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The South China Sea dispute as a security dilemma

The security dilemma in the post-Cold War era and its impacts on international relations

von Simon Valentin (Autor)

Essay 2016 7 Seiten

Politik - Internationale Politik - Thema: Frieden und Konflikte, Sicherheit


The term security dilemma was first described by the German-American scholar of international relations and law John H. Herz in his 1951 book “Political Realism and Political Idealism”; however, the idea can be found already in the work of Immanuel Kant (Bevc, 2007). The security dilemma is a model used in international relations to understand and explain the behaviour of states. Herz defined it as “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” (Herz, 1951, p. 7).

The model is based on the theory of political realism and is one of its core elements. According to that, states exist in an anarchic environment without any supranational authority and have to rely completely on their self-help to achieve their aim: to survive (Bevc, 2007). More specific, the security dilemma is based on the neo-realistic idea that the main interest of states is not to maximize their power as an end in itself as realism tells us but to maximize their security (Bevc, 2007).

One state feels threatened by the measures (often military build-ups and arming) other states are conducting to increase their security and feel forced to respond and to conserve their own security by doing even more. Because of this continuing and developing process, the security dilemma is also known as the spiral model (Bevc, 2007).

The actions of two or more states in order to maximize their own security can hence paradoxically lead to a situation of increased political instability. In the worst case, this can lastly lead to war, which contradicts the initial intentions of the involved states. In this theoretical draft, the situation is a game theory dilemma and each player can only possibly escape if it gives up its natural need to maximize its own security. From a realistic point of view, the dilemma exists due to the rational behaviour of all actors and is unsolvable because of the lack of a superordinate sanctioning instance (Correa, 2001).

The security dilemma got popular because it was consistent with other realistic theories and many historic examples were explained with it. Some see the beginning of World War I caused by a security dilemma, because the European states felt forced to go to war because of increasing insecurity, despite no one actually wanted the war (Glaser, 2011). The best-known example for the security dilemma is the Cold War between the Western and the Eastern Bloc, although some scholars question if it really was a security dilemma (Jervis, 2001, p. 1). Nevertheless, both sides tried to gain security via military build-ups. Although they might have been only implemented for defensive use they were seen as a threat by the opponent which led to new build-ups on this side and consequently to the well-known arms race. This led to a cycle in which both states built more and more weapons because even though both sides had enough nuclear power to destroy the other, even after a first strike, to stop at any point would mean to lose at their original ambition (Gaddis, 2006). The problematic logic is that it is not only about to have enough power to ensure security through military build-ups but mainly about winning or not losing. If one of the opponents had stopped, the other would have won and the one who had stopped still would have had to pay for the already conducted actions. Therefore, both players are stuck and have to outcompete the other to prevent a huge loss in security (Correa, 2001).

From a more liberalist view in contrast, the security dilemma situation is not inevitable but arising from failures of signalling and communication and therefore could be solved with some form of cooperation. The German-US-American political scientist Alexander Wendt states that security dilemmata “are not given by anarchy or nature but are a social structure composed of intersubjective understandings in which states are so distrustful that they make worst-case assumptions about each other's intentions” (Wendt, 1992, p. 397). For Kant, who can be seen as one of the founding father of liberal theories, the solution could only be disarmament in general and in the long term a peaceful league of states, which could only be achieved within democratic states (Bevc, 2007). This contradicts remarkably with the realistic assumption that the internal affairs of a state, up to the question if it is a democracy or a dictatorship, do not matter at all for their external behaviour and thus for international relations.

After the Cold War, many political scientists saw a shift in international relations to a more liberal understanding and the security dilemma and its message was highly criticised and dismissed to be a central guideline of international relations (Wendt, 1992). Today in the year 2016, there are still many old and new conflicts in the world and today’s scholarly literature still uses the security dilemma when studying and explaining these conflicts. For example, the case of North Korea and the tensions between Israel and its neighbours, especially Iran, are often referred as security dilemmata (Tan, 2013; Hersh, 1991).

To evaluate the relevance of the concept today I want to examine the security dilemma in a still developing, less acute but on the global level extremely critical conflict: the territorial dispute in the South China Sea and its underlying conflict. On the surface, it is a conflict about several states claiming more or less important small islands, some with natural resources like oil, and naval trade routes as they have done for centuries (Raditio, 2014). I cannot describe the details and history of the conflict within the scope of this essay,[1] but I want to demonstrate that it can be seen as part of a model security dilemma with two dimensions.

The rising power China is now, due to its economic and military strength, able to increase its influence and security in relation to its neighbours, which makes them see their own security in danger and therefore feel forced to react. In theory as in practice, the smaller neighbour states which are not able to keep up with the rising state can either bandwagon with the rising power or form new alliances (like Japan and India did) and try to balance the new power out by bringing in other great powers, here mainly the USA. This results in the rising hegemon militarizing even more and leads to the security dilemma spiral (Brzezinski, 2014; Raditio, 2014). The first dimension is thus the regional one between China and its neighbours. In conclusion, due to the rise of the Asian states on the global level and especially due to the overproportional rise of China, the Asian region experiences a huge shift in power with many states involved. Many scholars compare the situation to Europe before World War I, with Germany outcompeting the other European states and see a classical security dilemma with a good chance for war (Brzezinski, 2014).

On a bigger scale, this conflict and the rise of power and power politics of China lead to a second security dilemma that the Harvard professor Graham Allison called the “Thucydides Trap” (Allison, 2015) after the Greek historian Thucydides who described the conflict between Athens and Sparta. This means the inevitable structural tensions between a current hegemon, Sparta or the USA (since World War II in the Pacific region and since the end of the Cold War globally) and a new rising power, Athens or China. Today, the “preeminent geostrategic challenge [...] is not violent Islamic extremists or a resurgent Russia, it is the impact that China’s ascendance will have on the U.S.-led international order” (Allison, 2015). From this perspective the question is if the rise of China will lead to a global war (Glaser, 2011).

The conflict seems to fit into the scheme of the classic security dilemma. From an offensive realistic point of view there seems to be no alternative in the long term than a war as it was in most cases in the history, as it can be seen for the last 500 years in figure 1.


[1] For detailed information about the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, see Raditio (2014).


ISBN (eBook)
1 MB
Institution / Hochschule
James Cook University – College of Arts, Society and Education
security dilemma south china sea south china sea dispute south china sea conflict post-Cold War era global politics international relations


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    Simon Valentin (Autor)


Titel: The South China Sea dispute as a security dilemma