China Economy & Business Politics & Diplomacy Security & Defense
Issue Brief June 21, 2023

How Beijing’s newest global initiatives seek to remake the world order

By Michael Schuman, Jonathan Fulton, and Tuvia Gering


In March 2023, China stunned the world by achieving a rare and unexpected diplomatic breakthrough. Chinese leader Xi Jinping brokered an agreement between longtime antagonists Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations.1“Joint Trilateral Statement by the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 10, 2023, It was a coup, one that could reshape the Middle East, and the role of the United States in that vital region.

In comments after the deal was signed, Wang Yi, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) top official for foreign affairs, noted that the dialogue was a successful application of the Global Security Initiative, or GSI.2“Saudi Arabia, Iran Agree to Resume Ties, Reopen Embassies, after Talks in Beijing,” Global Times, March 10, 2023, That proposal remains obscure to many practitioners of international relations, but it is of growing importance to Beijing as part of Xi’s intensifying campaign to remake the world order in China’s favor. 

Xi and his diplomats have been propagating the GSI with greater urgency in recent months. Beijing’s 12-point “position paper” (also called a “peace plan”) on resolving the Ukraine war, released in February on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion, also relied heavily on ideas found in the GSI.3“China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 24, 2023, First proposed by Xi in April 2022 and further articulated in a concept paper released in February 2023,4Xi Jinping, “Rising to Challenges and Building a Bright Future Through Cooperation,” transcript of speech delivered at the Boao Forum for Asia Annual Conference, Beijing, April 21, 2022, 5“The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 21, 2023, the GSI is a manifesto for an alternative system of international affairs to the current “rules based” order led by the United States and its partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. In it are China’s core principles of diplomacy, including the paramount importance of state sovereignty and territorial integrity; noninterference in the internal affairs of states; and opposition to “unilateral” sanctions and “bloc confrontation.” Though many of its ideas are not new, the GSI, taken as a whole, is Xi’s first attempt to present a more comprehensive vision of a new world order and formulate the ideological backbone for a global governance system that elevates Chinese influence at the expense of American power.

The GSI has a twin, the Global Development Initiative, or GDI. The two are interconnected through the Chinese Marxist belief that “security is a prerequisite for development, and development is a guarantee for security,”6Zhonghua Lun, “We Must Excel in Two Major Areas: Development and Security,” Xinhua, September 20, 2022, otherwise known as “peace through development.”7Kwok Chung Wong, “The Rise of China’s Developmental Peace: Can an Economic Approach to Peacebuilding Create Sustainable Peace?” Global Society 35, no. 4 (2021), 522-540. Xi first outlined this proposal to the United Nations General Assembly in 2021 “to help revive global efforts to achieve the [UN’s] Sustainable Development Goals” by 2030.8“UN Chief Says China’s Global Development Initiative Helps Achieve Global Goals,” Xinhua, September 21, 2022, But just as the GSI aims to guide discourse on global governance, the GDI’s goal is to usurp the international dialogue on the global development agenda, place it under Chinese tutelage, and infuse it with (supposed) Chinese principles. The GDI has gained traction in the development sphere and within the UN system.

These twin initiatives are China’s “blueprint” for transforming the global order.9“Wang Yi on the Significance of the Global Development Initiative” (in Chinese), Foreign Ministry of the People’s Republic of China, September 26, 2021, They are likely part of a corpus of ideas still to come; all meant to be mutually reinforcing and aimed at forging an increasingly comprehensive vision of a new global governance system. As part of this broader framing effort, Beijing introduced the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) in March 2023, which promotes a state-focused and state-defined values system and marks another effort by Beijing to eliminate universal values in areas such as human rights and democracy, in line with principles in the GSI.10“Global Civilization Initiative Injects Fresh Energy into Human Development,” March 19, 2023, State Council Information Office, In this future, China will be in the lead, and the international system will be friendlier to autocratic governments; sovereignty will come at the expense of individual liberties, while universal values such as democracy and human rights, which have been at the core of world affairs for decades, will be stripped from global governance. Together, the three global initiatives stem from the ideological edge of Xi’s efforts to roll back American global primacy. They are, therefore, crucial features of Chinese foreign and security policy. Policymakers in the United States and its partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific need to know more about them and their role in China’s foreign policy.

The GSI and GDI in China’s worldview

“The world is undergoing great changes unseen in a century,” Xi has said. On the surface, this now-ubiquitous formulation refers to major global drivers, such as climate change, terrorism, recessions, disruptive technologies, and a fourth industrial revolution. As any major stakeholder, China must adapt to these shifts.

But such internationally held truths on the state of the world belie a unique Chinese belief of another type of change; China, as the world’s rising power, must assume a more global role to guide the international community through these new challenges and ensure that the “great changes unseen in a century” fuel, rather than thwart, the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”11Weimin Wang, “Boosting National Security with Distinctive Diplomacy” (in Chinese), CSSN, May 12, 2023,

That is the starting point for the three initiatives. They are a response to a world undergoing historic changes—ones that could, if managed properly, benefit China. Beijing holds that “China is in its best development stage since modern times,” just as the world’s geoeconomic center gravitates from the North Atlantic to the Indo-Pacific.12Wang, “Boosting National Security with Distinctive Diplomacy.”  

