IR Theory and Bilateral Relations among China, Japan, and South Korea in the 2000s - By CWP Alumni He Yinan

Wednesday, Oct 11, 2017
by dsuchens

East Asia is a promising setting for testing and refining IR theories, and the decade of the 2000s is an ideal time to do so. Although prior to developments in the 2010s interest in the significance of East Asia for IR theory was surprisingly limited, during the 2000s it was already leading a transition away from the order many had assumed was replacing the Cold War toward a new regional order. Within the region, bilateral relations are of particular interest for grasping the changes under way. Focusing on three of them, this chapter raises fundamental questions about the prevailing IR theory. According to a recent survey of IR scholars in the United States, East Asia is the area of “greatest strategic importance to the US” today (46%) as well as in twenty years (72%). Yet, only a small proportion (9%) mainly works on East Asia in their research.1 A review of major IR journals also shows that East Asian cases are systematically excluded from analysis in the United States and Europe.2 Many, at last, are calling for reexamining the challenges posed by East Asia to IR theorists, who remain steeped in arguments drawn from Western experiences, pointing out contributions that East Asian studies can make to the field.3 The 2000s is when East Asia surged into the forefront on many IR issues, even if the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq distracted analysts from recognizing the theoretical significance of the region, especially of bilateral relations involving China, Japan, and South Korea.

Attentive to the above bilateral relations, this chapter raises criticisms of dominant IR theories: realist theories of balance of power and power rivalry, the liberal theory of interdependence and peace, the democratic peace theory, and even certain constructivist theories concerned with regional integration and a security community. Each of these theories has explanatory power but also serious limitations. For East Asian states one has to pay special attention to important non-material factors insufficiently recognized in the existing literature. The nations of the region are indeed sensitive to material forces, but their perception of and response to them are often conditioned by cultural-ideational factors, including deep-rooted historically based animosities and frustrated nationalism. Distinct conceptions of national identity are at the root of much of the behavior in this region, and, after being left in the shadows at the end of the Cold War and in its early aftermath, these ways of thinking about identity became increasingly apparent during the decade of the 2000s. It is constructivist theories that are needed to make sense of them. Previous research on East Asian IR focused mostly on the role of the United States and its relationship with the Soviet Union (in the Cold War) or China (after the Cold War). But in the 2000s the US center of gravity remained outside Asia. Studies of superpower relations tend to emphasize systemic explanations such as polarity and power transition, as in the case of these two most attention-drawing US relationships. This chapter instead chooses to study bilateral relations because they can be used as a microcosm to reflect on a broader range of IR theory, particularly to weigh the relative importance of independent variables, such as external versus domestic factors, and structural versus non-structural forces. The three countries in question are weighty, diverse, and in flux in their bilateral ties. China and Japan are the second and third largest economies in the world, offering an ideal test for realist and liberal theories. Japan and South Korea are liberal democracies, while China remains an authoritarian country, which is suitable for judging democratic peace and other theories. The three have thick economic and cultural ties with each other, while treating each other as “significant others” in national identity terms, relevant for a variety of constructivist theories. Bilateral relations among them were volatile in the 2000s, providing a rich reservoir of empirical data to assess. Bilateral relations are most suitable for teasing out the impact of national identity on international politics. The Self is always defined in relation to the Other. If portraying a positive self-other relationship with a foreign country, national identity would support cooperation;


Misunderstanding Asia pp 163-187| Cite as

IR Theory and Bilateral Relations among China, Japan, and South Korea in the 2000s

Part of the International Relations and Comparisons in Northeast Asia book series (IRCNA)


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