China’s New Global Security Initiative: Power Play?

Chinese President Xi Jinping addresses the annual Boao Forum on April 21 (Source: FMPRC)

At the opening ceremony of the annual Boao Forum, President Xi Jinping announced that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will establish a new “Global Security Initiative” (全球安全倡议, quanqiu anquan huiyi) to “promote the common security of the world” (Xinhua, April 21). In his remarks, Xi invoked the principle of “indivisible security” (安全不可分割, anquan buke fenge) as integral to building a “balanced, sustainable and effective” international security architecture. The concept of “indivisible security” is a relic of the Cold War era Helsinki Accords (1975) that has become a core principle of contemporary Russian foreign policy under President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin frequently cites the principle to press its case that the U.S. and its European allies are obligated not to strengthen their “own security at the expense of the security of other countries” (TASS, February 15). In practice, however, Moscow’s calls for “indivisible security” are used to justify its opposition to both NATO’s active presence in Central and Eastern Europe, and any moves by states on Russia’s periphery to deepen relations with NATO or the European Union (Eurasia Daily Monitor, January 18).

Since the onset of the Ukraine crisis late last year, the principle of “indivisible security” has become increasingly prevalent in China’s official rhetoric concerning European security in particular, and international security in general (Xinhuanet, May 9). When queried about the newly launched PRC-led Global Security Initiative (GSI), U.S. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price was quick to link the initiative to Russia, observing that “we have continued to see the PRC parrot some of what we have heard coming from the Kremlin” and this “apparently applies to the concept of indivisible security.” He also noted that Russia and the PRC challenge and “in certain instances seek to tear down and even destroy” the current “rules-based international order,” which the U.S. is committed to preserving  (U.S. Department of State, April 21).

Nebulous By Design?

Xi’s appropriation of the concept of “indivisible security” from Putin’s Russia is redolent of China’s past calls for “inclusive security” in the Asia-Pacific region (CGTN, February 19, 2017). The concept also accords with core concepts in the PRC’s contemporary foreign policy canon: “mutual benefit and win-win cooperation”, conducting foreign relations based on “extensive consultation, joint construction and global sharing”, and pursuing a “community with a shared future for mankind” (People.cn, February 17; PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs (FMPRC), December 18, 2021). International reaction to Xi’s announcement of the new GSI was muted with Western media quick to note its lack of specificity. [1]  It is worth noting that many observers were similarly underwhelmed by the rollout of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in late 2013. This is in part because these initiatives are characterized by phrases such as “mutual benefit and win-win [cooperation])” (互利 共赢, huli gongying) that have specific connotations in the lexicon of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Xi Jinping Thought, but which can sometimes strike external audiences as empty slogans (People.cn, April 24; Guangming Daily, February 24; Qiushi, July 21, 2021).

The initial nebulousness of GSI reflects the PRC’s preferred approach to international diplomacy. Rather than commit to formal bilateral or multilateral treaty alliances, China prefers to maintain a hierarchical network of strategic partnerships. In order to provide coherence and leverage these bilateral partnerships, Beijing has established an array of multilateral regional groups including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Forum on China Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), the 16+1 forum with Central and Eastern Europe Countries, and the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) Forum (China Brief, December 3, 2021). The GSI extends these efforts by providing a military compliment to China’s transnational geo-economic initiatives (e.g. the Global Development Initiative, BRI), which could eventually provide a security framework for China’s regional and bilateral partnerships.

However, as the GSI is grounded primarily in opposition to the U.S., rather than any positive vision for global security affairs, it is likely to struggle to attract the same level of participation as China’s economic and regional diplomacy initiatives. As a result, the group risks becoming a coterie of authoritarian and semi-authoritarian states motivated by shared antipathy toward the U.S. A key litmus test of whether the GSI can avoid this fate is if it can attract states that have sought to tread a middle-ground in US-China competition such as Malaysia, Indonesia, the United Arab Emirates and others.

Bloc Versus Bloc

Xi’s decision to launch a global security grouping is the culmination of a shift away from the reactive and defensive approach that characterized the PRC’s approach to world politics in the 1990s and 2000s, wherein Beijing vigorously asserted its interests and principles vis-à-vis the U.S. and other major powers, but nevertheless largely eschewed any pretensions to global leadership. Under Xi, the PRC has abandoned this Dengist- “hide and bide” approach, and has sought to become a leading voice in all aspects of human affairs, including global security, which has long been the purview of the U.S., and to a lesser extent, Russia (Straits Times, May 9).  Nevertheless, the current PRC leadership’s motivation to develop China into an international leader derives more from Xi’s embrace of strategic competition with the U.S. than it does from any proactive vision for global affairs. In many ways, China’s advancement of alternatives to the prevailing international system amounts to a sophisticated effort to insulate the CCP system from external geopolitical threats, the U.S. above all, and to buy time to pursue Xi’s domestic vision of achieving national rejuvenation by mid-century.

