International Relations Theory and the Rise of Asia, the 2010s

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International Relations Theory and the Rise of Asia, the 2010s

Ming Wan

(Preliminary draft: please do not cite or quote)

This chapter examines international relations theory and Asian studies in the 2010s, which presents both challenges and opportunities. It is particularly challenging to study a moving target since we are only one quarter into the decade. At the same time, a study of the present situation allows us to look back at our theoretical understanding of East Asian international relations.

This edited book, as I understand it, analyzes how IR theories measure up to the reality of East Asian international relations over time. So to highlight the marginal utility of “my period” for understanding IR theory and Asia, I start with the assumption that a dynamic status quo had been reached between IR theories and between IR theory and the real-world Asia before my period. My task then is to examine whether the real world developments in Asia constitute a shock to that equilibrium and how IR theories have responded. The assumed equilibrium is a theoretical construct. The chapters on the previous periods make it amply clear that there were evolving heated theoretical debates and varying degrees of gap between theory and reality. At the same time, from a dynamic perspective, it is not unreasonable to view a sort of theoretical stalemate indeed existing, waiting to be shaken up by either theoretical advance or real world shocks. In this chapter I focus on real world shocks while touching upon IR theory development.

The world does not make twists and turns neatly by decades. I see the main current trends in Asia starting around 2008, corresponding to the Great Recession. I examine the broad structural changes in the region. Several developments stand out in the region. First, Asia has fared relatively better in the Great Recession that has hit the United States and Europe hard. At the same time, it has become clear that the Asian economic growth is ultimately contingent upon the economic health of the advanced economies. Second, China has continued to rise and has also become more assertive in foreign relations, triggering serious territorial disputes with some neighboring countries. Third, the United States has “pivoted” back or “rebalanced” to Asia partly in response to China’s rise and to a changing power equation in Asia. Fourth, while the Sino-U.S. dynamic casts shadow on almost all important issues in Asia, other countries continue to pursue their own interests based on their perceptions and identities. As a case in point, North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are scoring some technical successes, which has a predictable large impact on East Asian international relations. There are also surely developments that may escape the attention of the contemporary observers. In fact, fear of greater uncertainty is a key driver for foreign policy calculations in Asia at present.

Do all these developments add up to a shock to the assumed status quo? My view is that real Asia has indeed raised enough questions for theorists but this is not a once-in-a-life-time shock if we compare the 2010s to the previous decades in the postwar era and if we compare Asia to some of the other regions, particularly the Middle East and Europe, in the same decade. And Asia’s rise and China’s rise are known quantities.

How does IR theory explain all this? The short answer is that we are yet to see new theories due to the long cycle of research and publication in the United States and the hesitancy of most theorists to study a moving target without ready data. Equally important, since theorists view their work as having relevance across cases and over time, they would and do argue that the new developments are consistent with or vindicate their earlier arguments. In particular, some realists argue that their early warning about a Sino-U.S. conflict is proving correct.

I argue that some IR theories look stronger now than before, namely balance of power, balance of threat, power transition and security dilemma. But it is too early to conclude that non-realist theories are discredited. We can continue to make the case that while economic interdependence can and has been partly the source of tension, the East Asian security environment would have been far more severe without it. And the intensely emotional nature of the territorial disputes in the shadow of historical grievances makes studies of national identities more salient. More fundamentally, for many IR scholars, a theory remains viable if it continues to generate new research questions and meaningful scholarship, which is clearly the case for liberal institutionalist and constructivist research programs for Asian studies.

We see a continuous welcome trend of “mainstream” IR theorists migrating to Asian studies, viewing Asia as the most salient world region to try out arguments in a game for “big boys”. However, with some strong scholars who bridge IR and Asian studies as exceptions,1 the gap between theories--if defined as abstract, universal, explanatory rather than specific, analytical, descriptive--and real world developments has enlarged in the 2010s in my assessment. As a case in point, domestic politics has become even more important and identity-driven emotions have grown more potent than before, but theorists who have limited knowledge of the region push for more theoretical scholarship even when we need to rethink what questions to ask and to enhance or even rebuild our knowledge base for what is happening on the ground. Most IR theorists are tacit scientific realists, scientific realism being a school of philosophy of science that maintains that our best theory approximates the real world and that theories refer also to the unobservable. But some influential IR theorists take a conscious anti-realist position that a theory should be constructed deductively with assumptions and concepts that may not refer to the reality.2 A scientific realist research program that takes descriptive inference seriously would be more accommodating of Asian studies and the changing reality of Asia.

This chapter includes three sections. The first section examines East Asian international relations for the past few years. The next section matches that to IR theory. The last section concludes the chapter.

Asia Keeps Rising

In this section, I will examine a few main trends that point to both Asia’s continuous rise and more apparent tensions in the region.

