Cover: Vanishing Trade Space

Vanishing Trade Space

Assessing the Prospects for Great Power Cooperation in an Era of Competition — A Project Overview

Published Feb 20, 2023

by Raphael S. Cohen, Elina Treyger, Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga, Asha Clark, Kit Conn, Scott W. Harold, Michelle Grisé, Marta Kepe, Soo Kim, Ashley L. Rhoades, et al.

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Research Questions

  1. To what extent can the United States still cooperate with China and Russia in certain areas even in this era of strategic competition?
  2. On which issues?
  3. What are the obstacles, the potential benefits, and the risks associated with great power cooperation?

To what extent can the United States still cooperate with China and Russia in certain areas even in this era of strategic competition? On which issues? What are the obstacles, the potential benefits, and the risks associated with great power cooperation? This report, the first of a four-part series, presents the overarching findings of a study that explored these questions.

The authors find that the trade space for cooperation is already narrow; that the obstacles to cooperation — particularly the absence of trust — are growing; that there are comparatively few wedge issues to play China and Russia off of one another; and that the side benefits of pursuing cooperation over competition do not clearly outweigh the costs of doing so. In other words, any cooperation between the powers will be rare and needs to be narrowly focused on making competition safe, and U.S. leaders should expect that the era of strategic competition will be here to stay for the foreseeable future. This research was completed in September 2020, before the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. It has not been subsequently revised.

Key Findings

  • The trade space is narrow, and the obstacles to cooperation are significant and growing.
  • There are no grand strategic bargains in sight.
  • There are only a handful of potential wedge issues between Russia and China.
  • The second-order benefits do not always clearly outweigh the costs of cooperating.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government should view cooperation as a strategic choice rather than as an objective unto itself; embrace self-interested cooperation; concentrate its efforts on global commons and the Middle East; utilize international organizations to ease cooperation, but accept their limitations; divide issue areas into more narrowly focused topics; and prepare for long-term competition.
  • The Joint Force should focus on deconfliction and deescalation; coordinate with allies on safe competition; concentrate on contingency planning around North Korea, and on counterpiracy and counterterrorism; and weigh the utility of Russian arms sales to Indo-Pacific partners.
  • The Department of the Air Force should expand air deconfliction mechanisms and increase communications on space debris management.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by Headquarters Air Force A-5 Strategy Section and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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