A Taiwanese soldier peers through binoculars towards China just 1.8 kilometers from his frontline pillbox. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)
A Taiwanese soldier peers through binoculars towards China just 1.8 kilometers from his frontline pillbox. (AP Photo/Wally Santana)

Welcome to the first installment of CIGI’s new Asia-Pacific Security blog, which will periodically examine events, trends, themes, challenges and puzzles of concern to CIGI’s project on Confidence, Trust and Empathy in Asia-Pacific Security. I would invite those who would like to explore the rationale, goals and approaches of the project to explore the project’s homepage, and in particular the short project overview posted there.

It is obvious that trust is in short supply in the Asia-Pacific. Any time you see overt hostility and expressions of fear and suspicion, you can be sure that there is a dearth of trust. Relationships of trust are the gold standard of international security, as it were. We would all leave our doors unlocked at night if we trusted our neighbours not to come and strangle us in our sleep. But when we do not trust our neighbours, we lock our doors so that we can be fairly confident that they won’t. This is the essence of the difference between trust and confidence. Trust lets you rest easy because you believe others are not inclined to wish you harm. Confidence lets you rest easy because they couldn’t even if they wanted to.

While CIGI’s project is on Asia-Pacific security in general, we will begin by looking specifically at Northeast Asia, where levels of hostility and suspicion are at postwar highs between China and Japan, Korea and Japan, and the United States. Between them, these four countries account for 42.3 percent of the world’s economy. The United States and China are nuclear weapon states, and Japan could be if it wanted to within a relatively short period of time. All four countries have strong, shared interests in peace, prosperity, cooperation on a wide range of social, economic, energy and environmental challenges, and—perhaps most urgently—finding a way of coping with North Korea, an erratic, unpredictable, opaque, highly militarized totalitarian state right in their midst that could implode or explode at any time. Why is there so little trust among these four countries?

The answer cannot be a lack of familiarity. China, Japan, Korea and the United States are not strangers; they have centuries of interaction between them—most of it peaceful interaction. China, Japan and Korea are also relatively close cousins culturally.

If you ask people in the region why there is so little trust, they will immediately point to history. The past is very present in regional relations, and old historical wounds remain open. All four countries have clashed militarily within living memory (although the number of people with direct experience of these conflicts is rapidly declining). But by far the most intense conflict, at least as measured by the number of people killed per unit time, occurred between the two countries that have the highest level of trust today: the United States and Japan. Moreover, there are living memories of intense military conflict in Western Europe, and yet levels of trust there are also very high. So a history of recent conflict does not fully explain a lack of trust.

In my view, Western Europe has managed to achieve trust because Europeans understand each other. They understand not only their respective wants, needs, fears, concerns and visions of world order —they see also that others understand theirs as well. There are significant differences of opinion in Europe on a wide range of issues, both within and between European countries; but Europeans know each other well enough to know that no one today would even imagine trying to resolve those differences of opinion by force of arms. Europe, in other words, has managed to achieve a high level of empathy. That is why there is ample trust in Europe. It is also why there is quite a high level of trust now between Japan and the United States.

Empathy, of course, does not lead automatically to trust. If someone means you ill, then seeing it more clearly will not make them your friend. It may even make conflict between you more likely. But my strong sense is that the relationships in Northeast Asia marked by the greatest trust deficits are precisely those where empathy is lowest. Everyone overestimates threat. No one is actually as much of a threat to anyone else as everyone seems to believe.

Why is there so much systematic overestimation of threat in East Asia? This is a key question that my colleagues and I will explore from time to time in this blog, and also in various other papers and products as our project proceeds. Explaining it is part of the challenge of improving empathy, and ultimately laying the groundwork for trust.

Improving empathy and giving trust a chance to grow organically takes time and effort. It is not something that happens overnight. Meanwhile, there is a serious danger that high levels of hostility and suspicion will lead to outright conflict, either inadvertent or otherwise. This is where confidence comes in. If you are not yet at the point where you trust your neighbours well enough to leave your doors open at night, it is wise to invest in locks. It is hard to cultivate empathy and build trust when you are terrified that a madman might come bursting through the door at any minute. When empathy and trust are both in short supply, confidence is job no. 1. 

Next: James Manicom on recent confidence-building measures

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.