China and Japan in Anarchy: A Neorealist and Constructivist Explanation of the Kurihara Island Conflict

Al Jazeera English via Flickr
Al Jazeera English via Flickr

On September 11th, 2012, China issued a statement explaining its claim to sovereignty over a group of islands in the East China Sea, despite the fact that the Japanese government had announced its intention to purchase the islands from private owners.[1] These contested islands, referred to alternately as the Diaoyu Islands in China, the Senkaku Islands in Japan and Kurihara Islands after their former owners, are at the center of increasing tensions between China and Japan. The Chinese government dispatched two patrol ships from China Marine Surveillance to the islands in order to safeguard the sovereignty of the islands in 2012. More recently the conflict has heated up again. China has sent warplanes to reconnoiter the airspace over the contested territory and has set up a “defence zone” around the islands. Japan claims the islands were part of a postwar agreement reached with the United States, who returned the islands to Japan in 1972. 

The issue at stake is each nation’s territorial sovereignty within international anarchy, an issue which neo-realist and constructivist theories attempt to elucidate in assessing the behavior of actors in system-level interactions. The two theories differ greatly in their definition of anarchy: neorealist anarchy encompasses the security dilemma, power, and de-facto sovereignty.[2] These static concepts are challenged by constructivist anarchy theory, which focuses on socialization, collective ideals, and subjective sovereignty.[3] This article discusses the Kurihara Island conflict in the terms of both neo-realism and constructivism. Further, the following discussion will demonstrate that unlike the constant neo-realist definition of anarchy, the constructivist conception of anarchy is most accurate in explaining the Kurihara Island conflict because it takes into account the interaction between China and Japan in the post-Cold War historical context. 

The neorealist theory of anarchy is best explained in Mearsheimer’s “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” and can be applied to the conflict between China and Japan over the Kurihara Islands. Drawing from the static assumption that states are rational actors and the main players of system-level political interaction, Mearsheimer describes the international system as inherently anarchic, “characterized by security competition and war.”[4] For neorealists, the structure in which China and Japan interact is itself defined in terms of anarchy—devoid of central authority—forming a self-help system in which perceptions of imperfect information shape the reaction of rational actors. This definition of anarchy is quite simplistic: anarchy being a constant, the identity of the actors plays a minimal role in the structure of the system. In other words, neorealism does not take into account the domestic or historical background of the actors involved. Further, anarchy fosters an atmosphere of suspicion and hostility: “not only do they [states] look for opportunities to take advantage of one another, they also work to ensure that other states do not take advantage of them.”[5] Interacting in anarchy, China and Japan anticipate an end to a conflict that does inflict gains or losses on either party; thus, both actors perceive the islands as a relative gain they seek to acquire. Lastly, anarchy in neo-realist theory encompasses three crucial elements: relative standing extant from the security dilemma, power as potential or actual, and sovereignty as tied to the autonomy of states’ domestic political order.

The neo-realist discourse understands the security dilemma and the subsequent issue of relative standing as central to its definition of anarchy: security is understood relative to other actors’ capabilities. Because of the competitive nature of anarchy, any state’s attempt to increase its own security will threaten another’s safety and exacerbate a cycle of suspicion fueled by biased perceptions. The security dilemma yields a suboptimal outcome because self-interested actions lead to unintended consequences; this provides a strong incentive for states to adopt uncooperative policies.[6] The neorealist explanation of the Kurihara Island conflict would argue that as two regional powers, neither China nor Japan want to decrease their relative standing or sovereignty in East Asia. This is a rather simplistic explanation of the conflict, as neorealism heavily emphasizes security issues as a constant condition of anarchy and neglects to explain what caused the shift from a balanced to a tense system. Thus, neorealism partially explains why China sent military forces to the islands: as a response to Japan’s official claim to sovereignty over the islands, as an attempt to deter Japan from confrontation, or from reaffirming its former claim; and as a demonstration of Chinese power over Japanese policy. In this way, understanding this conflict transcends who acquires the islands and highlights the reputations and statuses at stake, which neorealism only explains in terms of security and threats. In line with the concept of competitive anarchy, whichever state backs down in this dispute will be perceived as the weaker one—therefore, both Japan and China are “island-racing” and escalating tensions. The issue with defining anarchy in terms of the security dilemma is that neorealism neither takes into account fluctuations from peace to tensions, nor explains in what way Japan will respond to the increasing hostility.

