral system as not “fair and just”, but as “safeguarding the narrow interests of a group”. The BRI, in turn, is presented as an alternative, “joint consultation”-based “Multilateralism with Chinese Characteristics”, where interaction with other countries is based not on universally binding rules for international cooperation but on bilateral agreements. China’s vision of multilateralism is hence rather a “multi-bilateralism”.
After assuming power in 2013, Xi Jinping initiated a foreign-policy shift to a more proactive “major power diplomacy”, of which the BRI is the most visible manifestation. Originally aimed at increasing cooperation with neighbouring countries, the scope was quickly expanded to become a globally oriented initiative. In English-language communication, the Chinese leadership and CCP outlets frequently highlight that China is a “champion of multilateralism”, that China will “adhere to multilateralism” or that China is committed to “upholding multilateralism”. For Xi Jinping, the objective of multilateralism is to construct a “community of a shared future of mankind” (人类命运共同体). Accordingly, multilateralism “should not take the old road of safeguarding the narrow interests of a group”. Its underlying statement is that “international rules should be written by all countries together”, implying that the present multilateral system is unjust and that its rules need to be re-written. The Chinese state media have denoted this approach “Xiplomacy” (习式外交).
In October 2019, an article entitled “Using Xi Jinping Thought as guidance to promote multilateralism with Chinese characteristics”, authored by the MFA Policy Planning Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, appeared in the CCP journal Xuexi Shibao (Study Times). It argued that “international affairs should be handled by all countries through consultation, in accordance with rules agreed by all countries, and taking into account the legitimate interests and legitimate concerns of all countries”. In addition, the MFA traced the roots of China’s approach to multilateralism back to China’s antiquity: “In ancient China, there existed the Kuqiu League and the Zhangye League, which reflected the traditional political culture of seeking common ground while maintaining differences, respecting treaties and keeping promises, and cooperation through consultation.”
In his report to the 19th NPC, Xi Jinping described his vision of multilateralism as “dialogue without confrontation, partnership without alliance” (对话而不对抗、结伴而不结盟), indicating that China opposes universally binding rules for international cooperation, but will interact with other countries through bilateral consultations. A most recent example is the G20’s attempt to agree on a multilateral solution for debt relief for COVID-19 affected countries in Africa. China stated that it supports multilateral decisions to help low-income countries respond appropriately to debt risk issues and is ready to maintain communication with the affected countries through bilateral channels.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.