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Research Questions

  1. To what extent can the United States cooperate with China or Russia in the Indo-Pacific?
  2. Where do the United States, China, and Russia share interests, what are the obstacles to cooperation, and where might the United States be able to cooperate, or deepen its cooperation, with one or both powers on the issues of (1) securing a free and open Indo-Pacific, (2) ensuring the defense of key allies and partners, (3) expanding cooperation with new partners in Southeast Asia, (4) ensuring peace in the Taiwan Strait, (5) achieving the denuclearization of North Korea, (6) countering Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, and (7) deepening U.S. geostrategic ties with India?

Can the United States find ways to cooperate with China or Russia in the Indo-Pacific, either to temper geopolitical rivalry or as a strategy to use cooperation with one of the two countries as an advantage against the other? Using official U.S., Chinese, and Russian policy documents, leadership statements, and other sources, the authors of this report assess the prospects for great power cooperation on seven issues: securing a free and open Indo-Pacific, ensuring the defense of key allies and partners, expanding cooperation with new partners in Southeast Asia, ensuring peace in the Taiwan Strait, achieving the denuclearization of North Korea, countering terrorism, and deepening U.S. geostrategic ties with India.

The authors find that, because of the divergence in the three countries' strategic views and policy goals, there is little room for U.S. cooperation with China or Russia in the Indo-Pacific. This implies that cooperation in order to tamp down competitive pressures or to drive wedges between Beijing and Moscow is an unpromising approach to managing ties or competition with these great powers. Instead, the United States will be better off focusing on preparations for long-term competition than striving to turn Beijing and Moscow against each other. This research was completed in September 2020, before the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine and before the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. It has not been subsequently revised.

Key Findings

  • Both China and Russia regard a free and open Indo-Pacific as cover for U.S. interests that comes at their expense, though the region is far more important for China than for Russia.
  • Both countries are hostile to the current U.S.-centric regional alliance architecture and seek to undermine it to enhance their own influence.
  • Neither country is eager to see the United States deepen strategic cooperation with Indonesia, Malaysia, or Vietnam, with China worried about the impact on regional competition and Russia concerned that these countries might shift their defense purchases to the United States.
  • China regards U.S. efforts to support and defend Taiwan as interference in its internal affairs; Russia is largely irrelevant to this issue.
  • Although both China and Russia oppose North Korean acquisition of nuclear weapons, they regard U.S. efforts to compel North Korea to abandon these through sanctions as destabilizing and unlikely to succeed, and do not support the U.S. approach.
  • Both powers criticize U.S. counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia as a way to erode U.S. global influence and impose costs on Washington, with Russia hoping to tie the United States down in Afghanistan.
  • Neither country is supportive of deepening U.S.-India strategic ties, with China seeing this as a form of containment and Russia regarding it as likely to come at the expense of New Delhi’s traditionally warm relations with and reliance on Moscow.


  • Do not assume that opportunities for cooperation or to divide China and Russia exist but have been overlooked.
  • Prepare for long-term competition but avoid conveying an impression that this connotes a U.S. goal of regime change.
  • Continue to leverage existing U.S.-China military risk reduction mechanisms; expand these to new domains if possible and encourage China to abide by these when engaging with U.S. allies and partners.
  • Do not premise U.S. policy on North Korean denuclearization or withdrawal from Afghanistan on eliciting substantial Chinese or Russian cooperation, but maintain open lines of communication to deconflict in the event of a North Korean collapse.
  • Minimize the impact of cooperation with China or competition with Russia on ties with India, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam and waive CAATSA (Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act) sanctions on them.
  • Ensure that Taiwan has the ability to deter and resist coercion by the People's Republic of China.

Research conducted by

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

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