Having described anarchy in terms of the ever-existing security dilemma, Mearsheimer links anarchy to power as the primary preference of rational actors.[7] In terms of the Island conflict, preference for both China and Japan is survival of their relative standing in the international system. Japan seeks to defend its claim to sovereignty and its purchase of the islands. China seeks to prevent this through military intimidation, an indication of its potential power to dissuade Japan from exacerbating the conflict. Neo-realists define power as either potential or actual: “a state’s potential power is based on the size of its population and the level of its wealth…a state’s actual power is embedded mainly in its army and the air and naval forces that directly support it.”[8] Japan perceives China’s actual and potential power as greater than its own: China’s large population and booming economy coupled with its rapidly developing armed forces threatened Japan’s relative standing in East Asia. Neorealists would point to this as an explanation for what led Japan to balance China’s power by seeking territorial sovereignty over the islands. From this perspective, neorealism seems to refer to domestic factors to explain the island conflict, but ultimately resorts to a military definition of actual power that overpowers the historical context.

Apart from the security dilemma and conceptions of power, sovereignty plays an integral role in neo-realism’s theory of anarchy. Sovereignty refers to territorial integrity, which “inheres in states because there is no higher ruling body in the international system.”[9] Because survival is the primary goal of great powers, “states seek to maintain their territorial integrity and the autonomy of their domestic political order.” This definition of sovereignty within anarchy applies to the Kurihara Island conflict: Japan considers its purchase of the islands as legal and integral to its territorial standing. Neorealism claims China perceives this as a symbolic threat: the islands are small, seemingly insignificant, and may represent resource-capability; this is unlikely. The threat is therefore more ideological than actual: Japanese acquisition of territory implies setting a precedent, meaning that Japan will have “one-upped” China and will most likely be in a position to strong-arm China in future disputes. Here neorealism struggles with how the islands are integral to the territorial integrity of either China or Japan: the islands are insignificant and represent an abstract concept of sovereignty that constructivism can more accurately address.

 Constructivism as an international behavior theory, best developed in Wendt’s “Anarchy is What States Make of It,” offers an alternative explanation of anarchy that more accurately explains the Kurihara Island conflict as rooted in the post-Cold War atmosphere. Unlike neo-realism, constructivism proposes a transient and subjective conception of anarchy that can help policy-makers understand the depth of international conflicts. Wendt argues that anarchy is a social construct, not an inherent characteristic of the international system. He further claims that “self-help and power politics do not follow either logically or causally from anarchy:”[10] the anarchy between China and Japan is not innately conflict driven, but rather constructed by the shared interactions of the two actors. This contextualizes the Kurihara Island conflict as an issue constructed by China and Japan as a competitive one extant from the Cold War era: the bipolarity of the system produced a competitive atmosphere from which optimism that cooperation is possible faded with the development of the Cold War. The anarchic competition of this time was characterized and exacerbated by the ideological conflict between communist and democratic theory. In other words, China and Japan believe in this type of competitive anarchy not because the system is inherently competitive but because of the bipolarity of the Cold War system. Further, the international system in which China and Japan interact is anarchic because these actors constructed this institution of competition through interaction: “self-help and power-politics are institutions, not essential features of anarchy.”[11] To understand constructivist anarchy more thoroughly requires an explication of collective ideals and identity; socialization and interaction; and sovereignty as an institution.

Todd S Benson
Todd S Benson via Flickr

Constructivists propose the idea of collective ideals constructed through socialization as the basis of identity and preference in the international system. Unlike neo-realism, constructivism states the identities of the actors are defined by states’ participation in the system that determines the common norm: identity exists only “within a specific, socially-constructed world…each identity is an inherently social definition.” Further, “conceptions of self and interest tend to ‘mirror’ the practices of significant others over time.” The predation in the Cold War’s “anarchy of two” generated a self-help system: “the effect of predation…will force others with whom it comes into contact to defend themselves.” This explains how China and Japan constructed their system’s competitive anarchy: both actors mirrored the competitive behavior of the United States and Soviet Union in the Cold-War era, which has prevailed in current times despite the recent fall of the Soviet Union.[12]