And as this dynamic region’s most valuable player, China juxtaposes its resurgence against a post-Trump, post–financial crisis America13Ibid. and what Beijing’s leaders believe is the United States’ diminishing global influence, universally described by Chinese intelligentsia as “a rise of the East and a decline of the West.”14Michael Swaine, “Chinese Views of U.S. Decline,” China Leadership Monitor, September 1, 2021. Despite the caveats of senior economists, Xi’s China is self-confident: “Time and momentum are on our side,” Xi routinely insists.15Johnny Erling, “Xi’s New Slogan for China’s Trajectory: ‘Time and Momentum Are on Our Side,’” Mercator Institute for China Studies, July 9, 2021, The Chinese political elite believe that by 2049—the centennial of the Communist regime—the rejuvenated, wealthy, and powerful modern socialist Chinese state will have equaled or surpassed the United States in every factor that contributes to a country’s comprehensive national power.

The GSI and GDI are two crucial tools to help China achieve global primacy. Though short on details, albeit not on platitudes, they are China’s answer to the future of the international order. 

Since Xi’s premier international development program, the Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, was announced in 2013, Beijing has been offering Chinese alternatives to global governance, and in the process undermining Washington’s preferences for international order. The BRI, though, as mainly an infrastructure-building project, and one with mixed results, fell short of a full vision of a post-Western world, which became increasingly necessary amid China’s systemic rivalry with the United States. In 2017, Xi introduced another key concept for the country’s international agenda, calling for the building of a “community of a shared future for mankind,” which further laid the groundwork for advancing his strategic vision.16Xi Jinping, “Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind,” transcript of speech delivered at the United Nations Office, Geneva, January 18, 2017, Enter the GDI, GSI, and GCI. Chinese leaders describe these initiatives as new, badly needed, and superior solutions to the world’s ills. In June 2022, Xi explained that the GDI was initiated “at a time when…the North-South gap keeps widening, and crises are emerging in food and energy security.”17“Chair’s Statement of the High-Level Dialogue on Global Development,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 24, 2022, Wang described the GDI as “a rallying call to galvanize greater attention on development and bring it back to the center of the international agenda.”18“Wang Yi Attends the Launch of the Global Development Report,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 20, 2022, He added that “it offers a ‘fast track’ to promote development, as well as an effective platform for all parties to coordinate development policies and deepen practical cooperation.” The main principles expressed in the GDI, as Xi outlined them, include a commitment to a “people-centered” and “innovation-driven” approach to development, and a focus on “results-oriented actions” that bring “benefits for all.”19Xi Jinping, “Bolstering Confidence and Jointly Overcoming Difficulties to Build a Better World,” transcript of speech delivered at the United Nations General Assembly, New York September 21, 2021,

Similarly, the GSI is another “public good from China to the world,” offered at an especially uncertain moment, shortly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Wang has outlined its significance in maintaining world peace and preventing conflicts and wars, and upholding multilateralism.20“Acting on the Global Security Initiative to Safeguard World Peace and Tranquility,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, April 24, 2022, The GSI is underpinned by “six commitments,” some of which borrow ideas directly from the Kremlin’s playbook:21Andrew Cainey, “Time to Get the Measure of China’s Global Security Initiative,” Royal United Services Institute, November 21, 2022, a vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security; respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries; abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously; peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation; and maintaining security in both traditional and nontraditional domains. 

This official narrative may give the impression that China is reacting to global changes by tackling “two of the most pressing issues” for most developing countries: development and security. 

Yet this tells only half the story. The bigger picture shows how Beijing is taking the initiative—both literally and figuratively. For the first time in recorded history, a global Chinese polity with global aspirations is stepping up to save the world. Speaking at the Boao Forum in 2021 under the theme of “A World in Change,” Xi lamented about “the four deficits” that humanity is facing: a “growing governance deficit, trust deficit, development deficit, and peace deficit,” further asking, “What has gone wrong with the world? What is humanity’s way forward?”22Xi Jinping, “Rising to Challenges and Building a Bright Future Through Cooperation.” These remarks would later be known in CCP parlance as the “Questions of Our Time.”23“Xi’s Answer to ‘Questions of Our Time’ Reverberates Beyond Boao,” Xinhua Global Service, April 18, 2021,

Xi has the answers. Western leaders, who have guided the international community for two centuries, demonstrated they do not. According to Beijing’s version of events, just when the world needed a strong and united global leadership the most, the Western-led global governance system failed it. Chinese sources paint a “picture of helplessness”24“Maintain Unity and Cooperation in Order to Move Toward a Brighter Future (Zhong Sheng)” (in Chinese), People’s Daily, February 22, 2022, of the US-led West, too preoccupied with internal crises and hell-bent on containing China’s rise to maintain its hegemony and its “unfair and unjust” global order.25Nadège Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, NBR Special Report no. 83 (January 2020),

And in this “world full of uncertainty,” so goes the CCP narrative, “China is the greatest source of stability.”26Zheng Yongnian, “A Stable China Is the Greatest Source of Stability in a World Full of Uncertainty” (in Chinese), People’s Daily, December 26, 2019, Armed with the “ideological essence of Chinese excellent traditional culture” combined with Marxism’s “global outlook and methodology”27Bu Xu, “Working Together to Maintain World Peace and Tranquility (In-depth Study and Implementation of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era)” (in Chinese), People’s Daily, and “scientific” guidance,”28Deyu Miao, “Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy in Theory and Practice, Seizing the ‘Changes of the Times’ and Solving the ‘Questions of the World’” (in Chinese), Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, July 21, 2022, the party’s leadership has been able to “correctly evaluate” the “world’s ills.” Party theorists advocate that this compendium of wisdom has been distilled into the “answer sheet” to the Questions of Our Times,29Haiying Ming, “Writing ‘China’s Answer Sheet’ on Humanity’s Common Destiny” (in Chinese), CSSN, February 28, 2022, biz=MzA4NDUwMjMxNA==&mid=2650165098&idx=1&sn=24212893f7db86f0cea8bfee4f3e3c3f&chksm=87e4dd2fb0935439975c9ecf7322eab2a30da5b8517bdaa7c4df7d7ef09bfed7d1a99a56a281#rd and that the key to the shared future of mankind can be found in “Chinese prescriptions” for global maladies.30“Xi Jinping Prescribes Chinese Medicine for World Economy” (in Chinese), People’s Daily (overseas edition), January 18, 2017,

