A Plenary Speech on Revitalizing Global Multilateralismat the 9th World Peace Forum

By Surakiart Sathirathai

Beijing,3 July 2021


First of all, let me take this opportunity to express my sincere appreciation to the World Peace Forum, Tsinghua University for inviting me to be among such a distinguished group of eminent government leaders, scholars and thinkers gathered here at this annual conference. This year, I certainly cannot think of a topic that is as timely and relevant than that which we are addressing today. Surely, in the light of the current state of the world, revitalizing global multilateralism is obviously uppermost in all our minds.


May I also take this opportunity of offer my sincerest felicitations on the auspicious occasion of centenary ofthe Communist Party of China (CPC) on July 1, 2021. Indeed, the progress and prosperity that China has achieved in this span of time is unprecedented in recent history.


The challenges we currently face as global community are also unprecedented in many ways.


We all have gone through what has been described as the VUCA world in the past years. VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. Within nations, we have witnessed such global mega trends as aging society, urbanization, rising expectations of the middle class, 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 discontents, fueling unilateralism, extreme nationalism, and protectionism.


Significantly, the scourge ofCOVID-19 and its devastating impact on health security and world economy have intensified the sense of vulnerability and fragility in the VUCA World. All these trends and developments have subjected multilateralism under immense stresses and strains in many ways.


First, in 2020, whileCOVID-19 pandemic ravaged its ways across national borders, international cooperation took a back seat. In the early days of the outbreak, countries were confined to fending for themselves, resorting to unilateral measures such as closing off borders, banning the export of much-needed medical equipment and supplies. The role ofthe World Health Organization (WHO) became paralyzed and polarized.


The situation contrasted sharply with what transpired during the SARS outbreak in 2003. At that time, ASEAN and Chinese leaders and international organizations decided to meet in Bangkok, Thailand, with only 7 days advance notice, in a demonstration of political will and leadership and adopted a common approach and specific measures to cooperate in the face of the pandemic.


As a result, it calmed the sense of fear and panic, and the situation was eventually resolved in 60 days.


Of course, the scale and intensity ofCOVID-19 is greater. Still, international cooperation, which should have been spearheaded by the UN particularly the WHO, was minimal until months had elapsed.


Secondly, on the positive side, we witnessed regional organizations such as Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), the European Union (EU), the African Union (AU), the Organization of American States (OAS), among others, filling in the void, taking on responsibilities to rally regional cooperation, ranging from exchanging information, helping regional member states by providing medical supplies, and even assisting in setting up funds to help neighboring countries whose economies had been hard hit by the pandemic. Civil societies in and across the regions also came forward to lend a helping hand in providing funds, donating medical supplies, and exchanging best medical practices where needed. Indeed, the role and efforts of regional organizations helped in shoring up multilateralism and provided the impetus for international cooperation amongst regional states working in partnership with civil societies.


Third, I believe that the constructive engagement of the major powers with regional organizations can also help to open up new pathways for multilateral cooperation. This was very much the case with the cooperation extended by China. Notably,President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor and 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 regions in the VUCA world.


Fourth, I also believe that we all are deeply concerned by the repercussions on the multilateral international order of the intensification of trade, investment, financial and technology competition between the world’s two largest economies. The strategic competition, which many have referred to as a “war”,has reinforced the fears generated since the Trump administration that we are heading towards a “decoupling”. It is in the areas of technology that any decoupling will have the most disruptive effects on regional and global supply chains, creating a fragmented global economy and impacting on the economic growth of many countries, especially in the developing world where the lives and livelihoods of peoples are already vulnerable to external factors. 


The consequence would result in slowing down even more the economic recovery of many countries already severely affected byCOVID-19.


The current US Administration has professed the importance of multilateralism and international cooperation and has returned to working with several international organizations. Unfortunately,those who are advocating a more confrontational approach in the technology competition and decoupling seem to be gaining grounds and becoming even more vocal.


Given these observations, how then can we revitalize global multilateralism. I have the following suggestions as food for thought.


First, as seen during theCOVID-19 crisis, regional organizations 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, and health, and so forth.


As an example, at a time when the multilateral trading system under the WTO remains at an impasse, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreed among ten ASEAN countries and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand is to be welcomed. Hopefully, India will decide to join RCEP in the near future, thus making RCEP the largest free trade area in the world. Furthermore, President Xi Jinping’s position on actively considering joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and his initiative in advocating the Free Trade Agreement of Asia and the Pacific (FTAAP) will certainly further advance the cause free and open global trade which is the key pillar of multilateralism. 


Enhancing the role of regional cooperation and strengthening the links between and among regional organizations need to be pursued if we are to revitalize multilateralism at the global level. More than ever, we need to connect the dots.


And as was the case during theCOVID-19 pandemic, China can and must play a vital role in connecting the dots in forging links among regional groupings and initiatives. Promoting open and inclusive regionalism are indeed the essential building blocks of effective multilateralism. And, in this regard, it is in the common interest of all the major powers to work together in connecting the dots.


