Beijing’s Vision for a Reshaped International Order
The “community of common destiny” (命运共同体) has emerged as one of Xi Jinping’s most favorite “diplospeak” phrases, appearing in his public speeches more than a hundred times since he first came to power in 2012. Far from a bland and well-meaning platitude, the “community” belongs to the realm of official political “formulations” (提法) that are meant to indicate the Party line. It reflects Beijing’s aspirations for a future world order, different from the existing one and more in line with its own interests and status.
Early Appearances and Concentric Circles of Expansion
“Community of common destiny” (or its now preferred official English translation, “community of shared future”) featured prominently in Xi Jinping’s 19th Party Congress speech last October (Xinhua, October 27, 2017). The term “community of common destiny” was seldom used prior to the start of the Xi era. Hu Jintao aired it in 2007 to describe the special relationship between the mainland and Taiwan, with the implication that two politically different entities could have reasonably good relations despite their dissimilarities. In an international context, it was mentioned in a 2011 State Council white paper published on China’s peaceful rise, as a way to underline the interdependence between “countries with different systems, different types and different stages of development” born out of economic globalization (gov.cn, September 2011). Xi first used the term at the April 2013 Bo’ao Forum, then reiterated it in numerous public addresses to domestic and foreign audiences over the following years.
There are several categories of communities of shared destiny, going out in concentric circles: bilateral communities with China’s immediate neighbors (i.e. Pakistan, Xinhua, April 22, 2015), with regions and entire continents (China’s periphery, Xinhua, October 25, 2013; ASEAN, CPC News, October 4, 2013; Africa, CPC News, March 26, 2013), and, more recently, with the entirety of “humankind” (人类命运共同体) (Xinhua, April 22, 2015). This latest iteration illustrates both Beijing’s growing global outlook, commensurate with what it sees as its great power status, and its increasing confidence that it can compete at the global level with other great powers not only in material terms, but also in the realm of ideas.
The Emerging Shape of the Common Community
Although the phrase has appeared often in Xi’s public speeches, there is no official definition of what the community of common destiny (CCD) is all about. Its content is still being discussed internally among scholars and members of the Party nomenklatura, as illustrated, for example, by a March 2016 seminar organized jointly by the CCP’s International Liaison Department Research Office and Contemporary World (当代世界) magazine (Huanqiu, April 12, 2016). CCD is still an evolving and amorphous concept, but there is nevertheless an emerging common understanding among the people who take part in the domestic debate over its meaning: CCD reflects a dissatisfaction with the current US-led international order, and it purports to offer a better way than the Western one for organizing the world.
The community is, at its essence, a view on how to “reshape the international order” (重塑国际秩序) (Dangdai Shijie, May 30, 2016), and to offer a new model of global governance (cssn.cn, January 19) that is “more just and reasonable” (CASS) than the present “domination by the West” which has become “unsustainable” (jinming, December 1, 2017). In human affairs, say CASS scholars Xu Jin and Guo Chu, “one cannot talk about destiny without touching upon life and death; in international relations, one cannot talk about destiny without touching upon the rise and fall of powers.” Managing China’s rising peacefully, as Beijing says it intends to do, means in effect finding ways to avoid military conflict with the incumbent hegemon, namely the United States. The CCD is intended within this context, as “to overcome the resistance encountered during China’s rise process.” In other words: China will continue to expand its power and influence while trying to reduce outside resistance, using the narrative of an inclusive community which everyone is welcome to join because it supposedly transcends individual countries’ narrow interests. (CASS).
