China has moved to drive the debate about great power responsibility on its own terms. Its recent global initiatives seek to delegitimise US and Western concepts of order, while promoting its own contributions to public goods.
In a span of less than two years, President Xi Jinping has proposed three large-scale global initiatives: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and most recently, the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). These initiatives provide salient insights into Chinese perceptions of its great power role and responsibilities, but importantly also demonstrate an intensifying politics of global hegemonic (re)ordering.
Chinese-led Initiatives and Great Power Responsibilities
What are these recent initiatives? Announced by Xi at the UN General Assembly in September 2021, the GDI seeks to “steer global development toward a new stage of balanced, coordinated and inclusive growth” through the pursuit of deepened connectivity and mutually beneficial innovation-driven development. The GSI, first proposed by Xi Jinping at the 2022 Boao Forum for Asia, and subsequently elaborated on in a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Concept Paper in February 2023, contains “six commitments”: pursuing common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security; respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously; peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation; and maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains. And less than a month after the GSI Concept Paper was published, Xi introduced the GCI in March 2023 to promote civilizational diversity, mutual learning, and people-to-people exchanges.
Common themes of responsibility underpin all three initiatives, such as win-win cooperation, mutual respect, building a community with a shared future for mankind, and a commitment to justice, equality, and inclusiveness. These concepts are not unfamiliar: they have been a constant feature of Beijing’s foreign policy; are weaved into the Chinese leadership’s speeches at both the domestic and global levels; and offer insights into China’s self-perceptions as a responsible great power. To be sure, China has long self-identified as a responsible major power with a managerial order-building role. But it is arguably only in recent years that Beijing has not only the intent but also the enhanced capacity to enact these self-perceived great power responsibilities.
Recall then US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s 2005 invitation for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in world affairs and the ensuing Chinese discussions about what responsibility entailed. At the core of these domestic debates was a brewing resentment that China’s great power responsibilities were being defined and projected onto China by others, tying Beijing’s “responsible great power” status to US conceptions, standards, and gatekeeping of responsibility. The emerging consensus was that China should be a responsible stakeholder on its own terms.
Almost twenty years on, it is clear that Beijing is seeking to more prominently steer the conversation and reorder global governance norms, rules, and structures in line with Chinese values, preferences, and interests. The GDI, GSI, and GCI are promoted by the Chinese leadership as international public goods that China offers to the world, and reflect powerful statements about what China believes it can contribute to global order and global governance. From Beijing’s perspective, the initiatives not only demonstrate a far more confident China on the international stage, but one that is shouldering its great power responsibilities and “leading by example.”
US-China Competition and Coalitional Hegemonies
These initiatives highlight an intensifying politics of hegemonic re(ordering) on two levels. First, they represent Chinese efforts to delegitimise existing US-based approaches, and to establish alternative, Chinese-led solutions to global challenges. Just a day before the GSI Concept Paper was published, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a report entitled “US Hegemony and Its Perils,” an entire document dedicated to the scathing critique of US power across the political, military, economic, technological, and cultural realms. It begins by stating that “the United States has acted more boldly to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, pursue, maintain and abuse hegemony, advance subversion and infiltration, and willfully wage wars, bringing harm to the international community.” It ends by declaring that the US “must conduct serious soul-searching. It must critically examine what it has done, let go of its arrogance and prejudice, and quit its hegemonic, domineering and bullying practices.” Beijing is thus, in no uncertain terms, more willing to call out what it views as America’s irresponsible behaviour and, in turn, position itself as an anti-imperial power upholding the UN-centred international system, prioritising sovereignty, territorial integrity, and inclusive development.
Second, they demonstrate the various legitimating constituencies operating in international society. Undoubtedly, there exists a stark discrepancy between Beijing’s rhetoric and practice. One can only be deeply sceptical of Premier Li Qiang’s recent statement that “China has made productive efforts as a major responsible country to champion political settlement of crises, resolve international hot-spot issues, facilitate peace talks and de-escalate tensions” when measured against coercive Chinese economic statecraft or its military transgressions towards Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
Nevertheless, Beijing’s discourses of win-win cooperation, development, and solidarity resonate and find an audience in parts of the Global South. The GDI, for instance, needs to be examined in tandem with the broader partnerships, regional forums, and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects that China has established over the years. To that end, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s observation that China lack’s America’s unique asset – “the alliance, the cooperation among like-minded countries” – underestimates China’s own influence-building measures and overestimates global receptivity to US hegemony.
Hegemony, after all, is always partial and never full. As I have argued elsewhere, China and the US both suffer from legitimacy deficits and are unlikely to receive universal endorsement for their great power role and ambitions amid a dynamic global landscape where states neither wish to choose nor be tied to exclusive spheres of influence. Rather, we will observe the development of coalitional hegemonies, with China and the US competing for power and influence across multiple and often overlapping legitimating constituencies—and thereby intensifying the politics of hegemonic re(ordering).
Beverley Loke is a Lecturer in the Department of International Relations at the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, The Australian National University.
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