Image Courtesy: SBI
As the geopolitical situation between China on the one hand and a host of nations such as the West, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia et al on the other hand continues to deteriorate and as China dives deeper into economic and what appears to be inner-party squabbles, every word spoken by top leaders of China assumes significance. Considering the twin facts that the Chinese leaders are usually reticent and are given to being opaque and circumlocutory leaving the listeners and analysts to parse them carefully, the twin speeches of the Chinese Premier Li Qiang gave recently at the ASEAN Summit and the East Asia conference merit discussion.
In the recently concluded 26th ASEAN-China Leaders’ Meeting in Indonesia, the Chinese Premier Li Qiang has warned against ASEAN being sucked into a developing Cold War and has instead offered its helping to develop a ‘shared community for prosperity’. In building this narrative, Li has used four of Xi Jinping’s important pillars, namely, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and the three G’s, namely the Global Security Initiative (GSI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the latest in the series, the Global Civilizational Initiative (GCI). While these may superficially appear par for the course, a deeper analysis shows a lurking agenda behind this disingenuous talk.
In the speech marked by the prominence of number ‘four’, Li started off with four characteristics which have defined and furthered the ASEAN-China relationship in the last ten years, that is since Xi Jinping took over Presidency. These have been the mutual trust and sincerity, good friendly and neighborly relations, mutual win-win cooperation in trade, and common sustainable development initiatives. While all these are debatable points and are not backed by ground realities, he then launched forth into how the relationship should further develop by offering four more suggestions. The connection is easy to make with the four pillars on which Xi Jinping intends to achieve the ‘China Dream’. In the speech at the East Asia Summit, Li Qiang emphasized on the twin concepts of peace and development, concepts that he said have been learned ‘painfully’ by nations of East Asia. He stressed about the importance of East-Asia in the Asia-Pacific geographical construct, thereby sending a message against the ‘Indo-Pacific’ terminology. He also attempted to find an alternative for the CPTPP.
Chinese Framework for Global Dominance
In order to interpret Li Qiang’s ASEAN speech, it is therefore important for us to understand the true objectives of the ‘Four Pillars’ before we analyze the speech by Premier Li Qiang.
The dream that successive Chinese leaders, starting from Deng Xiao Ping, have sold to their citizens is that they would build a ‘wealthy and powerful’ (fuqiang) nation. While other leaders were less sanguine about it, merely referring to a promise of ‘rejuvenation’, Xi Jinping has not only been very vocal but has also set milestones to reach that goal staking his Presidency upon it. We can clearly see that dream is closely linked with the foreign policy contours of China. The powerful dream requires China to dominate the world not only economically but also militarily as it cannot be achieved without a combination of the two. China has been used to the effects of the waxing and waning of its ‘power and pelf’ over its two thousand-year history, but the ‘Hundred Year Humiliation’ has seared the psyche and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has milked this particular aspect not only to seize power but also entrench itself there more permanently. As a nationalist and a committed CCP member, Xi Jinping has really taken this goal to greater heights with his single-minded obsession to realize the promised dream during his Presidency. He feels that the time is ripe to achieve that, by frequently referring to ‘geopolitical changes, the likes of which have not been seen in a hundred years’. That clearly refers to what he believes as the cataclysmic changes about to upturn the extant international order propelling China to the apex.
In Xi Jinping’s approach, the domestic narrative seamlessly integrates with his international narrative. Both have to succeed in order to achieve the fuqiang status. The four pillars therefore have both a domestic and an international component which dovetail with each other. They also promote the Chinese model of governance and development as an alternative to the widely-accepted current architecture based on democracy and a rules-based international order. With China struggling now with its deep economic and security issues, these four pillars will be increasingly used by Xi Jinping as his and his country’s lifeline. The term, Community of Common Destiny’ (CCD), though initially coined by the now-disgraced Hu Jintao, encompasses today the three G’s of GDI, GSI and GCI.
