Chinese Defense Minister Pushes Beijing's Global Security Blueprint During Trip To Russia, Belarus

Against the backdrop of the intensifying war in Ukraine, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu wrapped up a symbolic trip to Russia and Belarus by bolstering military ties and promoting a Chinese initiative meant to rival Western frameworks and put Beijing at the center of international security issues.

Li landed in Moscow on August 14 to kick off the military-diplomacy tour by holding talks with top officials, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.

Beijing and Moscow pledged to strengthen military cooperation despite the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which has triggered an ongoing humanitarian disaster and rattled the global security structure.

Li held discussions with senior Belarusian officials in Minsk on August 17 -- including leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- on how to deepen collaboration in areas from defense to economic cooperation, with the sides agreeing to hold joint military drills next year.

But central to Li's trip was pushing China’s new Global Security Initiative (GSI), the brainchild of Chinese leader Xi Jinping that has become Beijing’s sweeping blueprint aimed at presenting foreign-policy alternatives to those offered by the West.

The Chinese policy -- which was fully unveiled in February -- calls for an enhanced focus on diplomacy and defense that China says can make the world safer through improved cooperation and dialogue on issues ranging from counterterrorism to increased military exercises and more comprehensive intelligence sharing.

“Whether it is on Afghanistan, Syria, the Korean Peninsula, Ukraine, or the Iranian nuclear issue, China will promote peace talks and help reach an international consensus,” Li said at the Moscow Conference on International Security on August 15. He cited the deal brokered by Beijing to normalize ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran in March as an example of this approach.

Chinese officials have positioned the GSI in strict opposition to initiatives and policies pushed by the West in recent years, in particular the United States’ use of economic sanctions and Washington’s invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

While speaking at the conference in Moscow, Li took not-so-veiled shots at U.S. foreign policy.

“The international community is resisting and strongly opposed to the hegemonic approach of imposing one’s will on others and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,” he claimed. “These erroneous actions deprive other countries of their right to development and autonomy, and are the source of chaos and disaster in the world.”

A Receptive Audience

The Moscow security conference provided fertile ground for Beijing’s efforts to frame itself as an alternative to the United States as a security partner.

The event featured a prerecorded message from Putin in which he accused the United States of adding “fuel to the fire” of global conflicts, with the Russian president focusing on Washington’s military support and delivery of weapons to Ukraine.

The Kremlin invited 92 countries -- including Belarus, Saudi Arabia, India, and Vietnam -- to attend the conference, but Russian media reported that no representative from a Western country was in attendance.

While there, Li said that China was willing to hold more military exercises with other countries and would expand the scope of the drills. On the sidelines of the event, Li -- who was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 for helping China buy fighter jets and equipment from a Russian arms exporter -- also met with defense officials from Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Kazakhstan, and Vietnam.

“The whole point of GSI is trying to put a positive spin on China’s security approach,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told RFE/RL. “The Chinese like to have these big, central ideas to organize their views of the world that they can then pitch and sell to other countries.”

Global Problems, Chinese Solutions

China unveiled its “global security initiative” in February following a proposal by Xi in April 2022.

In that speech, Xi suggested countries should resolve their disputes through dialogue, respecting one another’s differences in order to achieve “security for all.”

“We need to work together to maintain peace and stability in the world,” Xi said. “Countries around the world are like passengers aboard the same ship who share the same destiny.”

But analysts caution that behind the rosy rhetoric, many of the practices advocated through the GSI are designed to create a global system that is friendlier to autocratic regimes and erodes the current Western-led, multinational process.

“The GSI is the latest and possibly most troubling evidence that the confrontation between the U.S. and China is escalating into a full-fledged contest for global primacy,” Michael Shulman, a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote in The Atlantic last year.

It is unknown how Li and other senior Chinese officials will look to further the GSI in the future.

“Countries are willing to sign on to initiatives and narratives like those in the GSI because they want engagement with China,” Pantucci said. “It’s not necessarily that they believe the statements or the details within it, but they want a relationship with Beijing so they are willing to accept it.”

Beyond the statements in Moscow about increased cooperation, Beijing has also included its 12-point proposal for how to end the war in Ukraine as within the broader framework of the GSI. The document has faced criticism from Western leaders who questioned China’s ability to broker a truce given its growing ties with Russia.

The proposal has still received some endorsements from the Global South and helped set off a string of diplomatic forays over the war in Ukraine from leaders in Africa and Latin America.

Li also used the GSI and his tour to Russia and Belarus to push for other Chinese aims. At the conference, he said that attempts to “use Taiwan to contain China” would “surely end in failure,” according to the state-run agency Xinhua.

Tensions remain high over Taiwan, with Beijing viewing the island as a rogue province that it seeks to claim -- by force, if necessary.

Experts note that many of the principles advocated through GSI such as noninterference and regional stability are references to China’s own concerns and desires over a potential conflict involving Taiwan. Beijing has repeatedly castigated American interactions with the island -- which Washington does not have official diplomatic ties with -- especially over U.S. arms sales to Taipei.

Key Words: China, Russia, Belarus, Military

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