China’s ‘Community of Common Destiny for Mankind’ (人类命运共同体) or ‘Community for Shared Future of Mankind’ is back in the news as President Xi Jinping brought up the phrase yet again at the Boao Forum this year. Interestingly, Xi presented a plan of a Global Security Initiative emphasising on our “common destiny”. What are the motives and how far can it go?
What is Community of Common Destiny for Mankind?
Community of Common Destiny for Mankind (now, Community with a Shared Future for Mankind) is a foreign policy instrument of the People’s Republic of China, put forth for the first time under former President and Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General Secretary Hu Jintao in 2012, but massively popularised under Xi Jinping since 2013. The instrument has become a key tenet of the Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy (习近平外交思想).
Hu Jintao used the term “Community of Common Destiny” for the first time in his Report to the 17th National Congress in the context of Taiwan, which was broadened to include the whole of Mankind in his Report to the 18th National Congress, where Hu noted:
“We call for promoting equality, mutual trust, inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutually beneficial cooperation in international relations and making joint efforts to uphold international fairness and justice. In promoting equality and mutual trust, we should observe the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations, and support equality among all countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor. We should advance democracy in international relations, respect sovereignty, share security, and uphold world peace and stability. In promoting inclusiveness and mutual learning, we should respect diversity of civilizations and development paths, respect and safeguard the rights of all peoples to independently choose their social system and development path, learn from others to make up for our shortcomings, and advance human civilization. In promoting mutually beneficial cooperation, we should raise awareness about human beings sharing a community of common destiny“
The concept is closely related to Hu Jintao’s ‘Peaceful Rise’ (中国和平崛起) (later, ‘Peaceful Development’ (中国和平发展)) Theory where he responded to rising apprehensions about China’s economic rise on the international arena among the Western nations by stating that China did not intend to dominate the world and its rise and advancement was in complementarity to the development of all nations of the world and hence, its rise must not be feared or suspected.
As suspicions continued to be raised, the term was changed from ‘Rise’ (崛起) to ‘Development’ (‘发展’) to emphasise more on the softer aspect of economic development rather than the harder aspect of political rise in the international arena. However, the fear could not be entirely allayed.
At a speech delivered at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in 2013, the new President and CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping noted:
“It is a world where countries are linked with and dependent on one another at a level never seen before. Mankind, by living in the same global village within the same time and space where history and reality meet, have increasingly emerged as a community of common destiny in which everyone has in himself a little bit of others.”
Since Xi took power, his interpretation of the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind came to be closely associated with his ‘China Dream’ (中国梦) which was mentioned in his famous Road to Rejuvenation speech which he delivered soon after getting elected. The location of the National Museum was carefully chosen as Xi took the crowd through the galleries depicting China’s modern history, emphasising how the nation was humiliated by the defeat in the mid 19th century Opium Wars which stemmed from the Western powers’ hegemonic ambitions. Emphasising on how China had come a long way from being humiliated as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’ to a prosperous nation under the Communist Party, Xi vowed to “achieve national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” which he claimed to be a cherished dream of not just a few individuals but of the whole nation. In many of his subsequent speeches, the China Dream was used to highlight complementarity with developmental goals of all nations of the world.
Apart from highlighting the injustices of the Colonial past meted against China by the Western powers, reinforcing the legitimacy of the Communist Party by claiming modern Chinese prosperity to be inseparable from the rule of the Party and the goal of national rejuvenation ahead of the nation; Xi interestingly emphasised on the traditional Chinese notion of continuity where he stated that China’s historical experiences have all contributed in strengthening the nation and hence, any one period cannot and must not be discredited. He claimed that the roaring success of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms could be made possible because of the policies taken under Mao and hence, unlike the discourse that had been prevalent till then, the two phases were not two distinct eras but existed in continuity. Vigorously quoting several of Mao’s poems, Xi has brought him back to life in Chinese politics today.
In 2013, the idea was further developed in Xi’s speech at the inaugural Periphery Diplomacy Work Forum where he described China’s engagements with its neighbours to be based on a set of Confucian ideals such as Amity (亲), Sincerity (诚), Mutual Benefit (惠) and Inclusiveness (容). The term has come to increasingly emphasise on China’s active role in the transformation of global governance (全球治理变革). Xi believes that China’s increasing Comprehensive National Power (综合国力) gives it both the strength and the responsibility to lead global governance reforms which he believes have been hampered by the hegemonic tendencies of the Western powers.
Under both Xi and Hu, the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind has been closely associated with the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence coined by Zhou Enlai which includes mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.