The first project that Xi Jinping launched in the series which is designed to make China achieve fuqiang, was the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The project started off initially as ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ or SREB, then changed into ‘One Belt One Road’ (OBOR), and a Maritime Silk Road (MSR) was thrown in later. As protests appeared over China’s domination, OBOR was re-christened Belt and Road Initiative, BRI, and since then China has assiduously appeared to ‘co-opt’ other countries too in this project. In c. 2015, even as China’s the National Development and Reform Commission came out with the blueprint and objectives of OBOR, China wanted to integrate its ‘Belt & Road’ project with India’s ‘Spice Route’ and ‘Mausam’ projects. This was a sop to India to give an impression of co-opting it because India had started vehemently opposing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) branch of the BRI going through Indian lands of Gilgit-Baltistan.
China’s domestic BRI objectives were: one, tactically absorb the huge excess supply-side glut within China through China-funded projects abroad, and two, balance the disparity in wealth between the high-growth coastal states and the poor hinterland states of China. Internationally, BRI has three goals: one, establish China as the central and the only hub for supply-chain and manufacturing activities, two, enormously extend its geopolitical and geostrategic reach and space, and three, push low-technology items on the infrastructure-challenged states along the BRI route under over-arching Chinese supervision in order to prepare the Chinese industries for a shift from low-technology manufacturing into a high-technology one. Last, but not the least, the Chinese have the ambition to re-establish the zhongguo [Middle Kingdom] and depend upon their Navy to help it do so. Under the pretext of expanding maritime activity and MSR, China planned to massively increase its naval power to unchallenged levels
The second pillar is the GSI which was announced by Xi Jinping in the BoAo Security Forum for Asia in April 2022 in response to the developments in QUAD and AUKUS. The origins of the GSI lie in the domestic security policies which Xi Jinping began tightening from c. 2014. He created the ‘Central National Security Commission’ which oversees practically all endeavors of Chinese activity such as “political, military, homeland security, economic, cultural, social, technological, cyberspace, ecological, resource, nuclear, overseas interests, outer space, deep sea, polar, and biological security issues” among many others. Eight months later, in c. 2015, the Politburo approved the first-ever ‘National Security Strategy’ for the next five years. The second ‘National Security Strategy’ was approved by the Politburo in 2021. The Strategy papers are not available in public domain. Structural changes to the PLA and the PAP (People’s Armed Police) followed the announcement of the strategy in c. 2015
Internationally, GSI is supposed to opposes the pursuit of a nation’s own security at the cost of others’ security (also known by the Cold-War 1.0 era terminology of ‘indivisibility of security’) or the wanton use of unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction. Xi Jinping called it the ‘Common Security of the World’. The ‘indivisibility of security’ was a term invoked by Putin at the start of his attack on Ukraine in February, 2022. Because of the developing Ukraine War, this Chinese initiative did not garner much attention internationally. Three months later, Xi Jinping wanted a closer military cooperation between African nations and China under the GSI which he spelt out in a letter to the second China-Africa Peace and Security Forum. For his part, the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe fleshed out the proposal even more by saying that both should “strengthen equipment and technological cooperation, deepen joint maritime training exercises [and] expand exchanges in professional fields [so as] to promote the China-Africa peace and security cooperation”.
The third pillar, GDI, was also announced by Xi Jinping himself in September 2021 in the UN General Assembly. This is largely based on the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but with Chinese characteristics. On 21 November, 2022, China’s important development aid agency, China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA), hosted an ‘Indian Ocean Region Forum’, for the first time, as part of the 6th China-South Asia Expo where GDI was popularized in the proposed China-Indian Ocean Region Development Cooperation Forum. Obviously, this was an attempt to undermine India in the Indian Ocean Region and its popular ‘Indian Ocean Rim Association’ (IORA).
