Summary of Multipolarity, Multilateralism and Beyond: China – EU

Understandings of the International System
This article justifies and defines two multi-discussed international relations terms, namely
‘Multipolarity’ and ‘Multilateralism’, which as international actors are strongly practiced by the
European Union (EU) as a regional organization and the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) as a
sovereign state in their public diplomacy. This study defines ‘Multipolarity’ as a measurement of
the distribution of power as concentrated in several poles of power, those poles being Great
Powers and ‘Multilateralism’ as a process; a way of acting that involves several states (big,
medium, or small) working together as a matter of practice. ‘Multipolarity’ and ‘Multilateralism’
represent the deliberate use of the EU and the PRC for an audience, the international community.
Four main points deriving from ‘Multipolarity’ and ‘Multilateralism’ are (a) there is a clear
difference of emphasis and of timing between the EU and PRC use of these two terms, with the
PRC having adopted a more frequent and overt use of ‘Multipolarity’ in its public diplomacy. (b)
There is a degree of divergence between a normative (values) EU use of multilateralism
terminology versus a more instrumental PRC use of multilateralism terminology. (c) PRC’s
deployment of multilateralism in its public diplomacy language is now starting to move from an
instrumental to a normative usage, perhaps in part resulting from the PRC’s interaction with the
EU. (d) ‘Multipolarity’ and ‘Multilateralism’ are also themselves shifting in the international
system, overlapping and widening through incorporating the role of regions and of various
transnational forces.
This study also analyzes the importance and practice of these two terms (‘Multipolarity’ and
‘Multilateralism’) on how these terms play out in the EU and PRC comments on each other and
on their self-proclaimed ‘strategic partnership. Multipolarity is a concept that divides the world
into multiple poles based on the existence of several centers of power. The process leading to
multipolarity is multipolarisation, and the policies designed to facilitate such a process are
multipolarism and this is heading to balance the power between nations. Other distribution of
power is “bipolarity” (for instance bipolarity of the Cold War, where power was concentrated
between the United States and the Soviet Union) and “Unipolarity” (only one main pole of
power, represented in America’s so-called unipolar moment in the post-Cold War 1990s).


Multilateralism is part of EU’s norms. political and economic relationship among themselves based on multilateralism not multipolarity that leads to build a strategic partnership between them (EU–India 2005 Summit). policies). and language. values and principles that provide a different paradigm to balance of power (multipolarity) frameworks and that such multilateralism norms may ‘diffuse in time and space (geographically and functionally). ‘values’ in other words. a process that coordinates behavior among three or more states based on generalized principles of conduct. are though highly contextual. EU strongly believes that Multilateralism is the right mechanism to build order and governance in a multipolar world and EU’s role is to reinforce multilateral rules and institutions at the global level. Norms. Beyond the regular practice of multipolarity. politically and culturally laden and the promise of constructivism in international relations theory’ was because it brought out ‘the power of knowledge. through a process of internal multilateralism in the flow of EU policymaking and adjustments. The various EU members constantly negotiate between each other (and with the EU institutions). ideology. It remains true and noticeable that amid a gradual process of integration. culture. EU is unable to lie in a multipolar region due to the absence of developed great power military presence rather than they emphasize their own interests to promote an international order based on systemic and rule-based multilateralism as well as to offer an alternative non-military avenue for its presence in multilateral negotiation.Multilateralism is a way of operating in the international system. Interactions for international actors like the EU and the PRC can be not only with other states. As a regional political and economic bloc. EU multilateralism operates not only at the national level with other non-EU states but also at the global level in multilateral frameworks (‘intersecting multilateralism’) and with other regional structures. EU has its own policies for member and non-member states. EU member states still operate with their own external foreign policies within varying degrees of common. ideas. EU hankers after and practices ‘An International Order Based on Effective Multilateralism’ for effective functioning. but also with other regional and international organizations. Countries around the world establish and implement their trade. for which it is well equipped. It fosters a sensitivity to language speech and its derivatives (rules. IR constructivism theory can be brought into play behind the empirical examples of public diplomacy language usage. for the EU ‘multilateralism represents the formally preferred option. EU itself is a multilateral construction by the concept of multilateralism. 2 .

