24 March 2023

China’s Global Security Initiative is a Smokescreen

China’s foreign ministry released a concept note in late February on its new Global Security Initiative (GSI). The document is worth reading carefully for the insights it offers on the intimate connection between China’s external policies and activities on the one hand, and its domestic dynamics and its national security interests on the other.

First, China can use verbosity as a way of distracting and misdirecting. For instance, the insistence on “bringing about security through political dialogue and peaceful negotiation” should be understood as either rhetoric or, perhaps, even a strategy of wasting time and establishing new realities on the ground. This is evident from the record of China’s long-running negotiations with ASEAN on a code of conduct in the South China Sea, or its unwillingness to withdraw from occupied areas in eastern Ladakh in India nearly three years after a military clash in 2020 and despite multiple rounds of bilateral talks.

Thus, “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” or its call for “respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” is only so many words since China does not adhere to “respecting and safeguarding the security of every country” prioritising instead its own security interests.

Similarly, China’s declared belief that “all countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community” has been explicitly contradicted previously by their then Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, no less, when he declared at an ASEAN meeting in 2010 that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that is just a fact”.

Second, the language of the Concept Paper hews closely to that of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) domestic political lexicon. Thus, the opening credo “Today… the international community is confronted with multiple risks and challenges rarely seen before” or the call to “build a community with a shared future for mankind” are what Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has been saying for some years now. The idea is to socialise the rest of the world into accepting not just Chinese phraseology, but Chinese ways of thinking about global issues.

Naturally, the question then arises — when “Regional security hotspots keep flaring up” and if “unilateralism and protectionism have risen significantly”, who is responsible?

This leads us to the third and, perhaps, most important component of the GSI document — the prism of ideological competition through which China views its external environment.

It is important for the CPC to ensure that non-democratic political systems everywhere have the space to thrive as a way of keeping pressure from ideas of democracy and liberalism from challenging its power at home. When China says the internal affairs of countries “brook no external interference… and their right to independently choose social systems and development paths must be upheld”, it is essentially making the case that autocracies and totalitarian regimes have just as much right to exist as democratically accountable ones. The call for “the establishment of a global training system to train for developing countries more law enforcement officers who are responsive to their countries’ security needs” is an attempt both to ensure that authoritarian governments are better able to deal with domestic opposition as China does, and to create a market for its security training methods and ideas and surveillance technologies.

It is important in this context, to show the US — the perceived leader of the democratic, liberal order — as the villain responsible for global instability. The US does provide enough examples for China to make such an argument. The GSI, thus, “aims to eliminate the root causes of international conflicts, improve global security governance, encourage joint international efforts to bring more stability and certainty to a volatile and changing era, and promote durable peace and development in the in the world”. At one go, the world is both reminded of all its myriad problems with the implication that the current Western-led global order is inadequate to meet the challenge, as well as offered the suggestion that China is up to the task. As long as China remains at a distance from the US in terms of economic and military capacity — implicit in its criticism of the US for “Abusing unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction” — the battle will have to be fought through ideas and narratives.

Fourth, in addition to the narrative-shaping, the GSI also suggests that China will use multilateralism as a way of achieving its interests at the expense of others. China’s support for “UN efforts” is a way of using its privilege of being a UNSC permanent member to have a say in parts of the world where it has limited influence or on issues where it seeks to control the outcome such as when it calls for “the UN’s role as the central coordinator in the global fight against terrorism”. Similarly, its support for the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) should be read as a way of denying India the status of a nuclear weapon state.

It could also be argued that elsewhere Beijing is engaged in a calibrated undermining of extant multilateral institutions when they get in the way of China’s expanding influence. Thus, in its own neighbourhood, it has created institutions where it has the upper hand or can keep significant opposition limited such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Given this reality, good faith engagement with China in global or regional multilateral institutions inevitably end up undermining the collective good. 

The GSI represents the sum of the Chinese Party-State’s ideological preferences and zero-sum worldviews. Its accusations against others of “Cold War mentality, unilateralism, bloc confrontation and hegemonism”, offer a mirror to China's own approaches to global security.

Originally published in Deccan Herald on 20 March 2023