1. Economic trends

Asia continues to rise despite the Great Recession, as shown in Figure 1. I use nominal GDP because that is what most people think about and because a comparable real GDP dataset for GDP per capita annual growth rates from 1961 to 2011 is unavailable. As shown in Figure 1, East Asia and Pacific region that include China and Japan grew faster than the world average, the European Union and the United States almost continuously from 1961 on, the starting year of available data from the World Bank. East Asia’s absolute growth rate has slowed down, but it is relatively faster than the world average, the European Union and the United States in 2008-2011. Within East Asia, Japan has experienced a lengthy period of economic slowdown since the early 1990s and China has been growing at a fast pace for the past three decades. Russia experienced a sharp decline in the 1990s but enjoyed strong economic growth in the 2000s fueled by rising energy and commodity prices. Russia has suffered from the Great Recession as badly as the advanced democracies. India, not included in the East Asian and Pacific category in the World Bank database, began a period of faster economic development in the early 1990s and is now growing faster than the East Asian region although still not as fast as China. At the same time, the weakened Asian economy in 2011 shows clearly that Asia remains contingent upon the economic health of the advanced market economies.

Figure 1: Asia Rising (nominal GDP)

Source: World Bank, World Development Indicators online

We need to know who in Asia is rising and who is not. This is important for intra-Asia international relations, which also affects world politics. To gauge accurately power distribution, we can look at the sizes of the economy of the countries involved, particularly those of the great powers. This chapter examines the “big five”, namely China, India, Japan, Russia and the United States. Unlike some earlier chapters, India is an emerging great power by the 2010s, the focus of this chapter.

Figure 2 uses nominal GDP in current US$ from 1960 to 2011 to trace the power distribution among the big five, using their shares of world total GDP. Shares of world GDP allow us to compare the size of the great powers and to have a sense where these countries stand in the world hierarchy. Figure 2 shows that Asia is moving to a multipolar system if we exclude the United States, different from the previous period when Japan alone was an economic superpower. This is not a China-dominant system. If we include the United States and consider the fact that Japan is still more technologically advanced than both China and India, that simple fact should be even clearer. Asia and the world remain dominated by the United States.

Figure 2: Distribution of Power (nominal GDP)

Source: Calculated from World Bank, World Development Indicators online

Nominal GDP does not measure well countries’ real economic development due to distortion of often volatile exchange rates and different prices in non-tradable goods and services. In particular, nominal GDP tends to underestimate the real economic welfare of developing countries like China and India. Figure 3 uses purchasing power parity (PPP)-based GDP data for the five great powers. We should also look at PPP because people began to talk about China’s rise in the early 1990s when the international financial institutions released PPP-adjusted GDP information that showed that China was more powerful economically than the nominal GDP would indicate. Indeed, China and India look much stronger measured in real GDP as shown in Figure 3. But the basic picture of a multipolar system among the Asian powers holds. One should also note that the United States has experienced a relative decline since 2008 and China a sharp increase in the same period due to the Great Recession. However, that should be a temporary change of fortunes for the two countries since the United States will eventually recover from the crisis and China may have its own financial crisis at some point.3

Figure 3: Distribution of Power (real GDP)

Source: Calculated from World Bank, World Development Indicators online

2. Security trends

Asia is spending more on defense expenditure. The SIPRI military expenditure database show, as in Figure 4, that East Asia has grown significantly faster than all the other regions except North America since the end of the Cold War. Not surprising, the Soviet Union collapse sank dramatically Russia’s defense expenditure. European military expenditure also decreased visibly. North America decreased on a similar pace as Europe in the 1990s but grew sharply after 911.

Figure 4: Defense Spending: Asia versus the Rest

Source: SIPRI, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

Turning to the Big Five, Figure 5 shows the overwhelming military presence of the United States. The United States spent three times the combined military spending by the other four in 1992 and almost two and half times in 2011. Thus, the big picture is U.S. preeminence and the others playing catch-up if so desired. China’s rise is visible but the country still pales next to the United States. At the same time, China’s military expenditure has been increasing faster than Japan, India and Russia. SIPRI makes its own estimate of the Chinese defense expenditure, which is much larger than China’s official defense budget. There is also much expectation in the U.S. policy community that China has the intention and capacity to match the United States in the foreseeable future. The late 2000s and the early 2010s represented a turning point when China came to be viewed as within reach of a near competitor to the United States militarily and that the United States now faces tougher budgetary pressure.4 China is acquiring capabilities to deny U.S. military intervention in its neighborhood. The Obama administration in its second term is expected to reduce defense budgets by $500 billion over ten years. Thus, the defense expenditure gap between China and the United States should close somewhat in the coming years.

Figure 5: Military Expenditure among China, Japan, India and the United States

Source: SIPRI, SIPRI Military Expenditure Database.

