Can 'mini-lateralism' improve global governance?

By Ong Tee Keat | China Daily
Updated: Sept 28, 2023
JIN DING/CHINA DAILY

Has the existing global order outlived its relevance? This is a common question asked not just by elites but even by any thinking individual across the world.

Never have we witnessed such incoherent and ineffective global governance as what we experienced during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the face of our vulnerability against the novel coronavirus and a gamut of other common challenges, the global leadership tasked to address the pressing concerns is nowhere to be seen. The pandemic of the century only left us with a heavily fragmented world scene with dysfunctional global institutions.

While we are still reeling from the pandemic-induced economic fallout, the various global exigencies have never ceased to take a heavy toll on our planet. Yet the prognosis for multilateral cooperation continues to look bleak.

The reigning hegemon, holding sway over global governance for the past seven decades, since the end of World War II, is more obsessed with the anguish of possible displacement as the sole global leader than anything else deemed threatening our very survival. Ideological lines are deliberately drawn with such binaries as "democracy versus authoritarianism". Nonetheless, its thinly veiled intention of isolating and alienating China from the rest of the world does not obscure the dire need for addressing the immediate global concerns.

In reality, no amount of hubris and rhetoric can save the day without concerted efforts by the international community. Perhaps that's why many developing countries, in their quest for development and solutions to the pressing problems, have resorted to what can be termed as "mini-lateralism".

Since unilateralism has been rearing its ugly head while existential exigencies are escalating to a near catastrophic level in the absence of effective intervention at sight, "mini-lateralism" presents the only viable alternative. It is not at all a new concept. It has been resurrected from oblivion at a time when major powers are playing a relatively passive role in spearheading initiatives to tackle common challenges.

To many small and developing countries of the Global South, "mini-lateralism" is a diplomatic architecture characterized by its emphasis on shared interests instead of shared values or ideological alignment. As such, it allows countries to collaborate on critical issues without having to agree on everything or holding the same worldview. In recent years, it has been gaining prominence, as it is a flexible and innovative approach to diplomacy, particularly in terms of tackling global challenges such as climate change, global healthcare and food security.

As more nation states seek to form partnerships and coalitions to help them address shared challenges concertedly "mini-lateralism" has become their natural choice. It may give rise to sub-regional cooperation mechanisms such as the Lancang-Mekong cooperation mechanism that involves China, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam, where the remarkable results over the past seven years have made it a veritable "golden example" of regional cooperation.

The flexibility and adaptability of "mini-lateralism" may also open the door to new cross-continental configurations or formats of cooperation which were previously unimaginable. The Mangrove Alliance for Climate launched by the United Arab Emirates with Indonesia and five other countries at the UN Climate Change Conference in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, in November last year is an apt example illustrating this. The "mini-lateral" alliance is intended to strengthen the preservation and rehabilitation of mangrove ecosystems.

Parallel to this, "mini-lateralism" also allows mid-level powers in the Global South to harness their diplomatic outreach for mitigating common challenges. A case in point is the International Solar Alliance, formed in 2015 with its headquarters in India. The ISA is a coalition of nearly 120 countries that serves as a collaborative platform for ensuring energy security and driving energy transition among member states by helping them develop low-carbon growth trajectories.

While small and vulnerable nation states are seeking "mini-lateral" partnerships to have their priorities addressed, "mini-lateralism" is not meant to help only the least-developed and small island developing states. Even developed countries are resorting to "mini-lateralism".

In recent years, it has become the favoured form of the security cooperation for the United States in the Asia-Pacific region. The revival of the Quad (a security partnership among the US, India, Japan and Australia) in 2017 and the formation of a military pact, AUKUS(comprising Australia, the United Kingdom and the US) in 2021, both with cross-continental membership, are examples of this trend.

The US further extended it to the economic front with the announcement of the "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework" which is part of its "Indo-Pacific strategy" designed to target China. In other words, "mini-lateralism" can also be weaponized as a geopolitical tool through forming selective and exclusionary alliances to target others.

Washington may seek to justify the inception of the IPEF in the name of ensuring resilience of supply chains. But the exclusion of China, touted with its complete range of industrial supply chains, from the framework is by itself a travesty of multilateralism as inclusivity is conspicuously not in place. After all, inclusivity is the bedrock of multilateral cooperation.

In the interest of improving global governance, the reigning superpower is expected to provide coherent global leadership with coordinated emergency response in times of global crisis. On the contrary, by resorting to hostile exclusionary "mini-lateral" partnerships, the superpower will only exacerbate the trust deficit in global governance. In this context, the US' misplaced "mini-lateralism" is virtually doing a great disservice to the multilateralism underpinning the global order.

Amid the evolving world order, "mini-lateralism" may complement multi-lateralism for common good, but it is certainly not designed to substitute the latter, much less a wedge to be driven by the insidious hegemon in the web of global cooperation and solidarity.

The author is a senior fellow at the Taihe Institute and president of Belt and Road Initiative Caucus for Asia-Pacific. The article is based on an online presentation at the recent Taihe Civilization Forum.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

 

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