We have all been living in what is described as the VUCA world in recent years. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. Within nations, we have been witnessing such global mega trends as ageing societies, urbanisation, rising expectations of the middle-income group, the rapid pace of innovation, the existential threat of climate change and mounting pressures on sustainability.
At the global level, we have seen how the tides of de-globalization have brought forth growing discontent, fuelling unilateralism, extreme nationalism and protectionism.
In 2020, while the novel coronavirus ravaged its way across borders, international cooperation took a back seat. In the early days of the outbreak, countries were forced to fend for themselves, resorting to unilateral measures, such as closing off borders, banning the export of much-needed medical equipment and supplies. The role of the World Health Organisation became paralysed and polarised.
On the positive side though, regional organisations such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations, South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation, the European Union, African Union, the Organisation of American States, among others, began to rally regional cooperation, ranging from exchanging information, providing medical supplies to regional Member States, and setting up funds to help neighbouring countries whose economies had been hard hit by the pandemic.
Civil societies across the regions also came forward with helping hands, providing funds, donating medical supplies and exchanging best medical practices.
Indeed, regional organisations helped in shoring up multilateralism & provided the impetus for international cooperation among regional states working in partnership with civil societies.
The major Countries constructive engagement with Regional Organisations can help open up new pathways for multilateral cooperation. Notably, President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and State Councillor & Foreign Minister Wang Yi held virtual conferences with Leaders and Ministers of Regional Groupings to Offer Medical and Economic Assistance. China’s role went a long way in “connecting the dots”, promoting multilateral cooperation across the VUCA world.
We are all deeply concerned about the repercussions on the multilateral international order from the intensification of trade, investment, financial and technology competition between the world’s two largest economies, the United States and China.
The strategic competition, which many have referred to as a “Cold War”, has reinforced the fears generated since the Donald Trump administration that we are heading toward a “decoupling”.
It is in technology areas that any decoupling will have the most disruptive effects on regional and global supply chains, creating a fragmented global economy and impacting the economic growth of many countries, especially in the developing world where the lives and livelihoods of peoples are already vulnerable to external factors.
Given these observations, how then can we revitalise global multilateralism? I have the following suggestions to offer.
First, as seen during the pandemic, regional organisations have proved to be the anchor of multilateral cooperation. We must therefore continue to support open and inclusive regional cooperation in all fields; political, trade, investment, health and so forth.
As an example, while the multilateral trading system under the World Trade Organisation remains at an impasse, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreed among 10 ASEAN Members and China, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Australia and New Zealand is to be welcomed.
Hopefully, India, too, will join the RCEP, making it the largest free trade area in the world.
Furthermore, President Xi’s policy in agreeing to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and his advocating a free trade agreement for Asia and the Pacific will certainly further advance the cause of free and open global trade, which is the key pillar of multilateralism.
Second, connecting the dots also applies in the peace and security realm. It is imperative that the major powers utilise the existing regional architecture to promote multilateralism.
Third, the Belt & Road Initiative is another important vehicle for international cooperation. Together with the aforementioned FTAs, the physical and digital connectivity under the initiative will open up new opportunities for economic growth and development.
When people can travel and goods are transported across boundaries with ease, when transactions are made through digital technology within seconds, we all stand to benefit from the increased prosperity.
Fourth, as a result of the pandemic, I envisage a new chapter of international cooperation emerging. Cooperation on food and health security among countries and the private sector, including the civil societies and research institutes, will be given greater priority.
Fifth, climate change and environmental degradation is another area where international cooperation is urgently and crucially needed. It is only through our concerted efforts as a global community that we will be able to slow down the disastrous impacts on our environment.
We all have a shared responsibility in working individually and multilaterally. If one country adopts a sound policy on environmental protection, but neighbouring countries adopt policies that ignore the harmful impact on the environment, we all stand to lose.
Sixth, in addition to connecting the dots between regionalism and multilateralism, multilateral institutions and rules must also be reformed to reflect the realities of a world transformed since these institutions were founded after World War II.
Increasingly, the threats to our common peace and security these days emanate from non-traditional sources.
Definitely, in a global health crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations must strengthen its capacity and readiness to take urgent and collective actions. This requires mobilising the resources of the entire UN system and institutions and joint efforts from the international community as a whole. The principal task inevitably falls upon the UN Security Council.
This means the UNSC should redefine the scope of the challenges to international peace and security under the UN Charter to include these new challenges, particularly pandemics.
And seventh, stable US-China relations are the key to revitalising multilateralism. It is incumbent upon all of us to reiterate the importance of avoiding conflict and confrontation. We all must exert our utmost endeavours to minimise the areas of conflict and augment the areas of cooperation and collaboration.
We will continue to live in a VUCA world. However, it is through multilateral cooperation, and not unilateral actions that we can make our VUCA world manageable, peaceful and prosperous.