More than simply military expenditure, if one follows the strategic studies, policy statements, military doctrines and procurement in Asia, there is a visible trend among some Asian countries to gradually shift to hedging and even hard checking on China. Intra-Asia arms race has been partly disguised by the dominance of the United States: the countries that worry about China could freeride on the United States. But with severe fiscal challenges facing the United States, there are signs that the countries having disputes with China will increase their military capabilities. As a case in point, the Abe government made it clear at start of 2013 that Japan might increase defense spending and the size of the Self Defense Forces in light of China’s perceived aggressiveness, the first increase since 2002. In addition, the Japanese government decided in early January, 2013 to spend an extra ¥180 billion for missiles, fighter planes and helicopters for the next few months as part of the supplementary budget, with China and North Korea identified as the reason.5 Arms race in East Asia is on.

China, Japan, Russia and India are currently not involved in any actual military conflicts. Japan has not fought in any war since WWII. China fought its share of wars prior to the early 1980s, with its last combat occurring in a border conflict with Vietnam in 1987. The Indian army engaged in a skirmish with Pakistan in 1999.6 Russia fought a war against Georgia in August 2008.

The U.S. has engaged in wars and covert operations against radical Islamists around the world since 2001, with two major wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is in that context that the U.S. government sought a rebalancing to the Asia Pacific. It is happening but the U.S. continues to be pulled elsewhere, with the Arab Spring, the nuclear issue with Iran and radical Islamist insurgencies in Africa. The United States also faces fiscal challenges worsened by a political paralysis reflecting a more polarized domestic politics.

The second-term Obama administration is sending a strong signal that the president wants to focus on domestic agenda and rebuilding rather than foreign adventures. His new secretary of state and secretary of defense were Vietnam War veterans who have learned from that dramatizing experience. At the same time, as it is often the case, the development in Asia or elsewhere would continue to pull the United States in whatever the administration would rather do.

3. Trends in regionalism

East Asia has been engaging more actively in regional cooperation since the early 2000s. What has been discussed most is whether East Asian regionalism is really meaningful, typically with European integration as the standard. What is less discussed is a gap between economic regionalism and the security architecture in Asia. The United States that is at the center of Asian security alliance structure was not included in any serious regional economic cooperation scheme once the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) lost its leadership role.

A major development in the 2010s is the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), which seeks to align U.S. economic and security interests in the region, a move welcomed to different degrees by most Asian countries. It is still early whether the United States will be able to reconcile the two. Even if the TPP is created successfully, most TPP countries are or will be in numerous regional groups that include China. They can thus shop between different groups to maximize their gains.

China continues to promote regionalism in its own preferred sequencing.7 The current regional economic trend continues to favor the country even though production costs are rising fast in the country. China’s growing market gives the country greater leverage. Equally important, foreign countries get greater benefits from high-end exports from Chinese, an important reason that they are interested in China in the first place. East Asia’s rise is largely based on an expanding regional and global production network, which continues to be important. We already have much anecdotal evidence that only a small proportion of values is added in China for some high-tech products such as iPhone. A recent systemic study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation (OECD) shows that China’s trade surplus with the United States for 2009 should be reduced by a quarter if we adopt a value-added basis.8 It is also significant that China is not seeking to build a security structure to complement its economic advance.

4. Trends in domestic politics

Domestic politics has always been important in Asia as elsewhere. We have seen power transitions in various Asian countries. And rising nationalism is compounding the power transition challenge in the region. Asian nationalism is now uglier than before and may be uglier still in a downward spiral feeding off on competing countries in the region.

The power transition in the region started in North Korea due to the law of nature. Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, after 17 years in power. His young son and designated successor Kim Jong Un took over and now seems to be in firm control of the country. Kim Jong Un is being portrayed as a more likable leader than his father and has shown some willingness for change. At the same time, North Korea launched a satellite into orbit on December 12, 2012, clearly meant to shore up the young leader’s rule a few days before the first anniversary of the death of his father. North Korea’s third nuclear test conducted in February 2013 made that even clearer.

Taiwan’s Ma Ying-jeou won his presidential reelection in January 2012, welcomed by Beijing. Cross-Strait relations stabilized in Ma’s first term and should continue to improve. At the same time, pro-independence forces are alarmed by the integrating cross-strait economies and people-to-people exchange.

Vladimir Putin returned to presidency in Russia’s presidential election in March 2012, continuing his domination in Russian politics since 2000 as a president and then a prime minister. Putin has since voiced strong criticism of the United States.

The United States held its presidential election on November 7, 2012, a constitutionally determined schedule that anyone in the world can find out if so desired. The election gave Obama a second term at the White House.