The new community defies political, ideological and physical boundaries, because its members manage to find the greatest common denominator (BISU, October 20, 2017) while putting aside their ideological differences (Dangdai Shijie, May 30, 2016). The common ground around which the community will coalesce is believed to be economic development, which Beijing No.2 Foreign Language Institute professor Zhang Yaojun (张耀军) defines as “the key to solving all problems” (BISU, October 20, 2017) and State Councillor and Politburo member Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) deems as “the most important task.” The community is non-ideological and apolitical (Dangdai Shijie, May 30, 2016), contrary to the West’s “ideologically-based aid programs” (BISU, October 20, 2017) because “no single road or model can be universally adopted” (cssn.cn, January 19). This resonates quite well with Xi Jinping’s 19th CCP Congress speech (Xinhua, November 3, 2017) in which he offered socialism with Chinese characteristics as a “new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”
The main threat to China’s ambitions is seen as the United States, which wants to exercise full control over the international order and “suppress and contain” (压制围堵) emerging powers and challengers militarily, economically and politically, through its network of alliances system, its “dollar hegemony,” and the promotion of “so-called” universal values (Dangdai Shijie, May 30, 2016). In contrast, within the CCD, China promotes peace and harmony (和合), equality of all beings (众生平), and harmony within difference (和而不同) (CPC News, August 18, 2017). Such an implicit moral superiority is prominent in the writings of Yang Jiechi, who claims that CCD reflects how China is now “confident and capable of making greater contributions to the world” by offering a “new model” of regional cooperation and global governance, informed by “Chinese wisdom” (中国智慧) (jinming, December 1, 2017). Fu Ying (傅莹), chairwoman of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, also extols the morally superior qualities of China’s “traditional strategic culture” which she describes as essentially non-expansionist and conflict-averse. The CCD’s model of “cooperative security” is in her eyes more desirable than the Western model of “collective security” which does nothing but “expand the security of its members while squeezing the security of non-members.” (cssn.cn, January 19).
The CCD, by contrast, is described as an “extended family coexisting harmoniously” that “does not duplicate the old game of geopolitics” (Fu Ying), a global partnership network, a “non-aligned alliance” (Yang Jiechi), in which members need to “stand on the side of China, or at least, be neutral” while at the same time “providing mutual security support” (Xu-Guo). In sum, CCD is a network of strong strategic partnerships that resemble an alliance system while denying being one. As Xu and Guo explain, the community also needs an “other,” a “contrast and reference point” to catalyse goodwill and cooperation. Short of a “major threat originating from outside the Earth,” the presence of an adversary “is the only way humanity will bind together.” The authors leave the identity of this enemy to the imagination of the reader, but there is no question who they have in mind.
The community of common destiny is intimately associated with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as they form two facets of the same coin: while the community is an intellectual construct, a “theory”—almost a utopian vision that gives the overall direction needed to attain a distant goal—BRI is the “practice,” the path, providing concrete means to knit the community together (BISU, October 20, 2017). Just as China is still in the “primary stage of socialism” on the road to pure communism, the community is in its infancy but embodies the “ultimate goal of human society’s development.” (Huanqiu, April 12, 2016) Until this ideal vision is achieved, China needs to continue to offer pragmatic cooperation via BRI.
Xu Jin and Guo Chu describe the CCD as a set of new “strategic partnerships,” “based on political and security arrangements” that will emerge as a result of China’s increased economic interactions with the world. Members of the community will join initially because they will recognize the economic benefits they can reap from their membership. In time, they will come to understand that in order to protect the fruits of their economic interactions, they will also need to broaden and deepen their political and security cooperation with China. Increased interactions will help shape members’ views and nurture a “we” feeling among them. After a while, they will come to feel that being part of the community, is not only necessary for pragmatic reasons, it will also appear “inevitable and the right thing to do.” The process of building the community is significant in and of itself, as it will help pave the way for China to emerge as a regional and global leader. CCD will allow trust-building, and enhance friendship, until its members “become accustomed to China’s playing such a role.” (CASS)
Whereas BRI provides physical connectivity, the CCD represents the intangible bonds that would tie the region together around China to form a “bloc with those countries that more or less depend on its economy” (Diplomat, November 28, 2013). The principles and norms that would regulate and frame the interactions among its members reflect Beijing’s rejection of the current U.S.-led world order. The community’s fate is intimately associated with BRI and the eventual realization of such an ambitious ideal is anything but certain. But its recurrence in the official diplomatic lexicon reflects how serious the vision has become for the regime.
Reprinted with permission from The Jamestown Foundation. Nadège Rolland is Senior Fellow for political and security affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). Her research focuses mainly on China’s foreign and defense policy and the changes in regional dynamics across Eurasia resulting from the rise of China. She is the author of “China’s Eurasian Century? Political and Strategic Implications of the Belt and Road Initiative” published in 2017.