Four months after the above China-South Asia Expo, Xi Jinping announced his fourth pillar, the ‘Global Civilization Initiative’ (GCI) at a meeting of the CPC with a number of political parties of the world, “Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting” on March 15, 2023 at Beijing. Significantly, this came ahead of the ‘Summit for Democracy’ that had been called for by US Pres. Biden (and four other countries) on March 29 & 30. Clearly, the attempt by Xi Jinping was to elaborate on his point that Democracy need not be the only form of governance and there could be several shades of that determined by the civilizational experiences of each country. The Constitution of PRC claims the country as “People’s Democratic Dictatorship”. The GCI is therefore an effort to blunt the US (and other western and partner countries’) attempt to isolate China on the issue of Democracy. In the 23rd BRICS meet at Johannesburg on August 23, 2023, Xi Jinping again emphasized his GCI saying, “Human civilization is colorful by nature. It is precisely because of their differences in history, culture and system that all countries need to interact with one another, learn from each other, and advance together. Deliberately creating division with the assertion of ‘democracy versus authoritarianism’ and ‘liberalism versus autocracy’ can only split the world and lead to clash of civilizations. I have put forward the Global Civilization Initiative, calling for promoting diversity of global civilizations, the common values of humanity, and people-to-people and cultural exchanges and cooperation. China welcomes all other countries to get involved in cooperation under this initiative.”
Interpretation of Li Qiang’s ASEAN Speech
Li Qiang’s speech at the ASEAN meet must be interpreted in terms of these four initiatives. ASEAN occupies the prime space in China’s external focus as a region, for obvious reasons. They are littorals or non-littoral neighbours of China, China has had a large influence over them for millennia, many of them have overlapping claims over the South China Sea (also called Indo-China Sea, ICS), they are vitally important for the security of China, they offer a large market for Chinese products, large Chinese diaspora live in these countries etc. Li Qiang’s speech subtly reminded some of these aspects when he said, “China and ASEAN are linked by mountains and rivers and have a close blood relationship”.
He also referred to Indonesia being the place where Xi Jinping unveiled the MSR, as the harbinger of ‘Community of Common Destiny for a Shared Future’. He brought up the ‘Century of Changes’, the common theme of Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders, to refer to the rise of China to the pinnacle, eclipsing the established order. He extolled the BRI as to how it has brought about “regional connectivity . . . and continues to achieve landmark results, and the construction of new international land-sea trade corridors” in ASEAN. He then launched forth into how the Chinese and ASEAN visions coincide over sustainable development.
However, it was his proposals that show the insidiousness of the Chinese approach. The Chinese statements would always be over-arching and appear to be reasonable until we begin to dig deeper into them.
One of his four suggestions, based on the GSI pillar, was that ASEAN must work with China to prevent a re-lapse into ‘Cold-War thinking’, a laudable goal. However, it was the reason he gave as to why the ASEAN must choose China, namely, “China firmly adheres to the path of peaceful development” that was most egregious. Apart from claiming the whole of ICS as its own, it has regularly threatened poor fishermen from the Philippines and Vietnam with its 10,000 tonne Coast Guard cutters or swarms of maritime militia and has even sunk their boats and killed them, it has imposed Chinese Maritime Laws on the ICS, it has violated all international laws and conventions, and it prevents any development activities in the EEZs of these littorals. How peaceful are these activities? One must therefore be a top Chinese leader to proclaim peaceful intentions with a straight face.
He then went on to claim that China was “willing to actively promote negotiations with ASEAN countries on the text of the Code of Conduct (CoC) in the South China Sea”. Now, that requires some gumption to say this. The ASEAN has been insisting with China since 1992 to conform to ‘international norms of behaviour’ in the ICS. After having stonewalled this, China started the discussion on Dec. 16, 1997. But all that could be reached by c. 2002 was the ‘Declaration of the Conduct of Parties’ (DoC) which committed both sides to refrain from ‘inhabiting presently uninhabited islands’, something that China has not abided by. The DoC is a precursor to the CoC, but China has shown little interest in pursuing this matter because it wants to be the sole veto-wielding nation in matters related to the ICS. It was only in c. 2017 that a framework for the CoC was agreed upon between the ASEAN and China. China then insisted three readings of the CoC before finalizing it. The second reading was expected to be completed before the end of 2023. And, we now have the spectacle of Li Qiang offering more ‘negotiations on the text of the CoC’. This is an absolute travesty even by Chinese standards and Characteristics.
