After a decade of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Chinese President Xi Jinping launched two spin-offs, the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Security Initiative (GSI), in September 2021 and April 2022, respectively. The trio of programs has its proponents, partners, fence sitters and detractors, and over time, their ideas have all gained traction and attention worldwide.
As United Nations (UN) Secretary-General António Guterres prepares his ambitious 2023 Summit of the Future in September, which is expected to bring a “New Agenda for Peace,” the debate is shifting from specific conflicts to crafting a transformative overarching global security governance architecture for the future that provides interesting space for the GSI to engage in global narratives. The last time UN Secretary General issued such a proposal was in 1992, when Boutros-Boutros Ghali presented “An Agenda for Peace” that resulted in transforming the UN peacekeeping operations.
This makes the GSI a significant turning point and a catalyst for making critical value additions to this evolving discussion around a new global security architecture blueprint. Various commentators have already described the GSI as one potent non-Western alternative that represents the aspirations of the combined Global South. However, to make a permanent mark on the emerging debate, China needs to convince nations of the Global North as well. They represent the architects and advocates of the existing post-World War II global security architecture.
In August, as the rotating president of the UN Security Council, China convened a special session dedicated to “Promoting Common Security through Dialogue and Cooperation,” wherein China’s permanent representative to the UN Zhang Jun presented details of the GSI and expressed the country’s readiness to work with the international community to evolve consensus around the GSI in building a balanced, effective, and sustainable international security architecture together.
President Xi first proposed the GSI vision to provide security for all in a short keynote address at the opening ceremony of the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference 2022 this April. As outlined in President Xi’s speech, the GSI is underpinned by “six commitments” as its pillar principles. These include:
- Vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security;
- Respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries;
- Abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter;
- Taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously;
- Peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation; and
- Maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains.
Like the BRI and the GDI, in which various individual projects preexisted before President Xi released official blueprints for transforming global infrastructure, at first glance, the principles of the GSI have also been the mainstay of China’s foreign policy. What was novel here was that President Xi also urged all countries to uphold the principle of indivisible security and build a balanced, effective, and sustainable security architecture. The GSI’s recalibration of these principles in the new era changes central connotations, especially in terms of the addition of the principle of indivisibility of global security.
As the saying goes, any system always contains more than the total sum of its parts. Also, parts often preexist before they are recalibrated in a new innovative design to maximize their collective outcome. Likewise, individual principles of the GSI can be traced back as far as the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, or the Panchasheel, originating in talks between China and India in the 1950s. In the same vein, the fact that the GSI now seeks to connect them with the noble principle of indivisible nature of global security enhances its critical contribution.
The GSI must be read in tandem with the BRI and the GDI, as the trio of programs form part of China’s overarching vision and strategy of creating public goods to build a community with a shared future for humanity. These initiatives aim to eliminate the global deficit in material infrastructure, development, and peace. The central axiom of the GSI is that one nation’s security cannot be built at the cost of other nations.
By proposing the GSI, China aims to emerge as a leading alternative provider of global security. No doubt, Western powers have looked at China’s GSI apprehensively and seen it delegitimizing the Cold War mindset of power politics and hegemony, thereby diminishing much of the outdated global governance architecture which no longer reflects the new realities of the 21st century.
Addressing such suspicions will be an uphill task that must be done to earn credibility. After a decade of similar suspicion of the BRI, experience has paved a path to overcoming challenges, and today the many participating nations include many allies of the U.S. The progress of China’s GDI showcases the speed with which Beijing seeks to operationalize the GSI even more. The announcement of the GDI in September 2021 was followed by President Xi expounding it on the eve of 14th BRICS Summit in June 2022 as he chaired the High-level Dialogue on Global Development. This meeting was attended by BRICS leaders plus a dozen other invited national leaders from around the world. They agreed to work together and harness China’s GDI as an accelerator for realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The effort helped identify broad guiding principles for joint efforts while identifying eight areas for cooperation and setting up 32 specific mechanisms for collaboration towards well-defined deliverable outcomes.
Just like the BRI and the GDI, the GSI has been especially agreeable to a number of African countries. Two sessions of the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum involving about 50 African states have been held. By practicing the GSI, China and Africa are expected to move towards a promising vision of jointly building a security community. Alongside building consensus on broad conceptualizations with these African nations, the GSI more specifically details help from China in areas of strategic communication, equipment and technology cooperation, joint maritime training exercises, exchange in professional fields, and other technical and financial assistance to counter terrorism and other threats in Africa.
Along with serving as a development provider in Africa, China is also emerging as a security defender across many of the African nations. This trend became noticeable when some of Africa’s traditional security providers wound down their military engagement with African countries. As part of UN peacekeeping operations, thousands of Chinese peacekeepers are currently deployed to some of Africa’s most dangerous locations in Congo, Liberia, Mali, and Sudan. Under the BRI, many of these countries have already received assistance in building highways, ports, power stations, dams, and railways. Now, China is seeking to provide African countries with comprehensive support on matters such as piracy and counter-terrorism. The drive includes providing technology, equipment, personnel, and strategic advice that form the conflict prevention core of China’s GSI.
The Gulf of Aden has already seen China emerge as an active player in counter-piracy operations. In addition to its coordinated naval patrols and rescue operations, China has provided naval assets, equipment, and financial assistance to local anti-piracy networks. But like the BRI and the GDI, the GSI is also expected to develop both conceptual and operational outreach far beyond Africa and this will have its challenges.
Most importantly, GSI presents an alternate vision of global security governance that has implications for the existing post-World War II architecture that props up U.S. world leadership.
Embroiled in pandemic-driven resource deficit and domestic instability, the Biden administration has increasingly depended on its friends and allies, many of whom now show varying trajectories in their engagement with Beijing. The ongoing Ukraine crisis has made the issue even more public as the U.S. has sought to build consensus for imposing severe economic sanctions on Russia. These internal issues affecting both the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization also shine light on the urgent need for reformation of global security architecture. However, the U.S. and its allies remain focused on strengthening internally instead of transforming post-World War II institutions that are revealing their fast-diminishing relevance and remit.
Consequently, the GSI has this space to ignite a new debate on the optimal method to address the world’s increasingly complex security challenges. It, of course, seeks to do so by providing Chinese solutions rooted in the ancient wisdom of unique Chinese traditions.
The author is a professor of diplomacy and disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University in India and currently a visiting professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada.