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‘Transcending Fragmentation’

Former world leaders called for greater inclusiveness and cooperation to cope with the challenges of an increasingly fragmented world at the 2023 Imperial Springs International Forum

By Yu Xiaodong , Cao Ran Updated Mar.1

Facing unprecedented changes, humanity must uphold the principles of openness, inclusiveness and win-win cooperation to build a better world, said Chinese President Xi Jinping in a congratulatory letter to the opening of the 2023 Imperial Springs International Forum (ISIF), a high-level dialogue platform for people-to-people diplomacy held in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong Province from December 3-5, 2023.  

Established in 2014, the ISIF was jointly organized by the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, the Australia-China Friendship and Exchange Association, Guangdong provincial government and the World Leadership Alliance-Club de Madrid, the world’s largest forum of former presidents and prime ministers. Held in Guangzhou annually since 2014, except in the years from 2020 to 2022 due to the pandemic (ISIF 2021 was held online), it serves as an important platform for former world leaders and scholars to have discussions on global peace, economic development and cultural exchanges, with aims to promote regional and global cooperation.  

Titled “Multilateralism: More Exchanges, Greater Inclusiveness and Cooperation,” this year’s event gathered more than 130 participants from more than 40 countries, including over 30 former heads of state, government and international organizations, as well as over 60 internationally-renowned experts and representatives of diplomatic missions.  

Balance of Fear 
During the forum, former world leaders voiced their concerns over an increasingly “fragmented” world order amid intensifying geopolitical competition among major powers. In his opening remarks, Danilo Türk, president of Club de Madrid and former president of Slovenia, said that growing geopolitical and geo-economic polarization has brought the shadow of heightened tensions and the danger of fragmentation. “This is a path we must strive to avoid,” Türk said.
Warning that the multilateral system, especially the United Nations (UN) and its agencies, is now under threat, he called for the world to reverse the trend. “Our goal is not just a multipolar world. Our goal is one in which multipolarity is harmonized through the strength of multilateral institutions,” Türk said.  

In his speech, former Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo warned that along with the emergence of an “economic cold war,” there rises a “balance of fear.” Stressing the importance of friendly cooperation and collaboration instead of fearmongering, he said the world must strive to avoid a situation reminiscent of the Cold War’s balance of terror.  

Obasanjo’s calls were echoed by Boris Tadic, former president of Serbia, who highlighted the growing fears and prevalence of emotional thinking in world politics. Citing the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict and the Israel-Palestine conflict, Tadic warned that the world has become increasingly unpredictable, making it more susceptible to conflicts and disasters.  

Participants to the forum addressed several global issues challenging humanity, including climate change, the development of artificial intelligence, the divide between the Global North and the Global South and sustainable development.  

A statement released by the forum called for true multilateralism. “We need to firmly uphold the authority and central role of the UN, embrace the UN Charter as the basis for international relations, and adhere to the concept of global governance based on dialogue, consultations, joint development and shared interests.”  

US-China Competition 
Participants directly addressed the heightened tensions between China and the US, the world’s two largest economies. According to Peter Loewen, a political scientist at the University of Toronto, such global challenges can only be resolved by cooperation and coordination, which would be next to impossible if there were a global conflict between China and the US-led West. 

For Borut Pahor, former president of Slovenia, the fundamental reason behind the rising tensions between China and the West is that China’s development in the past decades has exceeded all expectations. “For the West, it has been a question of what to do – to block the development, or to go with it,” he said.  

Warning that efforts to block China’s development would lead to global conflicts, Pahor called for more dialogues and cooperation from all sides. “We should do whatever it takes by dialogue to solve all huge problems and not push the world into some huge conflict. This is our political responsibility,” Pahor added.  

Kjell Bondevik, former prime minister of Norway, said a major challenge in today’s world is the buildup of enmity, both between leaders and common people. Regarding the relationship between China and the US, he said since the Trump administration launched a trade war against China, competition between the two countries has become increasingly negative, not just for the two countries but for the entire world. Bondevik called for more people-to-people exchanges to foster a shared future for all humankind.  

Csaba Korosi, a Hungarian diplomat who served as president of the 77th UN General Assembly, said that a major obstacle for the international community is zero-sum game geopolitical thinking. “Let us ensure that the platforms for addressing global challenges remain as distant as possible from geopolitical rivalry,” Korosi said.  

A panel discussion is held during the Imperial Springs International Forum, December 4, 2023 (Photo by Chen Jimin)

China’s Role 
Chinese officials and scholars also laid out their visions of global governance. Speaking at the forum, Han Zheng, vice-president of China, emphasized that China is an advocate and practitioner of multilateralism.  

Emphasizing the importance of adhering to the core values and fundamental principles of multilateralism, Han urged relevant parties to resist hegemonism, power politics and unilateral practices in the name of multilateralism. He further advocated for the realization of several China-proposed initiatives, such as the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative, and for further advancing cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative under the concept of a community with a shared future for humanity.  

According to Zheng Yongnian, the presidential chair professor and founding director of the Institute for International Affairs at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, a major obstacle preventing China from playing a more active role in global governance is what he terms “the cheapest but the most effective war” waged by the US – a war focused on shaping perceptions of China “on all sides and on all problems.”  

Economically, the US portrays China as “uninvestable” and frames its competition with China ideologically as democracy vs. dictatorship, Zheng said in a forum discussion session. He highlighted that China is for inclusive multilateralism, while the US is for exclusive multilateralism.  

Zheng’s view was shared by He Yafei, former vice minister of foreign affairs of China. Speaking at the ISIF, He said when China presents ideas, they can be easily distorted through ideological biases.  

For example, China’s iconic Belt and Road Initiative has been twisted as a strategic ambition to expand its influence. He called on all parties to dispel that myth by joining these initiatives to translate them into concrete actions.  

“As humanity faces unprecedented challenges, no country can tackle them single-handedly. The world must come together,” He said.