The Security Dilemma In East Asia – OpEd


The current security environment in East Asia has become more insecure and unpredictable due to the tensions stemming from the so-called “potential flashpoints” in the East and South China seas. War of words, countless diplomatic protests, mass protests, military posturing, and increased defense spending have all been the common trends in recent years.

There have even been incidents of the scrambling of fighter jets between China and Japan, the ramming of maritime vessels involving Vietnam and China, and the Philippines’ cat and mouse-like game with Chinese Coast Guard vessels.

On this backdrop, China has accused the Philippines of being a “troublemaker,” while the latter, together with Vietnam, the United States (US) and Japan have accused the former of being a “bully” or “aggressive” in the neighborhood. Certainly, one cannot help but think that at the heart of the matter are the territorial disputes.

Security Dilemma

According to John Herz, Security Dilemma is “a structural notion in which the self-help attempts of states to look after their security needs tend, regardless of intention, to lead to rising insecurity for others as each interprets its own measures as defensive and measures of others as potentially threatening.” In short: the perpetuation of a vicious cycle of insecurity.

The important question to be answered then is: Why is there a dilemma if all states say they are merely doing so for “defensive” and not offensive purposes?

Two reasons: disputes and tensions. The disputes exist because of the competing claims of sovereign states in the region. And since every nation claims that the area being contested by others is rightfully theirs, they make the “necessary steps” to secure and defend it, because doing otherwise would mean that one is weak, unpatriotic, and does not know how to safeguard one’s territorial integrity.

These necessary steps range from increased arms spending to enhancing military alignments to strengthening one’s foothold on the already occupied areas. Seeing that other nations are doing something to strengthen or defend their claim, others in turn counter by doing the same. And this is where the tensions come in. Because the counteractions could be seen by the other states as provocative, aggressive, offensive or disruptive of the status quo, this then, could spark another round of counteraction.

This now is where the tensions appear to be leading with regard to the current Dilemma, because each other’s defensive actions have caused insecurity to other states. This Dilemma is what could then cause or lead to nationalist rhetoric and sentiments, including blame games or finger pointing. In other words, the disputes and tensions are leading to a Security Dilemma. The symptoms of security dilemma can also be seen when military exercises are responded with military exercises — all done in the name of enhancing “defensive” readiness and is not aimed at any one country.

Currently, in East Asia, it can be observed that every state’s arms build-up is based on what they say is a response to certain threats in the region. Moreover, it is not unknown that some states view with suspicion China’s increasing military budget and its intentions in the future, especially when it launched its first aircraft carrier The Liaoning in 2012. In the same vein, China also views with suspicion the US’ and its other allies real intentions towards it.

China’s Point of View

Ever since the US announced its ‘Pivot to Asia’ in 2011, many in China began to believe that such was a confirmation of the US’ long-held agenda of containing the rise and influence of a rival power, with the use of its allies as offshore balancers. What further worried the Chinese was when then US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the US, by 2020, would deploy 60 percent of its military assets to Asia.

All these are what make the Chinese believe that any activity sanctioned by the US is something that is provocative and is biased on the issue of the territorial disputes. Based on this and on China’s experience of the US’ intervention in East Asia especially during the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait Crisis, China realized that it had to develop an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy and forge closer strategic cooperation with Russia in order to have a more credible deterrence capability and prevent further interference into what it sees as its core interests.

As with Japan, China sees Japan as a country whose “active pacifism” as stated by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is actually “historical revisionism.” China, and also South Korea, believe that Japan continues to be unrepentant of its war crimes during World War II and has even exacerbated this by its political leaders’ frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese Class-A war criminals are enshrined.

Due to these and Japan’s nationalization of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in September 2013, the Chinese were made to believe that Japan is being led by ultra-right nationalists who want to relive a World War II-like remilitarized Japan. And so as a response, China stepped-up its maritime patrols, and consequently, imposed an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, but which, as a result, also drew alarm from the US and its other allies in the region.

China per se does not necessarily see the Philippines and Vietnam as direct threats, but perhaps, mere irritants at most. What it sees as threats are the US’ and Japan’s actions in the region and the way they involve other states to join their agenda — which, for China, is a vote of confidence on the US’ strategic designs of containment or guilt by ‘plurilateral consociations’ leading to an ‘accumulated threat’ which should warrant certain countermeasures.

The Small Powers: Vietnam and the Philippines

For the Philippines, which is a small state and sorely lacking in hard power, it feels that it must respond to external threats by aligning with bigger powers like the US, Japan, and Australia to fill in for its inadequacy. As a small state, it also sees no incentive in waging a war against China, because doing so would be outright suicide and devoid of any strategic merit.

