Rising from Within: Cornerstones and Future Prospects of China’s Approach to Multilateralism

August 15, 2023
Gulshan Bibi
TI Youth Oberver, Ph.D. Candidate of Fudan University
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During the post-Cold War era, China has taken part in many regional initiatives, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Six-Party Talks (6PT), the East Asia Summit (EAS) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). Likewise, in recent years, China has made significant strides in shaping its foreign policy through comprehensive global initiatives aimed at fostering multilateral relations and building connectivity on a global scale. At the forefront of these initiatives stands the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which has become a flagship project driving economic cooperation and cultural exchanges among countries spanning Asia, Europe, Africa, and beyond. China’s new foreign policy and economic initiatives are an indication of its rising confidence, and they will definitely result in redefining China’s role in the region and around the world. Some of the following initiatives are cornerstone of its multilateral approach.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)

Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the “Silk Road Economic Belt” and the “21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” envisions a vast network of infrastructure projects, trade routes, and economic corridors. These initiatives are designed to link countries and regions, promoting trade, investment, and people-to-people exchanges along the ancient Silk Road routes, and have seen China collaborate with partner countries on major infrastructure projects such as ports, railways, roads, and energy facilities, bringing mutual benefits and opportunities for economic development.

It not only emphasizes shared development, but win-win cooperation in its economic initiatives. Through projects like the BRI, China seeks to create opportunities for partner countries, especially developing nations, to participate in global value chains and benefit from improved infrastructure and access to markets. It envisions a future where economic growth is inclusive, and the development disparities between nations are reduced. Along with the BRI, it recognizes the importance of soft power and cultural exchange in international relations, and seeks to strengthen governmental and non-governmental ties with other nations and bridge cultural gaps.

China’s Three Global Initiatives

In addition to the BRI, China has strategically formulated three other global initiatives to further solidify its commitment to multilateral relations and contribute positively to global development, security, and cultural understanding.

i. Global Development Initiative (GDI)

The Global Development Initiative (GDI) centers around promoting sustainable development and poverty reduction in developing nations. Through bilateral and multilateral partnerships, China aims to share its expertise in infrastructure development, industrial capacity, and technology transfer, supporting other countries’ social and economic progress. The GDI aligns with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and emphasizes South-South cooperation to address global challenges and improve living standards for all.

ii. Global Security Initiative (GSI)

The Global Security Initiative (GSI) reflects China’s commitment to maintaining global peace and stability. By engaging in dialogue, mutual trust, and cooperation, China seeks to address security issues, enhance counter-terrorism capacities, and reducing regional conflict risks through diplomatic means. The GSI underscores the importance of collective security efforts, respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity, and promoting peaceful resolutions to disputes.

iii. Global Civilization Initiative (GCI)

The Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) embodies China’s belief in cultural diversity and the exchange of civilizations. By facilitating cultural exchanges, educational programs, and people-to-people connectivity, the GCI aims to strengthen mutual understanding and appreciation of different cultures. Through this initiative, China encourages a harmonious coexistence of civilizations, fostering an environment of respect, tolerance, and cooperation among nations.

Together, these four initiatives have become the cornerstones of China’s approach to multilateral relations, reflecting its commitment to inclusive development, peaceful cooperation, and cultural enrichment on a global scale. China’s emphasis on connectivity, shared prosperity, and win-win partnerships resonates with the spirit of cooperation and openness, laying the foundation for deeper engagement with countries worldwide. As China continues to invest in these initiatives, it is poised to play a pivotal role in shaping the global landscape, driving progress in international relations, and fostering a community with a shared future for mankind.

This year, in the coastal city of Tianjin (China), global leaders, entrepreneurs, and intellectuals convened at the Summer Davos 2023. Concurrently, the Third Dialogue on Exchanges and Mutual Learning Among Civilizations took place, providing an opportune moment for discussions on fostering cooperation while embracing cultural diversity. A central topic of these discussions was China’s commitment to a Westphalian approach to international relations. This approach emphasizes the creation of essential infrastructure for countries to develop both internally and externally while respecting their security needs and cultural differences.

The Westphalian approach to international relations is rooted in the principles established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. This landmark treaty emphasized the legal sovereignty of nation-states and the principle of non-interference in their internal affairs. It laid the groundwork for a system of state-centric international relations, wherein countries are regarded as independent actors responsible for their own governance and development. China’s commitment to the Westphalian approach can be traced back to its historical perspective on sovereignty and non-interference. As a nation that has experienced significant external interference in its past, China recognizes the importance of respecting other countries’ sovereignty and their right to chart their own development paths. At the Summer Davos Forum of 2023, China reaffirmed its dedication to this principle, emphasizing the need for mutual respect among nations.

Central to China’s Westphalian approach is the recognition that to foster development, countries require critical infrastructure. China has demonstrated its commitment to helping other nations build this infrastructure through initiatives such as the BRI. As aforementioned, the BRI aims to connect regions and nations through extensive transportation networks, energy facilities, and digital connectivity. By investing in infrastructure projects, China seeks to promote economic growth and alleviate development disparities among participating countries.