Thus, the GDI and GSI offer elements of prescriptions to “fix” the world order. They should be first viewed as components of a larger push to establish China as a leader in global governance. The GDI “embodies China’s fundamental experience over the past 40 years of viewing ‘development’ as the solution to every problem,” writes Liu Hongwu of Zhejiang Normal University.31Tuvia Gering, “Thoroughly Explore How to Dispel the Discourse of the West’s So-Called ‘Debt Trap’ Narrative,” Discourse Power, July 3, 2022, The “China Model” not only serves as an example for other developing nations, according to Yu Yunquan, president of the Academy of Contemporary China and World Studies. As a global major power, “China should share China’s development opportunities with the rest of the world, especially developing nations, and emphasize China’s role as a global provider of public goods.”32Yu Yunquan, “China’s Worldview and Role in the New Era” (in Chinese), Shanghai Institute of International Studies, July 25, 2022,

The twin initiatives, therefore, signify an evolving Chinese worldview in which internal policies are externalized. Beijing aims to create a favorable external environment that will support China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests. But the twin initiatives cannot be understood outside of the context of China’s confrontation with the United States. Chinese leaders often define them in terms of great power competition. “Strive to build the most extensive ‘anti-hegemonic united front’ to break the ‘anti-China alliance’ that the US is trying to create,” according to top CCP theoretician Liu Jianfei. “This great game is not only a geopolitical competition between major powers, but also a contest between national governance systems and the direction of global governance and international order.”33Liu Jianfei, “Developing Trends in Sino-US Relations in the New Era” (in Chinese), Aisixiang, September 23, 2021,

To that effect, the Chinese solutions are first celebrated as the epitome of “real multilateralism.” Then-Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng described it as opposed to the “fake multilateralism, fake rules, fake human rights and fake democracy” of the US-led West.”34Le Yucheng, “Acting on the Global Security Initiative to Safeguard World Peace and Tranquility,” transcript of speech delivered at “Seeking Peace and Promoting Development: An Online Dialogue of Global Think Tanks of 20 Countries,” June 5, 2022, “These solutions also improve and go beyond the Western theory of geopolitical security,” according to Wang Yi. Beijing can further neutralize US-led Western “containment and suppression” by tethering its own security and development strategies to the rest of the world’s. 

In addition, the new initiatives aim to redefine universal values and the rules-based international order in favor of “absolute sovereignty35Zhang Weiwei, “China Now Episode 149: How ‘Color Revolutions’ Destroyed Ukraine” (in Chinese), Guancha, July 3, 2022, and the “common values of humanity.”36Qin Gang, “Forging Ahead on the New Journey Toward a Community with a Shared Future for Mankind,” transcript of speech delivered at the China Development Forum, Beijing, March 27, 2023,,%2C%20justice%2C%20democracy%20and%20freedom. They can potentially deflect Western criticism of China’s internal repression and human rights abuses on a reactive level. On a proactive level, they can give other authoritarian regimes more leeway to operate with impunity and greater legitimacy on the world stage.

Finally, the initiatives sidestep key Chinese foreign policy principles such as its stated non-alliance policy—which holds that Beijing does not build military alliances—and its nonaggression policy. At the same time, the initiatives make it easier for Beijing to create anti-Western multilateral platforms. For one thing, the GSI formally adopts the Kremlin’s concept of “indivisible security,”37Cainey, “Time to Get the Measure of China’s Global Security Initiative.” with Chinese leaders joining Russian president Vladimir Putin in excusing the unlawful invasion of Ukraine by blaming the US-led NATO for committing the “original sin” that led to the war.38Chen Wenling, “The Battlefield Is in Ukraine, but the Whole World Is a Front” (in Chinese), Aisixiang, April 12, 2022, Beijing has been using this terminology more frequently to describe US initiatives and alliances in the Indo-Pacific as threatening China’s security. In doing so, Beijing can lay the rhetorical, legal, and political groundwork to justify a People’s Liberation Army invasion of Taiwan as a righteous act of self-defense in response to US moves in the region that threaten Chinese interests by, for example, creating conditions that enable Taiwan to move toward independence.

Consequently, the GSI and GDI have become core elements of China’s foreign policy. In almost each and every diplomatic interaction China has had in the past year, it has ensured that the foreign parties always exalt the initiatives as having “strategic significance in resolving risks and challenges faced by today’s world.”39“Xi receives Order of the Golden Eagle awarded by Kazakh President Tokayev,” Xinhua, September 15, 2022, In another attempt to heed Xi’s call to “expand China’s circle of friends,” China’s Foreign Ministry exploited an obscure mechanism at the United Nations to quickly establish the Group of Friends of the GDI. It should come as no surprise that a meeting of the group in New York in September, hosted by Wang, was attended by representatives of the Global South, many of them closely aligned with Beijing or linked to its development programs, including Laos, Cambodia, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, and Egypt.40“Wang Yi Chairs the Ministerial Meeting of the Group of Friends of the Global Development Initiative,” September 21, 2022, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, That category of country is, after all, the initiative’s primary target. As of April 2023, the GDI received the support of more than 100 countries and international organizations and the blessing of the UN Secretary-General, and nearly 70 of those countries joined the Group of Friends of the GDI in Geneva.

