China and Japan's Real Problem: Enter the Fairness Dilemma

"In a crisis, the fairness dilemma provides a constantly ready store of dry tinder, limits the political space within which Japan and China can act, and thus provides a distinct path of escalation." 

Relations between Japan and China have deteriorated steadily since 2012, when the disagreement over who owns some small islands in the East China Sea moved to the front of their bilateral agenda. China made nearly 200 incursions into territorial waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in 2013, “compared to two in 2011 and none in 2010.” Japanese fighter jets scrambled a record of over 300 times in the area last year. This is dangerously dry tinder for escalation between a key U.S. ally and a nuclear-armed, rising China. U.S. diplomats have struggled to balance their neutrality in the dispute over the islands’ ownership, with a strategy to protect U.S. interests that combines reassuring Japan and deterring China. But Washington’s analysis of the issue misses a core challenge in Japanese-Chinese relations that increases the risk of conflict: a fairness dilemma.

Many U.S. policy makers view the rising Japanese-Chinese tensions through the lens of a security dilemma between the two countries, where each side’s fear of the other side’s capabilities and uncertain intentions leads to countermeasures that feed a vicious cycle. Policies to address a security dilemma include reassuring allies, while reducing uncertainty through transparency and clear deterrence. Reducing this fear is necessary, but insufficient in this case.

A realistic view of human decision making describes another fundamental driver of potential tragedy in East Asia: fairness. Some think fairness and justice “ought” to matter for moral or religious reasons. But modern biology tells us that rejecting unfairness is a deep-rooted biological drive, for which humans are prepared to pay large costs—fairness “is,” not just “ought” to be, a practical policy challenge.

For U.S. policy makers, fairness matters because it is a powerful motivation for both China and Japan. Yet these countries’ perceptions of fairness are often incompatible, leading to a fairness dilemma that could end in tragedy and involve the U.S. military. Between China and Japan now, the standard playbook of reassurance and resolve are necessary, but not enough. A “one step back, three steps forward” strategy taking into account the fairness dilemma, however, is a better long-term approach.

Fairness: From “Ought” to “Is”

Humans are prepared to reject unfairness at substantial cost, and this is rooted in our biology. In a well-known example called the ultimatum game, one person gets an amount of money (e.g. $10) and proposes a split with a second person (e.g. $9 for himself, $1 for the other). That other person then decides to either accept the offer (in which case both get the proposed split) or reject the offer (in which case both get zero). Even when receiving an offer of free money compared to getting nothing, humans reject offers under 25 percent of the money around half the time. Brain scanning of social interactions shows that neural activity encodes the exact degree of unfairness, including in the game described above. Further, scientists are developing detailed knowledge of how this occurs even within brain regions.

Not only humans, but also nonhuman primates reject unfairness. Capuchin monkeys performing a simple job will reject a payment of cucumber (which they like) when for the same job a fellow monkey gets tasty red grapes. Put simply, the negative value of unfairness overshadows the positive value of the money (or cucumber)—unfairness is rejected, despite its cost.

Pioneering realist Hans Morgenthau understood that a realistic view of human decision making matters. At the start of Politics Among Nations he wrote, "This theoretical concern with human nature as it actually is, and with the historical processes as they actually take place, has earned for the theory presented here the name of realism.” Morgenthau’s first principle of political realism emphasized that politics is governed by objective laws with their roots in human nature. As modern science clarifies the neurobiology underlying human nature, diplomats and defense planners should understand that the perception of fairness “is” crucial in foreign-policy success, not just a factor that “ought” to be important.

The Fairness Dilemma and Hegelian Tragedy between China and Japan

Danger between Japan and China arises not just from their military investments or rules of engagement, but also from their mutually incompatible subjective perceptions of the fairness of each other’s positions. This fairness dilemma can lead to the type of tragedy identified by the philosopher Georg Hegel, where tragedy does not arise from the clash of right and wrong, but instead because each side firmly believes itself right. Moreover, justice demands punishment or rejection of the other’s action that is perceived as unfair. Two sources fuel the current fairness dilemma between China and Japan: their historically based narratives; and their contemporary views of what constitutes fairness in the international system.