As a reflection of political progress in China, the world also knew well ahead of time that a formal power transition would take place in China although the exact date was not known until shortly before the meeting. Xi Jinping took over the top party post from Hu Jintao in early November 2012, assuring ten years of leadership if the pattern of the past two decades is held. The Bo Xilai scandal before the 18th party congress added drama and uncertainty about the party center and China’s future. Like many top Chinese leaders, Xi’s own ideological orientation and personality are not well known but he is generally viewed as more confident than Hu Jintao at the same stage.

With a new prime minister every year since 2006, Japan held its lower house election on December 16, 2012. The LDP party platform announced in November 2012 called for strengthening the alliance with the United States through constitutional revisions to allow collective self defense. Abe Shinzo, is widely viewed as highly conservative inside and outside Japan, made hawkish remarks on China during the election campaign. Students of American foreign policy are familiar with the pattern of presidential candidates using strong rhetoric to differentiate from others but would revert to a more pragmatic approach when they actually win the election. The Japanese politicians did not use to use hawkish foreign policy rhetoric in elections that much before. Now rightwing politicians may gain public support or at least do not get penalized over their stringent remarks.

Park Geun-hye became South Korea’s first female president, winning the election on December 19, 2012. Her campaign slogan was “economic democratization”, which means reducing the power of the business conglomerates and creating a welfare state. Similar to the Japanese voters, the South Koreans were concerned about the economy, but different from their Japanese counterparts, the majority of the South Korean voters wanted a softer line on North Korea in rejecting current president Lee Myung-bak’s hard-line policy. Due to history and territorial dispute, it is difficult to see any breakthrough in Korea-Japan relations even though the United States wants to see that happen.

India will not have a national election until 2014 but the political parties are already positioning themselves for the election. On December 20, 2012, Narendra Modi, a controversial Hindu nationalist politician and the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, won his third term in the state election. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 115 out of 182 seats in the state assembly. He allegedly played a role in the Hindu mob attacks that killed over 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Modi is now expected to become a national leader to head the opposition party BJP in the 2014 national election.9

International Relations Theories

My discussion above is mostly description of the current events, sprinkled with some analysis. Students of Asia and IR scholars have written much about Asian international relations about all the issues I have discussed and then some. Has China really risen or has the United States really declined?10 Has China become more assertive in recent years and why?11 How about the U.S. pivot or rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific?12 How are other Asian countries responding to the new Sino-U.S. dynamic?13 How far has Asian regionalism advanced and what are its basic features?14 Is nationalism rising in Asia and why?15

However, mainstream IR scholars want to go beyond analytical answers to specific questions and seek grander theories to explain those real-world developments. As noted by Hans Morgenthau,

“International politics embraces more than recent history and current events. The observer is surrounded by the contemporary scene with its ever shifting emphasis and changing perspectives. He cannot find solid ground on which to stand, or objective standards of evaluation, without getting down to fundamentals that are revealed only by the correlations of recent events with the most distant past and the perennial qualities of human nature underlying both.”16

IR scholars since Morgenthau largely accept his view about the need for a rigorous theory while arguing over the scope of the field and the best approach for explanation. I cannot do justice to a wide range of approaches in the discipline here. Rather, I focus on some influential thinkers in this chapter.

Kenneth Waltz has had a profound impact on the discipline. In his 1979 book Theory of International Politics published, Waltz argues that a theory is a theoretical construct that does not have to correspond to the real world and should be judged mainly by whether it explains some big and important things in world politics better than alternative theories.17 For Waltz, a theory is a creative process that goes beyond merely connecting dots. Most other IR scholars do not go that far. John Mearsheimer, for example, argues that the assumptions for theory should be sound empirically while theory building should be done deductively.18 While pushing a liberal institutionalist research agenda, Robert Keohane agrees with Waltz that causal analysis is difficult at the unit level because of the presence of idiosyncratic factors.19 This chapter focuses on theories understood on that abstract level, whether they are built deductively or inductively.

Similar to the previous chapters, I examine realism, liberal institutionalism and constructivism in this chapter. In addition, I will examine emerging studies of non-Western concepts and theories for explaining East Asian international relations. I call that approach “neo-traditionalism”. All this research is limited to the English-language scholarship in the United States and elsewhere.

My empirical research comes from four sources. First, I have done research on and taught East Asian international relations and have a general sense of what is important. Second, I have conducted library database search, namely Social Sciences Citation Index (SSCI) and Academic Search Complete dated back to start of 2010, to look at broadly anything written about Asian international relations. For SSCI, I have used the following key words: Asia international relations, China (refined to international studies), and Japan (refined to international studies). For Academic Search Complete, I search the topics of China, Japan, Asia, and international relations. Third, I have checked several leading international relations journals starting in 2010, namely World Politics (WP), International Organization (IO), International Security (IS) and International Studies Quarterly (ISQ). Fourth, I have checked the books published since 2010. My chapter is not meant to be a survey of the field.20 So I have not tried to be thorough and all-inclusive.