The GSI and GDI in China’s foreign policy: Deepening ties to the Global South

Prior to Xi Jinping, the leadership of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) shied away from the notion that China offered a “model” for other countries to follow in their quest for development and growth, instead emphasizing the need for countries to pursue their own path. That has changed. Xi has explicitly made the case for China as a model, saying in a 2017 speech that China’s historical experience combined with the “development miracle of reform and opening up have already declared to the world with indisputable facts that we are qualified to be a leader” in shaping a new international order.41A ‘China Model’? Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, April 27, 2020 (Nadège Rolland, senior fellow for political and security affairs, National Bureau of Asian Research), Beijing has become assertive in positioning “the ‘China Solution’ as an alternative model of development to that of the Global North.”42Hong Liu, “China Engages the Global South: From Bandung to the Belt and Road Initiative,” Global Policy 13, no. 1 (2022), 15. The GDI and GSI must be understood as parts of a larger ambition to assert China as a leader in global governance, offering public goods under an alternative normative framework. This is gaining traction, especially in the Global South. 

While Beijing has long been committed to South-South cooperation, its influence in much of the developing world has taken a more strategic turn under Xi. Writing about China’s role in Africa and the Middle East, Dawn Murphy with the National War College posited that “as its power grows, it increasingly builds spheres of influence in these regions and challenges the rules of the international system by constructing an alternative international order.”43Dawn C. Murphy, China’s Rise in the Global South: The Middle East, Africa, and Beijing’s Alternative World Order (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), 2. This is not to imply that Beijing wants a wholesale overturning of the existing order, but to emphasize that it has a complex view of the international order, and its preferences are often incongruous with the norms of international politics preferred by the United States and the other democracies. Murphy offers a useful distinction, describing both the Westphalian order—“the bedrock of the contemporary international system”—and the liberal international order (a “Western [not global] order” where “Western states were the dominant members”).44Murphy, China’s Rise in the Global South,19. The Westphalian order is one based on the norms of sovereignty, territorial integrity, noninterference in the domestic affairs of states, self-determination, and indiscrimination—all of which are consistent with Chinese preferences. The liberal international order (LIO), on the other hand, is dominated and perpetuated by Western-preferred liberal norms, such as free markets, international institutions, cooperative security, democracy, collective problem-solving, shared sovereignty, and the rule of law. The CCP, along with governments in much of the non-Western world, rejects the idea that these are universal norms that should be used as foundational principles for international political life. 

The two orders can and do coexist, and different countries may converge or diverge on different aspects of them. In Beijing’s case, the LIO has provided stability and prosperity, without which its Reform Era policies could not have delivered the growth and development that have transformed China. At the same time, the values of the LIO are in constant tension with the CCP and its goal of ensuring that China achieves great power status and has a central role in global governance. In 2016, Fu Ying, then chairperson of the National People’s Congress’ Foreign Affairs Committee, gave a speech in London in which she articulated a view of the two competing orders. She noted China’s support for the principles of the Westphalian order as embodied by the United Nations and its institutions, for which “China has a strong sense of belonging” as “one of its founders and a beneficiary, a contributor, as well as part of its reform efforts.”45Rolland, China’s Vision for a New World Order, 14. The liberal order, on the other hand, Fu criticized for perpetuating Western dominance while being unable to solve the world’s most serious problems, and at times exacerbating them. The tension between these two orders is the reason why China frequently calls for reform of global governance, a point emphasized by Xi when he articulated a set of priorities for Chinese diplomacy in a 2018 speech; China would take a leading role in this reform, basing new global practices “with the concept of fairness and justice.”46Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Vienna, “Xi Jinping Urges Breaking New Ground in Major Country Diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics,” June 25, 2018,

Chinese-led initiatives, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the BRI, the GSI, the GDI, and the GCI, are therefore part and parcel of China’s efforts to reform international politics. In this flood of Chinese initiatives, the Global South has been the focal point. Despite its enormous economy, China still identifies as “the world’s largest developing country”47Veronika Ertl and David Merkle, “China: A Developing Country as a Global Power?” Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, November 15, 2019, and uses this status to generate support and solidarity with other developing countries—which represent, by far, the majority of the world. Xi recently reiterated this Chinese self-identification as a member of the Global South, saying: “China will always be a member of the family of developing countries. We will continue to do our utmost in raising the representation and voice of developing nations in the global governance system.”48Liu Zhen, “China Shows World an Alternative Path to Modern Future, Xi Jinping Says,” South China Morning Post, July 6, 2021, The PRC has long used this status effectively, identifying as “the permanent representative of the developing world”49Lowell Dittmer, “China’s Rise, Global Identity, and the Developing World,” in China, the Developing World, and the New Global Dynamic, eds. Lowell Dittmer and George T. Yu (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2010), 211. in international institutions—for example, the UN Security Council, the World Trade Organization, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF)—where its political and economic weight give it substantial influence.

