Since China’s post-COVID opening in January of this year, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his army of diplomats have begun intensifying their campaign for China’s Global Security Initiative (GSI). Xi first proposed the GSI last April, offering few details but saying the initiative would “promote security for all in the world.” Beijing has since elaborated in more detail through a Ministry of Foreign Affairs concept paper and has connected the GSI to its peace plan for Ukraine and the rapprochement it brokered between old rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Above all, the initiative aims to promote a vision of an alternative to the U.S.-led international order.

President Xi Jinping of China participates in a bilateral dinner meeting with President Donald Trump during the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 1, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)
President Xi Jinping of China participates in a bilateral dinner meeting with President Donald Trump during the G-20 Summit in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Dec. 1, 2018. (Tom Brenner/The New York Times)

While the GSI has gained traction with some states, the recent trips to Washington by the South Korean and Philippine presidents show that even in China’s neighborhood, many countries still see Washington as the world’s leading strategic security partner. As Beijing continues its GSI campaign, Washington should consider the implications for U.S. policy and how it can respond effectively.

What is the GSI?

At its core, the GSI rests on a set of principles Beijing labels the “six commitments.” These include security concepts Xi has long promoted, including “comprehensive security,” “common security” and “indivisible security” — the latter concept has been used by Putin to justify his invasion of Ukraine. The GSI’s rejection of a “Cold War mentality,” among other pejoratives, thinly masks its sharp critique of American leadership in international security. A recent Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs piece entitled “U.S. Hegemony and its Perils” did not mention the GSI but the timing of its publication just a day before the release of the GSI concept paper positioned it as something of a preamble.

Viewed within the context of Xi’s new 24-character foreign policy doctrine — which includes the admonition to “dare to struggle”— the GSI can be seen as a key element of China’s intensifying challenge to U.S. security governance. Ultimately, Beijing seeks to normalize a role for itself as a source of global security. It is promoting a set of principles for international security — to rival the current U.S.-led approach — that reinforce Beijing’s preferred norms and priorities, particularly the principle of noninterference and the prioritization of strong state authority to preserve domestic security as the bedrock of a new global security order.

A Familiar Campaign Playbook

Understanding the GSI as a campaign is helpful to seeing it as a process that is in an early phase. As this campaign stands, it is focused on forging a milieu receptive to a new made-in-China concept for global security governance in ways that are in line with a familiar Chinese Communist Party (CCP) playbook. Many campaigns to mobilize support are launched with statements or editorials by CCP leadership. After this, authorities from within the party and bureaucracy begin an initial round of dissemination, which includes rallying a set of influential early adopters. This group offers a core source of support for a campaign as it moves forward to promote exemplary projects and offer targeted financial resources aimed at galvanizing further support. Campaigns frequently also employ a divide-and-conquer technique. The creation of “contradictions” through identifying enemies or out-groups or designating certain behaviors as in need of transformation or eradication, focuses the campaign on the goal of vanquishing or rectifying the obstacle or challenge to achieving the CCP’s new vision or program.

Domestic mobilization campaigns are a regular feature of Chinese politics even in the 21st century and other recent international initiatives by Beijing have also reflected campaign modalities. China’s promotion of Xi’s flagship foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), offers a recent example. Xi first rolled out the initiative in 2013, suggesting it would catalyze “win-win approaches” to international relations by connecting countries through physical infrastructure projects heavily backed by Chinese financing. The BRI’s initial focus on countries with strong political and economic ties to China, followed by its expansion to the Global South, helped give the initiative a core group of supporters, enabling rapid expansion of international participation. From early in the BRI’s inception it was portrayed as addressing “deficits” in the current global order, but speeches by Chinese officials increasingly emphasized its role as a solution to the undesirable qualities ascribed to the U.S.-led international system, using familiar tropes such as “confrontation,” “lose-lose,” and “zero-sum,” among others.

Leading the Charge

Over the past year, China’s GSI campaign has accelerated along this arc. Chinese diplomats led the initial charge of the GSI campaign with Xi at the tip of the spear. After proposing the initiative last April, Xi has since featured the GSI in remarks given at multiple major multilateral fora, including the BRICS grouping (made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the G-20.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, has publicized the GSI in key regional platforms such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, the U.N.’s Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific and the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation. And Foreign Minister Qin Gang included the GSI in his address to the recent G-20 meeting of foreign ministers. Chinese diplomats have also engaged widely on the GSI with local media around the world. Recent examples include articles about the GSI written by Chinese embassy leaders for local outlets in SingaporeTimor Leste, Pakistan, Seychelles and Maldives.

