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Time to Get the Measure of China’s Global Security Initiative

It would be a mistake to dismiss China’s Global Security Initiative.

Making a global impression. Image: Sono Creative / Adobe Stock

Global. Security. Initiative. By placing together these three simple words at this April’s Boao Forum conference, Xi Jinping announced China’s further global engagement. At a time when many talk of China turning inwards, here was another sign of China’s continued ambitions on the global stage. Six months later, reports hit the news of unauthorised overseas ‘police service stations’ in the UK, Ireland and elsewhere. Was this an early sign of China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI) or something else entirely?

Within the GSI, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi has described six ‘core commitments’. As often with such declarations, the wording is laudable and hard to disagree with. Who would argue, for example, with the ‘vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security’, or ‘respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries’? Of the six commitments, that to uphold ‘indivisible security’ has attracted the most discussion. Russia has used the phrase to justify its war on Ukraine. Yet the term originates in Cold War dialogue and was agreed to by NATO partners in the 1975 Helsinki Act. It states that the security of each state in a region is inextricably linked with the security of every other state. When many fear that the world is in or close to a new Cold War, this formulation may be all too relevant.

As ever, it is not words – which can be flexible and ambiguous in their meaning – but their interpretation and the resulting actions that matter. How does China’s stance on Ukraine fit with respecting territorial integrity and the peaceful resolution of differences and disputes? Who determines where sovereignty is at play and where it is not, be it in Taiwan or the South China Sea?

Chinese leaders have long wanted to increase China’s ‘discourse power’ in world affairs. They seek to shape narratives and the very meaning of words on China’s terms rather than the West’s. At the UN, China is seeking to modify the accepted definition of human rights. The GSI is in part an attempt to shift the narrative on security at a time of heightened concerns globally about China. Taking the words one by one sheds light on what this might mean.

‘Security’

At the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping declared the people’s security as the ‘ultimate goal’, with political security – the maintenance of party rule and social stability – as the ‘bedrock’. His definition of ‘security’ is all-encompassing. Xi’s ‘comprehensive national security concept’ now includes 16 different aspects. Alongside military and territorial security stand cultural, economic, societal, ecological and resource security. Polar security, deep-sea security, space security and the security of overseas interests lie inherently beyond China’s borders.

The GSI marks a clear shift from the primarily economic narrative of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), although that too had security dimensions. The scope is potentially ‘everything’ – from pandemic prevention and climate change to protecting Chinese citizens abroad and acting against ‘foreign interference’ in China’s affairs. The focus is on protecting China’s national security – either by acting unilaterally where necessary or by working with others on issues of shared security, be that nuclear non-proliferation or climate change. Only then would come the potential for China to be a provider of security, in even a constrained way. China is not proposing a security umbrella to others. It is, however, offering its experience in internal security, public order control and internet censorship to other interested governments.

‘Initiative’

The GSI is not an alliance nor a formal organisation such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). It does not have the detail and specificity of a plan or a programme. It is an ‘initiative’, vaguely defined and shapeshifting, but no less important and enduring. That much-critiqued other initiative, the BRI, provides indications of how the GSI may develop in four important respects.

Chinese leaders have long wanted to increase China’s ‘discourse power’ in world affairs

First, the term serves as a form of branding for China’s actions in many different fields: it can include almost anything. Second, pre-existing activities are re-badged as part of the initiative to demonstrate early substance behind the words. GSI has been added to existing agreements in Africa such as the China–Africa Cooperation Vision 2035. Third, it serves as a call to action for officials across China to find ways to turn the GSI into practice, to demonstrate political commitment and also to use the phrasing to advance their own agendas. Those unauthorised overseas police service stations represent no grand master plan to establish China’s police presence overseas. They appear to be province-level initiatives, already underway before Xi announced the GSI. Yet, some ambitious officials may no doubt justify them as part of the GSI. Finally and critically, the actual substance of the GSI will change depending on policy priorities, available resources and the response of other countries.

‘Global’

The word ‘global’ seems clearest. Xi has stated China’s desire to contribute its own vision of global governance. The UN is central to this vision, comprising as it does all countries of the world – what China calls ‘true multilateralism’. This stands in contrast to what China calls ‘exclusive, bloc politics…’ or imposing ‘rules made by a few countries … under the pretext of multilateralism’ – in other words, the West, NATO, G7 or similar groupings.

But what global means in practice is less clear. Every country views the world from its own geographic, cultural, economic and ideological vantage point. Some will fit more easily than others in the GSI. At the SCO meeting in September, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan were the most supportive of GSI. Pakistan has also stated its full support. At the June BRICS meeting, Xi called on countries to operationalise GSI, but no commitment was mentioned in the meeting readout. A GSI whose strongest supporters are SCO members is very different from a GSI that focuses on climate change, pandemic prevention, nuclear non-proliferation and other global public goods. And combining both in one will be tough.

How the West Should Respond

Underestimating or disregarding the GSI simply because it is so broad-ranging and undefined would be a mistake. It will be important to keep watch on how it develops: where and how much effort China invests; and what support it garners from different countries. Its very breadth makes it improbable and inadvisable that Western countries would sign up to the GSI as a whole, in the way that some did to the BRI. Equally, rejecting any engagement on shared global concerns is counterproductive.

A better approach is to work on specifics. Such an approach differentiates sharply within the GSI between areas where greater multilateral cooperation is needed (for example, climate, global health), areas where there is a need to reach agreement on competing claims and approaches (for example, space, polar access), and areas where there are markedly different approaches between China and the West (for example, internal security, internet governance). Substantive progress on these matters will happen through discussion of specifics rather than grand narratives. Simply adding the word ‘security’ after each issue that the world faces does little to advance solutions. While it may be in keeping with a world that feels more insecure, it conflates risks that we share in common with those that countries, organisations and individuals pose to one another. In the current environment, the combination of ‘China’ and ‘security’ risks an adversarial interpretation from the start. It brings to mind ‘overseas police service stations’ rather than preventing the next pandemic.

Competition to set the terms and language of global policy debate has indeed become more intense. The GSI’s aspirations have a welcome and inclusive ring for many. Many countries welcome the chance to look afresh at the range of policy issues. The GSI offers China the opportunity to build informal coalitions of like-minded countries (often lower- and middle-income countries) while establishing its role shaping the conversation. Western countries need to make sure that they too are shaping and contributing to these debates and keep a keen eye on practical solutions to pressing problems.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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