In its outreach to the Global South, China has institutionalized cooperation, provided serious financial support, and created domestic programs to more effectively implement policy. In terms of institutionalization, it has established the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, and the China and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Forum. Each of these forums has ambassador-level representatives, regular meetings, and working groups to facilitate policy coordination between China and other member states. As for financial support, Beijing allocated nearly $42 billion to foreign assistance between 2013 and 2018, including grants, interest-free loans, and concessional loans. Of this, nearly 45% went to Africa and 37% to Asia.50Liu, “China Engages the Global South,” 16. In August 2022, China announced that it was waiving 23 interest-free loans to 17 African countries and also announced that it would redirect $10 billion of its IMF reserves to African countries.51Jevans Nyabiage, “China Hits Back at Africa Debt-Trap Claims with Loan Write-Off Offer,” South China Morning Post, August 24, 2022, In 2015, China established the South-South Cooperation Assistance Fund and has so far contributed $3 billion.52“Xi Stresses Placing Development at Center of Intl Agenda,” China Daily, June 24, 2022, It contributed an additional $1 billion for a revamped Global Development and South-South Cooperation Fund launched in June 2022 under the auspices of the GDI.53“Chair’s Statement of the High-Level Dialogue on Global Development,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, June 24, 2022, 

At the same time, China has emerged as “the lender of last resort” to developing countries, undertaking 128 bailout operations in 22 countries between 2020 and 2021, for a total of $240 billion. An important consideration, however, is the cost of a Chinese rescue loan: with interest rates at 5%, it is more than double the 2% from the IMF.54James Kynge, “China Grants Billions in Bailouts as Belt and Road Initiative Falters,” Financial Times, March 28, 2023, Debt restructuring is a serious concern in the Global South, and how the PRC addresses it is being closely monitored. Sri Lanka, for example, owes China $7.4 billion, nearly a fifth of the country’s public debt.55“China Offers Sri Lanka a 2-Year Debt Moratorium,” CNBC, January 25, 2023, In Africa, Chinese lenders account for 12% of external debt, valued at $696 billion.56“‘Cope with Your Own Debt,’ China Tells US over Zambia Debt Relief,” Al Jazeera, January 25, 2023,

In its domestic bureaucratization, China established the China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) in 2018 with the aim to “formulate strategic guidelines, plans and policies for foreign aid, coordinate and offer advice on major foreign aid issues, advance the country’s reforms in matters involving foreign aid, and identify major programs and supervise and evaluate their implementation.”57China International Development Cooperation Agency, “About Us: What We Do,” August 1, 2018, In January 2021 it released a white paper, “China’s International Development Cooperation in the New Era,” described by Hong Zhang as Beijing’s “manifesto for leadership in global development.”58Hong Zhang, “China’s Manifesto for Leadership in Global Development,” Panda Paw Dragon Claw, February 8, 2021, CIDCA is explicitly meant to work through and bolster the BRI, meaning it supports both a geopolitical and a developmental agenda. 

Clearly, China is upping its game in the Global South. However, it is not simply a matter of South-South cooperation for the sake of altruism; this engagement is meant to support Beijing’s push for greater power and influence. Through knowledge and technology transfers, China is exporting its own norms and practices. It is providing an alternative model to the Western model that has proved elusive to most of the developing world after decades of Washington consensus policies. That the PRC began the Reform Era in 1978 as an underdeveloped country and has bridged the gap is attractive and inspirational for many countries that want to replicate its success. “Chinese-style modernization breaks the myth of ‘modernization equals Westernization,’” Xi said in a speech to top CCP cadres in January 2023, after securing his third term as party general secretary.59“Xi Rejects ‘Westernization’ and Promotes China’s Self Reliance in New Policy Speech,” Time, February 8, 2023, He reiterated this point in March when introducing the GCI to representatives from political parties around the world.60“Global Civilization Initiative Injects Fresh Energy into Human Development,” State Council Information Office. This is especially appealing because, in the post-Cold War era, liberal norms and values were embedded in international organizations like the World Bank and IMF, and the collapse of the Soviet Union meant a lack of credible alternatives.61See Alexander Cooley and Daniel Nexon, Exit from Hegemony: The Unraveling of the American Global Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 7-8. The growth of Chinese institutions has provided another option for developing countries. While they may not find Chinese values any more—or less—appealing than liberal ones, having this alternative weakens the dominance of existing institutions.

 And, of course, there are political considerations too. In multilateral forums like the UN, more countries voting with China is better for Beijing and balances negative perceptions and narratives. It also provides support for Chinese positions, such as at the 47th session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2021, when 69 countries signed a statement that supported China’s policies in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. The statement read in part: “We oppose politicization of human rights and double standards. We also oppose unfounded allegations against China out of political motivation and based on disinformation, and interference in China’s internal affairs under the pretext of human rights.”62Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations Office at Geneva and Other International Organizations in Switzerland, “Joint Statement of 69 Countries at the Interactive Dialogue on High Commissioner’s Annual Report at the 47th Session of the Human Rights Council,” June 22, 2021,

In short, the norms that the CCP emphasizes with the GDI and GSI are designed to speak to a large percentage of the world. The audience is not the developed countries; rather, Beijing is trying to appeal to that big group of countries that sees a need for reform in international political norms and practices and is hungry for alternative options, including development approaches that come with less conditionality than developed countries require with their financing. 

The GSI and GDI: Challenges, opportunities, and the fate of the world order

China’s political elite often equate the twin initiatives to the BRI. That program, too, garnered scant attention from the international community when it was first launched; now, the BRI has become a fixture of global development (for good or ill, depending on your perspective) and, for the emerging world, an alternative form of project finance to the system offered by Western institutions. The GSI and GDI, they suggest, will become equally ubiquitous and influential in the years to come and eventually play a crucial role in remaking global governance.

The comparison between the BRI and the twin initiatives is constructive. As they did with the BRI, Chinese leaders are sure to hammer home the importance of the GSI and GDI on the world stage, praising the initiatives’ worth at international forums and diplomatic conferences and through state media. Though they may be little known today, they are likely to be unavoidable in the future. 

