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The Global Security Initiative - With Chinese Characteristics 

30 Nov 2022
By Ved Shinde
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference 2017. Source: Kleinschmidt /MSC /

China’s new Global Security Initiative promises a reformed regional and global security architecture. Even as its actions speak otherwise, Beijing is striving full ahead with its win-win phraseology. 

At the 2022 Boao Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a new “Global Security Initiative (GSI).” In his speech, Xi underlined the principles of upholding “indivisible security,” building a balanced and sustainable security architecture, and opposing national security building based on insecurity in other countries. Xi advocated an idea of security that didn’t feed on inter-state rivalry and argued that regional players should not pursue their security interests at the cost of others.

Xi was alluding to emerging regional institutions like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) and the Australia-United Kingdom-United States trilateral security agreement (AUKUS). The objective of these institutions, or so some suggest, is to blunt China’s capacity to act as the preeminent power in the region. In putting the Quad and AUKUS on trial in this way, Xi’s GSI was an attempt to shift the narrative in China’s favour by describing a security for all and not a selective few.

The Chinese foreign ministry has further said that the GSI seeks to provide an alternative to the “growing threats posed by unilateralism, hegemony, and power politics.” Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi has elaborated that the GSI will rectify the present peace deficit. Wang stressed that “divisiveness is being fuelled by some countries that cling to a Cold War mentality and that are keen to engage in exclusive “small cliques” with false claims of practicing unilateralism in the name of multilateralism and hegemony in the name of democracy.”  He also said, “China will never claim hegemony, seek expansion or spheres of influence, nor engage in an arms race.”

Dragon-Bear Bonhomie and the GSI

Beijing launched the GSI against the backdrop of an intensifying Sino-Russian convergence that has arisen due to the need to forge a counterweight against the United States. China and Russia have come closer in the last two years. In 2021, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov described the bond between the two nations as being the “best in their history.” President Vladimir Putin’s visit to China for the 2022 Winter Olympics saw the relationship reach a new zenith with “no limits” and “no forbidden areas of cooperation.” In his speech, Xi voiced concerns about unilateral sanctions imposed by the West on Moscow, referring to them as “long-arm jurisdiction,” further reinforcing their strengthened relationship.

As an interesting development, both Beijing and Moscow have drawn on ideas of “indivisible security,” meaning that no country can be secure at another country’s expense. This was a term in fact first articulated in 1975 by members of the Euro-Atlantic bloc. In a somewhat clumsy repurposing of the term, the Kremlin has impressed upon listeners that indivisible security has become one of the root causes of the ongoing Russian assault on Kyiv. In Beijing, Xi has employed the concept to define his approach to the Indo-Pacific.

Fashioning the GSI for the Global South

In order to appeal to countries in the Global South, Beijing is hitting the same old notes by wrapping its interests in the name of peace and development. China’s leaders have talked about “respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” and “respecting the independent choices of development paths and social systems made by people in different countries.” The GSI is, as analyst Mohammed Soliman argues,  “a non-Western alternative and mechanism by the global south for the global south.”

Some construe the GSI as the political component of China’s geo-economic initiatives, like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and the Global Development Initiative (2021). These proposals enable mandarins in Beijing to put forth a package of sustainable growth and regional security. Some observers have even argued that the GSI aims to cash in on the economic influence leveraged through China’s BRI. Because narratives are instrumental for enhancing one’s credibility and influence, the more acceptance the GSI receives from countries, the more it propels Beijing’s narrative – that the American-led security architecture is outdated.

Given Beijing’s significant investments abroad, the GSI is likely to garner support in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. It is also aimed at wooing Caribbean and Pacific countries. Some Latin American states like Nicaragua and Uruguay have already endorsed the project. Undoubtedly, China has deep economic linkages with these countries.

Beijing is also actively courting countries in Southeast Asia. It’s leaders talk of formalised dialogues, military exercises, and arms sales with traditional US partners like Thailand and the Philippines. In his speech at the ASEAN Secretariat on 11 July, Wang Yi urged countries to cooperate under the GSI rubric on issues like transnational crime, climate change, cyber security, disaster management, joint maritime search and rescue, and managing “differences and disputes” in the South China Sea. It is worth noting that the Quad also addresses disaster management, cyber security, climate change, freedom of navigation, and maritime domain awareness as its priorities. The similarity of the issue areas suggests that Beijing is trying to fashion the GSI as a counter to American initiatives in the region.

For good reason the GSI is all talk, no walk

Honouring the time-tested tactic of sowing strategic confusion, Beijing has deliberately deprived the GSI of details. Ambiguity gives Beijing enough flexibility to adapt and fine-tune details according to the world’s reaction. The GSI has also adopted a broad universalist language, making it hard for its critics to disagree with the notional objectives of the initiative.

One Asian diplomat astutely observed that this ploy remains an enduring feature of Beijing’s playbook ‑ “They always come out with an excessively large framework that nobody objects to. The idea is that even if countries don’t agree wholeheartedly, at least they can’t fully oppose it. Then, bit by bit, they use the framework to chip away at the US.” Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran notes that the Chinese like to call this “discourse power.” In Chinese, discourse power – huayu quan – means the right to speak and be heard or to speak with authority. As an exercise, Beijing incessantly rejects Western terminology of “zero-sum,” “hegemony,” and “bloc-politics.” Instead, it champions phrases like “community of common destiny” and “win-win” cooperation.

Former Indian foreign secretary and Ambassador to China, Vijay Gokhale,  argues that China has long used appealing phrases to hide the ulterior motives behind its actions. For example, under Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, Beijing employed phrases like “peaceful rise” and “harmonious development” to signal its arrival on the world stage. China has now switched to phrases like “win-win cooperation” and “building a community with a shared future for mankind.” More specific to the GSI proposal are slogans around ideas of Asian unity, much aimed at shoving the US out of the Indo-Pacific by de-legitimizing American-led initiatives in the region. In their speeches, Chinese leaders usually point fingers at “small cliques” and say no to “group politics and bloc confrontation.”

That China remains committed to close security partnerships with Pakistan and North Korea and vote in blocs tends to miss the broader messaging apparatus. Going forward, and given the sparse details around the GSI, it is yet too early to assess the true nature and scope of Xi intentions. Keeping in mind Beijing’s ability to play the long game, other Asian powers must keep their eyes on the narrative and watch for subtle, albeit all meaningful, changes.

Ved Shinde is a research intern at The Asia Society Policy Institute in New Delhi. He studies Political Science and Economics at the St. Stephens College of the University of Delhi.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.