This paper explores the choices and trade-offs that the United States typically faces when it considers the problem of quelling violence in failing states and chronically unstable regions. After first considering the hazards posed by these regions, the paper explicates the tools and techniques required by various courses of action.  It also discusses some of the issues that policymakers have to weigh in considering these alternatives.  Suggestions are then offered on possible paths for future cooperation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China on this important topic.

The Scope for Sino-American Cooperation

The U.S.-China relationship has long been fraught with tension, and it is no surprise that each would approach the problems of weak states and unstable regions from different vantage points. As a Cold War adversary, China habitually inveighed against American military presence in overseas regions. The United States, for its part, regarded its forward presence in East Asia as a vital reassurance to allies in offsetting China’s geographical proximity, revolutionary fervor, demographic mass, and emerging military power. Those tensions have ebbed, but geo-strategic realities still put the two countries in very different places. The United States operates as an offshore balancer and stabilizer in strategically vital areas. China’s energies still concentrate on national economic development and modernization, consigning its status as a weak state to history, and it still exhibits great sensitivity on perceived encroachments to state sovereignty.

And yet, this divergence is not complete. Both sides share global responsibilities as permanent members of the UN Security Council. China has played constructive diplomatic roles in regional affairs, currently on the North Korean standoff and on the Cambodian settlement a decade earlier. Chinese military personnel and civilian police have served in a number of UN peacekeeping operations, most notably in Cambodia, but also as military observers working alongside of U.S. observers on the Iraq-Kuwait border mission after the 1991 Gulf War. Both also possess large military establishments that, although different in most respects, enjoy enormous latent capacity for humanitarian assistance and civic action missions.

Finally, like the United States, China displays increasing sensitivity to a variety of transnational dangers, especially to organized crime, refugee and migration flows. Given all this, what can China and the United States do to forge closer working relations in this sphere of activity? Initiatives to promote better information-sharing and “strategic dialogue” regarding emerging threats and crises have self-evident value, but they also tend to be highly scripted affairs, quickly relegated to the second tier when real crises come along. A better course might be to investigate opportunities for more structured interaction among expert communities within such fields as humanitarian relief, disaster management, homeland security, and transitional assistance, subject to appropriate policy oversight. Such cooperation in theory could take several forms:

  • Contingency familiarization — Multidisciplinary teams from each country could meet in a seminar setting over several days to work through the “diagnostic” and “what if” questions, described above, in relation to a hypothetical crisis. Issues of required capabilities and international burden-sharing could be treated in a generic way to promote frank exchange.
  • Game simulations with international first-responders — For crisis situations in which national providers of remedial services are likely to be acting in support of a designated international lead agency, there is great benefit in fostering more extensive dialogue among states on internationally observed standards within specific areas (e.g., UNHCR’s standards for refugee camps; WFP standards for emergency feeding; World Health Organization standards for vector control activity, etc.). Discussions would parse the requirements, their adequacy and practicality, as well as the application of “best practices” experience gleaned from prior operations. Such a dialogue could be achieved in a game simulation setting that challenges the international team to articulate their requirements and expectations for assistance.
  • Enhancing complementary capacities — From civil works to rural public health and transition assistance more broadly, both countries have demonstrated a range of capacities – mainly, though not wholly, on the civilian side – that could be applied in complementary ways in field settings. Building upon a “here’s our national capital’s perspective” type of exchange, which is always a necessary first step, specialists from both sides could investigate alternative field concepts. Afghanistan may be a promising place to start, for this is where multinational PRTs have been developed as providers of “retail stability” in remote or unstable areas of the country.
  • Strengthening multilateral fact-finding — As and when opportunities arise, China and the United States could consider the possibility of cooperation in promoting more energetic use of the UN Security Council’s or Secretariat’s fact-finding capacities in the interests of fostering better early-warning and early-action in the context of deteriorating situations.

Quite clearly, the modes of cooperation sketched out above are modest ones, which seems appropriate given the larger context and history of Sino-American relations. On the other hand, these suggestions could be viewed as a down-payment on future bilateral cooperation within an arena of growing complexity where, increasingly, the two countries, as major powers, will find themselves being drawn together rather than pulled apart.