Antagonistic Trust, Asian Insecurity, and “Strategic” Competition

18 September 2022, 2208 EDT

I was on a refreshingly contrarian panel recently as part of Victoria Forum, this big shindig in Canada (at University of Victoria in British Columbia, not to be confused with Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand, where I teach). The topic was “Trust-Building in Asia in an Era of Great Power Competition.” 

Unlike most panels on “great power competition,” and I’ve been on a few, this one didn’t have anyone cheerleading for a new Cold War. Everyone had their own version of skepticism about “great power competition” as a meaningful framework.

You can watch the panel below. My brief opening remarks kick in at 10:15, and the Q&A contains some spicy truth nuggets that made a few people squirm. 

I wanted to excerpt here two themes from the points I made during the panel. One is on root causes in Asian security, and the other is on a concept I called “antagonistic trust.” 

As a community, Asian security scholars are terrible at thinking about root causes of insecurity. We talk about and analyze force posture, defense spending, alliance management, jingoistic rhetoric, “strategic” rivalries, and power balancing—but the bulk of us invest no effort addressing (or even thinking about) what goes into those factors. And yet the idea of fixing a “trust deficit” requires an implicit theory about where trust sits in Asian international relations: 

growing mistrust in Asia…is a symptom, not a root cause, of deeper political dysfunctions and trends. Economic growth papers over extreme concentrations of wealth and political corruption. But there’s no such thing as limitless growth. So if you have a bunch of political regimes—and I would include the US in this—that are generating wealth but keeping their mass of workers economically insecure, well then how do you think those regimes are going to stay in power?

Martin Luther King said once, ‘The Southern Aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow.’ This is Asia’s basic problem. Reactionary political regimes need forms of ethnonationalism and jingoism to preserve systems of entrenched privilege and extreme wealth hoarding…geopolitical rivalry gets activated by the antagonistic politics that comes with an exploitative, unequal, precarity-inducing political economy. 

Competitions for influence and the military balance of power heighten mistrust among nations, and therefore we should want to minimize or avoid getting caught up in strategic rivalry if possible. But the zero-sum framework for geopolitics becomes not just inevitable but more salient when the key players in the competition are themselves managing tenuous, extremely unequal political regimes.

The other theme I was only able to touch on briefly was what I call “antagonistic trust.” I had this to say in the moment: 

One kind of minilateralism perpetuates the same old formula for political economy that gives us geopolitical volatility. The other kind of minilateralism is entirely about rivalry and generates an antagonistic trust—where like-minded states are coming together but in a way that polarizes others further apart.

A lot of the cooperation that draws our attention in Asia is the kind that has security in mind but doesn’t necessarily have good implications for security. Tapping into an insight that Olufemi Taiwo had about antagonistic approaches to security, it struck me that most Asian small-group multilateralism (I hate the term “minilateralism”) was built on antagonisms. AUKUS, the Quad, and other boundary-drawing networks achieve some amount of in-group solidarity but at the expense of greater regional fracture. 

All cooperative multilateralism is not created equal. You can think a multilateralism that fosters antagonistic trust is immediately necessary or a net good—most people conceive of alliances this way—but when it has the effect of heightening rivalries or widening gulfs of misperception, then we have to price that into our judgment about its worth.  

The point being that we can’t point to dense networks of cooperative exchange like AUKUS—which are built on and arguably enhance trust among the parties involved—and say that it fills the trust deficit in Asia when it clearly has the exact opposite effect, insofar as Southeast Asian, Pasifika, Chinese, and South Korean opinions matters.