After Russia invaded Ukraine, some hoped that China would use its “no limits” partnership with Moscow and multifaceted relationship with Kyiv to help prevent the conflict from escalating. The European Union’s foreign policy chief pointed to China as the obvious mediator and some among China’s policy elite also called publicly on their government to play a proactive role in helping to resolve the war. One prominent American intellectual urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to seize his “Teddy Roosevelt Moment,” referring to Roosevelt’s Nobel Peace Prize winning mediation of the 1905 Russia-Japan war. For its part, Beijing indicated it was prepared to help mediate but it would do so “in its own way.”  

A military vehicle returns to its barracks on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, in Beijing, following a parade on Tiananmen Square as China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule. (Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)
A military vehicle returns to its barracks on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019, in Beijing, following a parade on Tiananmen Square as China celebrated 70 years of Communist Party rule. (Gilles Sabrie/The New York Times)

During a virtual summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz held in early March, Xi articulated a set of principles, observing that the “pressing task at the moment is to prevent the tense situation from escalating or even running out of control.” However, five months into the conflict, Chinese mediation has not materialized.   

Instead, Beijing’s foreign policy has been directed toward a very different diplomatic endeavor, the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which Xi announced at the Boao Forum in April. As Chinese diplomats have since described the GSI, it lays the foundation for “solutions with Chinese characteristics to hot-spot issues,” implying that these would have prevented the violence unfolding in Ukraine

It is not clear how the GSI in its current form — long on principles and short on practical details — might be operationalized in a way that could be applied to addressing conflict, including the conflict in Ukraine. What is clear is that China seeks to use the Ukraine crisis as an opportunity to push against what it views as an unfair U.S.-dominated international security order and promote an alternative vision. The United States should take the GSI seriously for its potential significance both to the principles on which European and trans-Atlantic security cooperation rest but also for its implications for China’s pursuit of so-called “core” security interests, particularly in the Taiwan Strait.

New Chinese Solutions to Global Conflict?

Since Xi articulated the GSI, Chinese diplomats have been busy campaigning to promote the initiative as a “new concept of security” that draws on China’s “unique” traditions. China’s state media has cast the GSI as “another global public good that contributes Chinese solutions and wisdom to addressing the world's security challenges.” 

The GSI rests on “six commitments” as pillar principles:

  1. Maintaining common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security;
  2. Respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries;
  3. Respecting the purposes and principles of the United Nations charter;
  4. Peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries;
  5. Maintaining security in traditional and non-traditional domains; and
  6. Upholding “indivisible security.” 

Most of the GSI’s principles are mainstays of Chinese foreign policy. The exception is the reference to indivisible security, although it is a concept China has endorsed elsewhere — in the charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in which China is a founding member, for example. Indivisible security was first used prominently in the 1975 Helsinki Final Act designed to strengthen détente between the United States and its allies and the Soviet bloc, and in subsequent security agreements in Europe. In that context, it referred to the idea that the security of states within regions is inseparable and that no country should pursue its own security at the expense of another.

However, Moscow gave new meaning to the idea of indivisible security, invoking it in asserting that its attack on Ukraine was a response to the threat to its security from NATO expansion. The inclusion of the indivisible security concept thus aligns the GSI, and China, with Moscow’s justification of its invasion of Ukraine. A think tank connected to China’s Ministry of State Security makes the connection explicitly, stating in a report on the GSI: “In the recent Ukraine crisis, NATO, led by the United States, ignored the principle of the indivisibility of security and blindly pursued eastward expansion. This violated the pan-European security arrangement, and instead gave rise to the current security crisis in Europe.”

The GSI thus can be seen as having three main purposes. On one level, it offers rhetoric China can deploy to try to legitimate  the narrative that the United States and NATO provoked the war in Ukraine. On another, and consistent with the first, it is also designed to enable Beijing to promote the notion that the United States and its allies are the problem and China is the solution when it comes to international security. Finally, it provides a platform China can use to build new security relationships that serve its expanding global interests.

China’s GSI Campaign

These goals are evident in how Beijing has pursued its global campaign for the GSI. Xi himself has championed the GSI in multilateral forums, most notably the recent BRICS summit. In remarks at the June summit, he encouraged China’s BRICS partners — Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa — to embrace the GSI, calling for a “new type of international relations” that rejects hegemonism, politics and zero-sum games.

