Beijing Expands its Multinational Toolkit at CICA Summit

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 15

President Xi Jinping of China proposed a new Asian security concept on May 21, 2014 at the fourth summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA). He called on Asian countries to pursue “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” based on “peace, development and win-win cooperation” in which differences and disputes between states were resolved through dialogue and negotiations (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 21). Chinese analysts described Xi’s proposal at aiming for security that will benefit all countries, but the incongruity between Xi’s lofty language and Beijing’s newly assertive policies in its territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam leads some foreign observers to see Xi as promoting an agenda that primarily advances Chinese interests. 

Xi’s Vision

In his speech at the summit, Xi defined “common” security as “respecting and ensuring the security of each and every country.” According to Xi and Chinese scholars, “common security” takes into account that Asia is a diverse but interdependent region. While Asian countries differ in size, wealth, military power, social systems, security interests, and historical and cultural traditions, they share rights and responsibilities and will jointly benefit or suffer from collective security conditions. As PLA expert Li Da Guang explains, “We all live together in this Asian garden [in a] ‘community of destiny’ (, May 22). Xi’s concept requires that states pursue “universal security” and refrain from seeking security at others’ expense since one nation cannot enjoy full security if others feel insecure. They must also adhere to basic norms such as “respecting sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and non-interference in internal affairs” (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 21). Xi’s interpretation of “common security” does not embrace non-Asian countries, which have no right to interfere in regional security affairs.

Xi called on Asia to move away from a Cold War framework based on zero-sum thinking to one founded on a “cooperative” approach that reflected importance, having two third of the world’s population and one third of the global economy (Xinhua, May 22). In Xi’s formulation, cooperative security entails sincere and in-depth dialogue and communications to settle disputes. Cooperating on less sensitive issues first can help states build trust that can make them more receptive to resolving more sensitive issues later. The new Asian security concept excludes the arbitrary use or threat of force, acts of provocation and escalation, placing troubles on neighboring countries or sacrificing others for selfish gains (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 21). Li Weijian, a researcher with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies, placed Xi’s concept in historical context by describing it as an extension of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence that China formulated six decades ago as an ideological challenge to the Cold War (Xinhua, May 22).

The Concept is also “comprehensive” in that it covers a wide range of traditional and non-traditional threats ranging from territorial and ethnic-religious disputes to non-traditional threats such as “terrorism; transnational crimes; environmental security; cyber security; energy and resource security; and major natural disasters” (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 21). In addition to this comprehensive functional coverage, Chinese analysts stress that security cooperation must address immediate regional security challenges as well as preparing for future threats through a proactive approach that address the roots of threats rather than merely their symptoms (Beijing Times, May 22).

 In Xi’s view, such a common, cooperative and comprehensive approach will lead to “sustainable” security since it is built on a solid foundation. In particular, Asians’ enhanced security will facilitate their socioeconomic development, which in turn strengthens their security (China Brief, May 23; Xinhua, May 21). At CICA summit, Xi said that Asia must “focus on development, actively improve people’s lives, narrow the wealth gap and cement the foundation of security” (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 21). Chinese analysts said that Xi aimed “to promote peace and stability [in] Asia” as well as “add momentum to the rebalancing of the world’s economic and security dynamics” to Asians’ benefit (Xinhua, May 22). They emphasized the explicit link between economic development and security as reflecting a fundamental reality of modern international relations (, May 20).

Chinese analysts have joined others in noting that CICA region faces serious security challenges even beyond those between China and its neighbors—the war in Syria, tensions between Israel and its neighbors, the Iranian nuclear dispute, the war in Afghanistan, Pakistani-Indian tensions, a potentially explosive situation in Korea, and transnational security challenges such as the “three evils” terrorism, separatism and religious extremism. In addition to their other complications, these security challenges threaten Asia’s economic development and enhance the influence of non-Asian powers on the continent (Beijing Review, May 26; Xinhua, June 1).

Xi probably chose CICA to advance his concept because of its large membership, which nonetheless excludes the United States and Japan, and because the organization is sufficiently malleable for Beijing to shape its future evolution in desirable ways. In addition, while China has chaired large Asian economic institutions such as APEC, CICA combines security and economics (, May 20). Some Chinese analysts explicitly described CICA as an instrument to enhance China’s regional influence. Shen Shinshun, Director of the Department of Asia-Pacific Security and Cooperation at the China Institute of International Studies, stated China “needs a platform to gain, maintain and strengthen its position in Asia” (Bloomberg, May 21).

Although not highlighted by Chinese analysts, Xi’s proposed Asian Security Concept would, if widely accepted, also enhance China’s influence by challenging the legitimacy of the regional security role of  the United States in Asia. Xi stressed that Asian states are capable of solving regional security matters on their own, the United States is a Pacific but not an Asian country (Beijing Review, May 26). Furthermore, the United States and its key Asian ally Japan are only observers in CICA, with little impact on its agenda. In his speech, Xi also criticized the U.S.-led alliance system in Asia more directly than his predecessors. They may have been more open to the view that the alliances helped restrain the U.S. partners, whereas Chinese analysts now openly accuse Washington of encouraging its allies to confront China through the Obama administration’s Asia Pivot and statements that more openly align Washington with countries having territorial disputes with China.


