The following article is based on a contribution given by Dr Jenny Clegg at a discussion on the Global Security Initiative (GSI) Concept Paper, hosted by the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) on 30 May 2023.
Providing the crucial historical background for the GSI, Jenny explains that the principles set out in the concept paper are “drawn from a world history of struggle against war and division” and are grounded in older conceptions: indivisible security (“the idea that the security of one country should not come at the expense of another”) and the five principles of peaceful coexistence. Jenny points out that the five principles – respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference, equality and mutual benefit – have long served as the fundamental basis of China’s foreign policy. Furthermore they informed the Bandung Conference in 1955 and the theory of nonalignment; as such, the concept paper and the principles it upholds are “far from Sinocentric” and represent a broad global trend, grounded particularly in the Global South.
Consistent with the United Nations Charter, the concept paper calls on the major powers to respond to conflict by facilitating peace talks and “encourage conflicting parties to build trust, settle disputes and promote security through dialogue.” People demand peace; war can be avoided; and governments must be held accountable. The difference with the West’s approach can be seen all too clearly in the case of the Ukraine crisis: while the G7 and NATO escalate by providing ever-heavier weaponry to Ukraine, China and other countries consistently advocate a political solution.
Other speakers at the webinar included Minister Wang Qi from the Chinese Embassy in London; Tom Unterrainer, Chair of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND); Dr. Zeno Leoni, Lecturer in Defence Studies at King’s College London; and John Gittings, long-term China specialist and peace activist and former assistant foreign editor at the Guardian newspaper. The session was introduced and chaired by Keith Bennett, SACU member and co-editor of Friends of Socialist China.
“Today, our world, our times and history are changing in ways like never before, and the international community is confronted with multiple risks and challenges rarely seen before… The deficits in peace, development, security and governance are growing, and the world is once again at a crossroads in history. This is an era rife with challenges.”
So opens the Global Security Initiative Concept Paper released by the PRC Foreign Ministry on February 21st, 2023.
This was indeed a critical moment with the war in Ukraine threatening to spiral out of control. Just three days later, China’s leader, Xi Jinping seized the time with his announcement of the 12-point proposal on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.
The purpose of the paper is to launch a New Security Concept based on common interests and equal participation for all states. Whilst almost entirely escaping the superficial attention of the Western media, it in fact provides clarification of the rationale behind the 12-point proposal. Setting out the aim of the GSI as seeking to ‘eliminate the root cause of wars and improve global security governance’, it indicates the Ukraine-Russia initiative is actually part of a much wider and deeper agenda of global transformation.
There has been much angst-ridden speculation in the West in recent years over China’s emergence as a more powerful global actor. What then does this concept paper reveal about China’s intentions as a world leader? In the past, China’s practice has been to declare principles to make its position known but not get involved operationally: so now in such uncertain times, is Xi Jinping stepping forward with some concrete solutions? If so is this just another self-serving agenda as with any other power? If not, is this only more of the same foreign policy rhetoric, just another case of old wine in a new bottle?
Perhaps China is making an opportunistic grab for power as it sees the West’s leadership apparently failing? Is it seeking to counter NATO which last year set out its own Strategic Concept identifying China as a security challenge, subverting the rules-based international order?
The GSI: the background
The GSI was first introduced last year at a forum for Asian dialogue and is best understood as part of a series of initiatives advanced by Xi Jinping – the Global Development Initiative put forward at the UN Summit in 2021 to advance the right to development, and the Global Civilisation Initiative launched in March just after the GSI concept paper, advocating mutual learning. These three proposals frame Xi Jinping’s aim to bring ‘Chinese wisdom’ to the world negotiating table.
Global thinking on security has broadened out over recent years to cover not just matters of war and peace, but also issues of economic security, climate change, pandemics and human rights. At first sight, China’s document appears as a quick skate over a broad list of concerns, citing also numbers of organisations and initiatives mostly associated with China itself, so making the document look decidedly Sinocentric. However it needs a deeper dive to understand its holistic approach.
The New Security approach is one of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, concepts promoted through various meetings and policy statements on Asian security over the last few years. Common security refers to a community of common destiny, that security is for all states; comprehensive security covers traditional and non traditional security threats; cooperative security points to efforts to resolve problems through ‘dialogue and in-depth communication’; and sustainable security incorporates China’s long standing conception thatcountries need to focus on both development and security to realise a long-lasting security.
The concept is the antithesis to the current – and failing – security order based on alliances, prioritising the security of some over others, applying extensive sanctions as reinforcement as it seeks to divide states into different political categories.
At the same time Xi’s new approach identifies the root cause of security failure in external interference by some countries in the internal affairs of other sovereign states.
China’s National Defence Minister, Li Shangfu, delivered the message of the GSI to the recent Shangri La security dialogue conference in Singapore, more forthrightly, stating that China is “strongly opposed to imposing one’s own will on others, placing one’s own interests above those of others, and pursuing one’s own security at the expense of others.”
