Beijing released a ‘Global Security Initiative Concept Paper’ on 21 February, a year after its first mention by General Secretary Xi Jinping 习近平. Officially unpacked at last, the initiative drew immediate dismissal from some international observers as a ‘nothingburger’.
Flavourless or not, however, depends on where you sit. Hailed by foreign minister Qin Gang 秦刚 as the 'bible for PRC foreign policy’, the GSI will have consequences for the PRC geopolitical agenda, hence qualifies as a ‘somethingburger’.
official unpacking fails to plug gaps
Until the concept paper dropped, decoding the GSI relied on a single paragraph in Xi’s keynote at the 2022 Boao Forum and the diplomatic and scattered comments that followed. The initiative, proclaimed Xi, would ‘promote security for all’. This broad yet unfathomable mission is sharpened in the new paper into the following objectives
- eliminating the root causes of international conflict
- improving governance of global security
- encouraging joint efforts to bring stability and certainty to a volatile and changing era
- promoting durable peace and development
None of the ‘Six Commitments’ underlying the initiative is new to PRC foreign policy or security rhetoric
- pursuing common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security
- respecting all nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity
- observing the purposes and principles of the UN Charter
- taking legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously
- peacefully resolving differences and disputes through dialogue and negotiation
- maintaining security in traditional and non-traditional domains
Listing 20 key cooperation areas, the concept paper offers minimal actionable substance as yet, the only concrete details listed being Beijing’s promises to
- hold high-level GSI events to discuss security plans
- encourage exchanges among university-level military and police academies
- provide developing countries with 5,000 opportunities ‘to train professionals to address global security issues’ in the next five years
- foster a pilot zone for GSI
As avenues of cooperation, the paper unsurprisingly lists international organisations where Beijing is influential: SCO, BRICS, Beijing Xiangshan Forum, China-Africa Peace and Security Forum, etc.
Beijing’s purpose in the concept paper is to test the receptivity to the alternative paradigm of its counterparts.
repacking existing measures
In initial commentary on the initiative, PRC scholars predictably hail its significance as ‘self-evident’ and value ‘epochal’. Citing long lists of security threats and risks now faced globally, they proclaim the GSI ‘comes just in time’.
Xi’s ‘overall national security concept’ often features as the GSI’s background. Introduced in 2014, the concept aims to unite ‘political security, people’s security, and national interests’, with priority on the ‘political’. Researchers at CICIR (China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations, a think tank affiliated with the Ministry of National Security) and the Overall National Security Concept Research Centre state that the initiative ‘further continues and develops… ideas present in the overall national security concept, such as ‘coordinating one’s own security and common security’ and ‘coordinating traditional security and non-traditional security.’ The GSI may hence be read as expressing the national security concept, but geared for overseas audiences.
Since the initiative remains at an early stage, vague as to how it would roll out, many in the commentariat link it to current policy measures and Beijing's ‘contributions to global security governance’: from three decades of UN peacekeeping efforts and recent COVID vaccines deliveries to emergency humanitarian assistance and the initiative to set global standards for data security.
Presenting it to the UN general assembly, Qin Gang 秦刚 PRC foreign minister, claims over 80 countries and regional organisations have welcomed the GSI. But the resonance of the initiative is far from being as clear or evenly distributed across the globe as its sister project, the GDI (Global Development Initiative). The GDI is supported so far by over 100 countries and organisations, some 50 of which have signed up to the GDI’s ‘Group of Friends’, o
The Global South will treat the GSI with respect but it will struggle to win endorsement elsewhere, least of all from major powers and the West.
PRC experts do not dispute this. The EU, writes Zhang Jian 张健, CICIR Institute of European Studies director, has failed to ‘respond positively’ to the GSI. He urges it to reconsider, as the initiative ‘has many similarities with the EU view of global security’ and is ‘well-aligned with EU security needs’. Even if fully clarified and explained, the proposal is unlikely to win favour from a post-Ukraine conflict EU.
ASEAN, cited in the concept paper as a top priority cooperation partner, is also cautious about Beijing's offerings, as shown in the State of Southeast Asia survey 2023.
Southeast Asia attitudes survey 2023
Of ASEAN nationals surveyed, 44.5 percent have little or no confidence that the GSI would benefit the region; only 27.4 percent are confident or very confident it would. In addition, 28 percent chose not to comment, further underlining the region’s hesitance. The most positive were Brunei, Cambodia, and Laos. Myanmar, Vietnam, and Indonesia were the most cautious.
