by Helena Legarda and Grzegorz Stec
President Xi Jinping unveiled Beijing’s new international security project during the Boao Forum for Asia in late April. The Global Security Initiative (全球安全倡议- GSI) was presented amid heightened international tensions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Just six months earlier Xi announced a broadly similar format, the Global Development Initiative, by video link in his annual address to the UN General Assembly. The latter is China’s blueprint for global economic development and international development cooperation.
The GSI signals the Chinese leadership’s understanding of security as well as its ambitions and vision for the future of global governance, though the blueprint is still ambiguous and short on practical details. The GSI is a policy that should be watched closely in Brussels and other European capitals, especially given that the EU has shifted its perspective and is gradually adopting systemic rivalry as the primary lens through which to view the Europe-China relationship.
Xi presented the GSI as a way to prevent conflicts amid the resurgence of great power competition and bloc politics, and as a vehicle to ensure the stability needed for economic recovery and development. The key objective is to “build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture,” he said.1
Foreign Minister Wang Yi elaborated on the content of the initiative, outlining the GSI’s core “six commitments” (六个坚持). These are: 1) a “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security concept;” 2) respecting the sovereignty of all countries; 3) adhering to the UN charter; 4) paying attention to the “legitimate security concerns of all countries;” 5) prioritizing dialogue and consultation as a means of settling disputes; 6) staying committed to maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains.2
Many of these will be familiar to close watchers of China’s official narratives. In essence, the GSI is largely a repackaging of narratives that Beijing has deployed in the past – such as supporting “multipolarity” in opposition to the Western-dominated international order or linking security with development.
However, the GSI also signals Beijing’s continuing support for – and alignment with – Russia’s views of the West and the global order, by formalizing its Ukraine-related rhetoric into an export-oriented initiative that is strongly critical (albeit not explicitly) of NATO and the United States. The GSI incorporates concepts and language that have traditionally been part of Moscow’s rhetoric; in particular the GSI announcement was the first time that Xi publicly embraced the principle of “indivisible security” (不可分割的安全). The concept originally emerged in the 1970s during negotiations between the USSR and the West at the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the forerunner of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE). Moscow has since deployed its own interpretation of “indivisible security” to criticize NATO’s “open-door” policy on enlargement as a threat to its own security. China has referred to this concept in the past. However, it has only fully incorporated “indivisible security” into its own official discourse and international positioning after the invasion of Ukraine.
The formalization of these positions is a further indication that China’s leadership perceives the war in Ukraine as playing into larger questions about geopolitical competition and how China wants to position itself vis-à-vis Russia and the West. And Beijing seems to have made a call.
Beijing is presenting the GSI project as a “Chinese solution to international security challenges.” China’s solution is contrasted to “some countries” – a clear reference to the United States – seen as clinging to Cold War thinking and undermining the international security order. The GSI provides a roadmap and ideological framework for China’s ambition to re-shape the international order which Beijing will use to seek international support and explain its positioning amid growing geopolitical tensions.
The announcement of the GSI coincides with a period of extreme pressure for China's leadership. Only months away from the 20th Party Congress, when Xi is expected to secure a third term as the country’s leader, Beijing confronts an economic slowdown, multiple Covid outbreaks, controversy over its “zero-Covid” policy, and rising tensions with the West due to its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Beijing is also concerned that a US-led coalition of Western countries and allies is coalescing to oppose China. Its anxiety is evident in the increasingly strident narrative about the potential formation of an “Indo-Pacific NATO” to contain China’s rise; the term refers to fears of a US-led coalition of countries in the region targeting China, similar to NATO’s role vis-à-vis Russia, rather than to any expansion of NATO into the Indo-Pacific.
The Global Security Initiative, alongside the Global Development Initiative, are key elements of China’s response to these developments. Beijing’s preferred goal would be to build a competing bloc of countries that share China’s views on security and global governance to push back against – and eventually reform – the Western-dominated global order. Short of this, it hopes at least to limit other countries’ alignment with the United States and the West at large, and to prevent them from joining the perceived anti-China coalition.
The global turmoil caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing global economic and food crises is giving Beijing an opportunity to make headway towards this goal. Although 141 countries voted at the UN in March to condemn Russia’s aggression (while China abstained), there is still a clear gap between the perspectives of liberal democracies and how many countries in the Global South view the war, and the worsening geopolitical environment in general. The gap is evident in the lack of support for sanctions against Russia in much of the developing world, as countries prefer to prioritize their own economic stability and national interests, and the widespread reluctance to openly condemn Russia’s aggression.
