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Research Questions

  1. To what extent can the United States still cooperate with China and Russia on global commons issues even in this era of strategic competition?
  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 deepen its cooperation with one or both powers on the issues of maintaining freedom of access to space, dismantling transnational criminal organizations/networks, countering violent extremist organizations, promoting global stability, preserving access to the air and maritime commons, preventing nuclear arms races, preventing militarization of the Arctic, and maintaining the openness of cyberspace?

If there is a set of issues where great power cooperation could be most likely, it should be in the global commons. Global commons issues are — by definition — shared by multiple nations. As part of a broader study of great power cooperation in an era of strategic competition, the authors assessed the potential for U.S. cooperation with China or Russia on eight global commons issues: maintaining freedom of access to space, dismantling transnational criminal organizations/networks, countering violent extremist organizations, promoting global stability, preserving access to the air and maritime commons, preventing nuclear arms races, preventing militarization of the Arctic, and maintaining the openness of cyberspace. The authors sought to understand where the United States, China, and Russia share interests on these issues, what the obstacles to cooperation are, and where the United States might be able to deepen its cooperation with one or both powers.

The authors find that the trade space for cooperation is already narrow and usually focused more on civilian aspects of these domains rather than core security matters. In general, there is more room for the United States to cooperate with Russia than with China, and there are significant obstacles to cooperation, with a lack of trust being the most common. Finally, cooperation produces both positive and negative externalities, and the costs of cooperation do not always outweigh the likely benefits.

Key Findings

  • Across the board, there is trade space for great power cooperation in the global commons, but it is narrow and usually focused more on civilian aspects of these domains rather than core security matters.
  • In general, there is more room for the United States to cooperate with Russia than with China.
  • There are significant obstacles to cooperation, with lack of trust being the most common problem.
  • Cooperation produces both positive and negative externalities, and the costs of cooperation do not always outweigh the likely benefits.

Recommendations

  • The U.S. government should moderate its expectations for cooperation; expand counterdrug cooperation with China and Russia; consider expanding counter–violent extremist organization cooperation with both powers in low-priority areas; consider broadening the different Arctic diplomatic forums to discuss security matters; and expand opportunities for nuclear dialogue.
  • The Joint Force should focus on deconfliction efforts with Russia on countering violent extremist organizations; increase coordination efforts on counterpiracy and search and rescue; and choose a strategic path in the Arctic and stick with it.
  • The Department of the Air Force should increase communications over space debris management and continue and routinize airspace deconfliction to ensure "safe competition."

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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