My search of the academic database shows, not surprising for anyone familiar with the sociology of knowledge in the field, that there is a direct relationship between the prestige level of the academic journals and how theoretical they are. When it comes “down” to analytical writing, there has been much produced over all the current events and trends discussed in the previous section and then some. I have provided sample citations for some of this scholarship at the start of this section. There are some new analytical insights for Asian studies such as interesting writing about various “middle powers” in recognition of an emerging rivalry between great powers like the United States and China.21 But I doubt much of this analytical scholarship will be noticed that much in the discipline of International Relations.

The higher prestige journals do not cover East Asia as well as they should. Alastair Iain Johnston concluded in his content analysis of some leading IR journals up to 2011 that mainstream IR scholars do not use the Asian experience that much and often use Asian cases incorrectly, which hurts the healthy development of IR theory.22 My own examination of the four leading IR journals since 2010 shows that the coverage of Asia has noticeably increased, particularly in IS. But substantively, I view a continuous and even larger gap between IR theory and Asian studies.

East Asian international relations at present are a moving target. As such, mainstream IR theorists are hesitant to focus on the current events because they seek long shelf life for their scholarship and most argue that their previous theories stand the test of time anyway. More importantly, some theorists insist on treating theoretical development as the end objective while discounting “headline chasing”. By contrast, the moving target itself is most interesting for students of Asia and policymakers and we do need more knowledge. In some ways, those with area knowledge thrive in the real world whether or not their scholarship is appreciated by the theoretically-inclined. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that policy analysts are now often turned off by highly quantitative IR scholarship prized by many fellow IR scholars.

There is also a deeper philosophical reason for the gap between IR scholarship and Asian studies. Alexander Wendt has pointed out rightly that some leading scholars in the IR field maintain the position that a scientific theory should be built deductively with theoretical constructs that do not have to correspond to the real world as long as they help explain what is unobservable such as the state or the international system. He also noted rightly that in practice most IR scholars are tacitly scientific realists, those who hold that a real world exists beyond our theories and that mature theories approximates the real world, including the observable.23

A scientific realist position, in my view, is better suited for Asian studies or any area studies. It says that what we study is real, independent of our conceptualization, that it is knowable, and that our knowledge is cumulative if done carefully. All that plays to the advantage of the area specialists who spend more time observing what is happening on the ground. It also means that they are being scientific when thinking inductively rather than deductively. Any good theorists necessarily combine inductive and deductive thinking and want their explanations to be both logically consistent and corresponding to the real world. Nevertheless, it is necessary to be reminded that deductive theorizing should not be viewed as THE right way to conduct research in the discipline of international relations and that scientific realism is actually the more dominant thinking in natural sciences that many social scientists seek to emulate.

Now let me examine different IR theories. Again, it is impossible to give justice to our diverse field in a short chapter. I will focus on four schools of thinking, namely neo-traditionalism, realism, liberal institutionalism, and constructivism. I will also discuss international relations versus comparative politics.

Neo-traditionalism: When it comes to IR theory and Asian studies, I view efforts at non-Western theories as creating the most fundamental tension even though it is not currently the dominant topic for IR scholars and Asian studies scholars. For what is worth, I view these theoretical efforts as belonging to “neo-traditionalism” since they draw from the practice and theories of ancient East Asian international relations, paralleling similar efforts in some other non-Western regions.

Similar to other main schools of thought, neo-traditionalism is a big camp that includes various thoughts often at odds with each other. Students of Asia know that intellectual projects for going back to cultural roots or adapting traditions to the modern conditions have existed in various parts of East Asia from the start of serious contacts with the West. Such sentiment in Japan caught attention in the West in the 1980s, partly resulting from Japan’s rise that anchored Asia’s rise. Mainstream scholars largely managed that challenge by demonstrating how their theories offered better explanations for contemporary Japan and Asia than the traditional Asian concepts. And Japan was a modern state, with an electoral democracy and a market-oriented economy. By contrast, China’s rise has given neo-traditionalism a bigger boost because China was largely at the center of the East Asian international order for two millenniums and the country is not part of the West even though it is part of a globalizing world. The 2010s sees a continuation of the debate over the Euro-centric theory and the alternatives. Asia’s continuous rise gives this development some momentum. The rise and fall of a non-Western region provides the real world background for theoretical thinking and intellectual incentive structures.

We also have no choice but to engage in studies of Chinese and Asian traditions since invocations of Chinese traditions for explaining why China behaves the way it does, often in a deterministic, Chinese exceptionalist framework, are already everywhere with us. Henry Kissinger, for example, put great emphasis on China’s “singularity”.24 Kissinger has been dealing with Chinese leaders for decades now, acquiring unique insight into the Chinese government. By contrast, much of the invocation of supposedly Chinese traditions is far less than nuanced or accurate.25 Better scholarship on Chinese traditions is badly needed.