Despite its increasingly open support for Russia’s positions on Ukraine, Beijing is using the GSI to present itself as the standard-bearer for a more ‘neutral’ approach to global conflicts. Unlike Western countries that provoked this conflict and are still “adding fuel to the fire”, as the official narrative of the CCP goes, China is a peaceful country that prioritizes dialogue and non-interference and is a force for stability. China’s approach to international security, embodied in the GSI, is presented by Beijing as an alternative (though ill-defined) model for all countries in any way unhappy with the Western approach.
The GSI does not represent an attempt to replace the United States or other powers as a global security provider. China is currently neither willing nor able to take on such a role. Instead, the GSI project seeks to shape global norms and the global security architecture. Ultimately, China would like to be in a position to shape the 21st century as the West shaped the 20th century. To do so, Beijing must first increase its global influence while simultaneously reducing the footprint and power of the United States and Europe.
The details of the GSI will gradually be filled out over the next few months, during which Beijing will adapt its implementation to the international environment. The GSI’s rollout will also be shaped by responses to it, as happened with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing can be expected to target countries in the Global South to sign onto its new initiative, a move that can demonstrate Beijing’s position on the war in Ukraine is not unique and legitimize Beijing’s response. By securing support for its own view of the global order, Beijing can thereby weaken any Western attempts to build the anti-China coalition that – the Chinese leadership fears – may emerge to contain China’s rise.
Examples of this outreach to the Global South are already emerging; initial responses to Xi’s announcement provide an indication of where the initiative is likely to resonate most. The foreign ministers of Caribbean countries with diplomatic relations with China endorsed both the GSI and GDI at a meeting with foreign minister Wang Yi on April 29.3 The Minister of Foreign Affairs of Laos, Saleumxay Kommasith, has also expressed his support.4 Meanwhile, state-owned media in Zimbabwe are calling for Africa to rally behind the GSI.5
However, Beijing will also try to secure buy-in from European countries and the wider West. Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li extended an invitation for Germany to join the GSI during his April 29 call with German State Secretary Andreas Michaelis.6 China’s Ambassador to Cyprus has also promoted the GSI, claiming it could play a role in addressing the island’s de facto partition.7 This sort of outreach is likely to become increasingly common in Europe-China exchanges, as Beijing attempts to bring more legitimacy to the GSI as a universally-beneficial model by securing the support of Western countries, copying the template of the BRI rollout.
The EU should not miss the GSI’s significance even though the initiative remains in the early, rhetorical stages. The GSI announcement did not appear in a vacuum and builds upon a pattern of revisionist tendencies that China has been exhibiting over the last few years.
The rules-based international order is, fundamentally, a numbers game that will only hold for as long as the majority of nations consider it works in their favor, or at least not against them. Beijing’s attempts to assemble a loose ‘coalition of the dissatisfied’ around the banner of its own initiatives and norms should therefore be of concern to all liberal democracies and to any country invested in defending the current global order. Although the GSI’s evolution remains unclear, Beijing is likely to focus initial efforts on spreading its own views of security (as it has done through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia), which it will then try to insert into UN documents by encouraging bloc voting patterns.
To put it simply, the EU must be ready to accept that systemic rivalry with China is here to stay and likely to intensify.
The EU also needs to draw on its experience with the BRI and be mindful of the new initiative’s implications from its inception. Beijing has already launched a diplomatic offensive to promote the GSI; more such efforts can be expected in the future. The EU would be wise to coordinate a united position on GSI and thus avoid the cacophony seen in member states’ initial responses to the BRI.
Similarly, the EU will also need to double down on its engagement with developing countries, which Beijing sees as the key audience for GSI rhetoric. A good start would be to give greater priority to the Global Gateway Initiative agenda, which is having a bumpy rollout with limited – and at times insufficient – consultations with partner countries. Effective responses to the GSI would also need to involve increased cooperation with countries in the Global South in the security space, ideally through the EU’s own Common Defense and Security Policy initiatives.
Amid the focus on Russia’s war on Ukraine, China’s GSI blueprint may seem like a relatively insignificant development for many across the EU. However, to borrow the metaphor coined by Rob Joyce, Director of the US National Security Agency's Cybersecurity Directorate, while the EU is occupied by the international hurricane caused by Russia, it should not forget about the international climate change facilitated by China.