Earlier this month Chinese leader Xi Jinping made his first foreign trip since the coronavirus outbreak, joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. The summit was Xi’s first in-person opportunity to win support outside of China’s borders for his new Global Security Initiative (GSI), which he launched in April. While the GSI remains notional and somewhat vague, Xi is on the offensive, seeking to position his vision of a new global security architecture as an alternative to the Western-led security order. In an era of heightened strategic rivalry between Washington and Beijing, Xi’s GSI campaign could amount to yet another challenge to the U.S.-China relationship and the two countries’ ability to peacefully manage differences.

Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks while meeting with President Barack Obama during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, March 31, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks while meeting with President Barack Obama during the Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, March 31, 2016. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Xi has used the GSI to advance his own brand of global security in which manifestations of collective security, such as U.S.-led alliances like NATO, are labeled as “bloc politics” and critiqued as embodiments of a “Cold War mentality.” Back in April, when Xi first rolled out the GSI at the Boao Forum for Asia, he referred to “indivisible security,” redolent of language Vladimir Putin used to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Months later, with Russia on its heels in Ukraine, Xi used the SCO summit and the U.N.’s International Day of Peace as an opportunity to disassociate the GSI from Moscow’s pretext for war.  

The Campaign Trail Begins in Samarkand

In Samarkand, the GSI featured in Xi’s formal remarks to the SCO’s Council of Heads of State, as well as in the 11 face-to-face bilaterals with foreign leaders he held on the sidelines of the summit. Nine of these meetings produced joint statements that mentioned working with China on the GSI. Six countries — Azerbaijan, Belarus, Iran, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan — used particularly supportive language, signaling a readiness to work with China to implement the initiative. Russia had previously endorsed Xi’s security vision, with top officials calling it “very important.” Among SCO members, only India and Tajikistan did not endorse the initiative in some way.

Going Global with the United Nations

A week after the SCO summit, Xi used the International Day of Peace — established by the U.N. in 1981 — to personally boost the GSI on a global platform. A letter penned by Xi, entitled “Acting on the Global Security Initiative to Maintain World Peace,” was read aloud at a commemorative event in Beijing, which was held in parallel with U.N General Assembly activities. In the letter, Xi called on all countries to uphold the “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security concept” and to “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,” associating his initiative with the “purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

Xi’s letter is another step on a path well worn by Beijing to get language associated with his signature diplomatic initiatives, like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Global Development Initiative (GDI) — the latter often paired with the GSI — incorporated into U.N. statements and other materials. In August, when China assumed the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council, China’s ambassador to the U.N. called for a new approach to global security, referencing the GSI. China may also pursue the creation of a group of states within the U.N. supportive of the concept as a way of strengthening the initiative’s international influence. Such a group might mirror the “Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative” formed in January under U.N. auspices among countries that support international development cooperation through the GDI.

Putting Space between the GSI and Moscow

At the SCO summit, Xi appeared to be wresting the GSI from association with the war in Ukraine, trying to distinguish between Beijing’s support for what it has described as Russia’s “vital interests” in Ukraine and the principles that undergird the GSI concept.

As we have written previously, in rolling out the GSI in April, Xi used the term “indivisible security” —language that appeared to align with Russia’s justification for its invasion of Ukraine. However, the term was noticeably absent from official Chinese readouts of Xi’s discussions of the GSI at the SCO. Similarly, the term “indivisible security” was also not used in Xi’s International Peace Day letter.

It’s worth noting that the absence of references to indivisible security in Xi’s recent remarks went hand in hand with actions by Xi to make clear that China’s sympathies for Russia’s “legitimate security demands” have limits. Xi pointedly promised Chinese support for Kazakhstan’s independence and territorial integrity during his state visit enroute to the SCO summit. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has alarmed Nur-Sultan, which is fearful that Moscow could also pursue its irredentist dreams of acquiring so-called “ancient Russian territories” in Kazakhstan. In Samarkand, moreover, Xi won a public statement from Putin acknowledging China’s “questions and concerns” about Russia’s Ukraine actions.

A Security Architecture with Chinese Characteristics

In an initial attempt to make the broad GSI concept more concrete, in Samarkand Xi also provided an idea of what a GSI “security architecture” might look like. The Chinese leader underscored the role of improved counterterrorism and law enforcement capabilities as keys to improved regional security. Although Xi provided no details, in his remarks to the SCO, the Chinese leader offered to establish a China-SCO base for training counterterrorism personnel, as well as training in law enforcement for SCO member states. Beijing has made substantial investments in developing its counterterrorism and policing capabilities to achieve “comprehensive security” domestically, and these are areas where China has been pursuing a variety of bilateral arrangements with international partners for some time. Xi’s proposals suggest that the GSI will also function as a framework for promoting and normalizing China’s expansive approach to domestic security globally — and as a sales pitch to foreign governments to invest in the technologies and techniques Beijing produces to achieve its internal security objectives. 

Implications for U.S.-China Relations

The GSI has significant implications for U.S.-China relations. Amid a wide range of global crises, not least the war in Ukraine, Beijing is using the GSI to discredit U.S. leadership as a source of sustainable security, market globally the instruments of China’s security state, and divert international attention away from U.S. efforts to build international condemnation — including in the U.N. — of Russian actions in Ukraine. If the GSI is given significant attention at China’s 20th Party Congress, we can expect Beijing to make the GSI a truly global diplomatic campaign along the lines of the BRI and other Xi initiatives now labeled  “Xiplomacy” by China’s state media. Clashing visions for global security may be on display at the potential in-person meeting between Biden and Xi next month. Unfortunately, this competition will likely make it more difficult for the two leaders to responsibly manage differences and cooperate on aligned interests.

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