Neo-realists hold that anarchy is an inherent characteristic of the system; Constructivists maintain that anarchy is a plausible result of socialization and interaction. Wendt claims “self-help and competitive power politics may be produced causally by processes of interaction between states in which anarchy plays only a permissive role.”[13] Constructivists view inter-state socialization as a determinant of behavior, the essence of which depends on domestic societies prior to interaction. These domestic conceptions are what constructivists analyze to define anarchy that rules the system within which actors socialize. Socialization in the system encouraged further interactions as “it is through reciprocal interaction…that [actors] create and instantiate the relatively enduring social structures in terms of which [they] define [their] identities and interests.”[14] This suggests that China and Japan developed, through post-Cold War political and extra-political interaction, a conception of their system as competitive that yielded each actor their identity within that system. These Cold War identities have continued to shape Chinese and Japanese political roles in current times as well, which explains the heightening tensions surrounding the Kurihara conflict. In this system, China and Japan “do not positively identify the security of self with that of others but instead treat security as the individual responsibility of each.”[15] both actors view the island conflict as a threat to their security within their socially-constructed anarchic system.

Along with the idea of socialization and collective ideals, sovereignty as an institution is important to the constructivist definition of anarchy. Wendt maintains that states have sovereignty because the actors socializing within the system believe it is an important norm, and attribute states the quality of sovereignty: “sovereignty is an institution…a mutual recognition of one another’s right to exercise exclusive political authority within territorial limits.”[16] Thus, it is clear that constructivists view sovereignty as a collective ideal and institution in the international system resulting from practice and socialization. In addition, “states will come to define their security in terms of preserving their ‘property rights’ over particular territories.” Because “collective recognition is a cornerstone of security,”[17] Japan considers China’s claim to the islands as a refusal of Japan’s sovereignty over that territory and as a subsequent threat to Japan’s security. A constructivist would point to this mutually constructed conception of territorial sovereignty within anarchy fuel the heightening tensions over the Kurihara Islands.

Neorealism and constructivism differ in defining the structure of anarchy: while Mearsheimer claims China and Japan interact within a fundamentally anarchic system, Wendt proposes that the Kurihara Island conflict is played out in a constructed anarchy that reflects the post-Cold War identities of the two actors. Applying these two theories to this current conflict helps illustrate the limitations of neorealism and the superiority of constructivism. Neorealism assumes anarchy, competition, and security are conditions of the system regardless of the differences between actors involved; in other words, neorealist theory applies a predetermined definition of anarchy to every conflict because it obsesses with security issues at the expense of domestic and historical factors. For example, it is simplistic to think of the small Kurihara islands as crucial to the security of China or Japan, as the importance of the islands is more accurately understood as ideologically rather than practically important. Unlike neorealism, constructivism does explain this ideological importance within a socially constructed anarchy based on inter-subjective identities and collective ideals. Further, constructivism offers a comprehensive analysis of the historical context of the Kurihara Island conflict, as it grounds this issue in post-Cold War atmosphere. In sum, neorealism is a static argument that pales in comparison to constructivism’s understanding of the Kurihara Island conflict’s historical context.

[1] CNN Wire Staff. “China sends patrol ships to islands at center of dispute with Japan.” 11 Sept 2012. Web. 29 Sept 2012.

[2] Mearsheimer, John. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” Essential Readings in World Politics, third edition. Ed. Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008. 60-79.

[3] Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It.” Essential Readings in World Politics, third edition. Ed. Karen Mingst and Jack Snyder. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc., 2008. 93-117.

[4] Mearsheimer, John. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” 61.

[5] Mearsheimer, 63.

[6] Ferrell, Jason. “Paradigms and Theories: Classical and Neorealism.” McGill University. Leacock 132, Montreal. 14 Sept. 2012.

[7] Mearsheimer, John. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power,” 63.

[8] Mearsheimer, 68.

[9] Mearsheimer, 61.

[10] Mearsheimer, 61.

[11] Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy Is What States Make of It,” 93-4

[12] Wendt, 95, 98

[13] Wendt, 94

[14] Wendt, 99

[15] Wendt, 96

[16] Wendt, 103

[17] Wendt, 104-5