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Can Beijing Sell its Global Security Initiative?

Peacekeeper troops from China deployed by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), patrol on foot outside the premises of the UN Protection of Civilians (PoC) site in Juba, South Sudan. ALBERT GONZALEZ FARRAN / AFP

By Lukas Fiala

On Wednesday, Xi Jinping promised Pakistani Prime Minister Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif ‘to advance the operationalization of the…Global Security Initiative.’ Announced by Xi only in April this year, the GSI is adding to an alphabet soup of existing policy acronyms such as the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and, of course, the well-known Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). But what is the GSI really about?

As Chris Cash notes in a recent explainer, the GSI is based on six central commitments, including an emphasis on sovereignty, the UN charter, and ‘indivisible security.’ The latter is particularly noteworthy. First set out in the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which set ground rules for European security in an age of great power competition, indivisible security means the security of any particular country is inseparable from other countries’ security in the region. One country’s quest for security should consequently not come to the detriment of another’s.

Ironically, the concept has been invoked by Vladimir Putin to criticize the expansion of NATO, an assessment that Beijing has repeatedly supported since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Citing indivisible security, Beijing has attempted to harmonize its longstanding rhetorical commitment to sovereignty and non-interference with the desire to maintain its close relationship with Moscow.

Light on concrete material commitments and policy details, the GSI has thus far functioned as a catch-all phrase to critique the existing US-led global security order while advancing China’s own understanding of global security governance. The recent Party Congress report, for instance, cites the GSI only under the chapter ‘Promoting World Peace and Development and Building a Human Community with a Shared Future’, framing the initiative as a global public good China is willing to offer in times of instability and change.

With little concrete detail about what the GSI is meant to do in practice, lots of analysts have speculated about its likely future. What’s missing from most takes at present is the following:

First, regardless of China’s intention, it’s questionable whether China actually has the capabilities to put the GSI into action. The GSI nominally focuses on both non-traditional and traditional security issues. If China were to securitize its existing relationship with foreign partners, it would have to account for a whole lot of different security-related activities of a diverse set of Chinese actors. Private Chinese security companies patrolling BRI projects, state-owned defense companies integrated into the global arms market, China’s armed forces and their auxiliary branches – the People’s Liberation Army, the People’s Armed Police, and the Maritime Militia, and a host of diplomatic actors under the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Public Security.

If China were to match rhetoric with policy practice, the GSI would need an incredibly powerful regulatory framework to contend with the different and sometimes conflicting objectives and vested interests of different groups of Chinese actors spanning traditional and non-traditional security operations abroad. It would be a hard sell for China to promote the GSI in any meaningful way across Southeast Asia while simultaneously engaging in grey zone operations through the maritime militia in the South China Sea.

Second and as a consequence, we cannot speculate about the success of the GSI without taking seriously the role of governments across the developing world. Despite the GSI’s relevance to Sino-Russian relations, it will have the most currency across the Global South, where China most readily finds an audience for its alternative ideas for global order. All too often, China’s security engagement across the sub-regions of the Global South is understood as a one-sided phenomenon, ignoring the fact that local governments often request Beijing to become more actively involved in crisis diplomacy, UN peacekeeping, and capacity building. It will ultimately be their decision to adopt or reject the GSI – and any alternatives Western governments may seek to offer.

Last, it’s worthwhile reflecting upon what lesson the evolution of the BRI may hold for our understanding of the GSI. The BRI has been influential because it enabled Beijing to rebrand a host of existing development projects as ‘BRI’ post-hoc, not because it created any meaningful break in China’s trade, investment or infrastructure output. In this regard, it will be interesting to see whether China will rebrand existing security commitments as supporting the ‘GSI’.

This would tie already established security and defense relationships to a broader diplomatic concept and facilitate the promotion of Chinese ideas for global governance. While the GSI has so far not received a dedicated pot of money to implement security policy or crisis diplomacy, it has been referenced in diplomatic meetings by Chinese diplomats, perhaps indicating the beginning of a ‘rebranding’ effort. For instance, Xue Bing, China’s Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, has tied the GSI to China’s recent efforts to promote peace and stability in the region.

Yet, as we have noted in the past, Xue has so far not been very successful at solving some of the long-standing conflicts in the region, reflecting China’s commitment to supporting regional governments at the expense of rarely being seen as a neutral arbiter between governmental and non-governmental actors. While the recent agreement to cease hostilities between the Ethiopian government and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is promising, for instance, it was the African Union and regional governments – and not China – that led these negotiation efforts. Although we should certainly keep an eye on how the GSI evolves, I remain skeptical about the real effect it will have.

Lukas Fiala is the China Foresight Project Coordinator at LSE IDEAS

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