Multilateralism Is a Principle, Not an Option



Ambassador Zhang Ming, Head of Chinese Mission to the EU, Published an Op-Ed on EURAVTIV



15 January 2021



We cannot help but reflect on what COVID-19, the worst pandemic in a century, has taught us. One of the most important lessons is that global problems more than ever require multilateral solutions.



In face of global challenges, be it infectious disease, sustainable development, climate change or cyber security, no country can thrive in isolation, or get perfect solutions within their own borders. Multilateralism is not an option, but a must-have principle.



China has been a staunch proponent of multilateralism and global cooperation. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, China has supported the WHO’s leading role in coordinating a global response. Along with the EU, we have joined COVAX, a global initiative aimed to ensure equitable access to safe and effective vaccines. We are working closely with other G20 countries to help the debt relief efforts for the most vulnerable countries. And we have continued to promote global climate cooperation with international partners like the EU. As the largest developing country, China will strive to achieve carbon neutrality by 2060. Next year, we will host the UN Biodiversity Conference to help find global answers to the question of how to preserve our ecosystems for future generations. We have put forward the Global Initiative on Data Security, which aims to contribute solutions to the widely shared concern over cyber security. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said, China has been a key participant in the work of the United Nations as a pillar for international cooperation and multilateralism.



We all face many new problems and challenges which are short of ready answers. Due to their diverse backgrounds, China, the EU and other global partners may not see eye to eye or take the same approach to these issues. It would be unfair to put the label of “selective multilateralism” on others simply because of our differences. This is not what multilateralism is about.



Multilateralism means equality, openness and inclusion. No one should monopolize agenda-setting or rule-making, using their own interests and viewpoints as the single criteria. Nor should anyone take multilateralism as a geopolitical tool, seeking selfish interests in the name of multilateralism. International affairs should be handled through extensive consultation in accordance with the rules agreed by all. The legitimate interests and concerns of all parties should be seriously taken into account.



Climate change is a case in point. Due to different levels of development, countries could hardly move in lockstep in terms of energy transition and green taxation. But the direction of travel is the same. Most of us agree that the Paris Agreement charts the course for global green transition, and sets out the minimum actions that must be taken to protect the planet that we all call home. Individual countries need to take decisive steps accordingly. Besides China and the EU, more and more countries have put forward specific targets for carbon neutrality. This is what multilateralism is about.



It would help little to debate who is a genuine multilateralist. What matters is sticking to principles, and turning commitment into concrete actions. On the COVID-19 response, climate change, digital transition, free trade, sustainable development, among others, China and the EU need to join forces to provide more global public goods and set a good example of global cooperation.