The Multilateralism-BRI Nexus in a Post-Pandemic World


Published in China Today Magazine

August 2021


Born out of centuries’ old interaction between China and her neighboring civilizations, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the quintessential manifestation of multilateralism to appear on the world stage since the Second World War, itself a multilateral phenomenon, sadly, of a different kind. The BRI attempts to capture the spirit of the Silk Road (or the Tang Dynasty that sponsored it), during which China first opened to the world and the world first reached out to China, or to articulate, in contemporary vernacular, an Eastern inclination towards human solidarity.

Described by Bob Carr, a former Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs (2012–2013), as ‘China’s contemporary conversation with the world,’ the character of the BRI is that of engagement. Through its involvement in the affairs of the world, China seeks to introduce a roadmap for future global economic growth and connectivity. Interestingly, this is in line with the words of Anthony Renard Foxx who served as the United States Secretary of Transportation from 2013 to 2017, who said that ‘The reality about transportation is that it's future-oriented. If we're planning for what we have, we're behind the curve.’

The first five years (2013-2018) of the BRI have drawn international attention and provoked debate. Typically described as a cooperative arrangement amongst like-minded states interested in advancing infrastructure and connectivity projects around the world, the breadth and depth of the BRI has grown in terms of the projects undertaken, the countries involved, the actors involved, and the objectives being pursued.

In 2019, or 1 B.C. (before Corona), Beijing played host to the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation. An event that highlighted the extensive progress being made around the world on a variety of infrastructure projects since the official launch of the BRI in 2013. The Belt and Road Forum (BRF) produced a Joint Communique of Heads of States calling for increased cooperation and reaffirming that ‘strengthening multilateralism remains essential in addressing global challenges.’ Most significantly, the BRI’s Advisory Council was formed and mandated to provide policy recommendations, foster practical cooperation, and promote further understanding of the BRI. Significantly, the Advisory Council sought to develop synergy between the BRI and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in 2015, in promoting world economic growth. A long overdue nexus of Politics and Policies.

In an article I published in China Today on 22 July 2020, I suggested that the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable development still represents a political manifesto for the post-COVID-19 world over the next decade. I am still a believer that the spirit of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development must be nurtured again. Revisiting the Agenda is necessary to factor in new health and globalization parameters. Moreover, the revised Agenda must extend the ethic of human solidarity beyond the contours of our immediate response to the outbreak of COVID-19.

One year on, we seem to be moving ever closer to overcoming the pandemic that has affected life on our planet for the last eighteen months. As the worst pandemic in a century starts to recede, it is leaving a mess: not just the millions of dead, but whole societies buckling, health care systems broken, children’s education/development stunted, water, energy, and food insecurities ever so significant. Political leaders, societal and business leaders were tested, and many were found wanting. Political theorists and thought leaders have failed to address the non-health aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Today— institutions, nations, communities, organizations, and companies around the world—need a new business model. Purpose-driven, imaginative leadership, rooted in universal values of human responsibility, and willingness to search for global solutions to global problems is desperately needed, now more than ever.

Support for multilateralism in the current international milieu may seem imprudent for there are prominent trends against multilateralism coming from many corners of the globe. At the same time, it has been proven beyond doubt that multilateralism not only facilitates achieving common goals and objectives but is also a necessary part of cooperation in today’s world as the BRI has unequivocally demonstrated. The potential for achieving wide-ranging positive developments around the world and for enabling and securing these developments will necessitate multilateral approaches.

On the other hand, belligerent nationalism or what has often been described as a ‘fortress mindset’ will not work. Pervasive discontent with existing multilateral institutional structures is threatening our systems of global cooperation. Human insecurities, the accelerating ecological crisis including climate change could escalate into dangerous, irreversible, large-scale collapses of ecosystems. But times of crisis and comprehensive challenges could also translate into a new era of sustainable futures and a new age of a united humanity. Humanity should try to make today, … multilateralism’s finest hour. This can be seen in the overarching philosophy governing the BRI where groups of states work together in unprecedented and novel ways.

Fortunately, today, many governments around the world reaffirm their commitment to multilateralism. An example of this comes in the form of the Alliance for Multilateralism launched by the French and German Foreign Ministers with subsequent support from China. The Alliance is an informal network of countries united in their conviction that a rules-based multilateral order is the only reliable guarantee for international stability and peace.

Likewise, the Declaration on the Commemoration of the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the United Nations adopted by the General Assembly on 21 September 2020 - aptly referred to by Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General – that states that our [humanity’s] challenges are interconnected and can only be addressed through reinvigorated multilateralism. The Declaration emphasized that the COVID-19 pandemic manifested itself as the largest global challenge in the history of the United Nations and has caused death and serious illness as well as global economic recession, increased poverty, anxiety, and fear. The Declaration stated that the ‘COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us in the most powerful way that we are closely interconnected and only as strong as our weakest link. Only by working together and in solidarity can we end the pandemic and effectively tackle its consequences. Only together can we build resilience against future pandemics and other global challenges. Multilateralism is not an option but a necessity as we work together for a more equal, more resilient and more sustainable world.’

In an unadorned illustration of the fact that planetary security and human security are inseparable, Dr Joanna Nurse, the Strategic Advisor to the InterAction Council, in an excellent paper on the exit strategy beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, proposes the establishment of a Global Emergency Council for People and Planet – to facilitate multilateral leadership with heads of government and a neutral panel of global leaders to enable coordinated and strategic responses to avert emergencies. Significantly, such a mechanism would work towards enhancing swift action at scale to global emergencies for people and planet. As an act of human solidarity, it can with help and support from UN agencies, the international community, heads of government, donors, the private sector, civil society, and professional bodies achieve its noble goals.

Moneef Zou'bi is the Science Advisor for the InterAction Council and Co-founder of the World Sustainability Forum.