It is difficult to find a path to a hopeful world that does not include U.S.-China cooperation on global challenges. This is the conclusion of an unprecedented joint assessment entitled "China-US Cooperation: Key to the Global Future," authored by a working group of Chinese and American experts. Such cooperation would not constitute a G-2 dominating the world, but rather is a sine qua non of effective global cooperation.
Put another way, a number of trends and possible scenarios in U.S.-China relations could imperil the prospects for cooperation, as the narrative about the inevitability of U.S.-China conflict has become popular on both sides of the Pacific. If the United States and China cannot cooperate on major challenges, effective cooperative solutions to global problems is unlikely — and the challenges faced cannot be solved by individual nations on their own. So, the fates of the United States and China are inextricably intertwined in an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world.
As participants in a China-U.S. Working Group convened by the Atlantic Council and the China Institute of International Studies, we assessed the implications for China and the United States that were outlined in the US National Intelligence Council's "Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds and its Global Trends to 2030 and the Prospects for China-US Relations" report prepared under the direction of the China Institute of International Studies and Peking University's School of International Studies. Discussions with our Chinese colleagues confirmed that our assessments of global trends and uncertainties were largely similar and that we shared concerns about their implications. We developed scenarios incorporating different characterizations of the U.S.-China relationship, including whether the relationship was primarily competitive or cooperative. Different assumptions about the nature of U.S.-China relations produced very different results when we assessed the likely consequences of looming global challenges.
Our joint assessment concluded that the unprecedented peace, prosperity and interdependence of today's world.— and further progress — are threatened by a host of looming challenges that cannot be met over the long-term without sustained cooperation among many nations, and that such cooperation would have little efficacy without cooperation between the United States and China. Areas of needed cooperation include rethinking global institutions; strengthening and rebalancing the global economy; ensuring resource security; and cooperating on climate change mitigation, adaptation and consequence management.
The Sunnylands summit demonstrated that top leaders understand they are in the same strategic boat, need to avoid becoming strategic competitors and must build a cooperative relationship. The lower levels of each government, though, tend to see the other country as an adversary and to focus on differences and threats posed by the other.
The top leadership of each country needs to adopt a new framework that prioritizes cooperation on common challenges and threats and instructs its bureaucracy to explore opportunities to collaborate with the other side. Without such guidance, there is a danger that the militaries and intelligence services of each side will increasingly view the other country as an enemy and act in ways that will create a self-fulfilling prophecy, wasting valuable resources, further exacerbating strategic mistrust and creating unacceptable opportunity costs when measured against the need to secure our common fate in the face of very grave global challenges over the next few decades.
We strongly recommend the formation of a nongovernmental "Vision Group" that could provide long-term strategic assessments and concrete proposals for the leadership of both countries to complement government-to-government dialogues such as the S&ED. Moreover, the Vision Group can start to focus on building a "new type of major power relationship," not just on bilateral accommodation and mutual understanding, but on the world's two most consequential powers acting together as joint responsible stakeholders to address the world's key challenges.
The Vision Group comprising experts from both countries could work together to provide a strategic foresight document to guide China-U.S. relations looking toward 2030 and to evaluate progress toward achieving that vision on an ongoing basis. It could identify, clarify and explain opportunities for government-to-government and nongovernmental cooperation on complex and consequential global developments. Over time, this group could be expanded to include representatives of other nations and organizations to give a more global reach to the Vision Group and its work.
There are serious differences and dangers of growing strategic mistrust between our countries. But resolving these differences and building trust should not be prerequisites to cooperation on common challenges and strategic threats. Moreover, such cooperation is not a favor that either power bestows on the other; it should not be viewed or used as a "bargaining chip" to gain leverage on bilateral issues. The United States and China need to act together to protect and advance their own economic and security interests.
Banning Garrett is strategic foresight senior fellow for innovation and global trends at the Atlantic Council. Thomas Fingar is an Oksenberg-Rohlen Distinguished Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.