On April 21, 2022, at the Boao Forum for Asia, China's President Xi Jinping unveiled what he termed a “Global Security Initiative” (GSI). The security initiative builds on the “Asian model“ of security. According to China, this model reflects values of “cooperation, dialogue and mutually beneficial outcomes“. From a Western perspective, it would appear that the existing international rules-based order is meant to achieve precisely those three goals as well. So what is new or different about the GSI? So far many diplomats have struggled to dissect the real meaning behind this alternative approach towards global security. Therefore, understanding the context within which President Xi developed such a concept as well as the objectives that are seen as priorities under the new GSI can help to clarify some of the more ambiguous aspects of the initiative.
Xi Jinping's Domestic Considerations
The year 2022 is incredibly important to Xi as it will be decided whether he can secure a third term in office as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). However, as he is eyeing to secure his third term, challenges mount in both the domestic and the international sphere. His opponents are taking advantage of the increasing criticism that followed Xi's zero-COVID policy. There has furthermore been an ongoing debate about the Interim provision on the term of office of the leading party that came into effect in 2006 and is still in effect today. According to the provision, the CCP leaders can only serve in the same position for 2 consecutive terms or for a total of 15 years. If no constitutional adjustments are made, it will become difficult for Xi to serve his next term. For these reasons, Xi's foreign policy at large, and the GSI itself, is also directed at domestic audiences, as it demonstrates his ability to bring China to the forefront of global governance and displays China as a positive and necessary force for global security.
The Tenets of the Global Security Initiative
China's Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng stated in a keynote speech in May 2022 that the GSI has 5 priority areas. Firstly, to achieve global security, countries must be guided by and obey international law and refrain from violating it on the basis of their own domestic laws. Yucheng also stressed the importance of equality where no country shall claim superiority or exceptionalism. The first point is directed at superpowers criticizing less powerful countries for violating international law while they themselves apply international law selectively.
The Concept of “Indivisible Security“
Secondly, GSI aims to achieve what is called “indivisible security”. This concept is not a novelty in international affairs and neither an invention of the CCP. It originated in a European context and is enshrined in the OSCE’s principles, as well as in the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. This principle states that no one nation can achieve security at the expense of other nations and that the security of great powers is interdependent. NATO and EU members interpret this to mean that countries are free to choose their own alliances and the sovereignty and safety of smaller states should not come at the expense of others. Russia, in the context of OSCE members, interprets the concept as giving it a say in Europe’s security decision-making beyond its borders and for decisions that affect its strategic security interests to require its consent. It remains to be seen how China will apply the concept of “indivisble security“ in practice over the coming years and decades.
Takeaways from the Cold War?
A rejection of “Cold War mentality“ and of the revival of bloc politics and ideological competition constitutes the third pillar of the GSI, according to CCP readouts. China’s stance is that countries can become more prosperous if they unite and work together and do not create alliances that form blocs or mutual defense pacts. China emphasises that it does not aim to become a hegemon and rejects the -perceived or real- hegemony of the United States in international affairs and especially in international security.
Opposing Unilateral Sanctions
China, which itself faces several sanctions from the United States, views sanctions as an ineffective tool to achieve one's goals. Instead, China believes sanctions symbolize hegemony and power politics, which can lead to the escalation of regional crises into a global one. The GSI entirely rejects sanctions and emphasizes not only the effects that sanctions have on the targeted countries, but also the collateral damage that follows their extensive use.
Importance of the Asia-Pacific
In the past, Asia-Pacific was a crucial theatre of block-based rivalry, most notably during the Korean War and Vietnam War. In the past couple of decades East Asia has flourished to become a region with great potential for peace, stability and cooperation. The GSI stresses the importance of refraining from using bloc-based confrontation in the region. It also warns about the attempts of some nations to drag smaller and less developed countries into power competition by making them a tool or a victim of hegemony. Perhaps this framing is merely an attempt to keep smaller Asian states away from the US, or perhaps it is a more genuine reflection of China’s past experiences during the so-called “Century of Humiliation“ from the mid-1800s to about the mid-1900s, when it was itself a comparably small and weak state during the times of Western gunboat diplomacy.
Will the GSI Catch on?
Xi's Global Security Initiative represents an alternative approach to global security. And while it has not yet fully crystallized what this initiative will mean at a tangible level for the international community, it is clear that China does not seek to push this concept through all by itself. Perhaps, if China wants the GSI to succeed, it will need to secure support from other major powers. In any event, China is already on its way to having a stronger say in the system of global governance.
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