Cultivating Champions

Building a core group of international supporters, particularly in the Global South, has been a key facet of the GSI campaign to date. Chinese diplomats have presented the GSI as addressing the security and “legitimate concerns” of developing countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and the Pacific Islands, as well as countries with which China has special ties. Over the last year, these efforts have met with some success. Numerous foreign leaders have expressed their support for the initiative, among them Xi’s “best, most intimate friend” Vladimir Putin, Belarussian President Aleksandr Lukashenko, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, and Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, as well as several Central Asian leaders.

China’s diplomats have also campaigned to link the GSI to established international security forums and other international initiatives. These include various U.N. programs, including the General Assembly and Security Council counterterrorism resolutions, the Global Counterterrorism Strategy, and the United Nation’s New Agenda for Peace. Beijing has also used mechanisms where it exercises leadership to promote the GSI, among them the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum, the Middle East Security Forum and the Beijing Xiangshan Forum.

Demonstrating Success

Beijing has also begun connecting the GSI to China’s highest profile diplomatic successes, including the agreement brokered in Beijing between Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic relations. In a recent meeting with Indonesian officials, Wang described the agreement as a “successful practice in implementing the Global Security Initiative proposed by Xi.” Soon after the Iran-Saudi agreement, Qin reminded his counterparts in Israel and Palestine that China was willing to play a role in promoting peace in the region, a gesture China has made on several previous occasions.

Meanwhile, the much-anticipated phone call between Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took place last week, with Xi referencing China’s proposal for a political settlement of the war. The proposal notably draws heavily on concepts in the GSI’s “six commitments,” such as its recommendation that a “vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security” is key to resolving the conflict.

Is the Campaign Gaining Traction?

Most of the writing cataloging support for the GSI comes from official Chinese sources, including China’s Foreign Ministry, which indicates that at least 80 countries or international organizations have expressed “appreciation and support” for the initiative. In official statements — often those associated with visits of high-level Chinese diplomats — many international leaders and officials have indicated interest in if not support for the GSI.   

However, the GSI has yet to win endorsement from several key emerging and developing countries. For example, the joint statement following Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s visit to Beijing notably omitted mention of the GSI, while praising China’s Global Development Initiative and taking note of the new Global Civilization Initiative. Other BRICS countries, with the unsurprising exception of Russia, have also been quiet on the initiative. Southeast Asian neighbors that were early supporters of the BRI, like Indonesia and Singapore, have not rushed to embrace the GSI. And some nonaligned countries have even rejected the initiative, saying it would violate their nonaligned status.

How Should the United States Respond?

In recent months, China’s GSI campaign has started to intensify attacks on the United States and the established U.S.-led global security order. Beyond the Foreign Ministry critique of the U.S. role on the world stage mentioned above, recent analysis from China’s state-affiliated think tanks also points to Washington as the problem. In one example, authors from the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations write that the U.S. efforts at “democratic transformation” have “brought catastrophic disasters to the local people.” The authors also hold NATO and the United States responsible for the war in Ukraine, echoing Russia’s justification that the alliance “ignored the principle of indivisible security.”

Washington should not be goaded into overreacting to China’s GSI campaign as it unfolds. The United States remains the leading provider of global security with an unmatched global network of allies and partners, a testament to Washington’s formidable appeal as a security partner. The strength of U.S. strategic ties was on display these past two weeks when South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. visited Washington.

Moreover, it is far from clear that the GSI will win the global endorsement China hopes it will achieve. Nevertheless, the expressions of international interest in the GSI are worth paying attention to. They indicate that China has struck a chord, particularly among developing countries outside the U.S. alliance system, for an approach to global security that addresses their multidimensional security challenges, rather than focusing on great power competition. Even as the United States seeks to raise concerns about an array of risks from China’s growing global influence and tries to rally international support against Russia’s war in Ukraine, a U.S. policy attuned to the interests and priorities of individual countries is vital.

Although it remains unclear if the GSI will sustain momentum and win broad international endorsement, the global response to Beijing’s campaign does raise a red flag that the United States would be wise to heed. A U.S. strategy to build global support for sustained U.S. leadership centered on encouraging countries to choose between the United States and China is shortsighted. Simply put, many countries, not least in the Indo-Pacific, where China is a geographic reality, are making clear that they do not wish to become enmeshed in great power rivalry and seek a global security order that recognizes the importance of their interests and priorities.

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