During Asia-Pacific security dialogues such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and ASPI’s recent Northeast Asian Forum, the lack of trust between major players is commonly identified as a reason for limited regional cooperation on strategic and defence matters. Conversely, it’s argued that trust-building will drive deeper cooperation and bring about more effective dispute resolution mechanisms. While that sounds perfectly plausible, a key question remains: if trust is the answer to all of international relations’ problems, why haven’t policymakers just built trust and moved on?
Three questions help to guide the argument: first, what is trust? Second, how do you build trust? And third, is there a threshold where trust necessarily leads to deeper cooperation?
First, trust is about reliability. It’s the belief that others are doing what they say they’re doing, even when they aren’t being watched. Assessments of trustworthiness are rooted in patterns of behaviour, the consistency between words and deeds, and evidence that unwatched behaviour is the same as watched behaviour.
As individuals base their assessments of trustworthiness on their observations, measurements of trust are subjective and dependent on available information from their memory. That subjectivity creates challenges for setting policy goals and measuring changes in trustworthiness over time.
There’s an even more serious shortfall in the way countries (and also individuals) understand trust. A disconnect in understanding between countries can exist, where one country perceives trust as transactional—you do what I want, and I trust you—while others understand trust as something built from the bottom up through the pursuit of common interests.
So when there’s a lack of trust between countries, who also have different ideas of what trust is, how do policymakers strive to build it? Will joint military training drills or a memorandum of understanding build trust? How quickly? And will the level of trust achieved from those exercises translate to more meaningful cooperation in more serious policy settings? In Asia, where the strategic hierarchy is itself in contest, it seems a big ask for one country to trust another so fully that it would be willing to stand on a lower rung of the regional ladder than its former enemy.
Moreover, while it’s possible to improve trust, there’s no threshold where past grievances are automatically forgiven and cooperation eventuates. Because trust is about consistency over time, trust takes time to build—and can be quickly lost. That’s why cooperation is limited even in less politically sensitive areas.
Those conceptual features make trust analytically difficult to work with. The analytical focus on mistrust in security dialogues also presents a serious practical limitation. Despite being an inherent part of the anarchic international order, mistrust has become a convenient concept for countries to use to avoid cooperation and reject joint projects that would otherwise create positive-sum gains. A later blogpost will explore why countries are so stuck on mistrust.
What’s needed instead is a forward-looking concept that identifies opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation, and mitigates conflict. That’s where national interests offer a more useful approach. National interests are features of the international system that a country seeks to preserve or pursue to ensure its security, prosperity and reputation. They are the interests that countries are willing to stand up for, sometimes even go to war to defend.
Because countries clearly define national interests in government documents, national interests provide tangible guideposts for increased interstate cooperation. Where interests converge, countries can develop cooperative mechanisms; and where they diverge, countries can acknowledge their differences and establish mechanisms for conflict prevention. But convergent interests actually provide incentives that unwatched behaviour should indeed be like watched.
So how might we apply this approach to the Sino-Japanese conflict? Their shared histories of war and competition over their respective positions in the regional pecking order have created deep-seated perceptions of mistrust, with relatively low levels of security cooperation. While no common threat like Hitler or the Islamic State exists to override deep-seated historical biases, the absence of that overwhelming threat doesn’t mean Beijing and Tokyo should forego the potential benefits from security cooperation in areas where their national interests converge (such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, peacekeeping and climate change). Just as economic benefits haven’t been sacrificed between the two countries, non-traditional security gains can still be achieved for both countries. What’s more, security and economic links can also help increase the costs of conflict.
So before China and Japan stall dialogue and leverage security cooperation for symbolic pronouncements of guilt, they can skip the deadlock and explain why specific issues matter to them in the context of their national interests.
Hard security contests will still remain. But interpreting state behaviour through the lens of national interests, means countries can come to understand others’ intentions as not inherently malicious, or untrustworthy. For example, through developing an appreciation of Japanese interests, China mightn’t immediately perceive Japanese claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands as covert methods of containment or revisionist behaviour. Similarly, Chinese actions to secure its ‘territorial sovereignty’ won’t be automatically interpreted by Japan as hegemonic, antagonistic or expansionist. Such an understanding can help countries in their assessment of threat, and—over time—inform a more tempered response.
While this approach accepts the uncertainty and subsequent mistrust that’s inherent in international relations, it doesn’t assume all countries act benevolently within the confines of national interests. Indeed, some countries may use national interests to justify actions that secure competitive gains. Despite that caveat, the concept is a more useful tool for increasing interstate cooperation than a course in international psychological counselling.
Mistrust serves as a scapegoat which emphasises the past and stalls dialogue and cooperation in areas where positive gains can be made. National interests set out tangible guideposts that explain state behaviour, as well as outline where mutual gains can still be made and where conflict may arise. Shifting the language and focus of Asia-Pacific security dialogues from trust to interests can open up more options.