Time to unpack a tweet just a bit:
Always fun to watch the security dilemma work its magic: https://t.co/NhBIitYu89 smaller folks responding to China … spiral, baby.
— Stephen Saideman (@smsaideman) February 13, 2014
The article focuses on the efforts of countries in the Indo-Pacific region pursuing submarines. My immediate reaction was to invoke the security dilemma. This basic IR concept goes as follows:
Because there is no higher authority to protect/secure countries, each country must look out for itself (allies make promises that may not be kept). So, when one country adds some kind of military capability to improve its ability to secure itself, others (especially neighbors) will worry about how that new capability might be used, so they react by developing their own new capabilities. This reaction may leave the initiator less secure, as it now faces neighbors with greater military capabilities. The dilemma is that the effort to create more security ultimately leads to less security.
In this particular case, the Chinese are building up their navy to thwart the US, and much of this effort aims to deny the Americans the ability to sail about the seas near China via submarines and missiles. China’s neighbors see this larger navy and invest in submarines. This might leave China more threatened as its strategic picture becomes complicated by many more countries with diverse capabilities.
When I applied to grad school, my essay for the applications focused on my curiosity about arms races, yet I have never published anything on arms races. Why not? Because once I got to grad school and learned about the security dilemma, my curiosity was largely satisfied. Sure, there are other dynamics at work (military-industrial complex type stuff), but I found that the security dilemma made sense of much of what I had been curious about. So, I moved on.
Of course, the big question is why do countries not arms race. How does one improve security without upsetting the neighbors? Fun stuff to think about. To be clear, there is plenty of room for scholars to study arms races. I just found that my intellectual curiosity was satisfied, but I am sure there are puzzles that still keep folks engaged on this issue just as many folks probably did not have much curiosity about NATO and Afghanistan.
A version of this post first appeared at the author’s blog.