More importantly, Li offered “to provide institutional guarantee for building the South China Sea into a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”. This is certainly a clever-by-half ruse to junk the 2016 ITLOS Arbitral Award. He is also conflating CoC with peaceful ICS through a veiled threat. China has been saying that only bilateral discussions with littorals can resolve the ICS dispute. While the CoC would not solve the maritime boundary dispute, China might offer it as a sop in order to extract the promise from the ASEAN of conducting bilateral negotiations with small and powerless littorals of the ICS in order to settle the maritime boundaries according to its whims and fancies. But CoC would not itself come about without unique prominence and power given to China by the ASEAN and hence the delay.
Under the rubric of the GDI, Li Qiang said that China’s approach coincided with that of the ASEAN, namely ASEAN Community Vision 2025 which is about to come to an end, having been formulated in c. 2015. That particular vision spoke about ‘dispute resolution by peaceful means, a nuclear weapons-free zone, and maritime cooperation under internationally-accepted maritime conventions and principles’. China has been a stumbling block in each one of these. It is therefore astonishing to see the Chinese claim that the intransigent and coercive behavior of China resonates with the ASEAN Vision of 2025. While referring to this old document, Li Qiang remained silent about the more recent (c. 2019) ‘ASEAN Outlook for Indo-Pacific’ (AOIP) document which has synergies with India’s Indo-Pacific Oceans Initiative (IPOI), also announced in c. 2019. The AOIP unambiguously refers to “respect for international law, such as UN Charter, the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and other relevant UN treaties and conventions . . .”
He then went on to the fourth and the latest pillar, GCI. The ASEAN countries have a long history of Chinese influence and entanglement as is well known. There are significant Chinese populations in several ASEAN member states. But, even then, it must be alarming to hear Li Qiang talk of opening “10,000 ‘people training Program’ to train 10,000 talents for ASEAN countries” in the next three years. This is suspicious in view of the worldwide experience of Chinese influence operations and even spying activities through Confucius Institutes.
Interpretation of Li Qiang’s East Asia Summit Speech
While the broad objectives of the 18-member EAS are ‘strategic, political, and economic’, it has priority areas of interest such as ‘environment and energy, education, finance, global health issues and pandemic diseases, natural disaster management, and ASEAN Connectivity’. Increasingly it is concerned with all forms of security.
As in the ASEAN Leaders’ Meet a day earlier, Li Qiang offered several suggestions to EAS. He wanted the EAS to include electric vehicles, marine economy, and achieving common growth through cooperation. These three are essentially important for China. The last of these is a veiled reference to China’s GDI. He then requested EAS member countries to take seriously the Chinese offer to conduct more in-depth dialogue on the three G’s, namely GDI, GSI and GCI. The third suggestion was that the EAS member states must not fall prey to the temptation of ‘forming small circles’, the usual Chinese reference to such groupings as the QUAD or AUKUS or I2U2. He said China firmly opposed regional countries taking sides, a warning to these countries not to get involved in the China-US disputes. He also tried to revive the moribund ‘Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area’, possibly as an alternative to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), of which China is not a member even though it has applied for it. As it fears that it will not be able to gain entry into the trade block, especially in view of the fraught relationship with powerful members of the group and its support for State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), it is planning alternatives and wreck the CPTPP, perhaps.
He also confirmed that China is making concerted efforts to export its governance practice to other countries because it has achieved significant modernization involving 1.4 Billion people.
All in all, the Chinese Premier’s speech at the ASEAN and the EAS summits clearly draws a contour of how China is planning to build up its strategy in the light of increasing headwinds it is facing in multiple directions both domestically and internationally. It is based on the Chinese model of governance and development and is erected on the four pillars of BRI and the three G’s.