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Building Trust Remains Critical in Era of Intensifying Geoeconomics

Feb 26, 2024
  • Curtis S. Chin

    Former U.S. Ambassador to Asian Development Bank
  • Sudarshan Ramabadran

    Policy Specialist, Author, and International Communications & Public Diplomacy Professional

In an era increasingly characterized by wars, climate change challenges, fragile economies, growing inequity and exclusion, and the fast-expanding impact of artificial intelligence, the convening of individuals with differing perspectives is critical if we are to shape a peaceful path forward.

Critical to this will be a reenergized focus on the shared commitment to building trust.

The need to foster trust among nations has become more crucial than ever, especially for countries across the Asia-Pacific region, including between China and India, and between South Korea and Japan, as well as between the world’s two largest economic powers—the United States and China. We see this at major convenings we are involved with including the Milken Institute’s Global Conference and Asia Summit, which both bring together government, finance, business and philanthropic leaders among others to address some of the most pressing challenges of our times.

The theme of rebuilding trust was also reportedly in many ways very much part of the conversation at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) 54th annual meeting this January in Davos. This is understandable given enduring geoeconomic uncertainty and generally mixed and uneven economic growth, which could well exacerbate geopolitical tensions.

As context, the Forum’s less-than-positive Chief Economists Outlook for 2024 was launched “amid protracted weakness in global economic conditions and widening regional divergences.” 56% of surveyed chief economists expect the global economy to weaken over the next year, and 69% expect “the pace of geoeconomic fragmentation to accelerate this year.”

For both China and the United States, the chief economists survey saw weak to moderate economic growth in the year ahead.

The most buoyant economic activity is still expected in South Asia, and in East Asia and the Pacific. 52% of the chief economists surveyed expect strong economic growth in South Asia, and 30% expect the same in East Asia and the Pacific in the year ahead. In contrast, only 3% expect strong economic growth in the United States, and zero percent expect strong economic growth in China.

Also shared at Davos and underscoring the growing challenges of our divided world was the latest edition of one well-established survey on trust, the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer. The annual online survey in its 24th year surveyed respondents in 28 countries including China, India and the United States.

This latest edition of the trust barometer revealed what Edelman referred to as “a new paradox at the heart of society.” According to the report, “Rapid innovation offers the promise of a new era of prosperity, but instead risks exacerbating trust issues, leading to further societal instability and political polarization.”

While findings varied widely by nation, respondents in China generally expressed more trust in business, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government and media, than those respondents in the United States did. The United Nations was only trusted in 11 of the 28 surveyed countries.

When respondents were surveyed about global companies headquartered outside their own country, 56% of respondents outside the United States expressed trust in global companies headquartered in the U.S. In contrast, 32% of respondents outside of India expressed trust in global companies headquartered in India, and only 30% of respondents outside of China expressed trust in global companies headquartered in China.

With such wide-ranging and varying degrees of trust, it is important to understand the importance and need for further building and sustaining trust amongst and within Asian countries, as well as between the United States and China. In 2013, at the Shangri-La Dialogue, then Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung, in a passionate speech, underscored, “If trust is lost, all is lost.” Indeed.

The contemporary global landscape is rife with challenges that transcend borders and impact every facet of society. Conflict if not wars, both conventional and unconventional, have become persistent features of international relations. Cybersecurity is a growing concern as technology upends past assumptions over balances of power and economic security.

Climate change, with potentially far-reaching consequences, demands collaborative action. Fragile economies, exacerbated by supply chain shocks from recent global events, further strain the fabric of trust between nations. Inequity and exclusion persist, creating social divisions that undermine the very essence of cooperation and solidarity.

Amidst this turbulence, the common thread that binds these challenges together is the erosion of trust. Over the past several years, the world has witnessed a growing momentum of distrust among nations—most notably between the United States and China. Whether rooted in geopolitical tensions, geoeconomic disparities, or environmental concerns, the consequences of this distrust are far-reaching and impede progress.

What has transpired, however, need not be a predictor of the future. Witness the evolution of the relationship between the United States and its WWII adversary Japan, or more recently, the growing relationship between India and the United States.

Whether between China and the United States, or business and consumer, or government and citizen, rebuilding trust is more out of necessity than choice. The acknowledgement that trust is a prerequisite for addressing the multifaceted challenges facing the world today reflects a collective understanding that collaboration and cooperation are essential for meaningful progress.

International relations and dialogue should never be viewed as just about “me, myself, and my own.” That is one reason that India’s theme for its recent G-20 presidency in 2023— “One earth, one family, one future”—remains relevant.

At the heart of many of the reported discussions at Davos was the recognition that rebuilding trust requires a commitment if not a cultural transformation for some. Building cultures of trust within and among nations is a foundational step toward overcoming the barriers that hinder cooperation.

Cultures of trust are characterized by transparency, accountability, and a commitment ideally to shared values.

Earlier this year, WEF Chairman Klaus Schwab emphasized the need to be “trustees” for a better future and exhorted the forum and participants to not think short-term but instead to form a long-term perspective and to restore trust at all levels, social, political, and economic. People will be key to building, gaining and cementing trust.

One of the key points raised at the forum was the need for an open and transparent dialoguebetween states. This is especially pertinent as economic development in the global south becomes increasingly a focus area of evolving major institutions. After many years, the African Union, as an example, was given a seat at the high table in the 2023 edition of the G20 held in India.

If trust is to be truly cemented between the developed and the less developed countries, a dialogue that is respectful and representative of all is essential. Small confidence-building steps are the start of a way forward. The onus also remains on developed countries as well as the largest developing economies to ensure that such dialogues are not monologic but dialogic.

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s famous mantra “Trust but verify”—actually based on a Russian proverb— is key here. Whether Reagan and his Soviet counterpart Mikhail Gorbachev then, or China’s President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden at an APEC meeting in San Francisco last year, or future leaders at future events, ultimately it will be actions, not words alone, that are critical to gaining, building, earning, and sustaining trust and to overcoming mistrust.

But first, we must commit to convene and connect. 

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