But there is a key distinction between the BRI and the twin initiatives. The expansion of the BRI could, in essence, be “purchased.” Developing countries, constantly in need of funds, were always likely to welcome China’s financing with open arms. Winning adherents to the twin initiatives can, in a sense, be purchased as well; countries that desire strong economic ties to and continued aid from China are incentivized to express their support for the GSI and GDI, at least rhetorically, to keep Chinese money coming. The twin initiatives, though, exist in the realm of ideas, and for those ideas to play a meaningful role in reshaping the global order, they will have to be adopted and acted upon by global policymakers who would then participate in Beijing’s agenda to reform global governance. To do so, Beijing must convince enough of the world that its proposed principles are not merely alternatives to those of the US-led rules-based order, but superior ones, better able to resolve conflicts, tackle challenges, and promote prosperity.

The success or failure of the GSI and GDI is, therefore, intimately connected to the success or failure of China’s larger endeavor to reshape global governance in ways that support the advancement of its own interests and global power. The twin initiatives form the ideological framework for China’s new world order; without sufficient buy-in from other governments, they will remain little more than diplomatic talking points. China’s policymakers will need to infuse their principles into the global discourse to influence how governments interact with one another, how multilateral institutions operate, and most of all, what values are upheld by the stakeholders in the world system.

Much of China’s ability to promote the principles of the twin initiatives will depend on its own trajectory. Discussions of China’s efforts to reshape the world order often take for granted that the country’s rise will continue on pace and on plan. But that is not inevitable. China today is facing serious challenges to its development. The economy is struggling with rising debt, a bloated property sector, and a weaker outlook for growth. The centralization of political power in the hands of Xi has rendered the policymaking process less predictable and pragmatic and more ideological. Xi’s economic policy has turned away from the tried-and-true formula of “reform and opening up” that promoted private enterprise and integration with the global economy, in favor of heavier state control and a focus on import substitution—both of which could be a drag on economic growth and efficiency. Xi’s adversarial stance toward the United States has also soured the international environment that had supported Chinese economic progress and threaten crucial flows of investment and technology. If China’s economy falters, so will Beijing’s drive for greater global influence, and its ability to market the country’s political and economic system as a superior model for the world and the basis of solutions to global problems will also suffer, undercutting the GSI and GDI.

Even if Beijing overcomes those domestic hurdles, the twin initiatives will confront stiff headwinds. Beijing will have to shove aside the existing foundational principles underpinning the current multilateral system based on liberal beliefs in open political, economic, and social systems. In that, Beijing is facing and will continue to face implacable resistance from the United States and its allies and partners in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The major advanced democracies are unlikely to concede to governance reform along the lines suggested by the GSI. Its concepts, though couched in lofty language of dialogue and mutual respect, directly contradict the liberal values of the current world order. When Xi speaks of “noninterference” and respecting “the independent choices of development paths and social systems made by people in different countries,” it translates to a world in which authoritarian regimes hold as much legitimacy as democracies, and the pursuit of individual human rights is considered an unacceptable intrusion into a nation’s sovereignty. There seems little chance that the United States and its allies—both among the advanced democracies and within the developing world—will cooperate with China on the reform of global governance and its institutions based on the GSI. Nor will they passively permit China to hijack the global development agenda for its own purposes, as is the intent of the GDI.

Beijing is not helping its cause by directly connecting the twin initiatives to its efforts to undermine US influence. It is telling that the Chinese government released two papers—one a tirade against the United States,63“US Hegemony and Its Perils,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 20, 2023, the other a concept paper on the GSI64“The Global Security Initiative Concept Paper,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, February 21, 2023,—within the same week in February 2023, around the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. A key element of Beijing’s message to promote the twin initiatives is that the United States has become incapable of continuing its role as global leader, and, even more than that, Washington’s actions have become a detriment to international security and prosperity. Many principles within the GSI are obviously aimed at the United States and its policies, such as its opposition to “unilateral” sanctions and “bloc confrontation.” By employing the GSI and GDI as tools in its competition against the United States, Beijing has automatically limited the extent of their global acceptance and influence.

The West and its partners are not Beijing’s target audience, however. Chinese leadership increasingly sees the United States and its allies as inherently hostile, and that view is compelling them to forge new partnerships and economic relationships. China’s leaders believe they can find more fertile ground for the initiatives in the Global South, as noted above. Other autocratic states that share Beijing’s political outlook and distrust of Washington are likely to support the initiatives. It should come as no surprise that Russia was an early adherent of the GSI. Beijing believes that the principles of the GSI and GDI better represent the “majority” of nations when compared to the liberal ideals of the Western powers and their allies, which China’s political elite consider a “minority” that has held outsize and undue influence over world affairs. Some governments in the Global South may find the GSI and GDI appealing as alternatives to what has been a unipolar order, as well as avenues to alleviate frustrations with their own slow pace of development.

That strategy has its limitations, however. It could rack up votes at the United Nations without gaining real clout in international diplomacy. Research firm Capital Economics once estimated that the 53 countries that voted in support of China’s repressive national security law for Hong Kong at the United Nations in 2020 collectively accounted for only 4 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP).65Michael Schuman, “TikTok’s Fate Is a Bad Sign for China’s Rise,” Bloomberg Opinion, August 8, 2020, Even in the Global South, support for the twin initiatives is far from automatic. In a divided world, many members of the Global South will be as wary of alienating the United States and Europe as they are of alienating China. An increasingly multipolar geopolitical map means China may not be able to garner sufficient sway within the developing world on all issues.

