How China conceives multilateralism and its engagement in multilateral organisations is key to establishing whether multilateralism provides China and the European Union (EU) with common ground vis-à-vis the most urgent global issues. Beijing holds that it does, since “China and Europe are two major forces for multilateralism”. The EU’s appreciation of the matter is more mixed: in 2019, it famously singled out China as a “systemic rival” – as well as a partner and an economic competitor – based on the argument that it promotes “alternative models of governance”.
At the root of the discrepancy between these two assessments lies China’s long-time stance on multilateralism, which de facto downplays the differences between its own understanding of multilateralism and the more demanding conception in Europe’s DNA. This attitude has led to a widespread perception of ambiguity on China’s part, exposing it to the criticism that it takes an instrumental and even malicious approach to multilateralism and international organisations. The fact that today China claims to be the champion of “true multilateralism” somehow adds to the original problem. Consequently, it increases the risk of misunderstandings about multilateralism’s role in China–EU relations in a changing global order. Since the price to be paid for persistent ambiguity may well be further disappointment and recrimination on both sides, reckoning with China’s understanding of multilateralism is crucial. It is then urgent to establish whether, and eventually in which domains, multilateralism can provide the EU and China with a common rationale and mode of engaging the international community in addressing significant challenges.
Anna Caffarena (T.wai & University of Turin), currently EURICS fellow, is the author of “Why China’s understanding of multilateralism matters for Europe”, a policy brief edited by EURICS – European Institute for Chinese Studies.