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Foreign Policy

How to Narrow the Gap Between Threat and Threat Perception

Aug 07 , 2014
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director of China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, Senior Adviser at Pangoal Institution

There has recently been a marked increase in security tensions in the Asia Pacific region, particularly in East Asia. This rise in tension has occurred against the backdrop of China’s rise, and the US’ rebalance towards the Asia Pacific. Some people have even likened today’s Asia to Europe before WWI. This is not a well-grounded idea. Today’s Asia is vastly different from Europe a hundred years ago and today’s China-Japan relations are obviously different from the 1930s relationship between Germany and France, or between Germany and Great Britain . There has been a fundamental change, which has created a new set of problems. In my view, the problem is that some countries have become biased in their security threat perceptions. 

Direct territorial aggression or expansion is extremely rare in today’s international environment. However, due to different geopolitical or geoeconomic interests or the existence of other major disputes or differences, countries do have security concerns, which then appear as mutual security threats. Security threat perception is the subjective cognition of an objective existence, formed on the basis of an assessment of the differences between interests and capabilities, motives, and will. 

There are usually three types of gaps between actual and perceived threats: underestimation, overestimation and misjudgment. Misjudgment is usually qualitative rather than quantitative, and the consequences are especially grievous. 

At present, there is concern that in the Asia Pacific, East Asia in particular, there is a higher propensity for overestimation or misjudgment of security threats. I see six reasons for this phenomenon. 

The first is a shortage of accurate and comprehensive information or intelligence about other countries’ interests, intentions and capabilities, which is related to a low level of military or security transparency among East Asian Countries. Secondly, some countries still have a Cold War mentality or zero-sum way of thinking, and are more used to drawing ideological barriers. Thirdly, some countries prefer over-stating their security threats and preparing for the worst scenario in order to ensure their own security. Fourth, some countries attempt to find excuses for expanding their armaments by exaggerating threats. Fifth, there is no effective mechanism for crisis management, and therefore security crises occur and escalate frequently, leading to a falsely inflated notion of threats. The sixth factor is the magnifying role of modern media, which plays a large influence over national decision-making and public opinion. All of these factors lead to a serious shortage of mutual trust, and an increase in strategic suspicion between the countries concerned. 

Besides, a country tends to overestimate threats from big countries and strong countries (including emerging ones) as well as those from countries that have previously done damage. The US, Japan, and Southeast Asia all overestimate and misjudge the threat that China poses, and China also overestimates the threat from the US and Japan. The Japanese worry of a Chinese military threat and the Chinese worry of Japan returning to militarism. In comparison, in the face of weak, small or traditionally friendly countries, a country tends to underestimate the security threat it faces. Between states of hostility, it is common to overestimate the threats, such as between the US and DPRK, between ROK and DPRK, and between Japan and the DPRK. 

Be it overestimation, underestimation or misjudgment, inaccurate threat perception may have serious consequences for state-to-state relations, either aggravating differences and frictions, or laying down hidden dangers, or causing excessive tension or confrontation. 

To avoid or reduce these misperceptions, and in light of the extensive overestimation of security threats from other countries in East Asia, I believe countries in the region should make major efforts with regards to the following six aspects. 

The first is to have an objective and scientific method to assess threats, including acquiring more comprehensive intelligence and information, conducting a comprehensive assessment (with research into the overall security situation, mutual security relations, common interests and major differences by looking into the past, the present and the future), carrying out both qualitative and quantitative analyses, and building up the capacity to think about other countries’ interests and motives. 

The second is to stick to and develop a new security concept of comprehensive security, cooperative security and common security and to oppose a Cold War mentality, a zero-sum game, or judgment based on ideological divisions. 

Third, countries in the region should strengthen comprehensive bilateral and multilateral security dialogues and exchanges at different levels and in various forms (including both track 1 and track 2). The notion that “dialogue is always better than confrontation” should become a guiding principle. When state-to-state relations are tense, it is particularly necessary to overcome obstacles and maintain necessary diplomatic contacts and dialogue. Contact between the defense departments is particularly important, so that mil-to-mil contact will not impede overall relations. 

Fourth, all countries should strengthen their confidence-building measures, strategic reassurance and strategic mutual trust. The three measures are all very important. The countries involved in the East China and South China Sea disputes have not made sufficient effort in these areas. While strengthening traditional security and CBMs in the global public domain, China and the US should actively reassure one another, and work towards creating a new model of big country relationship. 

Fifth, a mechanism for effective crisis management must be established to avoid escalation into crisis. At present, most East Asian countries are weak in the mechanism and capability of crisis management, and there has been an insufficient effort to build up mechanisms for bilateral or multilateral crisis management. 

Sixth, an effort should be made to expand shared interests, and engage in full bilateral and multilateral cooperation in political, economic, cultural and security (non-traditional security and global public domain in particular) fields. This will help all sides establish a more objective and accurate understanding, and have less bias or misunderstanding of the other party.

Zhang Tuosheng is the Director of Research and Senior Fellow at the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies.


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