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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchChina’s Search for Allies: Is Beijing Building a Rival Alliance System?

China’s Search for Allies: Is Beijing Building a Rival Alliance System?

Author: Patricia M. Kim

Affiliation: John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: November 15, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 1940


Keywords: Alliances and Partnerships Network, China’s Behavior Gradual Change, China’s Strategy, Changing Security Environment, and U.S.-China Rivalry


There are a set of indications that reflect the possibility of a change in China’s current strategy in the foreseeable future, as the author argues. The change is driven by a number of internal reasons linked to the Chinese leadership vision, and external ones related to the rapid pace of emergency changes in China’s security environment with the increase in American rivalry and Washington’s mobilization of allies to contain and confront Beijing. The most prominent feature of this change in the Chinese strategy is China’s transition from pursuing global geoeconomic policies based on “win-win” cooperative partnerships to military security policies based primarily on building a network of security-military alliances under its leadership in a full imitation of what Washington has done for more than seventy years. The article is divided into three parts. The first one explains the strategy adopted by China since the foundation of the People’s Republic, which has been based on avoiding traditional power politics and working instead on building economic partnerships, deepening relations with the developing world, as well as investing in the establishment of multilateral organizations under its leadership such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Based on this strategy, Beijing has been seeking to reassure the countries that have concerns regarding its rise and to be welcomed as a catalyst for the development and prosperity of all. Beijing has wanted to distinguish itself from Washington, which has still ruled by a “Cold War mentality”. China also bets on maximizing its global influence by providing loans, investments, and trade opportunities to any political entity, regardless of its character and internal record related to the nature of its political regime. This strategy has earned China friends and influence, especially in the developing world which is benefiting a lot. In return, China has obtained from its countries support for the “one China” principle or their silence—even their praise—towards China’s policies in Xinjiang, and support for its agenda in regional and international organizations such as the United Nations. Beijing has also relied on a policy of economic coercion to punish countries that challenge its interests, as happened recently with Australia. However, it seems that Beijing’s calculations and traditional strategy are gradually changing with Beijing’s increasing pursuit of creating a network of security-military alliances parallel to its American counterpart, which is argued in the second part of the article. The author sees that China will be motivated to build this network if it notices that a sharp deterioration is taking place in its security environment in a way that upsets the cost-benefit calculations, or if its political leaders decide to remove the United States from the scene as the dominant military power not only in the Indo-Pacific region but also on the global level. China will move towards this strategy if its leaders realize that the basic interests of the Communist Party are at stake, whether with regard to its internal authority or its authority over the tense provinces in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and others; so then it estimates that defending China’s interests will only be possible by concluding defense agreements with key partners such as Russia, Pakistan or Iran. The author offers some indications that China is already heading in this direction, such as its assertion that there are “no restricted areas” and “no upper limit” to the partnership with Russia, and that the two countries need to deepen relations in response to the increasing “encirclement” of Washington and its allies. China conducts extensive joint military exercises with Russia in many places. Moreover, China embraces some “rogue states” such as its close relationship with North Korea (the only country that is considered an ally after China concluded a joint defense agreement with it) and its recent signing with Iran of a 25-year (economic-military) cooperation agreement. The cooperation resulted in China’s approval of Iran’s request for full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, 15 years after Iran’s request. Such moves bear evidence of Beijing’s revision of its previous calculations. As long as it perceives a growing hostile external environment, it will require more urgency in recruiting allies and imitation of Washington in building a network of allies under its leadership. In the final part, the author stresses the need for Washington to revitalize its Indo-Pacific alliances while working carefully so as not to make Beijing feel threatened and thereby motivate it to create a network of security-military alliances. Serious consideration should be given to how to live with such an outcome or prevent it if possible, by considering ways to keep China in a stable relationship with the US and its allies. This would require Washington to work with a group of countries, not just with democracies of similar values, to prevent them from turning to China as their best or only option. Such measures would prevent a drift toward a truly divided world in which China leads a bloc of even more entangled and interventionist opposition alliances and partnerships. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate




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