The Belt and Road Initiative (一带一路) launched in 2013 (previously known as the One Belt One Road Initiative), a transcontinental investment and infrastructure development programme to further economic and cultural contacts, has been highlighted as the most prized project under the Community of Common Destiny for Mankind.
In 2015, after several countries including India protested against the inclusion of the term in various United Nations documents proposed by China, citing exclusivity and apprehensions of an attack on multilateralism, the English translation of the term was changed from “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” to the “Community with a Shared Future for Mankind”. However, the English term remains a misnomer as the official Chinese term remains the same and ‘命运’ (‘Mingyun’) means ‘destiny’ rather than ‘future’ (未来).
In his 2017 address ‘Work Together to Build a Community of Shared Future for Mankind’ at the United Nations Office at Geneva, Xi noted:
“We should build a world of common prosperity through win-win cooperation. Development is the top priority for all countries. Instead of beggaring thy neighbor, countries should stick together like passengers in the same boat. All countries, the main economies in particular, should strengthen macro policy coordination, pursue both current and long-term interests and focus on resolving deep-seated problems. “
The concept was added as the core value of China’s foreign policy through an amendment to the Preamble of the Constitution of the PRC in 2018.
Towards a Global Security Initiative
Emphasising on the Shared Future yet again at the Boao Forum themed “The World in COVID-19 & Beyond: Working Together for Global Development and Shared Future” this year, Xi laid down a blueprint for a Global Security Initiative as such:
“It is important that we stay committed to the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and work together to maintain world peace and security; stay committed to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, uphold non-interference in internal affairs, and respect the independent choices of development paths and social systems made by people in different countries; stay committed to abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, reject the Cold War mentality, oppose unilateralism, and say no to group politics and bloc confrontation; stay committed to taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously, uphold the principle of indivisible security, build a balanced, effective and sustainable security architecture, and oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security; stay committed to peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation, support all efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of crises, reject double standards, and oppose the wanton use of unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction; stay committed to maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains, and work together on regional disputes and global challenges such as terrorism, climate change, cybersecurity and biosecurity. “
Xi thus pointed to the flaws in the international governance system which has led to both traditional and non-traditional security threats and the urgency to reform it.
Placing this excerpt in the present international context of the Russia led Ukraine invasion, Xi has clearly presented a seething criticism of the United States and its allies as though mooting its stance on supporting Ukraine, China has turned the issue around towards Washington and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), blaming it for threatening Russia’s “core interests” with its expansionist policies which led to the invasion.
Calling out the exclusive nature of “small circles” (possibly pointing to Quad which Beijing refers to as ‘Asian NATO’) and the “unilateral use of sanctions” (possibly an indication to sanctions imposed on certain Chinese exports and on its allies Russia and North Korea imposed by the United States), Xi called for inclusivity by claiming “Countries around the world are like passengers aboard the same ship who share the same destiny. For the ship to navigate the storm and sail toward a bright future, all passengers must pull together. The thought of throwing anyone overboard is simply not acceptable”.
Can we share the same boat?
Though the initiative sounds mutually beneficial and inclusive on the surface, several unavoidable concerns regarding the Community with a Shared Future for Mankind prevail.
First of all, though the English translation has changed, the Chinese term remains the same with the term ‘命运’ (‘Mingyun’) intact. ‘命运’ essentially means ‘fate or destiny’ pointing to the inevitability of the process where China would not just actively participate in but would lead the global governance reforms which raises suspicions about its intentions and possible subversion of the current liberal international order among several nations with which Beijing has had tussles with.
Second, the BRI, which stands as the greatest manifestation of the Community with a Shared Future for Mankind, has also lost sheen as many countries such as Maldives and Sri Lanka increasingly view it as a ‘debt trap’ where drowning in a sea of easily issued heavy loans, developing nations which falter to pay back the loans have no choice but to take into consideration China’s political interests which are often in contest with their own national security and development interests.
Third, the link between the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and the Community with a Shared Future for Mankind in itself is problematic and exclusive since these represent China’s core interests which it considers non negotiable and refuses to engage with in a mulitlateral way, prominent examples being the One China policy with regard to Taiwan and Hong Kong particularly as well as the South China Sea dispute. Thus, such selective calls for negotiations do not at present and might not fare well in the future.
While it is true that inhabiting the same planet, our prosperity and future are tied together, it is also true that such emerging concerns cannot be avoided and until they are addressed, all of us cannot travel in the same boat.
Staying true to the stated values, China must realise its responsibility as a rising power and must work with nations big and small on issues of pressing concern like climate change and global health concerns which, through regular and fruitful diplomatic contacts and confidence building measures, would build a bridge to negotiate on harder issues like traditonal security concerns.