Global Security Initiative, A New Middle Kingdom?

Image Credits: The Economist

By Anuraag Khaund

HISTORY and tradition have always played an influential role in defining the domestic and foreign politics of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). This was particularly evident in the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which was based upon the legacy of the silk routes (both overland and maritime) which connected the Chinese empire with kingdoms of Europe as well as the African continent. In addition, the invocation of two historical figures by president Xi Jinping while launching the BRI− Zhang Qian, the discoverer of the overland Silk Route in the late second century BCE and Zheng He, the leader of the Ming maritime voyages of exploration during the first half of the fifteenth century− only underline the linkage between China’s past and its current foreign policy initiative. Such a connection between the past and the present can also be gleaned in the Global Security Initiative (GSI) recently announced by Xi Jinping in the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference on 21 April, 2022. 

As per Xi Jinping, the Global Security Initiative is a framework aimed at developing the ‘vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and work together to maintain world peace and security;stay committed to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, uphold non-interference in internal affairs….;reject the Cold War mentality…and say no to group politics and bloc confrontation; stay committed to taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously, uphold the principle of indivisible security…and oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security. Similar iterations about the GSI have been made by Foreign Minister Wang Yi as well as Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng. Since much has been written about the GSI as a counter to Indo -Pacific grouping such as QUAD and AUKUS, hence the aim of the article is not to repeat the same arguments. Rather the focus is on the oft-repeated concept of ‘indivisible security’ of the GSI and its possible linkage to the Chinese concepts of tianxia and zhongguo.

One might notice that in the speeches introducing the GSI by both Xi as well as Yucheng, the focus has been on shared challenges especially COVID 19 pandemic as well as climate change, terrorism and cyber security which cannot be tackled by any country alone but needs to be addressed through united and coordinated efforts of the entire international community. As per Xi ‘Countries around the world are like passengers aboard the same ship who share the same destiny. For the ship to navigate the storm and sail toward a bright future, all passengers must pull together’. Even the usage of Chinese or ‘Asian’ proverbs such as ‘climb the hill together and go down the ravine together’ gives indication of the GSI’s ambition to include, if not the entire world, but the Asian continent as a single, united security community. This overarching and all-encompassing focus is characteristic of the tianxia model of political thought. Tianxia (all under Heaven) is a concept which can be traced to the Zhou dynasty of 11th century BCE which stresses on the importance of harmony and peaceful co-existence within society as well as among neighbouring states. 

As per IR scholar, Amitav Acharya, tianxia as a system of international order sees the ‘world’ as a single unit instead of using the ‘nation-state’ as the basic unit of the international system. However, instead of the Westphalian IR notion of equal states existing in a state of anarchy, tianxia sees harmony as possible only in a world of hierarchy with China or the Middle Kingdom at the top. In addition, tianxia also entails as per Chinese scholars ‘the establishment of a world system based upon the ontology of peaceful co-existence based on relational rationality as opposed to rationality’. 

Here, relational rationality is the belief in the Confucian notion of ‘self- existence and self- interest are related to the other existence and other-interest’. Or in other words, as opposed to the Western Realist idea of rationality which prioritises self-interest and existence over peace, relational rationality holds that one’s interest and existence is dependent on the well-being of the interest and existence of others. The presence of relational rationality can be seen in the GSI’s concept of ‘indivisible security’ as its opposition to ‘pursuit of individual security at the cost of others’. In addition, the assumption of the world or Asian continent as a single unit can be made out from the terms such as ‘common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security’ describing the GSI as well as Xi’s idiom of countries being fellow travellers on the same ship.   However, at the same time, as pointed out by others, the actions of China in the South China Sea as well as the Taiwan Straits and the militarisation of the western border with India in Ladakh since 2020 point to the contradictions in the actions of China and in the avowed aims of the GSI. 

Another noteworthy feature of the GSI or the speeches associated with it is the mention of the apparent centrality of China. The references to China-centric or Chinese led initiatives such as the Global Development Initiative (GDI), Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as well as the China- Laos railway part of the BRI in fostering peace, cooperation and development especially in the Asian continent might be seen as attempts to indirectly highlight the pivotal role played by China in the Asian region and world at large. 

