Compared with the cold weather that plagued the 2019 and 2020 Munich Security Conference (MSC), it was unusually warm outside the Hotel Bayerischer Hof, where the MSC 2023 was set to take place from February 17 to 19.
Nevertheless, when hundreds of people from around the world gathered in the conference hall—the largest-scale meeting of the MSC since the COVID-19 pandemic erupted in early 2020—to discuss topics ranging from war to climate change, they might have felt a slight chill in the air. The then rapidly approaching one-year anniversary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and the looming global economic recession foreshadowed an unpleasant year, and few feasible solutions were on the table.
Across the pond
The MSC used to be a busy annual "transatlantic family meeting" as Western media dubbed it. Debuting in 1963 following the Cuban Missile Crisis, it became a hub for politicians seeking consultation with leaders from the developed world on security policies. MSC 2023 saw dozens of state leaders, including all heads of the Group of Seven, with the exception of U.S. President Joe Biden who was represented by Vice President Kamala Harris along with some 60 U.S. lawmakers. Ironically, despite the fact that Russia is one of the main actors in at least one of many ongoing global crises, it failed to send delegates for a second consecutive year.
"How to escalate sanctions against Russia" was an important topic on the conference's agenda, accompanied by a mounting public denouncement of Russia's special military operation. In her speech to the MSC, to add fuel to an already raging social fire, Harris openly accused Russia of "committing war crimes" in Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stuck to a more moderate narrative, saying "the war [would] end tomorrow" if Russia were to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
Bolstered by a shared mentality, many Western participants tend to view the world from a dual perspective that the world is ruled by democracy and autocracy, which lends the West a strong sense of unity. This good-bad dichotomy, at its best, unifies the West by identifying their "enemies" through ideology; but, at its worst, it signifies how Western-style democracy is seemingly superior to the world's other political systems. Compared with the MSCs I'd participated in 2019 and 2020, it was clear that this dichotomy had become more instrumental in "bridging the Atlantic gap" in 2023.
But democracy hardly matters if the gap is all about market shares and commercial profit. It was unlikely for the EU to overlook their disagreements with the U.S. on certain economic policies, when Christoph Heusgen, Chairman of the MSC since 2022, challenged Harris on the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act that heavily subsidizes American automobile manufacturers in a bid to outcompete their European counterparts. This sense of dissatisfaction demonstrated to me just how important a fair international order, which China has always advocated, is to everyone—great powers included.
China's high-profile diplomacy
The return of China's official delegation and its think tanks to the MSC this year is another sign that China's diplomatic efforts are returning to normal after the long, grim days of COVID-19.
Unsurprisingly, China has long been one of the main topics of concern at the conference. I can recall an op-ed famously titled China, China, China! published by The Washington Post in its coverage of MSC 2020. Reinforced by its dispute over early February's "balloon incident" with the U.S. and China's attitude toward the Ukraine crisis, the reappearance of high-level Chinese representatives at the MSC sparked broad speculation about the country's relationship with the U.S. and the rest of the world. The world's largest and second largest economies seemed to be engaging in a new round of diplomacy, which very well may shape the trajectory of global development in this turbulent age.
The unofficial engagement between Wang Yi, Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, aimed to ease the lingering frustration about the "balloon incident," a goal they did achieve. Neither China nor the U.S. were looking to waste this valuable opportunity to stabilize the bilateral relationship. Both sides cautiously took a step back and avoided any finger-pointing during the meeting, which will hopefully pave the way for easing tensions and boosting international collaboration on many global issues, including the Ukraine crisis.
China has always been an enthusiastic advocate of multilateralism and takes every opportunity to engage in multilateral diplomacy at the MSC. During his meetings with world leaders, Wang stressed the importance of peace, mutual trust and multilateralism, and strongly opposed unilateralism. For the first time since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, Wang had a face-to-face meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, reiterating China's stance that it is "ready to work with the international community to prevent the situation from worsening and to keep fighting for peace." To back up its words with actions, on February 24, the one-year anniversary of the conflict, China issued a 12-point proposal for a political settlement to the Ukraine crisis.
With the return of China's delegation, the MSC 2023 demonstrated more diversity, not only in its discussion of global issues but also in its participants and formats—particularly on its sideline events where nongovernmental stakeholders actively engaged in Track II diplomacy. As an MSC participant, the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a Beijing-based think tank, hosted an event themed Oasis or Mirage: Analyzing China-U.S. Relations on Climate Change. Drawing on insights of policy advisors and area specialists from China, the U.S. and Europe, it aimed to examine the China-U.S. relationship through the dual lenses of climate diplomacy and broader geopolitical issues.
In recent years, the MSC has become increasingly important for policymakers to collaborate with entrepreneurs to integrate business concerns with general political strategies. In 2019, the first time the CCG was invited to the MSC, Chinese companies and relevant tech issues were central topics at various MSC seminars and the consensuses drawn from these debates and discussions to a large extent have been incorporated into industrial policies in the West.
One can hardly say that the three-day conference produced specific solutions to current international crises and challenges. People met and talked; ideas were presented and discussed; and solutions may surface after reaching a consensus. It may be weeks or months after the conference has ended until we realize something game-changing did happen. For the participants flying in from China, the MSC was not a platform to flex the muscle, but to showcase their determination to address global challenges together with the rest of the world.
The author is president of the Center for China and Globalization
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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