More than that, it is not at all certain that Beijing will find a ready audience in the Global South for its ideals, especially those in the GSI. Democracy still holds tremendous appeal in the Global South. Many nations in the developing world have long experience with representative government or have had their own democratic awakenings, and thus their political elites do not necessarily share China’s authoritarian values. Attitudes and aspirations for democracy remain relatively positive among the wider populations within the developing world. Afrobarometer found in its surveys across Africa that most indicators of support for democracy there are “strong and steady,” with seven in ten survey respondents agreeing that democracy is preferable to any other form of government and with large majorities rejecting authoritarian alternatives.66E. Gyimah-Boadi and Joseph Asunka, “Do Africans Want Democracy–and Do They Think They’re Getting It?” Afrobarometer, November 2, 2021, Research by Vanderbilt University showed that support for democracy in Latin American countries also remains relatively strong, at 61 percent in 2021.67“Support for Democracy Across Americas Remains Lower than a Decade Ago, New Vanderbilt University LAPOP Lab Survey Finds,” Vanderbilt University, November 16, 2021, Such independent surveys suggest that even as Chinese influence and economic importance grows in the emerging world, liberal political values are still paramount among citizens in the Global South, indicating that Beijing may find greater resistance to its twin initiatives there than expected.

Nor is it a given that China will be able to convince the leaders of the Global South that its vision for a new world order will be more beneficial to their interests and welfare. For example, Xi Jinping has sold the BRI as a sustainable development program, another of the “public goods” China is presenting to the international community. While the BRI did increase the volume of development financing available to low-income countries, it has hardly been an unmitigated success. Dogged by accusations of mismanagement and corruption, BRI projects have contributed to the emerging world’s debt and financial stress. A study released in March by research lab AidData, the World Bank, and Harvard’s Kennedy School showed that Chinese lenders had to extend $240 billion in emergency rescue operations to 22 debtor countries by the end of 202168Alex Wooley, “Belt and Road Bailout Lending Reaches Record Levels, Raising Questions about the Future of China’s Flagship Infrastructure Program,” AidData, March 27, 2023,—a clear indication that many BRI projects were not financially sound or sustainable. Pakistan has been among the most prominent participants in the BRI, but that partnership with China has not improved its economic prospects. Instead, the country is teetering on the brink of a sovereign default, desperate for an IMF rescue, and more and more indebted to China.69Faseeh Mangi, “Why Pakistan Is Struggling to Get Another IMF Bailout,” Bloomberg, Feb. 5, 2023 70John Caalbrese, “Pakistan and Egypt: China’s Troubled Assets,” Middle East Institute, Feb. 2, 2023. Chinese lending also contributed to a high-profile debt crisis in Sri Lanka in 2022,71Ishaan Tharoor, “China Has a Role in Sri Lanka’s Economic Calamity,” Washington Post, July 20, 2022,; Alexander Saeedy and Philip Wen, “Sri Lanka’s Debt Crisis Test China’s Role as Financier to Poor Countries,” Wall Street Journal, July 13, 2022, Zambia’s sovereign defaulted in 2020.72Chris Anstey, “World Bank Head Seeks New Debt Resolution Process for Developing Nations,” Bloomberg, April 20, 2022,; Joseph Cotterill and Jonathan Wheatley, “China Agrees Landmark Debt Relief Deal for Zambia,” Financial Times, July 30, 2022,; Rachel Savage and Leigh Thomas, “Test Case Zambia Exposes China’s Rookie Status on Debt Relief,” Reuters, May, 31, 2022,

Though China is the largest official, bilateral creditor, Chinese lending is certainly not the sole cause of the debt crisis now facing low-income countries worldwide. Contrary to what some Beijing critics claim, these instances do not prove that China deliberately sets “debt traps” to compel poor countries to hand over strategic assets. Nevertheless, these difficulties raise serious questions about Beijing’s agenda in the Global South. Some lending was not done on a concessional basis but rather was designed to favor Chinese business interests. A 2021 examination of loan contracts between Chinese state banks and governments in developing countries found that in many cases the terms were highly commercial and structured to ensure the loans were paid back—with interest. Even more, the report asserts that “several contracts with Chinese lenders contain novel terms, and many adapt standard commercial terms in ways that can go beyond maximizing commercial advantage. Such terms can amplify the lender’s influence over the debtor’s economic and foreign policies.”73Anna Gelpern et al., How China Lends: A Rare Look into 100 Debt Contracts with Foreign Governments, AidData, March 31, 2021, A 2022 study by the World Bank analyzed Chinese debt restructurings and determined that Beijing’s banks rarely granted their poorer partners deep debt relief,74Sebastian Horn, Carmen M. Reinhart, and Christoph Trebesc, Hidden Defaults, World Bank Group, 2022, while China has faced stiff criticism for complicating debt resolution for developing countries by insisting on the full repayment of its loans.75Vasuki Shastry and Jeremy Mark, “China and Private Creditors Are Blocking a Solution to the Global Debt Crisis. The G20 Must Step In,” Atlantic Council, February 22, 2023, A May 2023 investigation by the Associated Press blamed the reluctance of Chinese banks to forgive debt for pushing several poor nations to the brink of financial crisis.76Bernard Condon, “China’s Loans Pushing World’s Poorest Countries to Brink of Collapse,” Associated Press, May 18, 2023,

This pattern of behavior does not square with the idealistic language of the GDI or, more broadly, Beijing’s claims to represent the interests of the emerging world. The contradiction has not gone unnoticed. Leaders of poor countries do not perceive China as a constructive development partner. A survey of nearly 7,000 prominent figures in the emerging world conducted in 2020 by AidData revealed that while China’s influence was growing rapidly in global development, that influence was not seen as positively as that of many other major players. At number 32, Beijing ranked poorly in the survey in its helpfulness in development, well behind the United States (at 7) and even Taiwan (19). “China must overcome a perception challenge, if it is to live up to its positioning as a development partner who seeks to promote a ‘community of common destiny,’” noted Samantha Custer, AidData’s director of policy analysis.77Alex Wooley, “China Rises Sharply in Influence Among Developing-Country Leaders, but Does Not Yet Surpass the US and G7 Countries, According to New Report,” AidData, July 12, 2021, 