Some IR works have used contemporary Western concepts and theories to examine the Asian traditional practices in international relations to correct and enrich Western IR theories.26 There is no logical reason to resist such intellectual efforts and mainstream scholars may take issue mainly with how strong a case can be made. Who wants to be biased?27 There is indeed much richness to tap in that area. As a case in point, there was several hundred years of long peace among the Confucian states in Asia before the Western arrival, which constitutes a major anomaly for realism that draws its fundamental pessimism partly from the war-torn experience of Europe.28 Some also argue that postwar Asian experience shows that while hegemony was a source of stability in Europe it mainly caused confusion and tension in Asia, showing the limitation of the hegemonic stability theory.29 To utilize the traditional and modern Asian international relations experience we need to understand it better, which would draw more attention to the works done by the students of Asian studies, a good thing too if we want to encourage top students to study Asia or other non-Western regions.

Neo-traditionalism goes beyond the Asian international practice-based IR thinking discussed above. It is recognized that it is virtually impossible to build a non-Western IR theory when one uses the Western epistemology.30 Thus, some have made bold attempts in a different direction.31 The Chinese government has often invoked the traditional Chinese concepts such as harmony to explain their foreign policy approach and preferences. Some Chinese scholars have also sought to illustrate a Chinese conception of the world based on traditional concepts such as Tianxia (all under heaven). That strand of Chinese thinking has been commented upon in some English-language literature.32 Some of neo-traditionalist arguments come from the state or nationalists, which weaken their intellectual appeals.33 The scholarship on Tianxia is currently weak viewed either from a Western IR perspective or from a traditional Chinese perspective. From a Western IR perspective, the current discourse on Tianxia is just that since there is no theory for comparison and testing. From a traditional Chinese perspective, I imagine the ancient Chinese thinkers would find the Tianxia discussion only superficially familiar since it is detached from the traditional Chinese natural philosophy.34

While neo-traditionalism has made limited advance, one cannot dismiss this agenda out of hand. Ironically, Western IR would face a greater challenge since many take an anti-scientific realist position, which means that a paradigm change may take place even if it is difficult. Since these Asian traditional concepts were once used, they do not even need that much baptizing. For those taking a postmodern view of the world, they can argue, often critically, that the Western thinking has constituted the contemporary world. But logically, it is also possible for the world to be reconstituted, difficult though it might be. By contrast, if one takes a scientific realist position, one may realize the far greater difficulty facing neo-traditionalism because one may argue that the Western theories approximate the real world reasonably well and have room to improve and that the real world in Asia is drastically different from the ancient world. The West is an integral part of Asia and no one can logically deny that the Western concepts and theories at least partially reflect the contemporary world in Asia. A completely different non-Western theory would then be logically absurd. For the same reason however, we can also argue that there is indeed intellectual space to examine the traditional theories and concepts because East Asia has evolved from its historical origin. Moreover, it would be intellectually fruitful if neo-traditionalism seeks to approximate the contemporary world, which would put healthy competitive pressure on the Western IR theories.

Realism: Realism looks strong given the current situation in Asian international relations. Some influential realist scholars who predicted trouble ahead in Asia after the end of the Cold War may rightly feel somewhat vindicated.35 In particular, offensive realism represented by John Mearsheimer seems prescient. Mearsheimer argued in his 2001 book that engagement with China would fail because as China rises economically it would build up its military capability and challenge for dominance in East Asia whether or not it becomes democratic and because the United States and some other countries would create a balancing coalition against China.36 However, we cannot give the trophy to offensive realism because we are still in the early stage of an emerging U.S.-China rivalry and offsetting forces for collaboration remain strong. And Mearsheimer was convincingly wrong when he predicted earlier that the NATO would cease to exist. A no and a maybe do not make a strong score card. Moreover, as Jonathan Kirshner has observed, Mearsheimer offers one and not the only realist perspective on China’s rise and his offensive realism is wrong and dangerous. By contrast, classical realism that considers history and politics offers a better realist analytical approach.37

Looking at some other realist schools of thought, Kenneth Waltz remains consistent with his basic arguments. One is that bipolarity is more stable. To determine whether bipolarity exists, he observed that the challenger needs only to be about half of the capacity of the dominant power.38 As Figure 3 shows, China’s PPP-based GDP exceeded half of the American GDP in 2007 and was three fourths of the American GDP in 2011. In terms of nominal GDP, as shown in Figure 2, China was almost half of the American GDP in 2011. Thus, China could now be a second great power if that economic base could be translated into greater overall national power. Waltz thus argues that the world is “unipolar for the time being, but it’s unstable in the sense that we can expect a second great power [China] to emerge in the relatively near future. So the structure of the system is unstable.”39 Maintaining that nuclear-armed countries do not fight each other, he argues that China’s rise will mainly make it more difficult for the United States to intervene in the world as it pleases, a good thing too since an unchecked great power always abuses.40 This take is more comforting for those who want to avoid direct conflict between China and the United States but not so for those who worry about China and want the United States to intervene on their behalf. Equally troubling for many students of Asia is Waltz’s well-known position on nuclear proliferation. In the same interview, he argues that it is impossible to rid the world of nuclear weapons, that more countries like North Korea will acquire nuclear weapons, and that more countries with nuclear weapons means greater peace since nuclear states do not fight each other given our experience of the superpower rivalry during the Cold War.41 The way I see it, we got lucky with the Cold War. If one follows realism to its logical conclusion, there is no reason to rule out use of nuclear weapons, which were actually used by the United States and threatened to be used by both superpowers in Asia. More to the point, if we keep tempting the fate, we will increase the odds of nuclear disaster taking place.

