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10 Years On: Why Strategic Trust Still Matters

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10 Years On: Why Strategic Trust Still Matters

As the Indo-Pacific emerges as the central theater of geopolitical rivalry, the absence of strategic trust is not merely an academic concern but a pressing existential issue.

10 Years On: Why Strategic Trust Still Matters
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At the 12th Shangri-La Dialogue in 2013, then-Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issued a passionate plea for countries to build strategic trust, emphatically noting that “if trust is lost, all is lost.” By many accounts, the keynote address was a hit, as it directly tackled one of the most pressing issues that concerned all countries in the region. 

Ten years later, the situation in the South China Sea has become more complicated. Superpower competition remains intense as ever, despite some sporadic efforts to keep it from spiraling out of control. Amid warnings of a potential “Thucydides trap,” some are worried that a conflict might break out over Taiwan as soon as 2025, which would be an unmitigated disaster given that such military scenario will almost certainly involve the leading nuclear powers. Meanwhile, nuclear proliferation is always a lurking threat, as countries continue to engage in an arms race. 

Yet it is evident that solving the greatest global challenges of the day, from fighting climate change to regulating emergent technologies, will demand meaningful cooperation among major powers. Furthermore, the United States, China, and Russia all understand that they cannot wish their adversary away. 

This is precisely why strategic trust matters so much. Deterrence, while necessary, cannot lead to true stability over the long haul. Only by fostering strategic trust can nations survive the complexities of modern geopolitics while avoiding catastrophic war. 

Strategic Trust: What it is and Why it Matters

Realism, the dominant paradigm in international relations, has often dismissed the importance of strategic trust. In an anarchic international system, so the argument goes, states cannot afford the luxury of trust. Instead, self-interest reigns supreme, urging nations to keep their cards close to their chests, lest their transparency and honesty be exploited. While this viewpoint holds some merit, it overlooks the fact that strategic trust serves as a survival strategy in its own right. 

In an age marked by existential threats that defy borders – climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation – states increasingly find that survival requires more than just deterrence and power balancing. It demands an ability to build stable, predictable relationships with other nations. For Vietnam, strategic trust is not just a series of verbal commitments; it is a multi-layered framework that necessitates transparency, sincerity, and concrete actions. It entails efforts to make state behaviors more understandable and predictable, thereby reducing the risk of misunderstandings. Strategic trust offers an additional mechanism in a world devoid of a central authority, tempering the destructive tendencies of power politics by making state behavior more predictable and reducing the risks of catastrophic miscalculations.

One might argue that the very existence and success of international institutions like the United Nations embody this form of trust. The U.N. and many other bodies, all founded on the principle that cooperation often outweighs the gains of unilateral action, provide a framework within which nations can engage diplomatically. Here, strategic trust manifests in the implicit understanding that states will, in most cases, respect each other’s sovereignty and act in ways that benefit the global community, even when immediate self-interest could suggest otherwise.

But nowhere is the utility of strategic trust more vivid than in the regional sphere, exemplified by ASEAN. The “ASEAN Way,” predicated on consultation and consensus, has been criticized for being inefficient. Yet its existence is proof of ASEAN’s norm-setting power. ASEAN has managed to bridge the gap between nations as diverse as Indonesia, with its population nearing a quarter-billion, and Brunei, with fewer than half a million inhabitants. As a champion of international law and multilateralism, ASEAN is committed to creating a forum for regional dialogue and conflict resolution, which successfully turned Southeast Asia from a Cold War battleground into a region largely characterized by peace and increasing integration. 

More recently, the importance of strategic trust is once again shown in the transformation of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Once defined by enmity and conflict, the relationship has evolved into a comprehensive strategic partnership against all odds. This dramatic shift can be attributed to a meticulous and deliberate process of cultivating strategic trust, one founded on key principles that both nations hold in high regard. These include mutual respect for each country’s independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political systems, as well as a shared commitment to addressing the lingering consequences of war. Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, these principles have been operationalized through various concrete measures: enhanced trade agreements, educational exchanges on various levels, and defense collaborations. The U.S.-Vietnam relationship is therefore a blueprint for how strategic trust can turn potential adversaries into partners.

Strategic trust is therefore, far from idealistic thinking, but instead a necessary antidote to the complexities and interdependencies of the modern world. It doesn’t negate self-interest but complements it, allowing states to slowly convert zero-sum scenarios into positive-sum outcomes. 

