At a G20 meeting on Tuesday, the United States led calls for greater global cooperation in light of the coronavirus crisis, while China insisted that multilateralism should be more than just a slogan.

The foreign ministers of the Group of 20 major economies met in the southern city of Matera for the first time since the outbreak of the pandemic, which has claimed nearly four million lives worldwide.

In a sharp departure from the previous administration’s tone, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for empowering multilateral institutions to defeat Covid-19, address growing global inequality, and accelerate efforts to halt climate change. “On these and many other challenges, a strong multilateral system is essential,” Blinken said at the end of a week-long trip to Europe. “That is why the United States is committed to assisting effective and accountable multilateral institutions,” he stated.

“We must produce results for our countries, our people, and the entire world.”

Blinken advocated for efforts to “strengthen global health security in the future so that we can detect, prevent, and respond better to future health emergencies.” He cited the United States’ $2 billion pledge for Covax, a UN-backed initiative aimed at vaccinating low-income countries, as well as President Joe Biden’s pledge to manufacture and donate 500 million Pfizer doses in addition to 80 million doses from US stocks.

Biden has also eased some export restrictions and patents, a departure from his predecessor Donald Trump’s “America First” stance that has riled the pharmaceutical industry.

Biden’s vaccine initiative, as well as Blinken’s willingness to attend meetings, are intended to demonstrate strong US leadership in the face of a rising China, whose growing assertiveness has been identified as the top global challenge by the new US administration.

In a virtual appearance at the Matera meeting, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi did not name the US but hinted at ulterior motives in his rhetoric as he urged the G20 to demonstrate “true multilateralism.”

“China urges able countries to avoid export restrictions or excessive vaccine hoarding,” Wang said.

“Multilateralism is not a catchy slogan, and it cannot be used as a justification for unilateral action,” he said.

According to Wang, Beijing has exported 450 million doses. Despite its rapid delivery, the Chinese-made Sinovac vaccine has been called into question. Chile, which has relied heavily on Sinovac, is considering a third dose to protect against new variants, while Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi recently stated that Sinovac had been “shown to be inadequate.”

The Matera talks will serve as a warm-up for the G20 leaders’ meeting in Rome in October, which is expected to be Biden’s first meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

As fears about Covid fade in the West, the vast majority of vaccine doses have gone into the hands of people in wealthy countries or China.

Foreign Minister Christophe Lutundula of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, speaking as part of an Italian push to include African nations in G20 talks, warned that coronavirus was far from eradicated in his country and called for immediate action.

In addition to immediate assistance, he urged the G20 to support developing countries’ ability to produce vaccines on their own and to assist in the establishment of a continent-wide agency to promote scientific cooperation.

He stated that the G20 must assist “concretely and in detail so that we move beyond speeches to urgent action on the ground.” Such cooperation “will help African countries counter the shock of Covid and revive their economies for the greater good of the international community”, he said.