Chinese diplomats have also tied the GSI to recent Chinese regional security initiatives in the Global South. In Africa, this has included the China-Africa Cooperation Vision 2035 announced by Xi last November and the Outlook on Peace and Development in the Horn of Africa, where Chinese officials have indicated Beijing seeks a "more important role" in promoting peace and security.

Chinese envoys have sought endorsements for the GSI among Pacific Island countries as well. In the Solomon Islands, with which China signed an unprecedented security agreement in April, Beijing linked the initiative to climate change, an existential issue for the island nation. In Latin America, foreign ministers of both Nicaragua and Uruguay expressed early support for the initiative. China has also sought to use the GSI in a bid to improve relations with India, associated it in recent statements with the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the Bandung Spirit. It has also paired the GSI with its 2021 Global Development Initiative (GDI), which includes an expanding Group of Friends of the GDI launched at the United Nations.

Not all regions and countries have welcomed China’s push for the GSI, however. Europeans have not been persuaded by Chinese assertions that the GSI could improve European security, such as the suggestion that the GSI could help address Cyprus’s partition. Nor has Beijing’s idea of an “invisible security” mechanism among Europe, China and Russia received serious attention. Unease about China’s role in international security has generally grown in Europe given China’s posture on the war in Ukraine and Europe has stayed focused on bolstering NATO’s capabilities. In its 2022 strategic concept, NATO asserted its existing commitment to indivisible security as an “ironclad commitment” to collective defense and, for the first time, noted that the alliance saw China as a vital security challenge.

China's traditional Asian rivals, namely Japan and India, both of which have sovereignty disputes with China, unsurprisingly have qualms about the GSI and its employment of indivisible security. Indian pundits have remarked on the irony of Xi’s calls for “indivisible security” given Beijing’s intractable position on Galwan disengagement.

Countries in ASEAN with which China also has territorial disputes have been notably silent on the GSI.  References to the GSI were absent from statements that followed recent bilateral meetings between the Chinese and Malaysian foreign ministers in Kuala Lumpur, for example. Elsewhere in the region, commentators observed the jarring contrast between Beijing’s promise of employing a Chinese way to peace and its increasingly bellicose rhetoric on Taiwan. There has been speculation that China could invoke “indivisible security” in response to perceived threats by the United States and its allies to its interests in Taiwan. Nevertheless, although little support for GSI has come from the region thus far, Beijing may use this week’s ASEAN foreign minister meeting to promote the framework.

How Washington Should Respond

Despite early hopes that China could mediate a resolution between Russia and Ukraine, it is now clear that such an outcome is unlikely. While the GSI has been a priority for Beijing’s diplomats, it has thus far been a tool to promote Chinese global leadership and there are no signs that China intends to use the initiative to become directly involved in helping to solve the current crisis. This reality requires two key responses from Washington.

First, the United States must take the GSI seriously. The GSI’s durability as a policy initiative remains unclear but the fact that Chinese diplomats have been in overdrive shows that China seeks to find an opportunity in the Ukraine crisis to promote a global security platform that gives it the pivotal role.  Currently, the GSI appears to be a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs concept that has received Xi’s support. If it is endorsed in some form at this fall’s 20th Party Congress, and if specific policies are implemented to operationalize its vision, it will be clear that Beijing has assessed that the GSI is on track to win broad international support. The United States should not assume the GSI won’t catch on. Washington should take note that the GSI was included in the joint press statement that followed the late July meeting between Xi and Indonesian President Joko Widodo in Beijing, despite ongoing frictions between Beijing and Jakarta.

Second, if the GSI is a salvo in an emerging battle over global security leadership, the United States needs to up its game. On one hand, the United States needs to give its attention to the rhetorical component of the GSI, most importantly the inclusion of the principle of “indivisible security.” It is imperative that the United States ensure that the concept is commonly understood in a way that prevents it from becoming a pretext for armed conflict. This is all the more important given Russia’s misuse of indivisible security and the sustained significance of the concept to the United States and its allies.

On the other, the United States should ensure that its policy actions consistently follow and reinforce the rules-based order it champions through the free and open Indo-Pacific concept it has promoted in its efforts to advance prosperity and security in the region, for example. One important step the United States could take in this direction would be to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). In addition to being an important symbolic step, doing so will allow the United States to play a formal role in shaping emerging legal mechanisms associated with UNCLOS, a role it is currently ceding to other powerful maritime actors, like China. At the same time, the United States must strengthen its own standing as a source of peace and stability by expanding its own global partnerships and seeking and supporting peaceful solutions to security crises and conflicts around the world.

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