This paper sketches the outlines of a more systematic approach to non-military cooperation and preventive action that China and the United States might take to prevent state failure. It focuses mainly, but not exclusively, on greater Asia, defined broadly to range from Southwest Asia (the Middle East north and east of the Persian Gulf) through the Indian subcontinent southwards to the Indonesian archipelago and northwards to the Korean peninsula. This area was chosen not only because of its proximity to China but also because of its strategic importance to the United States and the existence of shared or overlapping Chinese and American interests.
Each country is unique, but for purposes of this analysis states can be classified in groups ranging along a spectrum, from “weak” to “failing” through “failed/widespread conflict” to “post-conflict” states. This analysis focuses on weak and failing states. These are countries where diplomacy and a modest level of public and private resources may (repeat: may) be able to avert violence and subsequent intervention, both of which are far more costly in both financial and humanitarian terms.
Two weaknesses cast a shadow on the ambitious agenda outlined here. The first is organizational. On the American side, the U.S. government lacks the capacity to respond rapidly, consistently, and effectively to the need for preventive measures in weak and failing states. Interagency coordination across functional barriers is uneven at best. Decisionmaking is compartmentalized and frequently hobbled by hierarchy and secrecy. Separate policies often work at cross purposes. There has been no sustained effort to explain to the public why state failure matters. Successful preventive strategies will require much closer coordination among the economic, security, law enforcement, environmental, and technology policy-making communities in Washington than currently exists.
One of the unique advantages of Sino-American cooperation is that it harnesses the skills and resources of two vastly different countries. But that difference is also a weakness that critics may seek to exploit. Given the long and bumpy history of relations, the legacy of mutual mistrust dies hard. It is difficult for Americans to believe that Chinese observers can view their well-meaning if fumbling and inconsistent policies as aggression, but many of them do. They see a country trying to dominate the world by attacking sovereign countries at will, expanding its military presence, and seeking to control energy sources. In Asia, they believe that the United States is encouraging Taiwanese separatism, turning a blind eye to Japanese militarism, and setting up new bases and military facilities in Central Asia, Singapore, and elsewhere so as to encircle China. On the other side of the Pacific, hard-line American critics see China in zero-sum terms – if China gains wealth, influence, and military power, the United States loses. This attitude carries particular weight in some circles of the U.S. Congress.
Strategic trust cannot be created quickly, but as long as China continues on its current course, it can be expected to grow over time. Meanwhile, the more Chinese and Americans find practical ways to cooperate in response to the challenges posed by weak and failing states, the more each side will gain confidence in the other’s intentions. Such confidence is a key component of strategic trust.