This intense focus on the U.S.  was reflected in Xi’s Boao Forum address. Xi stipulated that GSI will promote common global security through “six commitments” (六个坚持, liu ge jianchi), most of which amount to implicit criticisms of U.S. international leadership (CCTV, April 22). The six commitments are as follows:

1) Adhere to the vision of “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and joint cooperation to advance world peace and security”

2) Remain committed to mutual respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and respect for different countries’ independent development paths

3) Follow the principles of the UN Charter, reject the Cold War mentality, oppose unilateralism and confrontation between rival blocs

4) Respect the legitimate security concerns of all nations, uphold the principle of indivisible security and build a balanced, effective international security architecture that does not center on only one country’s insecurities

5) Seek to always resolve differences through dialogue, oppose double standards, “long-arm jurisdiction” or unilateral sanctions

6) Insist on joint coordination to manage traditional and non-traditional security challenges, cooperation on shared regional and global challenges such as terrorism, cybersecurity and climate change

The six commitments reiterate longstanding Chinese foreign policy principles such as non-interference and respect for national sovereignty (CGTN, April 23). However, the primary theme (albeit an implicit one) is contrasting the virtuosity of China as a champion of genuine multilateralism and inclusive security, with the perfidy of the U.S, which is cast as a fading but reckless hegemon animated by a unilateral “Cold War mentality.” In this telling, the U.S. is the primary culprit for the currently imbalanced international security architecture that neglects the “legitimate security” interests of many countries including major powers like China and Russia.

Beijing has frequently emphasized the need to abandon the selective multilateralism that characterizes U.S. foreign policy in favor of “true multilateralism” (China Brief, April 29). In doing so, the PRC aligns with the Kremlin’s perspective that the primary driver of the ongoing Ukraine conflict is the supposed threat to Russian security from NATO enlargement (Moscow Times, February 2). For example, in his remarks on implementing the GSI, Foreign Minister Wang Yi calls for “practicing true multilateralism” to counteract “attempts to  stoke confrontation and division along ideological lines, forge “small cliques”, undermine the international order in the name of preserving so-called “rules”, and put the world under the shadow of a “new Cold War” (People.cn, April 24). Beijing has long explicitly criticized Washington for building “closed and exclusive cliques,” and its lingering “Cold War mentality” (China Brief, October 22). These criticisms escalated with the announcement of the Australia-UK- US agreement (AUKUS) last fall, and intensified still further with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February. For example, when asked about the U.S. role in the Ukraine conflict, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian alleged that “the moves of the US-led NATO have escalated the tension between Russia and Ukraine to the breaking point” (FMPRC, April 12). He stated that the U.S. “is obsessed with drawing ideological lines when forming closed and exclusive cliques,” and that its “real agenda is to prolong US’ hegemony and power politics.”

Despite Beijing’s claims that the GSI seeks to advance “common security” and is not based on zero-sum geopolitical calculations, much of the initiative appears predicated on countering both U.S. influence in the international system, and undermining the premise of NATO, and the emerging network of minilateral security groupings in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly the QUAD and AUKUS.

Conclusion  

The timing of Xi’s recent GSI-launch is curious as it coincides with efforts underway since last fall to achieve a modest reset in relations with the U.S. In a critical political year wherein Xi is seeking to consolidate his hold on power at the upcoming 20th Party Congress this fall, Beijing has emphasized economic stability above all else (China Brief, March 7). However, the Chinese economy faces serious headwinds due to global recessionary pressures, and the high costs imposed by continued adherence to its strict zero-COVID strategy. In order to counteract these drags, Xi has temporarily overseen a loosening of restrictions on private firms, and sought to lower barriers to economic interaction with the U.S. For example, financial officials recently indicated progress in negotiations with U.S. regulators to increase financial transparency of firms listed on U.S. exchanges, which may help forestall further delisting of Chinese companies (China Brief, May 5).

In February, the PRC organized several commemorations of the 50th anniversary of President Nixon’s 1972 trip to China and the signing of the Shanghai Communique, which paved the way for the eventual normalization of relations. At a gala hosted by the Nixon Foundation, PRC Ambassador Qin Gang exclaimed that despite major differences, “our common interests have never been as extensive as today” (FMPRC, February 25). The National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR) hosted an 50th anniversary celebration headlined by former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (NCUSCR, February 24). Nevertheless, no serving U.S. official spoke at the festivities to mark the Nixon visit’s anniversary, which received far more coverage in China than it did in the U.S. (Xinhua, February 28). In fact, Washington was so unenthusiastic about the milestone that the State Department did not issue a press release on the anniversary of the Shanghai Communique (Taipei Times, March 17). By contrast, the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s visit in 2012 saw a flurry of high-level, official U.S. engagement as then Vice President Joe Biden used the occasion to host then Vice President Xi Jinping on a visit to the U.S. (PRC Embassy in the U.S., February 15, 2012).

The limited momentum that Beijing achieved in its half-hearted push to improve ties with Washington quickly dissipated in late February as Washington and Beijing staked out opposing positions on Ukraine. In the context of these already fraught relations, the GSI’s framing and borrowing from the Kremlin’s foreign policy lexicon is likely to be interpreted in Washington as another signal that Beijing remains fundamentally oriented not toward cooperation, but strategic rivalry with America.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].

Notes

[1] See for example: Kevin Yao and Yew Lun Tian, “China’s Xi proposes ‘global security initiative’, without giving details,” Reuters, April 21, https://www.reuters.com/world/china/chinas-xi-says-unilateral-sanctions-will-not-work-2022-04-21/

Matt Young, “China’s president Xi Jinping appears in rare speech with cryptic messages,”news.com.au, April 21, https://www.news.com.au/finance/work/leaders/chinas-president-xi-jinping-appears-in-rare-speech-with-cryptic-messages/news-story/01a16b200519613cbc20d71149e3d8f1