With respect to building CICA as an institution, Xi said that, “China will fulfill the responsibilities of CICA chairman and work with other sides to improve the status and role of CICA, to take Asian security cooperation to a higher level” (Xinhua, May 21). He called for “efforts to enhance the capacity and institutional building of CICA,” specifically citing the need to improve its secretariat. In addition, he proposed giving it a “defense consultation mechanism” and a “security response center” for major emergencies. Xi also called for establishing a supporting non-governmental exchange network in which NGOs and other CICA parties can engage through meetings and other dialogue mechanisms independent of their governments. In terms of advancing the security-development nexus developed in his speech, Xi reaffirmed China’s commitment to work with regional countries to build a Silk Road Economic Belt and a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. These two cooperation initiatives offer new opportunities for Asian countries to achieve common development in a secure environment (Chinese Foreign Ministry, May 21).

According to Shen Shishun, director of the Department of Asia-Pacific Security and Cooperation at the China Institute of International Studies, “this new type of Asian security concept has been in Beijing’s pipeline for a while” (Bloomberg, May 21). Until recently, however, China had not prioritized CICA as a major regional security forum, focusing greater attention on other institutions such as APEC and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). CICA was a Kazakhstani creation, later chaired by Turkey until this year’s transfer of the chairmanship to China, The institution will likely become more prominent now that it is under Chinese leadership. Yang Jin, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said that, “Under the new generation of leadership, China is becoming more active diplomatically and is more willing to increase its voice on the world stage" (Beijing Review, May 26).

In line with its effort to promote China’s international profile as well as that of the Xi’s presidency, Chinese analysts publicized CICA conference in Shanghai as one of the two most important manifestations of China’s “host diplomacy” in 2014 (, April 3). Xi called CICA the largest and most representative security forum in Asia (CCTV, May 21). In addition, the Shanghai summit was the biggest in the history of CICA, with leaders and representatives from 47 countries or international organizations attending. Vice Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping further noted the significance of Shanghai in pioneering China’s post-Mo reforms and international engagement (Shanghai Daily, May 19). Chinese analysts noted that CICA supports “China’s desire to ‘go out’” (Study Times, June 2).

CICA and the SCO both promote regional security under Beijing’s leadership. They also complement each other in that, while CICA has a broader membership, the SCO has a more developed institutional base and a core focus on countering the “three evils” of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism, which has not previously been a focus of CICA. CICA shares some of the advantages Beijing sees in the SCO—both are new organizations that exclude the United States and Japan, giving China both the opportunity and the means to be a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker. Unlike with the UN or with the Bretton Woods-era financial institutions, whose rules and norms were solidified without major Chinese participation, Beijing can more easily direct the evolution of the SCO and CICA, still developing institutions in which China is a dominant player, in ways more favorable to Chinese interests (Financial Times, May 20).

Since the summit, Xi and Chinese leaders have continued to advocate the ideas contained in their new Asian Security Concept. In a speech by General Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Department before the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 1, 2014, Wang emphasized that the PLA was prepared to work with other militaries to contribute to regional peace and development through bilateral and multilateral security dialogues and exchanges” such as this October’s Xiangshan Forum in Beijing. He also proposed more practical cooperation among Asian countries in counter-terrorism, disaster relief, protection of sea lines of communication and other common security and development challenges (IISS, June 1). In his speech to the opening ceremony of the sixth round of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), Xi stressed the imperative of avoiding confrontation and zero-sum cooperation in favor of mutual respect, mutual trust and “win-win” outcomes that benefit other Asian-Pacific countries (Xinhua, July 11).


Chinese media cited Asian experts in support Xi’s regional security concept (Global Times, May 22; People’s Daily Online, May 23). CICA founder and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev also praised China’s vision for applying CICA’s vision during its chairmanship (Tengri News, May 21;, May 22). Even so, uniting the 24 CICA members under Beijing’s leadership will prove challenging, given that several, such as Israel and South Korea, are close U.S. allies. Serious tensions also exist between some members, such as India and Pakistan; Israel and Iran; and China and several of its neighbors. The Chinese regional silk road initiatives (and its more Pacific-focused Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) face competition from rival economic initiatives such as the Russian-led Eurasian Union and the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. While Beijing can devote vast economic resources to support its institutional preferences, Moscow and Washington can appeal to Asian countries concerned that their interest would suffer with a restoration of Beijing’s regional hegemony. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proposed an alternative new regional security concept that includes the United States as a key participant and emphasizes political democracy and other values excluded from Beijing’s vision (IISS, May 30). The United States, the Philippines, and perhaps India and other Asian countries will find this vision more attractive than that promoted by Beijing.

The author thanks Hudson interns Kimberly Butler, Samuel Chow, Jack H Howard, Man Ching Lam, Brittany Mannings, Vinny Sidhu, Lii Inn Tan and Stella Ran Zheng for their research help.