Many nations have seen themselves as the center of the world, but multilateralism is the only way forward
Checking into a Beijing hotel recently, my attention was caught by a massive world map on the wall behind the reception desk. What struck me was not its size, but the fact it was different from the maps I had seen displayed in Europe.
In this map, the central point was the Pacific Ocean rather than Western Europe. This naturally placed China much closer to the “center of the world” than European maps.
Drawing a world map is an egocentric business, and it is not unusual for a country to place itself in the middle of the canvas.
The United Kingdom has featured at the center of most world maps since 1884, when 22 countries voted to recognize the prime meridian, which runs through Greenwich in London. This was decided based on historical, economic and cultural factors.
However, France abstained and its cartographers continued to use the Paris meridian as zero degrees longitude until the early 1900s.
In maps from 1,000 years ago, Jerusalem took center stage, as it was the center of the Christian world. More recently, you will find some world maps made in the United States in which North America is central, with Eurasia split in two, one half at each side of the canvas.
It is not too hard to understand such behavior. Every nation has its pride, while some states have a sense of manifest global destiny.
The UK, once a global power, has struggled to adjust to its more regional status since the mid-20th century, although British Prime Minister Theresa May has promised that the UK will re-emerge as a “truly global nation” after it leaves the European Union.
Meanwhile, political pundits have suggested that US President Donald Trump’s pledge to “make America great again” points to a renaissance in the country’s sense of manifest destiny, a rebirth in its pursuit of American exceptionalism and the belief that it has been divinely appointed to redeem mankind.
China, too, has long considered itself the center of the world, as suggested by its name in Mandarin: Zhongguo, which literally translates as Middle Kingdom.
A belief in greatness may help a nation stay strong and bring its citizens closer, especially in times of turbulence, but it may not be what is best for today’s world, when globalism is giving way to rising nationalism. State leaders should be calling for multilateralism, not looking to stress their countries’ global influence.
China has been a staunch supporter and beneficiary of multilateralism. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for multilateral cooperation to address the common challenges facing the world.
Prospects for the international community may look bleak, with the aftershocks of Brexit and Trump’s victory still being felt, yet there are signs of hope for a revival in multilateralism, such as the Paris Agreement on tackling climate change.
At the annual two sessions in Beijing, China’s top foreign affairs advisers came together to discuss their views on foreign relations and global governance.
We can expect to hear more calls for multilateralism in the future, and I hope more great powers will join this trend and leave their national pride behind, at least for now.
A map is just a map. The globe will not change its shape, no matter how you draw it.
The author is a staff writer at China Daily specializing in foreign affairs.