Balance of threat theory fits nicely with the recent development in Asia because more countries are balancing against China rather than a stronger United States because of their sense of threat. But that sense of threat is not structurally determined. The bulk of the actual research will have to be conducted on the ground.

Power transition has become a theory of choice for explaining East Asian international relations. In fact, as Steve Chan observes rightly, while realists often invoke balance of power theory when discussing China’s rise they often implicitly accept the power transition premise, reflected in the fact that they are seeking U.S. preeminence and not balance against a weaker China assuming that the U.S. leadership is positive for East Asian international relations.42 I view power transition as basically a realist theory because it is power-based and structural even though some power transition theorists view the approach as different from realism.43 While power transition is indeed a good theory any scholars of Asia should read carefully, it is not structurally deterministic. It is an empirical question whether China is a status quo country or a challenger.44

Liberal institutionalism: One now often hears criticism of the liberal institutionalist approach given the deteriorating security environment in Asia. But that criticism is misplaced. Postwar liberal institutionalists are not Norman Angell, who was often assumed to have made a deterministic prediction of end of major conflicts given growing economic interdependence among nations, a naive view of the world destroyed by WWI.45

Looking back at my own writing on economic interdependence and security order in Asia,46 I would now be less sanguine about the pacifying impact of economic ties but will maintain that the basic arguments I made still hold. Like many postwar interdependence thinkers I argued that economic interdependence makes military conflict less likely, not impossible. We can argue that even though economic interdependence has not been able to prevent greater security tension things could have been far worse without it. Close economic ties between China and the United States are clearly an important reason that a second Cold War is difficult to be realized even though it is not impossible.

Liberal institutionalism is more than economic interdependence and is focused on international cooperation as its central research concern, assuming that cooperation is difficult to achieve. Thus, the fact that cooperation is eroding in East Asia is within the research domain of liberal institutionalism. For that matter, balance of power theory also does not predict that balancing will actually lead to peace and merely why countries want to balance.47

Aside from acute security issues, for which realism has a comparative advantage, liberal institutionalism offers analytical tools for many other pressing issues in Asia. In particular, as discussed in the previous section, domestic politics has driven Asian international relations, including the acute security issues. International political economy, the home for many liberal institutionalism, offers the best available tools for understanding domestic-international linkage.48 By contrast, some of the recent developments in Asia discussed in the previous section are fundamentally foreign policy issues, namely China’s greater assertiveness in dealing with some other countries starting around 2009 and America’s pivot or rebalancing. For influential theorists like Waltz, their theories have little specific to say about foreign policy issues.

Regionalism remains an important topic, which attracts some liberal institutionalists. Interesting work is ongoing and much comparative study of regionalism remains to be done.49 The real world development makes studies of regionalism more important, not less. After all, the U.S. rebalancing to Asia includes the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP), a cross-regional free trade agreement, which is fully consistent with the institutionalist argument about locking in one’s advantage through entanglement which should also constrain the initiator. And it is liberal as well, consistent with John Ikenberry’s liberal order argument.50 Some have argued that China is joining the global system because it is under competitive pressure to do so.51

Ironically though, while International Political Economy remains highly relevant, that is not reflected in academic journals. As Johnston noted, IO had very limited coverage of Asia and IS had done much better in that area.52 IO has improved in Asian coverage since Johnston made his assessment.53 But it remains the case that the flagship journal for IPE is less “hospitable” to Asian studies than the flagship for International Studies (four versus almost twenty since 2010). WP has carried a few more articles on Asia than IO and ISQ is about the same as IO.

My own observation is that IPE has become even more focused on deductive theorizing than International Security, which gives greater salience to Eurocentric scholarship. While IPE has produced some solid research, some scholars, including some founders of the field, have expressed disappointment at the state of the field. Benjamin Cohen has observed that the IPE journals have become “boring”.54 He attributes this phenomenon to the increasing tendency for IPE scholars to model after neoclassical economics, emphasizing formal modeling and sophisticated mathematics. Robert Keohane has also argued that the new IPE has become less creative and “is remarkably reluctant to focus on major changes taking place in world politics” such as China’s rise.55 For students of Asia however, it seems that China’s rise is on everyone’s lip for at least a decade now.

