by Giorgio Cuscito
1. THE PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF CHINA IS laying the foundations of an international order that could rival that led by the United States. The aim: to legitimise the conquest of Taiwan in the long term, to build a Chinese sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific, and to expand its reach beyond national borders. This, with the support of the untrustworthy Russia, in the name of the ‘friendship with no limits’ signed with the Kremlin in February 2022, twenty days before Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Having shut down the disputed ‘zero-Covid’ policy and secured his third term at the helm of the People’s Republic, Xi Jinping focused on foreign policy in early 2023. Beijing prepared a vague mediation plan between Moscow and Kiev, and then contributed to the ongoing thaw between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the meantime, it has re-established relations with the Kuomintang (Taiwan’s opposition party), considered a bridgehead in Taipei in the unlikely event that it defeats the Democratic Progressive Party (now in government) in the 2024 presidential elections. However, this has not slowed down the continuation of the People’s Liberation Army’s operations around the island.
Furthermore, Beijing has started to define more clearly the three multilateral forums on which the Sino-centric world should hinge: the Global Security Initiative (GSI), the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and the Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI). These are platforms that the Chinese leadership would like to link to other multilateral activities already in place, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI, New Silk Road), so as to strengthen its economic, military, and cultural operations abroad. This is accompanied by the narrative that the decline of the US is inevitable and China can replace it as the ‘standard-bearer of peace’.
In the 1990s, Beijing had embraced the globalisation forged by Washington as a ‘historical necessity’. The Chinese equivalent quanqiuhua (quanqiuhua is the Chinese translation of “globalisation”, but literally it means “uniting the entire globe”) reflected the People’s Republic’s need to connect with the rest of the world in order to grow economically and close the gap with the US ‘while remaining in the dark’, in line with the reform and opening-up policy launched by Deng Xiaoping. Moreover, quanqiuhua evoked the Confucian harmony that used to order the planet, leaving China as its moral and cultural hub. Now that Xi has ended the period of low-profile policy imposed on the country by Deng, that neologism more explicitly expresses the former Empire of the Centre’s desire to undermine American hegemony.
2. The new projects announced by Beijing are primarily aimed at countries in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South-East Asia. Many of these want to cash in on Chinese investments. Moreover, they are not particularly interested in taking sides in the Sino-US rivalry or the Ukraine War. The People’s Republic would also like to involve the European states in its plans as they are fundamental economic partners, forges of innovation, and decisive building blocks of the American informal empire. Yet the Europeans’ generalised reluctance to support Beijing’s global projects makes the likelihood of their participation low. This dynamic also affects Italy, which in March 2024 will have to decide whether to remain a member of BRI or abandon it in line with Washington’s anti-Chinese containment strategy.
The basis of Xi’s vision is the link between security and development. The former is the ‘foundation’ of the latter, while ‘stability is the prerequisite for prosperity’. In concrete terms, it means that China believes it cannot unleash its capabilities on a planetary scale as long as it perceives itself threatened by the presence of rivals (e.g. the US and Japan) just a few kilometres away. The implication is that only the Communist Party and its leader are able to heal the multiple geopolitical fault lines that mark the People’s Republic and ensure its rise.
The importance of these issues is borne out by the background of the team of officials to whom Xi has assigned the task of managing internal and external threats over the next five years. Wang Xiaohong is the first former professional policeman to head the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), a body that oversees domestic intelligence activities, among other things. Chen Yixin will do the same for the Ministry of State Security, in charge of foreign espionage. Li Shangfu, a military man with aerospace experience (a new frontier in the duel with the US), is head of the Ministry of Defence. Wang and Chen worked with Xi when the current leader was pursuing a career in Fujian and Zhejiang, two provinces bordering the China Sea a few kilometres away from Taiwan.
This island – which officially retains the name ‘Republic of China’ – is the link between domestic interests and Beijing’s global ambitions. In particular, it is the pawn that Xi wants for himself well before 2049 in order to project his country into the Pacific, free of the control of US bases and units located along the first chain of islands (Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore) that encloses the East and South China Seas.
So far, the People’s Republic has failed to persuade the Taiwanese to accept unification. Therefore, it would like to create an international environment that favours Taipei’s diplomatic isolation and legitimises invasion should Beijing deem it necessary. The paradox is that the success rate of China’s global projects is inversely proportional to the effort it pours into conquering the island, especially through the use of force rather than political, economic, and cultural penetration.