The Decline of Strategic Trust

The decline of strategic trust over the past decade is both a cause and a symptom of a disordered international environment. One of the most striking manifestations of this decay is the withdrawal of some major powers from key international agreements. The U.S. pullout from the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris Climate Agreement didn’t merely unravel specific diplomatic mechanisms; they also eroded the foundational trust that sustains international cooperation. These weren’t isolated incidents: the dissolution of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the United States and Russia in 2019 was another nail in the coffin of mutual trust. These withdrawals act as proxies for a broader, worrying trend – the growing skepticism that international commitments can serve as reliable frameworks for cooperation.

In the economic domain, the China-U.S. trade war offers a salient example of how deteriorating strategic trust can have cascading effects. The escalation of tariffs during the Trump era wasn’t just a tactical maneuver but a manifestation of deep-seated mistrust, affecting not only bilateral relations but also global economic stability. Trust was the silent casualty, as each side’s actions were interpreted but as signals of nefarious, deliberately zero-sum intentions. This economic conflict has become a conduit for the expression of geopolitical mistrust, which further complicates the resolution of other shared challenges like climate change and public health.

Within the Indo-Pacific, the decline of strategic trust casts a long shadow over regional stability. The militarization of the South China Sea and China’s relentless land reclamation efforts (often buttressed by “gray zone” tactics) indicates that the involved nations are increasingly skeptical of each other’s professed commitment to peaceful resolution. Similarly, the Quad after an unpromising start has received greater attention as some countries became more wary of China’s regional ambitions. Specific events, such as the China-India border clash in 2020, accentuate the heightened levels of mistrust, even when diplomatic mechanisms exist explicitly to prevent such occurrences. 

Even beyond these specific examples, evidence of declining strategic trust is amassing. New Chinese global initiatives beyond current arrangements such as the Global Security Initiative (GSI), as well as Saudi Arabia’s push for a defense pact with the U.S., and the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine last year – all these point to a malfunctioning system plagued by mistrust. Thus, the decline of strategic trust is not merely an academic concern; it has concrete, perilous implications. Whether they want to or not, leaders must find ways to rebuild this vital sense of strategic trust.

Re-building Strategic Trust: Slowly but Surely 

The good news is that strategic trust isn’t a fixed quantity; it can be rekindled, albeit with time and concerted effort. The first step toward rebuilding strategic trust lies in respect for and adherence to universally accepted principles of international law. Upholding the rule of law, whether in trade or security matters, is not just a lofty ideal but a practical necessity. 

Second, there needs to be a recommitment to multilateral institutions and mechanisms such as the U.N., EU, and ASEAN. These institutions and agreements aren’t doomed to be mere “talk shops.” At their best, they can serve as both a result and a catalyst of strategic trust. Take, for instance, the role of ASEAN in Southeast Asia. This organization stands as a notable example of what can be achieved through sustained dialogue, cooperation, and a shared sense of destiny. The decision to admit Vietnam into the fold in 1995 was no routine affair; rather, it marked a watershed moment for ASEAN, an organization initially skeptical of Vietnam’s ideological leanings and geopolitical affiliations. The induction was therefore a profound affirmation of regional strategic trust. It signaled ASEAN’s readiness to surmount historical reservations and ideological divisions in the pursuit of a more integrated Southeast Asian community. 

Another essential dimension is accountability. Trust is predicated on the belief that states will fulfill their commitments and bear the responsibilities that come with their status and influence. Major powers should take the lead in demonstrating responsible behavior, by taking actions that not only are in line with commonly accepted norms, but also provide public goods such as by bolstering the standards and international laws that underpin the system’s stability. When powerful nations act responsibly, it could create a trickle-down effect that encourages smaller nations to trust not just those specific nations but the international system as a whole.

Furthermore, for strategic trust to be sustainable, there must be transparency in military endeavors and commitments. Too often, the realm of defense is shrouded in secrecy, leading to assumptions and misinterpretations that can severely undermine trust. The clarity of intent and openness in military matters are not antithetical to national security; rather, they are its complements. For instance, confidence-building measures such as mutual disarmament zones, advanced notice of military exercises, and open channels of communication between military leaders can go a long way in reducing tensions and uncertainties. Transparency serves to verify that a state’s actions align with its publicly stated policies, thereby solidifying its credibility and reliability as a strategic partner.

As the Indo-Pacific emerges as the central theater of geopolitical rivalry, the absence of strategic trust is not merely an academic concern but a pressing existential issue. In this complex web of national interests, historical grievances, and military posturing, the failure to build strategic trust can set off a chain of events leading to unintended escalations and potentially catastrophic outcomes. In a world brimming with volatile uncertainties, strategic trust stands as not just a lofty ideal but an urgent necessity. Without strategic trust, all will be lost