I find US-China relations fascinating – as the two largest economies on earth, with vastly different governmental structures and philosophies, some level of conflict seems unavoidable. Security dilemmas, unlike outright conflicts, are characterized by uncertainty and misunderstanding between the two nations, particularly relating to whether each side desires to maintain the status-quo. OU’s Center for US-China Relations hosted a lecture on March 30 discussing whether US-China relations indeed qualified as a security dilemma – a state in which two international actors fundamentally misunderstand one another. .
Security dilemmas often start with “interactivity” – where an action by one nation (e.g., military investment) is matched or responded to by the other nation. In this instance, China has increased its ability to counter US carriers, and correspondingly, the US has increased its ability to rebuff China’s capabilities. Simultaneously, in security dilemma’s, each side claims that the other is the ‘aggressor’ – the nation violating the status-quo. Indeed, the US claims that China is violating the “rules-based-order” while China frequently accuses the US of hegemony.
As tensions increase, each side increasingly develops empirically inaccurate generalizations of one’s own side’s benign intentions and of the antagonist’s aggressive intentions. This characteristic of security dilemmas is certainly present in US-China relations, where both sides view the other as diametrically opposed. The reality is far messier, with the US’ and China’s interest sometimes aligned, sometimes opposed. However, it is inarguable that US and Chinese media have developed an increasingly negative view of the other country in recent years. As these misconceptions grow, both sides tend to dehumanize the actors involved by leaning into negative stereotypes against the “enemy” and empirically false tropes characterizing one’s in-group. In US-China relations, one can see references to COVID-19 as the “Wuhan Virus” as evidence of dehumanizing East-Asian populations, while the Chinese government’s trope of ethnic Chinese having “peace genes” (providing them moral superiority over other races) dehumanizes its own citizens. Finally, security dilemmas involve strict policing of in-group voices, with the counter-cultural voices derided as envoys of the “enemy” state.
While it may be impossible to confirm with complete certainty that the US and China are in a security dilemma, it is undeniable that tensions have escalated and may well continue to escalate. As a final comment, while the US may well have a role in perpetuating a security dilemma, I believe there are many features of the Chinese government that are highly concerning, especially the nature of its surveillance systems and severe limitations placed upon freedom of expression.