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

November 2, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyMilitary Strategy Region: ChinaJapan

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.

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.

Compounding these incompatible, historically based narratives are different contemporary views of what constitutes fairness in the international system. To Japan, the rule of law is of primary importance. For instance, Japan may not agree with the 2014 ruling against the country’s whaling practices by the International Court of Justice, but plans to abide by the letter of the ruling, consistent with its narrative. Indeed, even at times of relative strength in the 1930s or the 1980s, Japan regularly justified its foreign and trade policies by citing international law.

In contrast, China often views fairness and justice in a historical context and in terms of the nation’s sovereign rights, which can together outweigh the letter of the law. This helps justify China’s repeated incursions into the territorial waters of the Japanese-administered Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Beijing believes it has historical claim. And Beijing believes that because Japan is using its administrative control over the islands to establish de facto sovereign ownership; therefore, given China’s rights, it is fair for China to act more assertively than the letter of law may permit. It is not necessarily that China believes “might makes right,” but that China’s increased strength now allows it to accomplish what it believed to be “right” all along. A key Japanese concern is whether China’s perception of “what’s right” will be elastic in connection with its growing power.

These narratives and conceptions of fairness are compelling when seen from within each country—but they are incompatible.

Dangers from the Fairness Dilemma

The fairness dilemma and the security dilemma have roots in different, powerful human drives. A security dilemma arises from fear or uncertainty of the other’s motivations and capabilities, where precautionary or defensively motivated measures are misperceived as offensive threats that can lead to countermeasures in kind. Thus, “if outsiders wish to understand and perhaps reduce the odds of conflict” as scholar Barry Posen concludes an analysis of the security dilemma, they must ask “Which groups fear for their physical security and why?”

In contrast, in the fairness dilemma, each side is driven to take actions they see as self-evidently right and just, even at potentially high cost to themselves—but which the other side considers unfair, aggressive or risk taking. One does not necessarily have to be afraid or uncertain of the other’s motivations and capabilities; the rejection of unfairness or pursuit of justice can drive one to act.

Dangers arise from the fairness dilemma in the medium term. It erodes other hitherto healthy aspects of Japanese-Chinese relations, such as in trade and investment. Japanese direct investment in China, for example, almost halved in 2014 compared to the year before. Lack of mutual comprehension from the fairness dilemma muddies interpretations of the other’s actions, so breeding mistrust. It magnifies the potential impact of random accidents or incidents, for instance, with fishing boats or tourists.

Further, the fairness dilemma contributes to seemingly contradictory balance-of-power perceptions. Tokyo has Washington’s pledged support if Japanese ships are attacked or the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands are seized, but Japan has primary responsibility for this kind of crisis and Washington remains officially neutral on sovereignty. Over the fairness dilemma, Japan feels more alone and vulnerable. However, in the security dilemma, the United States is central, so China feels more vulnerable. So each side has an aspect of the relationship where it feels itself an insecure underdog seeking an advantage.

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.

What to Do: “1 Step Back, 3 Steps Forward” to Overcome the Fairness Dilemma

Between Japan and China, particularly over territorial disputes, it is necessary to address both the fairness dilemma and the security dilemma. Remedying one alone is insufficient.

For the security dilemma, decades of thinking have identified generally accepted recommendations. Consider recent classic and sensible recommendations by Steinberg and O’Hanlon on a U.S.-China security dilemma. They propose focusing on projecting resolve and enhancing transparency to reduce uncertainty; confidence building and reciprocating positive actions; and restraining defensive actions that might appear threatening. Such measures would mitigate the fear and uncertainty driving the security dilemma in Japanese-Chinese relations, but not the pursuit of fairness driving the fairness dilemma. While Japan and China have primary responsibility, the United States can and should contribute. Four policy recommendations could together enable a breakthrough, in a strategy we call “one step back, three steps forward.”

First, looking back, all sides could learn from examples of overcoming the fairness dilemma—not just the lesson of German apologies so often prescribed for Japan, but also lessons to all sides from Northern Ireland and the past Chinese-Japanese relationship itself. Apologies’ importance must not be minimized, but apologies can only ever be half the story. Apologies only mean something if accompanied by a process of self-reflection that internalizes historical lessons—and this is crucial for both sides in the fairness dilemma. Looking back should not be confused with dwelling on the past or demanding atonement, which inevitably lead to high human and economic costs by postponing true reconciliation. Leaders should constantly remind people of these opportunity costs.