A basis in principles drawn from historical experiences in the search for peace
The concept paper opens by setting out principles, offered as a basis for re-centring the UN and indeed increasing its role. These principles are drawn from a world history of struggle against war and division.
The first three elements of common, comprehensive, and cooperative security parallel the original conceptions of the OSCE – the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe – which from 1975, in opposition to NATO’s Cold War division and the spiralling nuclear arms race, sought to create a new security order for Europe inclusive of the USSR.
The OSCE concept of common or indivisible security – the idea that the security of one country should not come at the expense of another – is incorporated here into the GSI vision, and indeed into the 12 point proposal on the Ukraine crisis. This is a security for all as opposed to the Cold War notion of security against others or bloc confrontation.
Here in the paper is also the Reagan-Gorbachev principle which ended the nuclear arms race in 1985 with the words: a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought.
At the same time, China’s conception integrates the five principles of peaceful coexistence – principles of respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference, equality and mutual benefit – which have served as the basis of China’s foreign policy over the decades. Agreed first by Zhou Enlai and Nehru in 1954, these paved the way for the Bandung Conference in 1955 where African and Asian states, newly emerging from colonial rule and under pressure from the Cold War, sought to protect their independence and avoid war through collective non-alignment.
For China also the UN Charter, as the concept paper states, ‘embodies the deep reflection by the people around the world on the bitter lessons of two world wars’.
Drawing as it does from these historical experiences of the wider world search for peace, the concept paper is far from Sinocentric.
Security as a process
The problem of the existing system of security governance lies in the failure of states to manage their security dilemmas.
Clearly good relations between major powers are a necessity for world peace, not least in reducing the risk of nuclear war. The concept paper looks to the major powers to set an example in complying with the UN Charter and, when conflicts occur, their role should be to ’support consultation on an equal footing’, facilitate peace talks, and to ‘encourage conflicting parties to build trust, settle disputes and promote security through dialogue’.
This is not to adopt a hierarchical world view privileging big powers – something China is often criticised for doing – it is rather to state the obvious that major powers with their global remit have more responsibilities in preserving peace.
Turning to regions, the paper identifies each context in terms of its own specificities regarding security: ASEAN with its distinctive approach of consensus-building amongst politically diverse members; the Latin America-Caribbean zone of peace; African countries and the need to strengthen their ability to safeguard peace independently; the need for Middle Eastern states to construct a new security framework with the international community taking practical steps towards a two state solution to the Palestinian question; the security of the Pacific Island states facing existential threat from climate change.
Regions then can be seen to have their own focal points of security cooperation, and the responsibilities of the major powers is contextual in each case, respecting regional processes themselves whilst stepping in with support where necessary to facilitate their functioning.
The absence here of any mention of the EU, US or Japan suggests China is looking to the Global South for momentum. Security-building then can be envisaged as process not only from top-down with responsible actions taken by major powers but also from bottom-up region by region, bringing regional organisations into the multipolar balance alongside the major powers.
This then is a holistic approach: rather than envisioning a fixed formal order it focusses on the interlinkages and interconnections within the system to grasp the dynamics of the two contexts – the major power international and the regional – as they act and interact one on the other.
So for example, in the case of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, China was able to offer a platform free from outside interference for the final stages of a process begun by regional actors themselves. In the case of Russia and the Ukraine, what major powers can do in terms of nuclear arms control could have a bearing on resolving the dispute.
A similar dialectic method is evident in the fourth element of ‘sustainable security’ linking peace and development: whilst peace is essential for development, development also contributes to resolving conflicts ‘eliminating the breeding ground for insecurity’.
The Security Agenda
On the contents of cooperation, the paper ranges widely from digital and information security to terrorism; from biosecurity to outer space. By finding complementary points of cooperation, countries can form closer partnerships as the building blocks of a peaceful and secure world order.
The recent Xi- Macron agreement ran to some 50 points; similarly the Xi-Lula agreement. The ill-judged stance of the US and UK governments to deal with China – to confront, compete and cooperate – only concedes cooperation on climate change, ruling most of the GSI list off-limits.
So to answer the question: ‘does China act to further its own self interest?’, the answer is yes. But from China’s view, creating a safer world is not about selflessness and generosity: if one’s interest is invested in a deal, one is more likely to keep to it. That is surely what common security is about. The challenge is to find those points of mutual interest to build peaceful cooperation.
Cultural relativism and universalism
Whilst the concept paper takes international law as underpinning the UN system, accepting also that morality and justice are fundamental, China takes a pragmatic approach looking to eliminate the root causes of conflict. So for example the root cause of the Sudan fighting surely lies in desertification and land shortage – a failure to address development. For China, NATO expansion lies at the root of the Ukraine crisis. This focus on getting to the bottom of a dispute seeks to break through rebarbative cycles of blame and accusation. For Ukraine, this may be the hardest thing: people understandably want retribution.
From the Western perspective the law is absolute, but for China, how the law is applied varies from context to context according to local conditions. This distinctive Chinese approach to the relationship between the universal and the particular is taken by the West as rule breaking.
