A US Navy P-2H Neptune flies over a Soviet cargo ship during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Photo: Wikipedia

Ukraine might be dominating the headlines of the day, but Taiwan is arguably a more significant global flashpoint given its central role in US-China competition. 

In his most recent article, John Mearsheimer rebuts the “engagement” policy of the US toward China, and claims that China is bent on dismantling the US-conceived order within East Asia. In response, US policymakers have enacted plans of military deterrence. This is evident in the recent creation of a military pact among the US, the UK and Australia, known as AUKUS.

These increased tensions between the US and China come as no surprise. However, if the goal of the US is to protect national security and preserve the peace in East Asia, such a buildup of military alliances and capabilities within East Asia is, in fact, irrational. A bolstered American military presence would likely lead to an arms race with China. It would not only be costly for the US, but risk deadly escalation as well. Such an arms race can – and should – be avoided.

To prevent such an arms race with China, US policymakers should not forget the implications of what is known as the “security dilemma.”

The late American political scientist Robert Jervis in an article titled “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma” provided the classic understanding of the term: “Many of the means by which a state tries to increase its security decrease the security of others.”

In other words, if you have a gun, others can’t tell how you’ll 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 bring instability to East Asia do not seem quite so outlandish within the context of the security dilemma.

Two examples from modern American history – the Korean War and the Cuban missile crisis – show the repercussions 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 military, General Douglas MacArthur ordered American-led United Nations forces northward toward the Yalu River.

MacArthur and other US officials dismissed the possibility of China fighting back against these military maneuvers. They were sorely mistaken. Mao Zedong feared that UN forces near the Yalu River would result in the American-led forces attacking the Manchuria region of China, which motivated Beijing officially to join the Korean War against the US.

In essence, the Chinese perceived this UN “police action” as a threat to their national security. From China’s perspective, there was no distinction between offense and defense regarding American military capabilities in Korea.

Cuban crisis

The US has also been on the receiving end when other states disregarded the security dilemma. The Cuban missile crisis is a case in point.

From the perspective of Fidel Castro, the Soviet Union’s nuclear missiles were a means to defend the island, especially after the failed Bay of Pigs operation. As is well known, however, the US side did not take these missiles lightly. US policymakers viewed the proximity of these missiles to the American coast as provocative and a potential means of attacking the US

In other words, Castro and Nikita Khrushchev viewed the missiles as having a defensive and deterrent value, while John F Kennedy and US officials viewed them as offensive. By not taking into account the likely American reaction to these missiles in Cuba, Soviet and Cuban policymakers almost led the world into nuclear Armageddon.

There are two lessons to be drawn from the security dilemma. First, more weapons and military capabilities do not necessarily mean more security for a state. Second, US foreign-policy makers need to recognize and focus on the narrowly defined national interests of their country. This would have the US avoid needlessly provocative moves against a nuclear power like China. The key is to embrace competition and steer clear of conflict.

As the Korean War and Cuban missile crisis show, a country increasing its military capabilities near a great power can produce insecurity with that country and recklessly risk escalation. With these two lessons in mind, it would behoove US policymakers to understand the Chinese perspective toward the ratcheting up of American military alliances in East Asia.

Fortunately, the US and the Soviet Union used diplomacy to resolve the Cuban missile crisis, and avoided nuclear war. We may not be so lucky next time.

Benjamin Giltner

Benjamin Giltner is a graduate student at the George H W Bush School of Government and Public Service. He is pursuing a track in national security and diplomacy, as well as concentrations in international politics and grand strategy, and conflict and development.