The Chinese offer of a Global Security Initiative: Anything new?

Last week, the Chinese foreign ministry launched "The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper", following from the Boao Forum for Asia in April 2022, when Chinese President Xi Jinping raised the concept of a Global Security Initiative, which includes respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, abiding by the UN Charter, and taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously. What does all this mean for ASEAN?
A general view of a Chinese military vessel docked at the port in Richards Bay on 22 February 2023, during a 10-day joint military exercise with Russia and South Africa. (Guillen Sartorio/AFP)
A general view of a Chinese military vessel docked at the port in Richards Bay on 22 February 2023, during a 10-day joint military exercise with Russia and South Africa. (Guillen Sartorio/AFP)

President Xi Jinping’s speech at the opening ceremony of the 2022 edition of the Boao Forum for Asia tabled a new Chinese initiative for enhancing international security. (NB: The Chinese foreign ministry has just launched "The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper".) The timing of the speech — one day before Russian forces moved into Ukraine — could not have been more coincidental.

International observers were quick to highlight reference to “indivisible security” therein. Interest outside of China regarding the understanding of the reference is inevitable. After all, in recent years, articulation of “indivisible security” is more frequently found in Russian deliberations about its handling of security relationships with its neighbours and beyond.

Two days after Xi’s speech, China’s then Foreign Minister Wang Yi elaborated on the Global Security Initiative (GSI). Among other things, the GSI is said to be underpinned by six essential principles: (1) sharing the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; (2) respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; (3) abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; (4) taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously; (5) peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation; and (6) maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains.

The wording “indivisible” appeared twice, both in Xi’s speech and Wang’s elaboration. According to Xi, “[H]umanity is an indivisible security community” while according to Wang Yi, “[A]n enduring solution to global security challenges lies in upholding the principle of indivisible security, taking each other’s legitimate security concerns seriously, and building a balanced, effective, and sustainable security architecture with a view to universal and common security”.

Although Chinese reference to “indivisible security” in either the speech or elaboration is not country-specific, it does raise questions on the recognition of a country’s “legitimate security concerns”.

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A screen grab from a video showing Chinese President Xi Jinping speaking at the Boao Forum 2022. (Internet)

None of these “six commitments” are new in Chinese foreign and security policies. Although Chinese reference to “indivisible security” in either the speech or elaboration is not country-specific, it does raise questions on the recognition of a country’s “legitimate security concerns”. The nature of international politics is such that recognition is more often than not contentious.

In the 2000s, the wording “indivisibility of security” gained broader reference to “low politics” issues like AIDS, energy, food, and electronic information, in addition to “high politics” areas...

'Indivisible security' in Chinese lexicon

A full-text search of the database in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China, reveals that the first reference using the Chinese language equivalent of security being indivisible (安全不可分割) — relating to China and its security relationship with foreign countries — was in June 1954 regarding security situations in the Korean peninsula and its neighbouring countries (China included).

Chinese characterisation of security being indivisible from North Korea was recurrent into the 1960s. Before the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991, the wording appeared around sixty times in People’s Daily, in a wide range of contexts, including expressions of solidarity by Chinese officials with selected countries (but not the Soviet Union), as well as quotations attributed to the American, European and Japanese sources in their deliberations on matters unrelated to China.

In the 2000s, the wording “indivisibility of security” gained broader reference to “low politics” issues like AIDS, energy, food, and electronic information, in addition to “high politics” areas like cooperation in fighting against terrorism, separatism and extremism under the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and other forums like the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), as well as principles undergirding Sino-Russian relations. The phrase was also associated with European articulations of security actions taken in areas outside of Europe, in countries like Libya and Syria.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with China's Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi at the Kremlin in Moscow on 22 February 2023. (Anton Novoderezhkin/Sputnik/AFP)

For example, Mr Zhou Wenzhong, in his capacity as the Boao Forum’s secretary-general in 2015, noted in an interview that “Asia’s prosperity and security are indivisible. So is the region’s future and the prospects of all its member countries."

A more extensive review of the Chinese conceptualisation of the "indivisibility of security" would require further study. To contextualise, the phraseology has its tradition in Chinese deliberations on the country’s diplomacy since its founding as a nation-state. Particularly for developing countries, fighting against poverty and pursuing economic prosperity is upheld as an antecedent to security defined in traditional or military senses. Furthermore, China’s pursuit of its own security today ought to be accepted as legitimate. On this basis, China offers to work with other countries to maintain the aggregate stability of the international system, viewed as essential for the security of all nations.