In Northern Ireland, peace was a process where the parties prioritized their future, despite bitter injustices perceived by all sides. Success required leadership and concessions on both sides. Martin McGuinness was the likely IRA chief of staff when they killed the Queen’s cousin in 1979—now he’s deputy first minister and he recently toasted the Queen at Windsor Castle. Truth-seeking is necessary, but without recrimination and prosecution is often most constructive.

China and Japan themselves showed they can move on. They tried to avoid historical discussions while fostering bilateral relations from the 1970s to the 1990s, with regular summits and expanding trade and cultural interaction. As Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said in 1978, let bygones be bygones.” In 1978 in Tokyo, Deng declared, “My heart is full of joy,” and hugged the Japanese prime minister. Japan provided significant development aid to China. And after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, Japan first sought to ease Beijing’s isolation by resuming assistance loans in 1990, and Prime Minister Kaifu was the first G-7 leader to visit China in 1991. Today, the two countries’ competing historical narratives can no longer be shelved, and leaders on both sides must steer the truth-seeking process away from politics and towards long-term bilateral dialogue.

Addressing the fairness dilemma also requires proactive shaping of future relations among China, Japan and the United States. A first step forward is anticipating factors that may exacerbate the fairness dilemma—and a crucial example is helping Japan and China develop forms of nationalism that will not inflame this dynamic. China must recognize Japan requires a national identity that fosters social cohesion and enables defense of national interests; but not one that airbrushes uncomfortable historical chapters. Similarly, Japan must recognize China requires its own nationalism, but not with an anti-Japanese centerpiece.

So, what types of nationalism? Japanese prime minister Murayama’s 1995 statement apologizing for the war stated: “Japan must eliminate self-righteous nationalism.” As this is of concern in all countries, they could steer towards nationalism that fosters pride, while accepting the same by neighbors.

In a second step forward, Washington can facilitate processes to tackle one source of the fairness dilemma: the differing contemporary governmental ideas of what is fair and just. That is, while Japan stresses pure objective law, instead China incorporates a broader historical context that it thinks leaves certain sovereignty questions open from when it was weak (and which it seeks to address while strong). Government and academic dialogues could help understand each idea, and eventually bring together both. One legalistic strand could focus on maritime law, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This could build on work in the West Pacific Naval Symposium between regional naval leaders. Meanwhile, a historical or academic strand would examine sources of perceived injustice and clarify facts. Bringing both strands together would begin to put the differing ideas in the same space, even if disagreement remains, and identify plausible common ground on which to seek compromise over time.

For the third step forward, China and Japan (together with the United States and other interested nations) should begin to develop a rules-based system for the East China Sea that reconciles competing concepts of fairness. This would describe how to resolve certain disagreements over resource extraction, maritime security and the maritime environment, while being coupled with nonviolent measures for rule enforcement. The process of creation is key. It should be developed mutually to avoid perceptions that China must play by others’ rules; and without prejudging the outcome.

An analogy is the decades-long process that eventually formed the World Trade Organization. Despite conflicting views of fairness for trade governance and dispute settlement, the parties negotiated a combination of universal standards with country-specific entrance rules, including acceptable enforcement. An evolving rules-based system will be no panacea, as demonstrated by the slow progress developing the declaration of conduct in the South China Sea signed in 2002 between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China. Full reconciliation may never happen, but the actors need a plausible basis for moving forward and a concrete goal.

Ultimately, this could lead to Japan making a major concession to its current position, such that it accepts China’s contention that the underlying facts related to sovereignty of the islands are in dispute. But this would only have value for Japan if accompanied by Chinese inclusion in a credible multilateral framework that restricted further Chinese expansion and shared resources fairly in currently contested areas. This is the objective win-win scenario for both, where each gains materially beyond the current situation and takes a step back from absolutist positions over sovereignty. It bridges the dual need for security and fairness, but requires a process that can lead us there.


If policy makers want to be realistic, they must understand the world as it is. Fairness is important, and this is based in our biology. Because what is fair according to Japanese and Chinese perspectives is currently incompatible, this can lead to tragedy. The security-dilemma concept was innovative and useful, because it described a recurring physical and psychological problem in international relations—making it a tangible problem for which policies could be developed. In the same way, the fairness dilemma captures a problem and so helps make it addressable. Simple solutions don’t exist for either the fairness dilemma, or the security dilemma. Both require leadership and political will to mitigate, and for a long time, leaders may at best hope to limit their effects. Identifying the fairness dilemma can start the critical debate about how to prevent it from leading to tragedy.

Nicholas D. Wright is a neuroscientist and an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. James L. Schoff is a senior associate in Carnegie’s Asia Program.

Image: Flickr/APEC 2013/CC by 2.0​