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The Double Security Dilemma

Mar 16, 2022
  • Dong Chunling

    Deputy Director, Office of the Center for the Study of a Holistic View of National Security, CICIR

At present, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is still going on, and the crisis and turmoil it has caused continue to ferment. This tragedy was caused by both complex historical scenarios and multiple security dilemmas. The lessons it has brought to the world are worthy of reflection by every peace-loving person, while the common security logic and the approach to global security reflected by China’s stance on the conflict may be of great relevance for all.

The continued escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is the result of the combination of two classic security dilemmas:

One is the “prisoner's dilemma.” In anarchy, each country pursues national security out of self-interest, focusing only on its own security rather than common security. This often results in a surge of insecurity for the parties concerned, who take corresponding measures to enhance their own security. Eventually, all fall into a vicious cycle in which they pursue security but are increasingly insecure.

This is evident in the case of Ukraine, where NATO’s eastward expansion brought Russia a strong sense of insecurity. The United States and the rest of the West ignored this security concern for a long time until they crossed Russia's strategic red line. When it appeared impossible to stop NATO’s eastward expansion through negotiations, Russia tried to achieve this goal through radical military means. This resulted in the escalation of insecurity and loss of control, leading to the outbreak of war and further deterioration of Russia’s security environment.

This vicious cycle continues today. Security is not absolute but relative; it is not only a capability, but more important a state. Failure to break the limitations of traditional Western security thinking, to think about security issues from the perspective of common security and to fully accommodate the legitimate security concerns of all parties means creating difficulty in solving the security paradox of the prisoner’s dilemma.

The second dilemma is the “cowardly game.” NATO and Ukraine represent one side of the conflict, and Russia represents the other. Both have increased deterrence and applied extreme pressure in the pursuit of victory, with Russia even talking of nuclear deterrence and the U.S. using financial nukes, kicking Russia out of the SWIFT system and working with many countries to impose the most brutal economic sanctions possible on Russia.

As a result, the cowardly game between the two sides has become more and more obvious. They are like two racecars rushing toward each other, with each side hoping the other can’t sustain the course and turns the steering wheel first. Neither side is willing to compromise at the moment, and each hopes to end up with victory.

What China needs to do as a responsible power is to promote talks for peace, ease tensions and bring the two sides back to the negotiating table. It also needs to relieve the pressure on both sides to prevent them from turning to the last resort — in other words, to prevent the extreme deterrence of both sides from becoming a reality.

The Chinese government has adopted a comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable approach to security in the Russian-Ukrainian crisis, preventing the world from falling into a new cold war trap and preventing common tragedy in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Although the Cold War has long passed, its legacies have not been effectively resolved and have become hindrances to peaceful global development today. The crisis in Ukraine is one example. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the new Russia could be regarded as the terminator of the Cold War to a certain extent. However, the United States regarded this victory without a war as a victory of its containment policy and treated Russia in the same way as they would a defeated country.

After the Cold War, the U.S. adopted several strategic goals: preventing the formation of another Soviet Union, limiting and weakening Russia, promoting NATO’s expansion to the east and encroaching on Russia’s geosecurity space. NATO’s historical mission should have ended with the end of the Cold War, but it has been used as a tool to promote the expansion of U.S. hegemony. Europe’s strategic autonomy has also been significantly limited by the presence of NATO.

The risk of the world falling into a new cold war as a result of the current Ukraine crisis is also growing. While the U.S. has spared no effort to exert diplomatic pressure on China to join the sanctions against Russia, it has consistently smeared both China and Russia in the international public opinion space, stirred up troubles on the Taiwan question and continued to hype China as the No. 1 strategic threat to the West.

This is evidence that the U.S. hopes to use the crisis to strengthen Europe’s strategic dependence on the U.S. and turn Western solidarity into a strategic containment force against China. In the Russia-Ukraine conflict, China opposes both the hot war and the new cold war and stresses respect for the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. China opposes the tendency toward camp-based confrontation in the world and insists on solving the problems through active dialogue and cooperation with all parties. It also firmly supports the strategic autonomy of Europe and the construction of a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework in the interest of Europe itself.

The radiating effect of the security dilemma is comprehensive. The crisis in Ukraine has not only exacerbated the conflict and confrontation between major powers but also has exacerbated the tragedy of the commons and the problem of global security governance. The crisis is now spreading to the economic, financial, diplomatic and livelihood fields. Security crises derived from food and energy shortages and disrupted industrial chains are cropping up.

Countries around the world need to work together to promote the resolution of these crises, but they also need to stay people-oriented and, from the perspective of preventing humanitarian crises, care about and help the innocent people affected by war. They need to adopt a worst-case mentality to prevent the spread of the crisis and the expansion of the threat.

China has accordingly made a six-point proposal. Its holistic approach to national security and its comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable approach to security may help break the current security dilemma and promote sustainable global security governance.

As the Chinese saying goes, “One palm alone cannot clap.” Faced with both the ongoing pandemic and momentous changes of a kind not seen in a century — as well as non-traditional and traditional security issues — the world finds itself at another strategic crossroads. In this crisis, China’s strategic choices are certainly important, but what is more important is the universal understanding and common choice of all countries of the world.

After the painful lessons of World War I, World War II and the Cold War, how can we prevent the next world war from happening? How can we update the approach to security, break the shackles of traditional thinking and crack the current security dilemma and endless security problems? How can we approach national security issues from the perspective of the needs of the times and the common needs of humankind, and make the world safer? The answers can be found in this crisis, but also reach beyond it.

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