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.
Consider a Japanese narrative. Imperialism was rampant before and during World War II. Japan behaved little differently to other colonial powers, but had the misfortune to begin late and lose the war. They were severely punished by the firebombing of Tokyo and nuclear attacks killing an estimated 280,000; destruction of up to one-third of the nation’s wealth ; imposition of a war-renouncing constitution; de-deification of the Emperor; redistribution of lands; and Allied war-crimes trials that resulted in about 920 executions of Japanese with some 3,000 more by the Soviets. Japanese leaders apologized for the War, including Prime Minister Nakasone in 1985 and Emperor Akihito in 1990. Prime Minister Murayama’s 1995 statement on the war apologized for Japan’s “aggression and colonial rule,” and in 1993, Chief Cabinet Secretary Kono apologized officially for the Japanese government’s role in coercively recruiting wartime prostitutes (“comfort women”) and their “immeasurable pain and incurable physical and psychological wounds.” Japan paid reparations (in different forms) in agreements related to the occupied countries (in 1951), South Korea (1965) and China (1972); agreements that settled war-related legal claims between the governments and their people. From the perspective of most Japanese, the country reflects on history as well as most others, and any concern that Japan might revert to its militarist past simply ignores its sixty-two-year political, legal and societal reality.
Then consider a Chinese narrative. China ridicules the idea that Japan was “just another imperial power” in the nineteenth century and sees it as a pitiless aggressor. Moreover, Japan frequently sought to downplay and obfuscate its wartime aggression, which caused millions of Chinese civilian deaths, through opinion leader commentary and its education system. Emblematic is the 1937-38 “Nanjing Massacre” in which the Chinese claim about 300,000 were murdered, but that some influential Japanese politicians and commentators deny happened. Even before this, nineteenth-century Japan joined the pack of Western powers to force “Unequal Treaties” on China that unfairly exploited her weakness, leading to the “Century of Humiliation” and territorial losses, including Taiwan. The United States’ postwar occupation of Japan, despite initial toughness, later released many war criminals who resumed power. In addition, Japan’s alliance with the United States and Europe conspired to write rules of international law and finance to their advantage. Now that China has recovered its strength (at great cost), they demand that Beijing conform completely to these so-called international norms. There is a powerful sense of entitlement to recover and receive restitution for past losses, and establish new legal and diplomatic relationships more reflective of the current regional-power dynamics.