Ukraine may be dominating the headlines of the day, but Taiwan is arguably a more significant global flashpoint given its pivotal role in US-China competition.
In his most recent article, John Mearsheimer refutes the US’s “engagement” policy toward China, claiming that China is determined to dismantle the US-made order in East Asia. In response, US policymakers have issued military deterrence plans. This is evident in the recent establishment of a military pact between the US, UK and Australia known as AUKUS.
These heightened tensions between the US and China come as no surprise. However, if the US goal is to protect national security and maintain peace in East Asia, then such military alliance and capability building in East Asia is in fact a irrational. A reinforced US military presence would likely lead to an arms race with China. Not only would it be expensive for the US, but it would also risk a deadly escalation. Such an arms race can – and should – be avoided.
To avoid such an arms race with China, US policymakers must not forget the implications of what is known as the “security dilemma.”
The late American political scientist Robert Jervis, in an article titled “Collaboration Under the Security Dilemma,” provided the classic interpretation of the term: “Many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security diminish the security of others.”
In other words, if you have a gun, others cannot tell you how you will use it. Based on this definition of the security dilemma, Chinese policymakers would view AUKUS as a threat to their own security. Chinese officials’ claims that AUKUS would cause instability in East Asia don’t seem so outlandish in the context of the security dilemma.
Two examples from modern American history—the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis—show the consequences of policymakers ignoring the implications of the security dilemma.
Korean War: Flawed Foreign Policy
During the Korean War, after reclaiming Seoul from the North Korean army, General Douglas MacArthur gave command of the American-led United Nations forces north toward the Yalu River.
MacArthur and other US officials rejected the possibility that China would fight back against these military maneuvers. They were seriously mistaken. Mao Zedong feared that UN forces near the Yalu River would lead US-led forces to attack China’s Manchuria region, officially motivating Beijing to join the Korean War against the US.
Essentially, the Chinese viewed this UN “police action” as a threat to their national security. From China’s perspective, there was no distinction between attack and defense with regard to US military capabilities in Korea.
The US was also on the receiving end when other states ignored the security dilemma. The Cuban Missile Crisis is an example of this.
From Fidel Castro’s perspective, the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles were a means of defending the island, especially after the failed Bay of Pigs operation. However, as is known, the American side did not take these missiles lightly. US policymakers viewed the proximity of these missiles to the US coast as provocative and a potential means of attacking the US.
In other words, Castro and Nikita Khrushchev viewed the missiles as a defensive and deterrent value, while John F. Kennedy and US officials viewed them as offensive. By ignoring the likely US response to these missiles in Cuba, Soviet and Cuban policymakers nearly led the world toward nuclear Armageddon.
There are two lessons to be learned from the security dilemma. First, more weapons and military capabilities do not necessarily mean more security for a state. Second, US foreign policymakers must recognize and focus on their country’s narrowly defined national interests. This would allow the US to avoid unnecessarily provocative actions against a nuclear power like China. The key is to embrace competition and avoid conflict.
As the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis show, a country that increases its military capabilities near a major power can produce insecurity with that country and recklessly run the risk of escalation. With these two lessons in mind, US policymakers should understand China’s perspective on fueling US military alliances in East Asia.
Fortunately, the US and the Soviet Union have used diplomacy to solve the Cuban missile crisis and avoid nuclear war. Next time we may not be so lucky.