As an essential component of multipolar world. the challenge for the EU and China is to create a strategic vision of the kind of partnership they desire. China’s geopolitical vision of a multipolar world and the Chinese perception of the EU as a partner of growing importance.EU considers multipolarity as an ‘objective and principle’ in its public diplomacy rhetoric for external policy of EU. but this is a historical trend independent of human will. Admittedly. Wang Jisi argued in 2001 that ‘the key notion and belief in China’s conceptualization of international politics today is “multipolarization’. Chinese scholars recognize the importance of multipolarisation for China’s strategic calculations. such a process is officially described at not being aimed at the US and its power. Strategic partnerships are based on multilateral tones by EU. Yet this theoretical reasoning has also been a practical exercise. A rebalancing of the international system was what he had in mind: ‘the progress toward a multipolar world is irreversible the international balance of power is changing. 3 . China too will be a pole. four-polar or five-polar in the so-called multipolar world. The PRC has been clear enough on trying to facilitate a multipolar world.Deng Xiaoping was clear enough on multipolar openings for China back in 1990 when the world becomes three-polar. Wang Yizhou was explicit enough that ‘one of the basic goals of multi-polarity is to prevent the United States from becoming the one and only hegemonic power in the world and to preempt its possible negative impact or pressures on China. The multipolarization process may be zigzag. Ren Xio’s sense of multipolarisation was that ‘no other theoretical reasoning has greater impact upon actual Chinese foreign policy than this’. provide a favorable context for the EU–China strategic partnership. protracted and full of struggles. in which ‘multi-polarization on the whole helps weaken and curb hegemonies. The word multipolarity has been a frequently invoked term by the PRC in its analysis of China’s international environment . The PRC sees the United States as unable in the long term to retain its so-called unipolar moment gained in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. While 4 years later. The official PRC view is that this is a structural process. Multipolarity can be described by the dangers of multipolar strategies in terms of expansion and competition for dominance attempts to create a multipolar balance of power ended up in violent competition between great powers. Hu Junta’s first major foreign policy speeches in 2001 emphasized that ‘multipolarity constitutes an important base’ for Chinese foreign policy. the PRC media describing China’s diplomacy as ‘a pragmatic line that China has to walk in a multi-polar era taking shape faster than we had foreseen’.

and the East Asia Summit (EAS) from dealing with sovereignty and territorial negotiation issues in the South China Sea. but ‘multipolarity’ was overshadowed by ‘multilateralism’ usage Among the academic community in China. 2010) reviews. In contrast. for fearing that it can go against the interests with the USA. EU and China share views on the importance of multilateral systems and rules for global governance in 2003 summit. Various Chinese scholars inside the PRC have been blunt on the ‘balancing’ dynamics within emerging multipolar structures argue that China should concentrate its diplomacy on managing its relations with the world’s major powers and blocs. EU sources have been more than ready to see multilateralism at play in China’s foreign policy but China continues to often have ‘multipolarity’ in its Joint Declarations drawn up with other major partners. the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). This reflects their differing attitudes to sovereignty. 2008. various summits executing between China and EU have importance more on multilateralism than multipolarity. The PRC government seems to be still in the) camp of tactical ‘selective multilateralism’. Over times. as long as they do not balance against China. It is noticeable that China continues to block formal multilateral forums like ASEAN. but any such hopes came up against EU’s reluctance to use the term. but continuing use of multilateralism rhetoric may shift it into the (latter) camp of genuine normative multilateralism. it is significant that Chinese academic and policy journals after 2000 showed a gradual decline in discussion of multipolarity and a dramatic increase for multilateralism. PRC has been a relatively slow development for the Multilateralism. EU’s sense that is more normative and commitment to 4 .There may then still be an asymmetrical distribution of power between the US and the PRC. China mostly adopts its more instrumental-tactical sense and commitment to multilateralism. It is always ready to use of multipolarity language to see multipolarity at a play in China-EU links. the conceptual gap between them arises based on focusing multilateralism by EU and multipolarity by China. China may have wanted to insert ‘multipolarity’ into their first 1998 Summit. In the strategic partnership between EU and China. but a plurality of power centre’s can compensate for that in Chinese thinking. In the PRC’s China’s Defense in 2004 (and then 2006. Some authors see a practical multilateralism of the 1990s giving way to a more strategic multilateralism in which China has sought to adjust such organizations and set up new structures. it was indicative that both terms were used.

differently served by these concepts. Strategic multipolarity’ is tied to hard power calculations in a ‘balance of power’ framework.multilateralism is actually the same stand as China’s more instrumental–tactical sense and commitment to multilateralism. on reflection. 5 . In a complicated and multifaceted world. ‘normative multipolarity’ is more tied to soft power ideational resources. whereas multilateralism serves as a compensation for EU weaknesses to operate in a multipolar Great Power way. Multilateralism makes China look good. Not only are both terms ‘multipolarity’ and ‘multilateralism’ To conclude. both terms may be too narrow. This has generated further adjustments of the two terms. such as an adherence to. international law and institutions and a strong sense of collective national or regional identity. and their supplementation by further terminology to describe the structure and workings of the international system. The finding is that the interests of the EU and the PRC are. and advocacy of. paradoxically a multilevel and often untidy EU that blurs the national–regional–transnational boundaries may be more easily able to operate in such untidy cross-cutting international settings than a national-level tighter sovereignty-bound PRC.