India, which also believes itself to be a voice for the Global South, has criticized China for protecting its banks in debt restructurings at the expense of poor nations.78Meera Srinivasan, “China Must Take a Haircut on Its Loans to Poor Countries, Says India’s G20 Sherpa,” The Hindu, February 15, 2023, While India made financing assurances for Sri Lanka in January that were important in helping the stricken island nation obtain IMF loans, China dragged its feet on an offer of debt restructuring and thus holding up the IMF rescue package.79Philip Wen and Alexander Saeedy, “IMF Approves $3 Billion Bailout for Sri Lanka,” Wall Street Journal, updated March 20, 2023, This suggests that China’s dominance in the Global South is far from inevitable, and that Beijing cannot assume countries in the developing world will support its aims to reform global governance. 

China faces similar challenges with the security principles of the GSI. Brokering the Iran-Saudi deal could be the start of a new phase of Chinese foreign policy, in which Beijing plays a more active and direct role in trying to resolve disputes around the world as a way to assert its methods of diplomacy and concepts of global governance as superior to those of the current rules-based order. For instance, in April, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang offered to facilitate a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.80“China Offers to Facilitate Israeli-Palestinian Peace Talks,” Associated Press, April 19, 2023, At the same time, though, the more deeply Beijing involves itself in international diplomacy, the more obvious the inconsistencies and biases of its approach become. For example, China’s attempt to mediate in the Ukraine war and preach the inviolability of sovereignty while repeatedly failing to denounce or even acknowledge its blatant and ongoing violation by Xi’s “best and e friend” Russian President Vladimir Putin has exposed the inherent contradictions between the lofty principles of the GSI and Beijing’s pursuit of its political and economic interests. Ukraine’s government has seized upon Beijing’s purported commitment to territorial integrity to throw a spotlight on what it sees as the hypocrisy of Beijing’s calls for peace.81“China Hopes Russia and Ukraine Will Hold Peace Talks, Says Senior Chinese Diplomat,” Reuters, March 16, 2023,

Many governments interested in closer ties to China or hostile to the West will overlook these self-serving inconsistencies in Beijing’s foreign policy. Other observers may take Xi’s attempts to play peacemaker at face value. Yet only the most naive will fail to recognize that the GSI and GDI are not a “public good” as much as a “China good” meant to promote Chinese power and influence. Many of their elements quite brazenly promote China’s interests. For instance, the GSI’s planks of noninterference and territorial integrity are meant to ward off Western support for Taiwan and criticism of China’s abysmal human rights record. Its call for an end to “unilateral” sanctions targets Washington’s tools to extend its influence and elevate the costs for governments that act contrary to US preferences.

Policy recommendations

In the end, the GSI and GDI are arms of Beijing’s superpower struggle with the United States, and global policymakers will treat them as such. Washington’s opposition to the twin initiatives is not likely to completely suppress them. However, U.S. policymakers could take steps aimed at preventing these initiatives from becoming the ideological glue of an alternative Chinese-led system—one that coexists uncomfortably with the existing model based on practices and institutions supported by the United States and its partners. 

More assertively market the successes of the current global order: Much of the messaging from Washington is focused on the perceived “bad” behavior of China and the threat that poses to the rules-based world order. A shift to a more positive message might be worthwhile. Beijing is promoting its twin initiatives as the antidote to a US-led governance system that is unable to solve the world’s pressing problems. But history tells us otherwise. Under the rules-based order, the world has witnessed an unprecedented surge in prosperity. The security provided by the system has also benefited many countries (including China) and remains the foundation for the flows of trade and investment that have propelled the global economy. The current order has also seen a significant improvement in human rights and civil liberties for many members of the international community. This is a positive story of real benefits that the United States and its partners can use to counter Chinese claims and Chinese authoritarian principles.

Engage more deeply with the emerging world: The United States and its allies must counter growing Chinese influence by engaging with governments and other stakeholders in developing nations to prove that Washington remains concerned, interested, and committed to development and other issues of importance to poorer nations. Democratic allies should capitalize on China’s weakness in engaging with wider elements of societies in developing countries by engaging with civil society, business leaders, and others outside of the government to expand support for the current order and its ideals. This effort may necessitate more aid, but money only needs to be part of the deeper involvement. More importantly, the United States, its partners, and their institutions need to prove that they can still “deliver the goods” the world requires on a range of issues, including climate change and conflict resolution.

Take China’s GSI and GDI seriously: It is too easy to dismiss China’s initiatives as vague, aimless, and often contradictory documents that serve Beijing as talking points but have no greater purpose. That would be a mistake. Beijing intends to promote the ideas in these initiatives with all the relentless force of its extensive propaganda machine, backed up by aid, trade, and finance from the country’s increasingly important economy. Washington should not underestimate Beijing’s power of persuasion, nor the potential for these ideas to take hold in certain parts of the world.

Strengthen multilateral institutions: China is exploiting its growing influence at international organizations such as the UN system to promote its initiatives and their principles. Washington and its partners must counter Beijing’s aims by deepening their engagement at these multilateral institutions and bolstering their governance to ensure they remain foundational pillars of the rules-based global order. This effort will require the United States to creatively use its organizations’ assemblies and guidelines to enhance dialogue on global governance with a wide range of states and stakeholders in these institutions.

The Global China Hub researches and devises allied solutions to the global challenges posed by China’s rise, leveraging and amplifying the Atlantic Council’s work on China across its fifteen other programs and centers.

Image: China's President Xi Jinping and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas attend a welcoming ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China June 14, 2023. JADE GAO/Pool via REUTERS