China’s Westphalian approach goes beyond focusing solely on external cooperation. It also underscores the significance of internal development. During the Summer Davos Forum of 2023, Chinese leaders highlighted the importance of pursuing inclusive economic growth, poverty reduction, and sustainable development within the nation. By ensuring its own internal stability and prosperity, China sets an example for other countries in the world, showcasing the potential benefits of internal development. It views the world as a place where multilateral cooperation is essential for addressing global challenges. aInitiatives like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) showcase China’s commitment to creating new avenues for international collaboration. By fostering partnerships with various countries and organizations, China seeks to supplement existing global institutions and contribute to global governance in a more inclusive and equitable manner.

China’s commitment to a Westphalian approach also involves understanding and respecting the security needs and cultural differences of other nations. At the Third Dialogue on Exchanges and Mutual Learning Among Civilizations, discussions revolved around the significance of cultural understanding and appreciation for diversity. China advocates for dialogue and diplomacy as means to address conflicts, avoiding imposing solutions that may not align with the specific context and needs of different countries. Along with the Westphalian approach, China utilizes economic initiatives as a tool for economic diplomacy and building diplomatic ties. By engaging in partnerships and providing foreign aid, China seeks to enhance its diplomatic influence and goodwill with partner countries.

As the Summer Davos 2023 and the Third Dialogue on Exchanges and Mutual Learning Among Civilizations unfolded, China’s dedication to a Westphalian approach to international relations shone through. Emphasizing cooperation, infrastructure development, and respect for sovereignty, security needs, and cultural diversity, China showcased its commitment to fostering a harmonious global community. Through such initiatives, China envisions a world where nations can collaborate, develop, and coexist peacefully, leading to mutual prosperity and collective progress on the global stage.

So how feasible is China’s approach? Let’s discuss whether it is compatible with post-WWII order and Washington Consensus model or not. It has become a fact now that China’s approach to international relations, centered around a Westphalian model, emphasizing infrastructure development, respect for sovereignty, and cultural understanding, has demonstrated feasibility through tangible projects and growing partnerships. BRI, in particular, has seen substantial progress with investments in various countries, fostering economic growth and connectivity. China’s commitment to cultural exchanges and dialogue through initiatives like the Third Dialogue on Exchanges and Mutual Learning Among Civilizations reinforces its dedication to cooperation and mutual understanding. Its approach is both complimentary and, to a little extent, in competition with existing post-WWII order institutions. While it aims to complement international efforts in development and cooperation, certain aspects of the BRI have raised questions about competition with established institutions. The BRI’s scale and scope have been seen by some as an alternative or parallel mechanism to traditional development assistance provided by institutions like the World Bank.

However, it is important to note that China also collaborates with these institutions in various capacities, and its approach is not strictly antagonistic towards them. For instance, China has been an active member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) since 2001. China’s approach diverges significantly from the Washington Consensus model, which was promoted by Western institutions and emphasized market-oriented policies, liberalization, and privatization. In fact, China’s development path has combined elements of state-led economic planning with market-oriented reforms, allowing the government to play a substantial role in guiding economic growth and development.

The data from China’s National Bureau of Statistics shows that China’s gross domestic product grew 4.5 percent during initial months of this year, and it has also set a goal of around 5% growth for the full year of 2023. Through targeted policies and investment in social welfare programs, China has made substantial progress in reducing poverty and improving living standards for its citizens. Its economy has experienced remarkable growth and development over the past few decades, leading to a wide range of benefits for both China and the global community. Its economic strength has acted as a stabilizing force in the global market, particularly during current economic downturn. Its consumer demand and investment have played a crucial role in supporting global economic growth.

Along with economic development, it also offers world investment in research and development (R&D). China’s heavy investment in R&D has led to significant advancements in technology and innovation. This has contributed to global progress in areas such as telecommunications, artificial intelligence, renewable energy, and more.

While China’s approach is not fully aligned with the Washington Consensus, it does not necessarily reject all aspects of liberal economic principles. China has integrated certain market-oriented reforms and actively participates in global trade, albeit with its Chinese characteristics and distinct policies and regulations.

China’s Westphalian approach has proven feasible and has garnered significant support. While it complements existing post-WWII order institutions in certain areas, it may also present some competition in terms of development initiatives. Although not fully compatible with the Washington Consensus model, China has incorporated certain market-oriented policies while pursuing its unique development path. As global dynamics continue to evolve, China’s approach will likely play a significant role in shaping international relations and development in the years to come.

In short, China views the world through a lens of economic cooperation, connectivity, and shared development. Its economic initiatives reflect a strategic vision to promote multilateralism, foster cultural exchange, and contribute to sustainable and inclusive global growth. By positioning itself as an active participant in the global economic landscape, China seeks to leave a lasting impact on international relations and global economic governance. The benefits of the Chinese economy extend beyond its borders, positively impacting the global community through trade, investment, poverty reduction, innovation, and sustainable development efforts.

In the foreseeable future, China’s general posture toward regional multilateral security cooperation will consist of active participation and strong support. As China continues to evolve as a major player in the global economy, its contributions are likely to shape the world’s economic landscape. China’s initiatives reaffirm a universal principle of peace, development, and cooperation. Countries around the world should not only consider strategies which emphasize strengthened bilateral relationships between them and Beijing, but also continue to positively support regional and global multilateral institutions for a better future of this world.


Gulshan Bibi
TI Youth Oberver, Ph.D. Candidate of Fudan University
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