However, the problem with the law, any law, is that not only its application but also its meaning can be disputed. Western lawmaking is designed to uphold private property and individual rights, while China also lends weight to public property and collective rights. With no overarching global authority, how are such disputes and differences over legalities to be resolved? In offering the Global Civilisation Initiative, China is putting forward mutual learning as possible way forward enabling ways to be found of managing differences.
The paper then demonstrates China’s method or wisdom: a holistic approach focussing on the dialectics of global security, seeking out the interconnections and key links of the processes; summarising the lessons of history for fundamental guidance; and contextualising the universal in the particular, the international within the regional.
There are no concrete solutions to be found here: China is just beginning to learn how to be a global power – it is early days.
The point is first to understand what security is. For China then it is not simply a matter of treaties and international laws requiring compliance but a historical process, working through the interactions between the international and the regional, the piece-by-piece of bilateral cooperative partnerships, the hard work of development over the long term.
Nothing exposes the inadequacy of the formal approach to international law than the failure to uphold the UN resolutions to protect Palestinian rights. China is now stepping in to facilitate a process of conflict resolution between Israel and Palestine. Given the challenges here it might seem that China is overreaching itself, over-estimating its influence in a premature grab for power in the Middle East. But China with its historical perspective, rather looks to the long term.
China is also frequently criticised for acting hypocritically: saying one thing but doing another. Consider China’s reaction to Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan: sending a barrage of ballistic missiles over the island was pretty alarming, an aggressive display which apparently belies all the call for a peaceful world. Such a criticism however fails to grasp the point that common security is a relationship between states, requiring reciprocity – for one state to turn the other cheek to another’s hostile behaviour is just like the sound of one hand clapping.
Xi’s speech advocating a political solution to the Ukraine crisis, delivered on the first anniversary of the war, showed China’s leader grasping the ‘practical moment’ – that moment in the course of a struggle when the winning of the argument can have a transformative impact on wider consciousness.
The speech helped to crystallise the calls for peace coming from the Global South, those countries also bearing the negative impact of the war on their economies. Now others have stepped forward with offers to mediate – from Brazil to Indonesia to Saudi Arabia to the African Union.
The West’s reaction has been to undermine Xi’s proposal by casting doubt on China’s role as an honest broker, given the close relations with Russia. The G7 instead gave a commitment to escalate the war by supplying Ukraine with F-16 fighter jets. Xi’s move is at risk of being sidelined: the last thing that the US and its loyal allies want is for China to take the lead. Meanwhile China has become bolder in speaking out against abuse of the rules-based order as a source of tensions both in Europe and the Asia Pacific.
The crisis situation is now sickeningly uncertain, nevertheless consciousness within the Global South community has shifted. It is to be seen how China might coordinate its own efforts with those other initiatives – a way of avoiding the ‘honest broker’ problem.
Finally, the GSI represents an essentially state centric view – China operates in a world of big states and needs to make sure its own agenda and interests are served especially in relations to the other major powers. However missing from the perspective is the role of international mass movements for peace and against war – a powerful force indeed, uniting in opposition to the nuclear arms race in the 1980s and then in opposition to the Iraq war in 2003. Today the civil society pursuit of human security has become more fragmented into single issue campaigns, also covering poverty as well as human rights and of course climate change. Now some in the peace movement are talking about the need to rethink security more holistically re-applying the common security approach that helped to reverse the arms race in 1985.
Questions remain: how can peace movements mobilise today behind positive state initiatives and how are people-to-people relations become more effective in promoting the mission of international peace?
 The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper, Feb. 21st, 2023 https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/wjbxw/202302/t20230221_11028348.html
 China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis, Feb 24, 2023 https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx_662805/202302/t20230224_11030713.html
 The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order, Rush Doshi, Oxford University Press, p.231
 “China presents path to true, sustainable security for Asia-Pacific in contrast to US’ bloc confrontation approach at Shangri-La Dialogue” Li Aixin, Guo Yuandan and Zhang Han, June 4, 2023 https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202306/1291935.shtml
 “The Indivisibility of Euro-Atlantic Security” Secretary General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut 18th Partnership for Peace Research Seminar, Vienna Diplomatic Academy, OSCE 4 February 2010 https://www.osce.org/files/f/documents/5/f/41452.pdf
 Security dilemma: wherebyactions taken by one state to increase its own security cause other states to increase their own security at the first state’s expense. Failure to manage the dilemma may lead to an arms race.
 The France-China strategic partnership: towards a different type of international relations? Jenny Clegg https://socialistchina.org/2023/04/20/the-france-china-strategic-partnership-towards-a-different-type-of-international-relations
 China to cement ties with Palestine, ‘play greater role to mediate Palestine-Israel conflict’ Yang Sheng June 13, 2023, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202306/1292517.shtml
 Prof. John Foster discussed the notion of the ‘practical moment’ to be found in The German Ideology (Marx and Engels, 1846) in a recent lecture given at the Marx Memorial Library, on ‘Class mobilisation and class consciousness: language and the ‘practical moment’‘, May 18, 2023