These results tally with recent joint bilateral statements. While Iran, for example, expresses clear support for the GSI in the readouts, ASEAN high-level government officials either fail to mention it or choose very cautious diplomatic formulae; their nations will ‘explore potential cooperation regarding the GSI’ or simply ‘take note of the GSI’. This summarises ASEAN’s collective position, states the ASEAN-China summit 2022 chairperson.
Deng Yuwen's yin/yang reading
Former Central Party School insider Deng Yuwen 邓聿文, now resident in the US, notes that the 'GSI Concept Paper' appeared on the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It was released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in tandem with the 'PRC Position on a Political Solution to the Ukraine Crisis'. For Deng, the twin texts rate as foreign relations 'blockbusters', declaring positions and attitudes on order and security issues with implications for other countries.
Beijing is unwilling, Deng writes, to be on the defensive in its rivalry with the US and the West, opting for a diplomatic offensive; this is likely to be the normal state of Beijing diplomacy in the future.
In the Ukraine position paper
- Beijing declares neutrality on the Russia-Ukraine conflict
- is tacitly biased towards Russia
- in Beijing's view, the US will, after defeating Russia, switch gears leading its allies to settle accounts with China
- hence strategically, China must stand on Russia's side
The point is to create an impression of impartiality between Russia and Ukraine, but when dealing with the US, criticise it without letup. In the Ukraine position paper, Deng argues Beijing seeks to unmask the US, persuading the international community that Washington was the ‘offender’. At the same time, it displays a 'yin-yang' dualism, tacitly hoping the war will weaken Russia even as it opens up a front against the US and the West.
This studied ambivalence is carried over as a subtext of the GSI concept paper.
who's moving policy?
Tian Wenlin 田文林 | Renmin University School of International Studies professor
Tian expounds on the ‘self-evident… theoretical significance and epochal value’ of the GSI in an essay in Contemporary World, a journal of the Party's External Liaison Department. This is thanks to
- turbulence and uncertainty faced by a world dominated by conventional Western security notions
- drawbacks of the notions are apparent (constant war, conflict, power politics, the zero-sum Cold War mentality)
- nations around the world, above all the Global South, call for creating new ideas of security based on equality and mutual trust, and on which the GSI, ‘an effective way to relieve the global security dilemma’, is based
There are, adds Tian, currently two types of security notions
- the obsolete one practised by the West, that makes the world ever more insecure
- its replacement, based on values of shared interests, fairness, rationality, mutual obligation and sharing, political negotiation, and mutual respect
This new security notion encompasses the overall national security concept, the Asian security concept and the GSI.
GSI is the new security notion in cameo, says Tian, encompassing the overall national security concept, the Asian security concept, and the GSI.
After taking a PhD at Renmin University, Tian returned as a professor there after working at CICIR. He is a frequent columnist both in the PRC and overseas, specialising in the Middle East and international issues.
Fu Mengzi 傅梦孜 | China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations vice president
‘Profound changes the world is now undergoing’, described in Fu’s op-ed on ‘China’s answer to challenges’, include
- increasing prominence of blocs and camps in world politics
- confrontation between the US and the West with non-Western states
- the ‘strong West, weak East’ imbalance is hard to change in the short term
- shattered international order, global ‘governance deficit’
- the UN cannot stop conflicts or wars, let alone prevent them
- the UN struggles to build consensus
- UN decision-making is inefficient
As the international situation is in turmoil, argues Fu, rolling out the GSI is ‘even more urgent and imperative’; The PRC must
- maintain its independent national image and policy
- coordinate development with security
- give priority to operating in neighbouring countries
Fu is a vice president of CICIR and a former director of CICIR’s Institute of American Studies. His research interests include American studies, the BRI, world economics and politics, and global maritime governance.
Li Yan 李岩 | China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations, Institute of World Political Studies executive director and research professor
Formerly Deputy Director of CICIR’s US Research Institute, Li works on Sino-US security relations, US defence strategy, and maritime and cyberspace strategy. He foresaw military preparation stepping up globally in the wake of the COVID epidemic. President Biden’s February 2023 State of the Union speech was, for Li, a display of ‘blind optimism’ regarding the US strategic advantage, promising only to continue the endless misconstrual of China’s agenda.
Li joined CICIR’s US Institute on graduation in 2006, rising to deputy director. He was a visiting scholar in 2011 at the Swedish Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP) and in 2015 at the Columbia University Institute of War and Peace (SIWPS). He has co-authored 'The Pacific is wide enough: Asia-Pacific structure and trans-Pacific order', 'The way of Sino-US coexistence in the Asia-Pacific: China, the US and Third Parties', and 'Nine questions on the American National Condition'.