With China’s expanding presence in the Asia-Pacific region and the intensifying territorial dispute in the East China Sea, the security dilemma between China and Japan has become extremely complicated.

The security dilemma is a condition in which states’ attempts to increase their own security, out of the mutual fear and suspicion, result in a decrease in security for all. For China and Japan, the current situation is particularly the case.

Both perceive more and more threats from the other side, while their overactive responses are causing a strong sense of insecurity for each other. The vicious circle is driving the two powers to engage in an escalating arms race.

China’s national defense budget has kept a double-digit annual growth in the past decade, making it the second largest after the United States. With a 10.7 percent increase for fiscal year 2013, the amount has climbed to roughly $117 billion.

China stresses that the country is walking along a peaceful path and that the military development is just to protect its vast territories and long coastlines. However, given its low transparency and unstable China-Japan relations, Japan sees China’s high military expenditure as threat to the archipelago.

Japanese leaders have repeatedly claimed that the security environment surrounding Japan has become unprecedentedly severe and thus substantial adjustment of its national defense strategy is required. Obviously, the “severe security environment” largely refers to China’s military buildup and maritime expansion in the East China Sea.

After Prime Minister Shinzo Abe came to power in December 2012, Japan started to increase its military budget for the first time in 11 years. According to the National Defense Program Outline for fiscal year 2014, Japan is to significantly increase its defense spending over the next five years. Japan feels an urgent need to build a stronger military force to counteract China’s growing military activities in the region, which include the launching of its first aircraft carrier and the frequent sending of destroyers into disputed waters.

The establishment of the Japanese National Security Council (NSC) is partly a result of the threat perception. In the National Security Bureau, the secretariat to the NSC, there is one division covering “friendly countries,” while another division exclusively deals with China and North Korea. China might not qualify as a “friendly country” for Japan, but nonetheless it would be surprised to see itself in the same category as North Korea. From Japan’s point of view, China and North Korea are the two biggest destabilizing factors in the region and pose equal threats to its national security.

China surprised many people when it suddenly announced that it would form its own NSC at the Third Plenary Meeting of the 18th Chinese Communist Party Central Committee. Just two months later, in late January, it formally established the NSC, headed by top leaders. Although the NSC also aims to cope with domestic security challenges, the focus will be foreign security policy. The government emphasizes that “the security environment surrounding China is becoming more and more severe” — the same thinking as Japan.

China perceives most security threats as coming from the U.S.-Japan military alliance. China has long viewed the U.S.-led military alliances in the Asia-Pacific as an attempt to contain it. But this doesn’t mean that a Japan that was military independent of the U.S. would make China more comfortable.

As a matter of fact, China would be horrified if Japan ends its military alliance with the U.S. A the Chinese saying goes, “He who was bitten by a snake will be afraid of a rope for 10 years.”

The humiliating history of being invaded by Japan has left a deep scar in the Chinese national psychology. China is highly sensitive to and wary of Japan’s military development. Therefore, the Abe administration’s moves to revise the peace Constitution, exercise the right to collective self-defense and build full-fledged national defense forces are seen by China as attempts to restart Japanese militarism.

Japan also has security dilemmas, in particular at a time when tensions with China continue to escalate and the U.S. is taking a neutral stance on the Senkaku Islands sovereignty issue. Japan is well aware that it can’t count on the U.S. too much once conflicts with China happen in the East China Sea. Eventually it will have to build an independent military capacity to counter China.

In the context of China’s rise, the territorial dispute and the persistence of history issues, both China and Japan perceive the other as the major challenge and destabilizing factor in their security environment. Propelled by the threat perception, both are focusing on military buildups.

Realists argue that conflicts are inevitable during power transitions, as the rising power will try to change the existing system. John J. Mearsheimer, in his book “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” put it bluntly that China would simply not “rise peacefully.” Japan has charged that China is attempting to use force to change the status. China, however, has accused Japan not only of changing the status quo by nationalizing the disputed Senkaku Islands, but also of challenging the postwar world order as Abe tries to put the history of Japan’s military aggression in a revisionist light.

Liberalists would attribute the security dilemma more to the lack of a regional security regime. There is no framework within which China and Japan can have discussions and exchange views with each other regularly. Compared with Europe, institutional arrangements in Asia are still lagging behind, particularly in the security sphere. There is not even a military hotline between China and Japan. Asia urgently needs to build a collective regime to help states identify shared security interests and reduce security dilemmas.

The threat perception comes from problems related to states’ perceptions of international relations. All tend to believe themselves to be peace loving while viewing others as provocative or aggressive.

Robert Jervis, in his book “Perception and Misperception in International Politics,” argues that states injure others more than they mean to, as they don’t see the degree to which their policies conflict with others’ interests.

There exist many security misperceptions between China and Japan. Though they perceive one another as a threat, the two countries actually have many more convergent than divergent security interests. Neither China nor Japan wants to have a war. Both need a peaceful security environment to address domestic issues and promote international trade.

The proper role of diplomacy is to reduce tensions and threat perceptions, not add to them. Unfortunately diplomats from both countries have been conducting propaganda campaigns to describe the other side as a threat to regional and world peace. The two sides should refrain from playing up the rhetoric of the “China threat” or the “Japan threat.”

Both China and Japan need to think from the perspective of the other. Instead of calculating how much of a threat is coming from the other side, they should think twice about whether their own behavior poses a threat to the other side.

The two countries should hold candid talks about the security situation in the East China Sea in order to bridge the gap of security perception, minimize misperceptions, build mutual trust and foster common security interests in the region.

Xie Zhihai is an assistant professor at Maebashi Kyoai Gakuen College in Gunma Prefecture. Previously a research associate at the Asian Development Bank Institute and a Japan Foundation research fellow, he got his Ph.D. in international relations from Peking University in July 2011.

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