from Asia Unbound

Does U.S.-China Strategic Cooperation Have To Be So Hard?

September 27, 2011

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger delivers a speech in front of a picture of late U.S. president Richard Nixon meeting with late premier Zhou Enlai during a ceremony in Shanghai to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the
Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger delivers a speech in front of a picture of late U.S. President Richard Nixon meeting with late Premier Zhou Enlai during a ceremony in Shanghai to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the "Shanghai Communique." (China Photo/Courtesy Reuters)

Can the United States and China cooperate to forestall threats to stability? A new CFR report, Managing Instability on China’s Periphery, asks this question in the context of fragile states and regions that share borders with China—specifically North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Central Asia. I participated in the project, which included workshops with Chinese specialists assembled by Peking University. I also wrote the report’s chapter on Central Asia.

The project is interesting because the U.S. and China actually have a long history of cooperating in places along China’s border. Just take recent tensions over Afghanistan, for example. These strains belie the degree to which Beijing and Washington worked jointly to defeat the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Washington encouraged Chinese support for the Afghan mujahideen, and the two countries cooperated in other unprecedented ways during the conflict.

But that was then.

Today, the United States and China are often at loggerheads in such places. U.S. officials have argued that Chinese policies help to bolster Myanmar’s ruling junta. Many in Washington argue, too, that Chinese policies have shielded North Korea from the effects of international sanctions that Beijing itself has repeatedly voted for.

For their part, Chinese officials often view U.S. policies in these countries as naïve at best, destabilizing at worst. Many in Beijing hold the view that U.S. and South Korean “failures” have cornered North Korea and thus urge deepened policies of engagement. In Central Asia, meanwhile, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the region in 2006 and 2007, I heard Chinese officials argue ad infinitum that U.S. actions to promote political reform could, ultimately, destabilize these countries.

What’s going on? Does cooperation really have to be so hard? For that matter, is coordination so hard because the U.S. and China lack common interests?

I think not. In fact, asserting so is a too-easy cop out because, in most cases, it would be awfully hard to demonstrate empirically that China actually “wants” an unstable Pakistan or would just "love" a North Korea with nuclear weapons. In the countries at the heart of this CFR study, why wouldn’t China share America’s interest in stability, security, development, and prosperity?

I suspect the problem usually isn’t a lack of common interests. It’s that shared interests, such as they are, are very general in nature. Turning (abstract) common interests into (concrete) complementary policies requires that Beijing and Washington overcome two very high hurdles:

First, Beijing almost never seems to share American threat assessments anymore. Countries like Iran and North Korea don’t threaten China directly, so Beijing can probably afford to be more relaxed. That’s also, I suspect, why Chinese analysts so often argue that the U.S. “hypes” the threat.

Second, even when Beijing shares America’s sense of threat, countervailing interests still obstruct cooperation. In Afghanistan, for example, China certainly shares America’s core interest: a stable Afghan state that does not harbor, nurture, or export terrorism. But Chinese decision-makers do not relish a path to victory that might produce a long-term NATO presence on China’s western border, U.S. bases and access agreements in Central Asia, and enhanced U.S. and NATO strategic coordination with neighbors that have had difficult relations with China.

So, what’s to be done?

More dialogue, perhaps? I’m skeptical.

As I argue in my Central Asia chapter, dialogue, in itself, is not a policy, not least because dialogue for its own sake has not, in the recent past, proved especially useful.

The United States and China have held routine dialogue on Central Asia since at least 2006. An institutionalized Central Asia sub-dialogue was established in December 2005 in the wake of a meeting of the U.S.-China Senior Dialogue in Washington between Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo and Deputy Secretary of State Robert B. Zoellick. But the quality of the conversations has been mixed and few, if any, coordinated actions have emerged from it.

Here, then, are a few bottom lines:

First, since coordination has been weak, the United States and China should aim at complementary, but not necessarily joint, projects and actions. Of course the United States and China need, in the first instance, to establish more transparency and a better mutual understanding of each other’s strategic intentions. But both countries are active, for example, with capacity-building programs and projects. So it is important to remember that complementary projects and actions need not be conducted jointly.

One example is counternarcotics work: China works bilaterally and through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; the United States works mostly bilaterally through security assistance and capacity building. Washington and Beijing can coordinate their areas of focus, direct their respective financial assistance packages at similar drugs-related goals, and build complementary capacity while maintaining separate efforts.

Second, of course the two countries should aim to improve coordination, but they shouldn’t expect to do real joint contingency planning. Not anytime soon, in any case.

Here’s an example: It could hardly hurt to conduct confidential discussions about specific transnational risks. So let’s take food security: At a minimum, that issue could provide useful touch points about how each country would respond to crisis conditions in, for example, Central Asia, or even North Korea.

But U.S.-China coordination will continue to be difficult for the various reasons noted above:  China does not often share American threat assessments; China does not support the U.S. approach to political or economic reform in, say, Central Asia or Pakistan; and finally, countervailing interests, clashing security concepts, and mutual suspicions will remain an obstacle for some time.

To my mind, that means contingency discussions of, for example, donor principles and modalities in a prospective food crisis could build a better platform for U.S.-China coordination than, say, aiming high at the big security issues.

Third, then, to use an American football metaphor: the two countries don’t always have to “throw long.” Working now on peripheral issues may well give both countries a better chance to work over time toward core strategic issues. Too often in recent years, I think, the U.S. has sought security cooperation with China, and then failed. Contingency discussions of North Korea are one example.

There’s nothing wrong with trying. After all, such discussions would be great, if they could actually come off. But my bet is that coordinating economic policies will prove easier than coordinating security policies. And coordinating with ad hoc groups—for instance, with the Asian Development Bank’s Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation (CAREC) program—will provide China with some “cover,” and thus prove easier than coordinating bilaterally.

At the end of the day, the U.S. and China badly need to create a track record of concrete successes. And this is especially true in the places where shared strategic interests exist but remain awfully abstract.

I hope you’ll read the report.  You can download it here.

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