Secondly, connecting the dots also apply in the peace and security realm as well. It is imperative that the major powers utilize the existing regional architecture to promote multilateralism.


For example, in Southeast Asia, ASEAN’s network of dialogue partnerships, particularly the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which have been established for over 20 years now, comprising 27 countries should serve as the platform for engagement with countries in other regions to advance multilateral dialogue and cooperation on regional and global issues of peace and security. 


In a larger context, powerful groupings in the world should not become exclusive clubs. It is necessary to reach out to other groupings and countries.


The G7, for example, should open dialogue with non-members, be they G20, the BRICS, and other regional, political, and economic organizations. Multilateralism works best when all voices of all countries, large or small, powerful, and not so powerful, are heard and heeded.


It is through these efforts in connecting the dots in economic,political and security fields that we can help to bring about what I would call “the multilateralization of regionalism”.


DuringCOVID-19, we witnessed the regionalization of multilateralism. To my mind, both regionalism and multilateralism are mutually-reinforcing.


Third, I would like note that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is another important vehicle for international cooperation. Together with the free trade arrangements that I have referred to earlier, the physical and digital connectivity under BRI will open up new opportunities for economic growth and development.


When people can travel and goods transported across the boundaries with ease, when transactions are made through digital technology within seconds, we all stand to benefit from the increased prosperity.


It is to be further noted that at present, in the midst of the geopolitical and geoeconomics shifts, proposals have been brought to the fore under Free and Open Indo-Pacific region, the Build Back Better World Initiative and so forth.


All of these initiatives are to be welcomed provided that they involve constructive competition among the proponents. Regrettably, it will be counter-productive if these initiatives are intended to obstruct rather than compete.


Constructive competition can help promote multilateralism since many projects can help to mobilize resources and international cooperation in complementary way.


On the other hand, obstructive competition only will lead to fragmented multilateralism and fragmented globalization, a situation that can only work against revitalizing multilateralism.


Fourth, as a result of theCOVID-19 crisis, 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.


Furthermore, the “new normal” defined by digital technology will expand not only the practice of working from home but working from everywhere around the globe.


New protocols especially social distancing has fundamentally changed the way we interact with one another whether in sports, business, tourism, and daily life. Virtual connectivity will certainly play a bigger role on matters requiring international cooperation and in shaping the directions of multilateralism in the coming decade.


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 and the lives of generations to come.


We all have a shared responsibility in working individually and multilaterally. If one country adopts a sound policy on environmental protection, but the neighboring countries adopts policies that ignore the harmful impact on the environment, we all stand to lose.


The green economy and a low carbon society can only be successfully implemented if they are carried out through multilateral cooperation.


Sixth, in addition to connecting the dots between regionalism and multilateralism, multilateral institutions and rules themselves must also be reformed to reflect the realities of a world transformed since these institutions were founded after WWII.


Increasingly, the threats to our common peace and security these days emanate from non-traditional sources. Definitely, in a global health crisis such as theCOVID-19 pandemic, the UN must strengthen its capacity and readiness to take urgent and collective actions. This requires mobilizing the resources of the entire UN system and institutions and joint efforts of the international community as a whole. The principal task inevitably falls upon the role of the UN Security Council (UNSC). 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.


In particular, the role and mission of the World Health Organization, will need to be strengthened so that it is well equipped with knowledge, research capability and funding in order to take on its leading role in prevention, treatment and to rehabilitation. We should safeguard the WHO from politicization as part of the reform process. Debate on WHO reform should also be inclusive with participation of stakeholders and relevant civil societies.


The reform might include the consideration whether WHO should have sanction authority, similar to the WTO panel, against countries which fails to respect the WHO guideline during health emergency.


And seventh, to revitalize multilateralism, a stable US-China relation is the key. It is incumbent upon all of us to reiterate the importance of avoidance of conflict and confrontation and constant consultation on issues where views differ and diverge. We all must exert our utmost endeavors to minimize the areas of conflict and augment the areas of cooperation and collaboration.


On the part of ASEAN, our approach has always been to build up from the lowest hanging fruits, expanding areas less prone to conflict and where cooperation yields mutual benefits, leading to win-win solution. We all should be cognizant that differences are normal and are to be managed, and not to be inflated into conflict and confrontation. And I have no doubt that multilateral dialogue and consultation in various fora and format is the way forward toward a win-win solution for all.


The VUCA world, the world of volatility, uncertainty, complexity,and ambiguity will continue. However, it is through multilateral cooperation, and not unilateral actions that we can make VUCA world manageable, peaceful, and prosperous.


It is incumbent upon us to work together and act together to guard against volatilities and uncertainties in a world in transition. Hopefully, by revitalizing multilateralism, the world will be less complex and more manageable, and the ambiguous situation confronting us will be clearer and more transparent.


To go in the opposite direction would only undermine multilateralism and aggravate the VUCA world, the result of which would be a world that is too volatile, too uncertain, too complex, and too ambiguous to the detriment of all. And that should not be the world we all are looking for.

Surakiart Sathirathai isformer Deputy Prime Minister of Thailand.