Review of the Realist Paradigm

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America’s interests in East Asia have been diversified at the global level in the 21st century. One of those implemented in East Asia, the policy toward rising China, might be explained by several conceptual tools of the realist paradigm. However, as I discussed in previous sections, the realist theory has been contaminated so many biases. The biggest of them is the bias of great power politics. This seems understandable if we consider the Cold War history in the region. The emergence of China, as a potential challenger against the United States as an offshore hegemon in East Asia, has dramatically changed the picture of international politics not just between China and the United States but also among all countries in the region. What I would like to emphasize in this paper is that the conventional paradigm of realism seems not relevant in accounting recent changes due to the rise of China. I would like to check whether and how the traditional notions of the realist paradigm can be applied with limitations to East Asian international politics.

I suggested three myths to be investigated as a test of the realist approach to East Asia. Special focus was put on the nature of American strategy in the Obama Administration in the region and its foreign policy toward rising China. While American strategy can be explained in a certain way, such as the hegemonic competition, balance of power, and rational deterrence, I have mentioned that each has its own problems in pure forms. The first myth about hegemony was compensated by the idea of cooperative hegemony which is closer to the benevolent version of hegemony but with more focus on regional institutionalization. Also I tried to show another way to add more on the HST with the theory of k-group, the concept of swing state, and the pattern of buck-passing. The second myth was clarified by comparing its theoretical logic and empirical evidence. But more emphasis was put on the alternative paradigm of individual choice beyond the structural bias of the realist paradigm. Bandwagoning behaviors and horizontal functional differentiations may be better explained by this shift of focus. The introduction of the model of Concert may add more on existing models for future agenda. The third myth on the rational deterrence was also revealed by scrutinizing the simple assumptions of rationality. While acknowledging the theoretical merits of the rational choice approach, I asserted that we have to overcome its limitations. More stress on the role of emotional factors was suggested as an alternative framework for understanding not just the Sino-American relationship and but also the regional international politics in East Asia.

International politics in East Asia has been dominated by the realist thinking and practices due to its own path dependence for more than a century. While acknowledging the merits of the realist paradigm in explaining the power dynamics of East Asia, I intended to suggest more ways to supplement its limitations. As the second decade in the 21st century has witnessed the return of the United States to East Asia after a long excursion to the Middle East, we may need to reframe to understand the power politics in the region. The realist paradigm, with its main concepts such as hegemony, balance of power, and rational deterrence, has contributed to the development of explanatory frameworks for East Asia. On the other hand, deficiencies of the paradigm must be analyzed and complemented by new ideas and concepts that reflect new phenomena that are specific to this region. The variant of hegemonic system, the role of middle and weak powers as well as that of the k-group, the mixed strategy of balancing and bandwagoning, and the factor of emotion may increase the explanatory power of the existing framework, as discussed in this paper. More works on theoretical integration among these new tools and empirical tests on them should follow this introductory discussion.

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