“Westlessness” Doesn’t Mean the Death of Multilateralism

Western nations often believe that they hold a monopoly over multilateralism and cooperation, but they do not. In fact, Asia is currently one of the most vibrant hot spots for multilateral cooperation, encompassing everything from trade to development, security to culture.

The Munich Security Conference concluded on February 16 with much discussed but little agreed. Leaders and security officials descended at the annual event under the theme of “Westlessness”—the idea that the principles that had embodied western thought such as multilateralism are no longer prevalent in the current political order.

Speeches by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, French President Emmanual Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau aimed to highlight a lack of consensus between western leaders in how to deal with important challenges facing them, and that unified cooperation is decreasing in the world. Some however, did not agree.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo rebutted his European and Canadian counterparts’ assertions, claiming in fact that the “west is winning”, a comment that drew similar levels of scepticism and sniggering as US President Donald Trump’s infamous address at the United Nations when he first took office.

In many ways their failure to agree on where they are failing highlighted the very different paths that the US and the rest of the western world are taking. Much of this can be pinpointed to the start of the US president’s time in office, according to Steinmeier, who quipped President Trump is trying to make America “‘Great again’ – even at the expense of neighbours and partners.”

Since taking office, Trump’s administration has been at loggerheads with Europe over a number of key areas including the Iran nuclear deal, climate change, global free trade, the role of NATO and the latest, the use of Chinese giant Huawei’s technology in their respective 5G networks.

The latter was a point of much debate at the conference with Pompeo and US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi devoting much of their time to trashing the Chinese company, a point that riled former Chinese Ambassador to the UK, Fu Ying, to the point that she questioned Pelosi about the fragility of western democracy, a move that brought applause from the audience.

East just as multilateral as the West

It was moment that encapsulated the frustration of eastern leaders with their western counterparts, and an East-West divide that still appears at these types of conferences. Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi alluded to the point, saying “We need to get rid of the division of the East and the West and go beyond the difference between the South and the North, in a bid to build a community with a shared future for mankind.”

South Korea Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, speaking at the conference also took aim at the “insular” theme of it, saying that Asian countries, through their history and culture, have shown to act multilaterally just as often as western countries and institutions.

It is an area that is often overlooked given the makeup of many multilateral institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and United Nations. All have a strong “western” contingent given they were born from world wars created by the West, which allows them to believe they have a monopoly over multilateralism.

But they do not. In fact, Asia is currently one of the most vibrant hot spots for multilateral cooperation, encompassing everything from trade to development, and security to culture.

Organizations such as The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization have prospered since their inception, creating a raft of free-trade agreements, a consensus on issues such as climate change and mechanisms to deal with contentious issues such as territory disputes in a mature and responsible way.

Other such platforms, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, are investing and providing capital for many Asian states, providing funds and manpower to elevate its infrastructure to new hights.

The ten ASEAN countries plus 6: China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand are very close to reach the agreement on Regional Close Economic Cooperation (RCEP), forming the world largest free trade area with a total population of 3.5 billion and combined GDP of $ 25 trillion.

Three of the four leading countries in Asia—China, Japan and South Korea—are increasingly seeing eye-to-eye on important international issues, offering leadership to the region after years of hostility often backed by American influence.

Coronavirus response epitomizes Asian cooperation

That cooperation is being most keenly felt right now, as Asian countries rally together to deal with the current outbreak of the coronavirus, now known as COVID-19. So far, over 75,000 cases have been recorded in Asia, with 343 outside of China, and together they are working with China to stop the spread.

Japan, with the largest number of confirmed cases outside of China, has enthusiastically helped China with its efforts, from government officials donating part of their salaries for relief efforts, to Japanese cities donating face masks, gloves, goggles, hazmat suits and even CT scanners worth roughly RMB 30.6 million yuan. The city of Tokyo has so far donated 100,000 hazmat suits, while Japanese enterprises and NGOs have raised as of February 7 RMB 28.9 million yuan for Chinese hospitals battling the virus.

Leaders and government officials from all over Asia, including South Korea leader Moon Jue In, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Thailand Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai have all expressed solidarity with China, and promised to help their efforts in any way they can.

ASEAN, currently chaired by Vietnam, issued a statement supporting China’s endeavours to address the outbreak, emphasizing the importance of solidarity in fighting it. The statement confirmed that ASEAN countries would maintain an open-door policy with regards to quarantine work, and coordinate their response with China at the border gates of member countries.

On February 20, the ten foreign ministers from ASEAN and China Foreign Minister Wang met to further coordinate their response as the virus sweeps across Asia, with South Korea and Cambodia recording a recent surge in cases.

Joining hands for a photo at the start of the event, the foreign ministers cheered “Stay strong Wuhan, stay strong China, stay strong ASEAN” in a sign of solidarity.

According to a draft joint statement seen by Reuters, both ASEAN and China emphasized the “growing urgency and need for cooperation” in combating the virus outbreak and agreed to strengthen “risk communication”.

“Fear is more threatening than the virus and confidence is more precious than gold,” Wang told a news conference afterwards, thanking ASEAN members for their support and saying it was his belief that their relations would be further depended after the test of the current epidemic.

He also pledged that Beijing would share timely information on the virus, and that governments would explore setting up a China-ASEAN liaison mechanism to promote faster responses, a move welcomed by his fellow foreign ministers.

Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr called China’s handling of the virus “unprecedented” as well as “quick”, and echoed Wang’s calls for further cooperation.

“Enemies such as the Covid-19 demand action, compassion, and cooperation,” Locsin said. “Strengthening cooperation can help pave the way to subduing this enemy.”

The coronavirus is an unfortunate challenge that is testing many countries across the world. But the cooperation and solidarity between Asian nations during this crisis highlights that although multilateralism maybe in short supply throughout the west, in Asia, it is stronger than ever.