This assumption of centrality of China can be traced to the idea of the Middle Kingdom or as per Martin Jacques ‘the Middle Kingdom’ mentality. The term broadly refers to the notion China had of itself being the Zhongguo (Middle Kingdom) meaning the centre of political, cultural and economical activity of the entire world or the Confucian world order comprising the neighbouring kingdoms of Korea, Japan, Indo- China and Mongols. In other words, by virtue of its cultural, moral and political superiority China saw itself as the centre of civilisation while those outside its borders were deemed as barbarians with different degrees of civilizational semblance. As per Acharya, in the current modern world although China sees itself as a sovereign nation existing in an international system made up of nation-states of equal status, yet in its political psyche it still holds on to the notion of ‘Middle Kingdom’ or itself being a ‘civilization state’ predating the ‘nation-state’. The ‘Middle Kingdom’ mentality can also be said to have been expressed in the idea of GSI. A glaring example of it is the mention of GSI as being ‘inspired by the diplomatic tradition and wisdom with unique Chinese characteristics’ or in other words a reference to the traditional Chinese diplomatic methods and protocol which was assumed to be practised by all neighbouring kingdoms and the world at large given its origin from the Middle Kingdom itself. Similarly, the GSI as an initiative should be emulated or accepted by other countries as it is put forward by China which is ‘a responsible major country’ that has ‘held high the banner of peace, development and cooperation’. This is also underlined by Xi’s statement that ‘countries should lead by the power of their example, and not by the example of their power’ thereby highlighting current China’s central position as based on the power and superiority of its own example of domestic and foreign policy instead of military might and coercion; this is similar to the Middle kingdom’s cultural and moral dominance over the neighbouring polities of Korea, Japan and Indo-China. Another prominent expression of the Middle Kingdom is the idea of ‘indivisible security’. As mentioned earlier, while ‘indivisible security’ refers to respect for the security concerns of every country, it also includes the notion that security issues are intertwined as well as that the security of one depends on the security of others. While it is not mentioned explicitly that China would be the centre-point of the indivisible security web, yet given the preponderance of the Middle Kingdom notion in Chinese politics and world-view, it cannot be ruled out. An instance of ‘indivisible security’ from history is the China centred Confucian world order in East Asia whereby smaller kingdoms like Korea depended on China not only for cultural and political guidance but also for military support should the occasion arise. The latter came in the form of the Imjin War of 1592-1598 whereby the Ming dynasty sent military aid to Choson Korea to repel the invasion by Japanese warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi in order to maintain harmony and morality in the Confucian world order. 

Finally, the mention and attack on ‘countries wantonly imposing unilateral sanctions, exercising long-arms jurisdiction’ as well as the formation of ‘exclusive groups’ and ‘attempts to divide the region (Asia) and wage a ‘new Cold War’ which are apparent references to the US led Indo Pacific groups such as QUAD can be seen as an attempt to establish the moral superiority of China and the GSI over the American strategies. Thus, by attempting to highlight the ‘aggressive nature’ of US strategies through descriptions such as ‘flexing its muscle on China’s doorstep’, it was hoped to bring out the contrast with the ‘peaceful and inclusive’ nature of the GSI with its respect for security concerns for other countries and its three principles of ‘shared perception, shared principle and shared path’ which sees the entire world as single community and the GSI as brining ‘win-win’ results for all. This notion of superiority of the Chinese tradition of security can again be traced back to the Confucian values of the Middle Kingdom whereby China saw itself as a defensive power for whom ‘peace is precious’ (he wei gui) and did not resort immediately to violent methods without first trying out peaceful means (xianli houbing). Hence, this insistence on peace and harmony allowed China to see itself as morally superior to barbarian cultures like the Mongols who engaged in incessant warfare as well as, in contemporary times against the US which as per China and explained by scholar Andrew Scobell, was marked by ‘maritime culture’ which ‘tended to view wars in an adventurous and romantic manner’ as opposed to the Chinese warfare marked by ‘ethical thinking’ and ‘moral principles’. 

Thus, only time will tell whether the GSI is truly a ‘global’ initiative with every country having an equal stakeholder or a manifestation of the Confucian world order of peace and harmony but marked by hierarchy with China at the top.  

Views expressed in the article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the editorial stance of Kashmir Observer

  • The author is pursuing MA Politics and International Relations (PIR), Central University of Gujarat (CUG)

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