...it falls short of acknowledging the supportive role the rest of the world has played, at the very least, in enabling China’s economic prosperity since the early 1980s.

The GSI and Quad/AUKUS

Can the GSI be viewed as a response to US-led security initiatives such as the Quad and AUKUS? Conceptually speaking, the answer may as well be affirmative. But saying so can be problematic as well.

In the speech by President Xi, justification for tabling the GSI is that “[it] has been proven time and again that the Cold War mentality would only wreck the global peace framework, that hegemonism and power politics would only endanger world peace, and that bloc confrontation would only exacerbate security challenges in the 21st century”.

Such assessments are the usual rhetoric in the Chinese interpretation of world affairs. They do represent a view — incomplete if not lopsided in the eyes of other major powers — of China being on the receiving end of either unfair treatment or being pre-ordained as a target to be managed, including through military means, or both. Chinese views may face difficulty in being understood by other countries through such broad observation and coded references.

Not only does such framing — possibly coded to avoid inviting rebuke by specific countries — fail to answer the cooperative or accommodative side of the coin in international security management: it falls short of acknowledging the supportive role the rest of the world has played, at the very least, in enabling China’s economic prosperity since the early 1980s.

... the nature of future relationships between Quad or AUKUS and non-members should be viewed as one of uncertainty rather than a net loss of security to China.

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In this file photo taken on 24 May 2022, US President Joe Biden (second from left), Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida (right), Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (second from right) and Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese (left) arrive for their meeting during the Quad Leaders Summit at Kantei in Tokyo. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Both the Quad and AUKUS are indeed military by nature and thus require the identification of potential targets for collective action by their members. Their evolution potentially risks having a goading effect on China. Communication channels between Quad/AUKUS and concerned countries like China are required to ameliorate mutual apprehension effectively.

Indeed, future operationalisation of Quad or AUKUS will have implications on their members’ economies harnessing the forces of economic interdependence with the rest of the world, China included, to support their investment in military capacity and cooperation. In other words, the nature of future relationships between Quad or AUKUS and non-members should be viewed as one of uncertainty rather than a net loss of security to China.

What the GSI envisioned is for ASEAN and its member states to treat China’s security as indivisible from the geographical region of East and Southeast Asia.

The GSI and ASEAN

How will the GSI affect ASEAN and its partnership with other major powers, including the US? ASEAN has greater potential in managing regional and global security affairs than generally recognised. The notion of ASEAN centrality has led to initiatives including dialogue partnerships and mechanisms like the ASEAN Regional Forum. ASEAN diplomatic and consultative platforms have survived changing regional security dynamics to ameliorate the seemingly intensifying competition and even confrontation among major powers. Neither China nor the US, nor other major powers, can afford to take ASEAN for granted.

Second, the GSI is more of a repetition of the principles of peaceful coexistence that China and other Asian countries subscribed to since the 1955 Bandung Conference. The GSI places greater emphasis on principles does not entail a choice between China and other countries’ security partnerships. Chinese thinking rejects the formation of security blocs, including those with China. What the GSI envisioned is for ASEAN and its member states to treat China’s security as indivisible from the geographical region of East and Southeast Asia. In many ways, such a call is an affirmation of the principles of dialogue and non-interference in domestic affairs — principles that ASEAN often emphasises.

Conclusion

China’s offer of a GSI is neither outlandish nor innovative in the promotion of the word “security” in recent years. The pairing of the GSI with the Global Development Initiative (GDI) tabled in November 2021 does leave the impression of an increased level of proactiveness on the part of Chinese diplomatic agencies. However, less observed is the Chinese emphasis on the GDI in aligning with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. With both GDI and GSI, China places great value in the principles and venues of multilateral institutions, particularly the United Nations.

In a nutshell, given Chinese insistence that development is security, its promotion of the GDI/GSI may well turn out to be a continuation of the past. The GSI, very much like the GDI, amounts to an invitation to manage differences in regards to China in the development or security context through open-ended consultations, rather than the formation of security blocs designed to prevail through confrontation or military means.

This is an adapted version of an article from ASEANFocus Issue 2/2022 published in September 2022 by the ASEAN Studies Centre of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

Related: Xi’s Global Security Initiative: In pursuit of China’s own interests and ambitions | Global Security Initiative — China’s solution to international security? | China’s Global Security Initiative stoking regional tensions | Why the Global Security Initiative is important for Asia-Pacific security