One remedy Cohen has proposed is for the IPE journals to organize more special issues. If we look at some edited volumes created from joint research projects, the situation is not as bleak. Nevertheless, too much focus on formal modeling and mathematics means that only topics that happen to have good data get to be studied and potentially published in strong venues while thinking about broader issues becomes riskier research topics.

Constructivism: While realism seems to be stealing the show at the moment, this is also a golden period for constructivist research in Asia. Any observer of East Asian international relations would recognize the emotions involved in the territorial disputes in the long shadow of the past.56 National identities and nationalism are more important drivers of East Asian international relations than before.57

As discussed before, Wendt’s version of constructivism is highly relevant for Asian studies. Moreover, the English school of international relations remains important for Asian studies.58 Much of the discourse in Asia at present is framed in terms of international order and international rules. Constructivist research has been conducted on topics such as regionalism.59 There is also continuous research interest in comparative strategic cultures.60

IR versus comparative politics: There has already been much advocacy for breaking down the academic burrier between international relations and comparative politics. IR scholars who also have expertise in area studies already know that they have to know both international relations and comparative politics. In fact, one may argue that the real question about Sino-U.S. relations is not so much the shifting balance between them but what they represent from a historical development perspective. We know the importance of political legitimacy underlying the foreign policy of many Asian countries, an important reason for Chan’s critique of the balance of power theory.61

It is so far mainly rational choice scholars who seek explicitly to unify international relations and comparative as well as American politics following that approach. For other scholars, they rely on methodological eclecticism.62 There is clearly room for theoretical development in this area.


I have argued in this chapter that East Asian international relations have continued to evolve in the 2010s. Asia is rising and China is rising in Asia and beyond. An arms race is taking shape. Asian countries continue to push for regionalism, with the United States now charging ahead with its own ambitious plan.

Do the real world developments in Asia constitute major anomalies for one, some or all the existing IR theories? Asia makes some IR theories, particularly power transition theory, appear more salient than others. But real-world Asia does not destroy the existing IR theories, many built deductively. Whether these theories accurately reflect what is going on in Asia does not knock out any particular theory since the discipline requires that a clearly better theory has to be presented. In practice, IR theories virtually never die. They just wait for their turn.

The gap between IR theory and Asian studies has enlarged despite strong efforts by scholars from both sides and from those who bridge the two areas. This is due to the sociology of knowledge that rewards theorizing and due to the dominant anti-scientific realist philosophical inclination in the field. Asia has received far more coverage in the leading international security journals than in the international political economy ones because more IPE scholars than IS scholars have sought to model after neoclassic economics focusing on formal modeling and sophisticated mathematics, which can be more challenging when data are less available in Asia than in the West.

1 For recent books, see for examples Gilbert Rozman, ed., National Identities and Bilateral Relations: Widening Gaps in East Asia and Chinese Demonization of the United States (Stanford: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2013); Gilbert Rozman, ed., East Asian National Identities: Common Roots and Chinese Exceptionalism (Stanford: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Stanford University Press, 2012); Carl J. Dahlman, The World Under Pressure: How China and India Are Influencing the Global Economy and Environment (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); Avery Goldstein and Edward D. Mansfield, eds., The Nexus of Economics, Security, and International Relations in East Asia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012); Steve Chan, Looking for Balance: China, the United States and Power Balancing in East Asia (Stanford University Press, 2012); Thomas J. Christensen, Worse than a Monolith: Alliance Politics and Problems of Coercive Diplomacy in Asia (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Amitav Acharya, Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2011).

2 Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,1999), pp. 47-91. For works on scientific realism, see Michael Devitt, “Aberrations of the Realism Debate,” Philosophical Studies, Vol. 61, Nos. 1-2 (February 1991), pp. 43-63; Geoffrey Hellman, “Realist Principles”, Philosophy of Science, Vol. 50, No. 2 (June 1983), pp. 227-249; Jarrett Leplin, ed., Scientific Realism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984).

3 Ming Wan, “The China Model and the Great Recession: A Historical Comparison,” in Dali L. Yang, ed., The Great Recession and China’s Political Economy (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), pp. 223-42.

4 For some U.S. assessment of U.S.-China military balance, see Dan Blumenthal, “Sino-U.S. Competition and U.S. Security: How Do We Assess the Military Balance,” NBR Analysis, December 2010. For authoritative U.S. assessment of China’s military capabilities, see the annual report “Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” by the Pentagon mandated by Congress starting in 2000. The most recent issue came out in May 2012.

5 “¥180 billion in extra defense outlays eyed,” Japan Times, January 9, 2013, accessed on January 9, 2013,
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