3. The new phase of the People’s Republic’s foreign policy began with the release of the twelve-point document describing its ‘position’ on the ‘political settlement of the Ukraine crisis’. The text contains vague proposals to de-escalate the tension on the battlefield and facilitate the achievement of a cease-fire, but does not envisage any kind of territorial partitioning. In fact, it does not consist of a real peace plan. In any case, Beijing does not formally define the ongoing conflict by the term ‘war’ because it would blame Moscow. In fact, it is clear from the text that China does not want to turn its back on the Kremlin, especially now that the US is successfully fostering military and technological interaction between its partners in the Indo-Pacific and NATO members.
At the same time, the text hints at Xi’s dissatisfaction with the continuing invasion, which has complicated the development of the new silk routes and compromised Chinese military and agribusiness affairs in Ukraine. Not surprisingly, Beijing calls for facilitating the invaded country’s grain exports and, prematurely, says it is ready to help rebuild the country once hostilities end.
The mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia that the People’s Republic officially began in March is partly explained by the damage inflicted on BRI’s land corridors passing through Ukrainian and Russian soil and the consequent need to enhance the route involving the Middle East, Central Asia, and Turkey. Tehran and Riyadh had already been interacting for some time, but the normalisation of their relations needed an arbiter who could dialogue with both of them. Beijing took advantage of this to raise its soft power in the region, which is crucial for its economic interests. About half of China’s hydrocarbon imports already originate from the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia being the first source. Moreover, last December, Huawei was awarded the construction of the cloud network infrastructure of some cities in that country. At the same time, Iran continues to play an essential role in Beijing’s regional plans by virtue of its valuable energy resources, the influence it maintains over countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Lebanon, and its competition with Washington.
The media of the People’s Republic media have highlighted the thaw between Riyadh and Tehran as an example of the potential of the Global Security Initiative, even though it is a recent framework lacking substance. Xi first named the GSI during the Boao Forum (the ‘Asian Davos’) in April 2022, but its ‘concept paper’ was published only days before the 12-point plan on the Ukraine war. Underlying the GSI is that security is ‘indivisible’, terminology dating back to the Cold War period and evoked by Russia to justify its invasion of Ukraine. The message is that no country should strengthen its own security to the detriment of the security of others – a deliberately vague concept, clarified in part by an article published in the People’s Daily (the Communist Party organ) penned by Yuan Peng, head of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR, affiliated to the Ministry of State Security) and secretary-general of the Research Center for Comprehensive National Security. Yuan argues that the People’s Republic’s security favours ‘global security’, which can help solve the West’s ‘security dilemma’. In short, Beijing wants to provide Chinese solutions to problems that have a global impact and establish red lines not to be crossed if its military reaction is to be avoided. All this through new forums, organisations, research centres, and adherence to the principles of the UN Charter, which, however, is understood by the Chinese government as an organ to be subjected to conditions so that it is not just driven by American.
The concept paper draws up a list of potential GSI satellites. Prominent among them is the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, through which Chinese security operations in Central Asia – with and against Moscow – can be expanded. Then there is the BRICS summit, a grouping of actors (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) with geopolitical interests that are far from homogeneous but useful in undermining the US-led system. The text also mentions: the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum, coordinated by the Ministry of Defence of the People’s Republic; the Middle East Security Forum, run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; the Xiangshan Forum, dedicated to cooperation with Far Eastern countries; the Global Public Security Cooperation Forum, overseen by the Ministry of Public Security; and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, formed to dialogue with Indochina countries.
The GSI is supposed to act as the glue keeping together all activities organised by Beijing to protect economic operations within the New Silk Road Initiative. Moreover, its concept paper provides for the training of ‘5,000 training opportunities […] to train professionals for addressing global security issues’. This naturally includes threats to the safety of Chinese workers in particularly unstable theatres such as Africa and the Middle East, where the deployment of armed forces and private security companies in Beijing’s service has already been intensified.
4. The massive offer of investment, aid, and donations has enabled the People’s Republic to involve more than a hundred countries in BRI. However, in the absence of economically viable projects and unless local populations put their trust in the Initiative, those relations may be overshadowed by the so-called debt trap (see the Sri Lanka case), the geopolitical fragility of some states (such as Pakistan and Afghanistan), fears of Chinese technological penetration, and the repercussions of Sino-US relations.
The Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI), launched in March 2023, should serve as a means for Beijing not to be perceived as a threat by other collectivities and to demonstrate that the concept of ‘democracy’ is not for the exclusive use of the US. According to the Chinese narrative, each collectivity must establish its own growth model, without necessarily following America’s model. Such logic dictates that ‘modernisation’ does not equate to ‘Westernisation’ and that China can provide ‘a better social system’ than America. This is a sign that the People’s Republic’s next cultural initiatives could come to life under the umbrella of the GCI, assuming it begins to gain acceptance.
One of the first to espouse the Chinese perspective on the relationship between civilisations (particularly Asian ones) was Malaysia’s Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, during his meeting with Xi this spring. Anwar’s support probably hinges on the fact that Malaysia wants to continue to receive investment from China while hoping to curb its naval presence in its own waters. Yet the Malaysian Prime Minister’s willingness to negotiate with Beijing to resolve maritime disputes between the respective countries has ignited internal debate on the tactics Kuala Lumpur should adopt towards the Asian power.
Other South-East Asian countries are also debating the same issue. According to a survey carried out by the Singaporean ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, 44.5% of the region’s inhabitants have ‘little’ or ‘no confidence’ that the GSI will produce regional benefits. This opinion is weighed down by Beijing’s military build-up, the pervasive presence of People’s Liberation Army ships in the China Seas, and the latter’s possible installation of military bases in Cambodia (see the complex under renovation in Ream), Myanmar, and the Solomon Islands.
Despite their remoteness from the Indo-Pacific, not even European countries are inclined to embrace Xi’s plans. The UK, France, and Germany remain keen to do business with the People’s Republic, but are opposed to its technological penetration of the Old Continent, the destabilisation of the Far East and, at worst, a war over Taiwan.
Although French President Emmanuel Macron has recently given signs that he wants to collaborate with Beijing on the Ukraine dossier, this does not mean that he wants to espouse its power ambitions. If anything, he imagines using them to carve out his own space of influence in the Old Continent, to the detriment of the US, revealing in the process the countless geopolitical faults that divide the West. Moreover, the Hexagon is not giving up its historical ambitions in the Indo-Pacific and the defence of its possessions in Oceania, where the presence of the People’s Republic is growing. That is why Paris has sent – and will continue to send – ships to the Indo-Pacific on a par with London and Berlin.
This year Italy will do likewise. Above all, to show that it is siding with America on Taiwan. Last March, the frigate Bergamini took part in the first joint EU-US naval exercise in the Pacific, and in the coming months the aircraft carrier Cavour and its escort ship will also ply those waters as far as Japan. This is a dynamic that will certainly fuel the debate on the meaning of Italy’s participation in the new Silk Roads, whose future Rome will soon have to decide after a confrontation with America. Under the circumstances, the four major European players are unlikely to support the GSI and the GCI.
5. There’s one ingredient missing in “globalisation in mandarin sauce”: finance. The fact that Anwar himself spoke to Xi about the revival of the Asian Monetary Fund is significant in this regard. Japan had proposed this body in the late 1990s to provide financial stability to the Far East. The project never saw the light of day, mainly due to US opposition to the downsizing of the dollar’s role in a part of the world with great margins for economic growth and inhabited by powers such as the Land of the Rising Sun and China.
It is not unthinkable that in the medium term, Beijing will attempt (perhaps in collaboration with Russia) to give new impetus to this or other similar initiatives to speed up the internationalisation of the yuan, which is essential to reduce its economic dependence on the US dollar and blunt the impact of possible sanctions by Washington. The Chinese government has been studying this issue for years. As early as 2015, General Qiao Liang (co-author of the well-known Unrestricted Warfare) wrote that his country should at least aim to divide the world into three trading blocs dominated by the dollar, euro, and yuan respectively.
Yet the unresolved shortcomings of China’s financial system and the Communist Party’s desire to preserve control of the economy hinder the project. Not to mention that a Beijing-led Asian Monetary Fund would certainly face opposition from the US and Japan. Moreover, the power of a currency derives first and foremost from the reliability of the power that prints it. In this sense, the general worsening of China’s image caused by the competition with the United States, the partnership with Russia and the Taiwan dossier would certainly not benefit the spread of the yuan.
In short, the island is not just the picklock with which Beijing wants access to the Pacific Ocean. It is a decisive factor for the future of Chinese global projects. If the People’s Republic attempts to gain control of Taiwan through force and thus proves to be the main threat to regional stability, then the plan to provide Chinese solutions to global problems will fail even before it meets American opposition.