Xi Jinping’s announcement of three global initiatives since 2021 has sparked considerable debate about Beijing’s articulation of the international order. However, much of the analysis and commentary surrounding these initiatives have focused on the degree to which they illustrate China’s revisionism. As a result, they fall short in three regards.
First, the status quo-revisionist binary is inherently flawed as a means of assessing state intentions. This is particularly important when the United States, the assumed status quo power and architect of the existing order, has often taken actions that are revisionist.
Second, these analyses implicitly assume that international orders are static rather than fluid and multilayered. Historically, international orders and their constituent parts have been contested or interpreted differently by other actors, the post-WWII order is no different.
Third, and more importantly, such narratives do not account for the ways in which these initiatives integrate a series of long-standing discourses that articulate Beijing’s interpretation of the international order. The origins of these discourses and their content, as well as how Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials mobilize them, matter – they not only reveal China’s understanding and preferences of the international order, but also China’s role and place within it.
In this context, the announcement speeches, subsequent official statements, and white papers of the Global Development, Security, and Civilization Initiatives reveal (1) the integration of prior discourses; (2) the preference and promotion of a multipolar international system; and (3) the preference and promotion of particularistic universalism.
Integration of Discourses
The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence have been a foundational component of China’s foreign policy discourse for decades. To that end, Chinese officials make regular statements on the importance of sovereignty, territorial integrity, non-interference, mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence during diplomatic summits with their counterparts. It is, therefore, unsurprising that various components of these principles have made their way into key policy slogans like the “Community with a Shared Future for Mankind,” the “Silk Road Spirit,” and ultimately, the three global initiatives.
These principles have also intersected with another official discourse that links security and development. This security-development nexus is a discourse contending that security issues are the product of underdevelopment and advocates for the centrality of the CCP. While it originated as a mechanism for domestic governance in China, over the past few decades, Chinese officials have externalized this discourse as part of China’s foreign policy.
The intersection of the principles of peaceful coexistence and the security-development nexus produces another discourse advocating for non-interference in a country’s political and economic development. Consequently, China’s foreign policy discourse promotes respect for plurality, while simultaneously seeking international cooperation on the grounds of development and stability in the spirit of mutual benefit, all of which are viewed as a form of shared interest.
In other words, China’s global initiatives have become the most recent embodiment of two foundational discourses that have been mobilized by the CCP for several decades. As a result, they reveal a preference for multipolarity as well as a particularistic form of universality.
“True Multilateralism” and Multipolarity
While none of the three initiatives directly address polarity as a central theme in the way that other policy statements have, they implicitly reject unipolarity and its associated American hegemony. This is evident in their appeals to multilateralism to solve common global issues and the centering of the United Nations and its bodies as the platform to facilitate this process.
For example, Xi Jinping’s statement to the U.N. General Assembly in 2021, which focused on development, contended that the United Nations “should hold high the banner of true multilateralism and serve as the platform for countries to jointly safeguard universal security, share development achievements and chart the course for the future world.” The concept paper for the Global Security Initiative also contends that the purpose and principles of the U.N. Charter can only be maintained and implemented if all countries practice true multilateralism.
These repeated references to “true multilateralism” represent an implicit critique of what Beijing perceives as American unilateralism, and therefore actions destabilizing to the international order. By appealing to multilateralism Beijing is promoting a multipolar order that aims to restrain that behavior. Furthermore, it centers China as a key player in that multipolar order.
The Paradox of Particularistic Universalism
Through their embodiment of China’s longstanding foreign policy discourses, these three initiatives also represent a critique of Western universalism and the role it plays in the international order. A particular point of contention for Beijing has been the West’s efforts to promote liberal democracy and neoliberal economics in the Global South. While these initiatives do not explicitly reject such forms of organizing political and economic life, they aim to provide discursive space for greater plurality by recognizing the multiple different trajectories of political and economic development of all countries.
Paradoxically, despite their critique of Western universalism through the promotion of particularity, it is evident that these initiatives incorporate a measure of universality as well. For example, the Global Development and Security Initiatives inherently view development and security as co-constitutive. In other words, there is a universal link between the two. Furthermore, the Global Civilization Initiative, in its reference to the diversity and particularity of peoples and places, advocates for common values such as “peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom.”
In essence, to the extent that universalism exists in Chinese visions of the international order, it is one devoid of the promotion of liberal values as interpreted and promoted by the United States and the West more broadly.
Ultimately, while there are inevitable disconnects between, and within, words and actions, these initiatives represent the discursive mechanism through which Chinese officials articulate their preferences for the international order and, therefore, warrant deeper engagement. Importantly, their articulation of the international order precludes the binary of status quo-revisionist power competition.
In a traditional sense, China cannot be a revisionist power if it centers core bodies and principles of the existing order in their vision of the future. This complicates general arguments that China seeks to upend the existing system. However, China is not a status quo power either. Despite centering key international bodies like the U.N. and associated institutions, the promotion of multipolarity and particularistic universalism indicates that Chinese officials seek to erode what they view as American hegemony and the centrality of the Western liberal values the U.S. promotes as universal.
China’s foreign policy discourse does not necessarily represent an inherent threat to international order per se. After all, the international order has never been static and has always had competing interpretations, including by officials in Washington. However, these global initiatives do challenge the current dominant interpretation of the international order promoted by the United States. which is espoused in its “rules-based order” discourse. Consequently, to the extent that the current order must be unipolar and defined by universalist Western liberal values, China clearly represents a challenge.