Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

Finding Literal Neutral Zones for U.S.-China Cooperation

Mar 01, 2023
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Much ink has been spilled over the past few years in relation to the room for track-II dialogue, cultural exchange, and the identification of ‘low-hanging fruit’ areas of easy cooperation between Beijing and Washington. 

These arguments take numerous forms. One form appeals to practical necessity – we cannot solve the world’s problems and fight the world’s fight when the two most powerful nation-states are clamouring to one-up one another in a race to the bottom. The framing of geopolitics through binary, zero-sum lenses only serves to entrench the interests of those who seek to preserve the status quo. 

Another variant invokes the dangers of radical mistrust. For China and America to view one another as existential enemies or threats, would precipitate dwindling transparency, a rise in second guessing and reneging upon half-committal agreements, and a rise in flashpoints and conflictual zones. These are all conditions that are only conducive towards military escalation, and not containment of potential spill-over harms of acrimony. 

Finally, there is the view that there is more to this cornerstone relationship in international politics than governmental relations and security rivalry. We should take track-II seriously, because it is the second track that involves and affects most directly the livelihoods of 99% of both countries’ populations, who are neither interested in ideological dogfights nor geopolitical struggles for supremacy and influence. 

All of these arguments have sound and credible elements, and enjoy a modicum of support from informed individuals deeply invested in bilateral relations. The first has been made by exceptional authors such as Deborah Seligsohn (on public health), David Victor (climate change), and the team at the Carter Center (see their recent report on higher technology). The second has been heralded by seasoned think-tank experts and veteran China watchers ranging from Kevin Rudd to Jia Qingguo. The third is advocated by activists, artists, cultural and academics who have borne the brunt of the rapidly souring relations across the Pacific. 

Yet a crucial question remains – how do we do it? Where do we do it? In what ways can we begin to dismantle – at least in gradual steps – the Gordian knot of mistrust, antagonism, and bad faith that has built up between, and stems from both sides of the relationship? 

These questions are non-trivial. One of the primary roadblocks to the advancement of areas of theoretically straightforward exchange and collaboration, is precisely the dearth of organisational and institutional frameworks with actual bite and buy-in from both Beijing and Washington, by which deep and meaningful alignment and realignment of interests could occur. 

China’s opening-up and reform in the 1980s provided a natural, organic window to kickstart the seismic explosion in the volume of commercial and trade ties between the two countries. The emergence of tech giants and a flourishing scene for capital and investment from the early 2000s onwards brought the financial establishments of both countries closer together. Both these engines of what I term ‘relational deepening’ are now running on fumes. As it turns out, intense geopolitical conflict can coexist alongside economic interdependence, as historian Niall Ferguson noted

What is needed here is clearly demarcated physical and operational ‘neutral zones’ in which both China and the U.S. can come together – and engage in genuine, in-depth, productive collaboration anchored in advancing mutual interests. Stephen Roach, a highly renowned China-watching economist and strategist, has called for the establishment of a secretariat in a neutral jurisdiction, such as Switzerland, staffed by personnel and academics from both the U.S. and China. For the remainder of this piece, I shall expand further upon his proposal. 

Firstly, in lieu of having a singular secretariat, it would make sense to have multiple secretariats and centres specialising in particular domains of mutual interest – to name but a few, consider e.g. climate change and sustainability cooperation, public health coordination and communication, artificial intelligence and existential risk research. For some of these areas, the primary prerogative is information and knowledge sharing (e.g. on big technology and data regulation); for other areas, the operative mission is to mobilise resources. It would only be effective for each of these centres to be able to specialise and ‘own’ particular issues on the agenda, in order to optimise for output. 

Secondly, these neutral zones should be distributed throughout the world, across regions that clearly have a stake in remaining relatively non-aligned and neutral between Beijing and Washington. In Southeast Asia, given its burgeoning geopolitical and strategic influence and capability of maintaining an independent and autonomous foreign policy, Indonesia could be a sound candidate for conversations over coordination in preparation for macroeconomic challenges; in Europe, this could be Switzerland, which takes the role of coordinating public health communications and exchanges. In the Gulf Region, Qatar may be a viable option for Sino-American dialogues over finance, technology, and energy security. In lieu of having a centralised China-U.S. secretariat, there could well be the case of roping a select yet important number of countries into the mission of stabilising bilateral relations. 

Thirdly, given that the tightening regulatory and increasingly unreceptive zeitgeist in both China and America have rendered cross-cultural and genuinely unfettered educational exchanges increasingly difficult, it is vital that track-II collaboration and exchanges be convened in locations with not just the right infrastructure, but also the openness to such interactions. It would be in Beijing’s and Washington’s mutual interests to keep communication channels and spaces open for vigorous debate, negotiation, and liaison via these spaces – as a key means in establishing guardrails to the bilateral relationship. 

Finding literal neutral zones is no mean or easy feat. Yet it is a necessary quest going forward.

You might also like
Back to Top