In December 2019, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi invited the European Union to “join hands to defend multilateralism and maintain international order”.5 A few months later, the High Representative of the European Union, Josep Borrell, lauded the EU’s and China’s “common language” on this issue,6 although he seems to have recognized during the Covid-19 crisis that the “approaches to multilateralism differ”. Given the current trajectory of China’s international behavior, Europeans will come to realize that Beijing is not only non-convergent but a formidable competitor for Europe’s liberal multilateralism.
Issue 1 – General principles: Power, not rules
At first glance, China seems to be relatively aligned with what most liberal OECD governments preach and often practice in global institutions. Overall, Beijing is largely compliant with the established rules in international institutions to which it has committed. It also presents itself as a “supporter, defender and promoter” of multilateralism and global governance. It is already the second-largest contributor to the UN and now leads four of the 15 UN specialized agencies.
China is, however, increasingly demonstrating its unwillingness to follow rules and obligations that go against its key interests. In the competition for global power, the Chinese leadership will leverage its growing diplomatic capabilities and institutional clout to achieve its strategic priorities. Europe should therefore expect more self-serving and outright disruptive behavior in this arena.
Domestically, the CCP has ensured that it enjoys almost unchecked power, rendering the rule of law and legal institutions secondary functions. Globally, the leadership is also less willing to accept any constraints or higher authority. China’s open and assertive violation of international commitments such as the Sino-British Declaration or the rejection of international verdicts, such as by the UNCLOS arbitration tribunal on South China Sea claims between the Philippines and China in 2016, have become a permanent feature. With critical developments, for instance in Hong Kong, unfolding by the day, Europe will have to defend the principles that it cherishes.
Issue 2 – Human rights and development: Substance reversed
Conflicts of interests between Europe and China are even easier to detect when it comes to the substance of global multilateralism. In the realms of human rights and sustainable development, for instance, Beijing is pushing the existing international regimes and communities of practice into a modus operandi where the state matters most: as the sole protector of domestic security, the central driving force for development and the ultimate arbiter to grant or take away human rights in line with security and development needs.
The human rights violations in Xinjiang and the undermining of democracy in Hong Kong stand out for their corrosive impact on global multilateral institutions. Beijing justifies its treatment of predominantly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang and securitization of Hong Kong with the need to protect China’s political stability and territorial integrity from terrorism and secession, emphasizing collective rights held by the state over individual rights. Its approach to solving these issues clearly conflicts with its obligations under international human rights law.
Numerous reports support claims that, in Xinjiang, China has deprived large numbers of Uighurs and other ethnic minority members of their liberty, separated families, enforced birth-control and facilitated forced labor. This is particularly serious as it means that China has not only violated its obligations as a party to conventions against racial discrimination (CERD) and torture (CAT), but such wide-spread, systematic violations of basic human rights may even qualify as crimes against humanity.
Measures such as targeted birth control or forcibly transferring children between ethnic groups are prohibited under the Genocide Convention. The introduction of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, too, will likely result in frictions with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which Hong Kong is party to.
The Chinese party-state is not only resisting pressure for change and independent investigations by UN rapporteurs but increasingly going on the offensive in positively framing and rallying international support for its course of action. On an institutional level, China has used its position in the Human Rights Council and other UN institutions to counter and contain criticism and statements against its practices through a variety of means.7 It has also used existing multilateral platforms, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization it co-founded in 2001 and the South-South Human Rights Forum it established in 2017, to promote its positions and values.8
Beijing presents its governance approach at home as a model for others to learn or borrow from.9 In the sphere of development, China promotes its view of political stability and security as a precondition for development and its approach to development as a solution for security challenges.10 Furthermore, it is putting its money behind this. In 2016, China pledged to contribute 200 million USD to the United Nations over a ten-year period to help establish the United Nations Peace and Development Trust Fund (UNPDF), with a special focus on Africa.11 This is accompanied by Chinese-led multilateral platforms such as the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum, which was held for the first time in 2019 as part of a broader push to link peace and security issues in China-Africa diplomacy.12
Most prominently, China has been successful in promoting its bilateral diplomacy via the Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) as a quasi-multilateral arrangement, framing it as the leading global development initiative. In early 2020, 138 countries were counted as part of the BRI, the vast majority of which were developing countries. With this initiative, China is clearly filling a demand for access to funds and infrastructure, often providing recipients with a sense of choice and agency while also contributing to the achievement of global Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
The BRI, however, in many ways exemplifies China’s divergence from OECD principles. By objective and composition, China’s development finance in the framework of the BRI and beyond differs fundamentally from Western approaches. Beijing does not report its expenditures to the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DAC), and BRI development financing comes with far fewer strings attached in terms of good governance and human rights standards.
Despite these divergences, development policy remains a space that offers opportunities for cooperation. China has in recent years been confronted with criticism over the financial, social, and environmental sustainability of its investments and projects. Beijing has responded with an internal reflection and institutional adaptation process. This provides new opportunities for multilateral cooperation. The new Multilateral Cooperation Center for Development Finance (MCDF), that was initially to be established at the World Bank and is now situated at the AIIB, could be a testing ground.
However, the real test for China’s (non)convergence on sustainable development practices is just around the corner: It is unclear whether Beijing will align with European and other G-20 partners in “building back better” (i.e., greener) post Covid-19. It also remains to be seen to what extent it can and will continue to provide debt relief for those affected by the pandemic and the global economic fallout.13
Issue 3 – Trade and internet governance: Negotiating new and revising existing rules
There are two major – partly intersecting – areas of global multilateralism where the world and Europe urgently require new and better rules: global trade and the digital space. On trade, Europe and China are formally engaged in discussing WTO reforms – albeit with hardly any signs of progress. For the foreseeable future, Beijing is unlikely to agree to new rules that would tame state-interference, neutralize subsidies, protect IP rights and strengthen transparency and reciprocity. On the contrary, with its own ambitious trade policies it is seeking to compete as a standard- and rule-setter across the world, including in key regions where the EU wants to make its mark.14
The same is true for the digital space, where China is very explicit about its ambitions to craft new norms itself, ranging from digital trade to data security, IoT, blockchain and the future architecture of the internet. On global internet governance, specifically, the PRC presents itself as a champion for the interests of the “majority of countries”. This approach, personally endorsed by Xi Jinping, should be read as a rallying call against Western dominance over the design and governance of the internet.
Although official Chinese rhetoric is no longer openly hostile to the multi-stakeholder model of internet governance, it prioritizes cyber sovereignty and an approach focused on the right of national governments to determine features of cyberspace within their jurisdiction, sidelining civil society or private corporations in negotiations. China also supports technical proposals in standard-setting forums such as the International Telecommunications Union that could facilitate increased state control over internet infrastructure globally. China’s 2017 International Strategy for Cooperation on Cyberspace calls expressly for the UN Internet Governance Forum (IGF) to play a greater role in global internet governance, and commits Beijing to promoting reform of ICANN, the US-based NGO that oversees the internet’s global domain name system.
A crucial cross-cutting area of incompatibility between China and the EU is the different standards and priorities when it comes to securing data and information flows. While the EU places a focus on strong privacy protections for personal data and is intent on securing this in multilateral agreements, China is promoting its vision of state-centered cyber sovereignty and is more concerned with securing access to information and personal data for the purpose of ensuring political security. This will continue to hinder meaningful transnational agreements aimed at facilitating cross-border transfer of data and services.15