BRI, BRICS and SCO: Bringing to Reality China’s Three Global Initiatives

In 2013, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the concept of “building a community with a shared future for mankind”. Almost concurrently, he put forward the ambitious and far-reaching Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept of a shared future for mankind is rooted in the common values of all mankind, aiming to put aside ideological differences and biases, and to maximise openness and inclusiveness of cooperation mechanisms, concepts and policies, as different stakeholders work together towards the common goal of world peace and stability (Xi Jinping on the Governance of China, Volume IV, p. 462 of the Chinese edition). To put the ideal into practice, both “hard” and “soft” connectivity are necessary. “Hard connectivity” refers to the construction of infrastructure in countries and regions along the BRI blueprint. “Soft connectivity” refers to the coordination of rules, regulations and industrial standards that serves to buttress BRI projects. Together with the BRICS countries and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), China is advocating for a global governance system that centres on open dialogues and win-win cooperation.

Different Missions of BRI, BRICS and SCO

In terms of the number of participating countries, BRI is the largest with more than 150 countries and over 30 international organisations pitching in. On the other hand,  BRICS began with only 4 countries, but has now expanded to 10. Similarly, the SCO has also grown beyond the initial Shanghai Five grouping and now includes 9 member states, 4 observer states and 14 dialogue partners. These three organisations not only enable the global expansion of China’s diplomatic and economic influences, but more importantly, serve as platforms for international cooperation where China has a significant role to play. These three organisations also lay the institutional and organisational foundations for China’s proposals of the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI).

The world’s economic and political landscapes have seen radical changes with the rise of emerging markets such as China and India. However, the existing global governance system has been slow to reflect such changes adequately and fairly. The provision of financial support from global and regional development banks to mitigate the huge infrastructure deficits in developing countries has been falling short, resulting in unfortunate cases of slowed development, and missed opportunities. BRI, which China put forward some 10 years ago, shed light on both China’s unique understanding of global development as well as its response to the problems the world is facing today; thus, laying the grounds for China’s subsequent proposal of global development initiatives.

BRICS and BRI both share a similar focus on developmental issues, particularly in emerging economies. However, BRICS places a greater emphasis on the cooperation and coordination between major emerging economies, highlighting the importance of these players in the building of a new international economic order; BRICS however does not seek to address infrastructural and regulatory interconnectivities. BRICS and BRI therefore complement each other, with the former providing institutional support for global development and the latter providing a platform for investment and trade. BRICS grouping saw a major expansion in 2023, as 5 key countries of the “Global South” – namely, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE – were added to its member list. This underscores the primacy of the “Global South” in Chinese diplomacy effort today. Despite its status as the world’s second-largest economy, China continues to position itself as a developing country of the Global South. BRICS countries tend to share similar concerns on international governance issues, such as poverty alleviation, infrastructure development, technology transfer and aid. BRICS therefore goes beyond merely as an economic organisation, but also constitutes part of the political identity of its member states.

To deepen security and military trust in the border regions between its member states against the backdrop of terrorism, extremism, and threats from separatist groups, the Shanghai Five was established. The organization has since evolved eventually into what is known today as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). It is therefore unsurprising that SCO has a strong focus on security and defense-related matters. Nevertheless, SCO is stepping up to meet the growing demands of the times by expanding the scope of its collaboration to cover a greater variety of concerns, including economic, technological, cultural and energy issues. Built on the “Shanghai Spirit,” SCO bases its founding principles on mutual trust, mutually beneficial cooperation, dialogue among equal partners, respect for diversity of values, as its members work together towards shared prosperity and progress. Some sees SCO as a NATO counterpart in the East; but such observations fail to account for the fact that NATO’s collaboration does not extend to economics and trade, while SCO members are not official military allies. Despite its emphasis on security, SCO neither constitutes a military alliance that aims to achieve collective defense, nor does SCO seek to challenge any existing military alliance. SCO works on the basis of mutual trust, equality, and mutually beneficial collaboration; these same ideals are now encapsulated in China’s Global Security Initiative proposal.

Since most of the BRICS and SCO member states are also involved in BRI projects, these three different organizations benefit from a form of complementary synergy that reflects the global governance philosophy of multilateral cooperation, openness and inclusiveness embraced by China’s 21st-century diplomacy, laying the grounds for the subsequent proposal of the major global initiatives.

Working Towards the Three Global Initiatives

Development-focused BRI projects have now become an important pillar of the Global Development Initiative (GDI). With the growing emphasis on “soft connectivity,” BRI projects facilitate dialogues between different states and thus contribute towards the Global Civilization Initiative (GCI). Compared to BRI, GDI and GCI covers a much wider scope with their grandiose visions; these initiatives are ever more salient as we witness escalating geopolitical tensions around the world. In May 2019, Beijing hosted the Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations (CDAC). Subsequently, the importance of facilitating cultural dialogues between different states and civilizations has also become increasingly prominent at the 3rd Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in October 2023. One can expect more plans and actions from the Chinese government to bring GCI’s vision into reality. GCI will serve in the future as China’s “name card” as the country seeks to brand itself and promote its soft power abroad.

Growth and progress are not possible when national security is jeopardized. In a similar vein, a country would also be less willing and less able to partake in exchanges with other states if it is worried about external threats. China puts forward the Global Security Initiative (GSI) in response to such traditional security dilemma. In international relations, security dilemma arises when a state’s rising military strengths to improve its own national security leads to security concerns among other countries, which are then driven by fear to increase their military spending, eventually leading to a deteriorated security environment for all, as the situation spirals down into an arms race, if not belligerence and war. Besides the mission and vision embodied by SCO, China’s commitment to GSI is also demonstrated on the following occasions: China has shown strong approval for the Joint Statement of the Leaders of the Five Nuclear-Weapon States on Preventing Nuclear War and Avoiding Arms Races in 2022; China is in support of “the ASEAN Way” of adhering to consensus and taking into account the concerns of all member states in the decision-making process; its constant search of ways to promote dialogues on maritime cooperation; as well as its proposal of the Global Initiative on Data Security, etc.

BRI, BRICS and SCO are international platforms for China to implement and bring into reality its visions for the three global initiatives, which accentuates the growing importance of the “Global South” while facilitating dialogues and changes with the developed world. It therefore follows that the BRI, BRICS and SCO would assume a central role in China’s diplomatic efforts in the coming years. Given the breadth and depth of the three initiatives, more mechanisms for international cooperation and dialogue need to be introduced to bring China’s vision to fruition.

By Chen Gang, Deputy Director and Senior Research Fellow of the East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore

9 April 2024