The security dilemma is a concept in international relations where the activities undertaken by a given nation may create unwarranted tension in their relationship with another nation regardless of how innocent their intentions were in the beginning. Other states may wrongly interpret such a situation, thus creating insecurity between the involved nations. An example of actions that could create tension would be revamping the defense forces or attempting to create nuclear weapons among other things that have been known to cause problematic relations between nations that are otherwise friendly towards each other.
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The Security Dilemma between the US and China
For many years, the Americans have had complicated relations with the Chinese starting from the days of the First World War. China’s present economic position has only complicated the relationship given the fact that the two nations consider themselves as equals at the moment. China is seemingly as powerful as the US; even though both states collaborate with each other, there appears to be an ever-present tension that could spark a conflict by any innocent miscalculation. Spy Game is a 2001 movie in which an innocent move to rescue an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Hadley from a Chinese prison was likely to jeopardize the trade agreement between these two nations. The individual attempting the rescue her was a CIA agent named Tom Bishop. He was captured and questioned under torturous conditions; the Chinese were going to execute him within 24 hours unless the American government claimed him (Scott, 2001). This situation presents a case of the security dilemma where the CIA has to evaluate the costs and benefits of claiming their agent and risking the trade agreement over the cost and benefit of letting the agent die in order to save the relationship between the US and China.
The first move made by the Central Intelligence Agency is to call out three experts who are expected to provide a way forward in the dilemma. One of them is actually expected to pull the trigger on the case by giving the CIA a reason to let the agent die in the hands of the Chinese. The CIA would have been justified to let the agent die given he had gone rogue and was, thus, operating under his own orders when he was captured (Bowles & Wang, 2008). Nevertheless, he was still their agent and an American citizen to whom the government owed protection. His position as a CIA agent, however, worsened the case rather than helped him. If the Chinese found out that he was an agent, they would suspect the intentions of the US government and, possibly, would cancel the agreement signing event. This is probably what was worrying the CIA the most after they were informed that the agent was being tortured in custody. It became clear to the Chinese that the Americans were rather suspicious people; thus, they could not let the attempt of the American to free the Englishwoman go unquestioned. Looking at the situation from the Chinese perspective, Tom Bishop’s case was suspicious and there must have been more to his actions than met the eye. His capture and torture were, thus, justifiable from the Chinese point of view.
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Analyzing the case from the American side, capturing an American citizen and torturing him is simply a mistake for the Chinese people. The American government has to protect their citizens wherever they are; even if that person is in China, it does not mean they can simply forego this obligation. The reaction of the Chinese government to Bishop’s presence and actions in China called for a response that was expected to be well-defined in terms of expressing the disappointment of the American government at the kind of reception that their citizens, and the CIA agents for that matter, were likely to receive in the country that was only days away from signing a trade agreement with them. The American government, and especially the CIA, would have readily responded in kind except that they did not want to jeopardize the seemingly healing relationship between the two countries. According to the concept of the security dilemma, Tom Bishop was being sacrificed by the CIA to save the country from souring their relations with China. The bittersweet history between these two nations prompted the authorities to consider the consequences of their actions carefully in a bid to ensure that they did not start a war with China at the brink of their trade agreement.
More often than not, countries are forced to tread extremely carefully in as far as international relations are concerned, especially when other states can interpret their actions as acts of war or provocation of a conflict (He, 2013). The worst scenario is when there is an element of suspicion between the countries in question as was the case with the US and China in Spy Game. In this case, rescuing Tom Bishop would simply be fulfilling the US duty, but it could also trigger retaliation on account of suspicion from China’s side.
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Sometimes, even harmless actions may put the international community on the brink of a war as is witnessed in Spy Game. Under such circumstances, there is often the option of preparing for the looming confrontation, but it should be noted that avoiding it is a much better, safer and wiser strategy. Countries with a history of conflict or hostility, like the US and China, or the US and Russia among others, are especially at risk of emerging security dilemmas all through their historical coexistence.