Xi’s Unlikely Alliance

June 9, 2014

Xi Jinping’s opaque calls for “a new type of relationship between major countries in the 21st century” took more shape recently, when the Chinese President proposed a new alliance system in Asia. At a late May meeting in Shanghai, President Xi called for the creation of a new regional security pact. Xi’s announcement came at the Conference on Interactions and Confidence-Building Measures (CICA) in East Asia, a multi-national forum of Asian states. In his calls for a regional security architecture, Xi sought to elevate the role of CICA just as China has assumed its chairmanship. Days later, Xi issued a warning that other Asian states should not attempt to use alliances to balance against China. In recent weeks, strategists have argued that China is attempting to erode America’s power in the region by undermining the longstanding US system of alliances. Is a CICA-based security pact part of Xi’s plan to expand Beijing’s influence at the expense of Washington’s decades-old security ties? If so, it is unlikely to work.

CICA is not a cohesive or integrated organization. It is a security “mechanism,” as opposed to a formal alliance. It was founded in 1992 by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and its members did not convene meetings for the first decade of its existence. CICA has focused predominantly on counter-terror cooperation, a mission that overlaps significantly with that of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The SCO itself is not a formal military alliance and has served as more of a forum for China and Russia to manage their differences in Central Asia. Compared to the SCO, however, CICA is even less institutionalized.

Xi has not offered a complete roadmap for his alliance vision, but from the details that exist, CICA would require a comprehensive overhaul to become a true alliance. According to the PLA’s Deputy Chief of the General Staff, Xi sees the American-led alliance architecture in Asia as a vestige of the Cold War that should be replaced by an Asia-centric system—an “Asia for Asians,” as described by one diplomat. Beyond this broad vision for a US-free regional alliance, the Chinese President suggested more specifically that the upgraded CICA include a “defense consultation mechanism” with a “security response center” for major emergencies.

Defense consultation and crisis management mechanisms are important features of some alliances, including NATO and the United States’ closest bilateral alliances in East Asia. But these institutions are not simply summoned into being. Rather, they evolve within already-cohesive alliances where close military cooperation has been the norm. CICA is unlikely, however, to become such an alliance, and its membership is unlikely to support the development of such institutions. There are at least two reasons for this.

First, while CICA’s 26 member states all share a region and the desire for stability within it, this hardly creates the conditions for a tightly-knit defensive relationship. Some CICA members may consider themselves to be U.S. rivals and share Xi’s desire to erode U.S. influence (Russia, Iran), but others are informal U.S. allies (Israel, the UAE), emerging partners (Vietnam, India), and even full-fledged treaty holders (South Korea, Turkey). Even if this regional forum managed to put in place a more robust institutional structure, it is hard to imagine that those participants that do have strong ties to Washington would be inclined to subvert or sever those.

Perhaps more significant than some CICA members’ amity for the U.S., however, is the enmity between many of them. The CICA membership contains several sets of longstanding rivals, including India and Pakistan, Israel and Palestine, and Iran and the UAE. It is highly unlikely that these strange bedfellows will be willing to trust one another with the sensitive security information that accompanies close defense consultation or robust crisis coordination.

The fact that serious rivalries prevent security guarantees from forming is more than just intuitive alliance wisdom. My own academic work has demonstrated that the presence of exclusive rivalries is an important precondition to security guarantee formation. When the United States extended security guarantees to NATO and East Asian partners during the Cold War, its alliance partners generally did not have major adversaries that Washington did not share. The United States and its allies, on the whole, had exclusively common rivals among them, and this serves as an important basis for a strong alliance ties.

States ally to pursue cooperative security goals, but formal alliance commitments necessarily come with a risk of entrapment. If State A is considering a defense pact with State B, and State B has longstanding animosity with State C but A has no animus towards C, A will be wary of the pact because it comes with the possibility of drawing A into a war it might have otherwise avoided.

This problem is amplified in the case of CICA, where longstanding rivalries exist within the forum itself. Not only would India and Pakistan be wary of close defense consultation with one another, but other members would be wary that serious security cooperation with either of those two countries could drag them into an unwanted war over security interests that are ancillary at best.

With recent and dangerous encounters between China and Vietnam in the South China Sea, and Japan and China in the East China Sea, any mechanism that can modestly improve stability in East Asia should be embraced. This includes CICA. This does not mean, however, that the forum’s future is likely to blossom into Xi’s vision of a robust regional architecture that excludes the United States and makes moot its regional defense pacts. The Chinese President may see the U.S. alliance system as a Cold War relic, but his vision is unlikely to be a viable alternative.


Mira Rapp-Hooper is Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a PhD candidate at Columbia University.  Her work focuses on extended deterrence and alliance politics. Mira can be found on Twitter at @MiraRappHooper.


Photo credit: Sompop S