The Looming Security Dilemma in the Western Pacific

With the announcements this week that Japan will expand its military capabilities over the next decade and further engage in defense cooperation with other regional partners, and that the United States will provide maritime security aid to Vietnam and the Philippines, it is clear that China's neighbors (and their primary ally) are taking tangible measures to improve their security in the face of more aggressive behavior and rhetoric from Beijing. While this may indeed be prudent policy, it may nonetheless have the net effect of undermining China's security and reinforcing Beijing's view of a U.S. threat to its continued rise. What has often been called a security dilemma seems to be well underway in Asia, and while no state may seek to initiate a crisis or military conflict, the probability of such an unwanted outcome in increasing.

In a classic security dilemma, one state, concerned only with its security and improving the prospects of its survival, takes steps to bolster its capabilities. Typically this is done through the acquisition and deployment of armaments, but it could also include external policies like concluding an alliance or even acquiring territory. But again, the fundamental motivation remains security, rather than greed or national glory or some other motivation. However, once this state has implemented its policies, its neighbor may have cause for concern. Having increased its capabilities, the first state has--without any malicious intent--made its neighbor less secure than it was before.

Realizing this, the neighbor may logically take steps to bolster its own capabilities, through arms acquisition, alliance formation or other means, to rectify the perceived imbalance created by the first state and restore its security. However, this reaction by its neighbor only raises the suspicions of the first state, and drives it to further expand its capabilities to regain the advantage it had initially achieved. In turn, the neighbor may view this move in response to its initial reaction as hostile, driving it to take further action, and so on. With each set of moves and countermoves, the two states view each other as increasingly hostile, and even though military conflict is costly and the outcome highly uncertain, these two states, driven only by concerns for security, may fall into war simply because of this dynamic. In this way, the security dilemma represents a tragic view of international politics where states may engage in costly conflicts simply by attempting to provide for their own security. There is no need for a "bad" state to explain the occurrence of war.

It is clear that these developments are in response to China's recent shift to a more assertive regional foreign policy. Beijing's declaration of an air-defense zone over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea is the latest in what has become a troubling pattern of behavior since 2010. Prior to that, for over a decade, Beijing utilized a much more benign and constructive foreign policy that seemed predicated on assuring its neighbors that China's rise was beneficial for the region and neighbors had little to fear. Even its extensive military modernization during this period seemed primarily focused on deterring Taiwan from unilaterally declaring its independence or, if necessary, forcibly reversing such a decision.

However, more recently, China's military capabilities have expanded well beyond those perceived to be necessary for maintaining the status quo across the Taiwan Straits. With investments in longer-range missile forces, naval, and air capabilities, China now possesses a significant and growing capacity to project power in key regions such as the East and South China Seas. More disconcerting for its neighbors, its rhetoric and actions have shifted away from assurance to energetically asserting Chinese interests in various territorial disputes in those areas. Some experts on China's internal decision-making argue that this perceived shift is not as dramatic as many outsiders may argue. Nonetheless, Prime Minister Abe's announcement of an expansion of Japan's defense budget and Secretary Kerry's expressions of support for Vietnam and the Philippines signal that China's neighbors and the United States are deeply concerned with its recent behavior. In short, China's image as a real security threat is growing in regional capitals. The leadership in Beijing may not desire this perception of Chinese aggressiveness, but its rhetoric and policies have made the previous benign, reassuring image of China's rise to regional leadership increasingly untenable. While states may have difficulty escaping the security dilemma, mutual understanding that fears and insecurity (rather than bad intentions) are driving behavior can provide a starting point for constructive discussions. Beijing may have concerns about the presence of the United States in the Western Pacific, but it must also acknowledge the legitimate fears of its much smaller neighbors and consider ways to build confidence and decrease tensions. Unfortunately, China's recent policies seem more reflective of a short-sighted, insecure rising power, with potentially tragic implications for both China and the region moving forward.