And so with the ratification of the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), of where more American troops would be accommodated and where Philippine military bases would be developed, the Philippines believes that, it, together with the “minimum credible defense” posture, would strengthen the country’s deterrence capability.

The same is true for Vietnam, which is why it seeks to develop closer mil-to-mil relations and maritime cooperation with the US, Japan, Russia, and India. For these two small states, their primary interest is to look for balancers or security providers, not necessarily containers. This is also why the two have eyed closer maritime and naval cooperation – out of a common geostrategic interest.

What further affects the judgments of these small states is that when compared with China, there is huge asymmetry in terms of military capabilities, which make them feel insecure and intimidated. From an outsider’s point of view, there is also an underdog mentality that if a big guy acts or moves against a smaller one, it would be a default response to side or sympathize with the smaller one.

Japan’s Stance

As for Japan, Japan has explicitly identified China as a real threat. Prime Minister Abe, knowing that other countries face similar threats from China, had announced Japan’s willingness to assume a leading balancing role in East Asia’s security architecture. This is why he has called for the revision of Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, in order to entitle Japan to a right of collective defense, which would allow it to defend any ally under armed attack by a third party.

More specifically, Prime Minister Abe also called for an increase in Japan’s Self-Defense Force’s (JSDF) budget and a relaxation on the exportation of Japanese military hardware to other countries. Japan already volunteered to provide patrol vessels to any country that have disputes with China, such Vietnam and the Philippines, and even signed a closer defense cooperation agreement with Australia, which involves the joint development of a stealth submarine technology and the possibility of selling Soryu-class submarines to the latter.

The US as an Asian Actor

The territorial disputes cease to be a pan-Asian issue because some states are aligned with the US. The demand for continued US presence in Asia is fueled by those states that feel threatened by China. This, by default, is what legitimizes US alliance leadership and continued presence in the region.

The US has mainly two things at stake in the region. First is its credibility of defending an ally under armed attack or under threat of armed attack. President Obama had, on many occasions, repeatedly touted the US as a Pacific power, which is why the ‘rebalancing to Asia’ policy must be followed through by consistent gestures that would reassure its allies in the region and dispel fears that America is backing down.

Second, is the US’ image and role as a leader and guarantor of public goods in the region. The US is doing this by helping its allies beef up their security in order to share more responsibility in the alliance and assume a greater role in the region. The US believes that, because of China’s behavior, it is threatening the freedom of navigation and overflight and thus gives it more reason to not only come to the aid of its allies, but also justify that its own strategic interests needed to be safeguarded as well.

For the US, knowing that China has an A2/AD strategy, it, for its part, has devised an Air-Sea Battle (ASB) doctrine, which aims to defeat adversaries equipped with A2/AD capabilities that could threaten America’s freedom of action in the region. In other words, for the US and some state actors in the region, the China factor has become a common issue or a strategic point of convergence.

What Possible Remedial Action?

There are four ways to keep the peace. First is by ‘absolute peace,’ where two nations really don’t spend on arms build-up either because of the complete absence of or a very minimal level of distrust. Second is through ‘deterrence peace,’ where either state can’t inflict harm on the other for fear of a mutually assured destruction (MAD) scenario or fear of the formidable retaliatory capability of the other.

Third is through ‘legalistic peace,’ where both countries or parties in interest agree to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of an international tribunal to decide on what is disputed. It should be noted, however, that the decision of the tribunal would only be binding and enforceable if both countries or the relevant parties to the dispute recognize the authority and honor the verdict of the same.

Everyone claims that they uphold peace, stability and order in the region and that war or armed conflict is in nobody’s interests. Clearly then, the problem arises due to trust deficit. And this trust deficit stems from the existing mindsets, hypes, and misperceptions.

Even then, these issues could be more understood by trying to put oneself at each other’s shoes and by exercising mutual restraint and mutual respect. In foreign policy analysis, it is said that, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.” Indeed, one’s judgment and views would always be clouded by what one is and where one is.

So perhaps, a fourth way, which could be tried, is through ‘practical peace’ wherein all the moderates or owls on each side could be invited to carve out more creative ways as to how some functional cooperation could be possible, because only this modality of pragmatism does not know how to discriminate against sensitive national or political hues.

*Aaron Jed Rabena is a PhD Candidate in International Relations at Shandong University, Jinan, People’s Republic of China. He is also the current President of the youth organization Philippines-China Friendship Club (PCFC). He may be reached at [email protected]

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