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International Security 27.4 (2003) 57-85

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Getting Asia Wrong:
The Need for New Analytical Frameworks

David C. Kang


Most international relations theory is inductively derived from the European experience of the past four centuries, during which Europe was the locus and generator of war, innovation, and wealth. According to Kenneth Waltz, "The theory of international politics is written in terms of the great powers of an era. It would be...ridiculous to construct a theory of international politics based on Malaysia and Costa Rica....A general theory of international politics is necessarily based on the great powers." 1 If international relations theorists paid attention to other regions of the globe, it was to study subjects considered peripheral such as third world security or the behavior of small states. 2 Accordingly, international relations scholarship has focused on explaining the European experience, including, for example, the causes of World Wars I and II, as well as the Cold War andU.S.-Soviet relations. 3 Although this is still true, other parts of the world have become increasingly significant. Accordingly, knowledge of European [End Page 57] relations is no longer sufficient for a well-trained international relations generalist.

During this time Asia itself—sometimes defined as including China, India, Japan, and Russia and comprising perhaps half the world's population—had an occasional impact on the great powers, but it was never a primary focus. In the past two decades, however, Asia has emerged as a region whose economic, military, and diplomatic power has begun to rival and perhaps even exceed that of Europe. Its growing influence gives scholars a wonderful opportunity in the fields of international relations generally and Asian security specifically to produce increasingly rigorous and theoretically sophisticated work. Because Europe was so important for so long a period, in seeking to understand international relations, scholars have often simply deployed concepts, theories, and experiences derived from the European experience to project onto and explain Asia. This approach is problematic at best. Eurocentric ideas have yielded several mistaken conclusions and predictions about conflict and alignment behavior in Asia. For example, since the early 1990s many Western analysts have predicted dire scenarios for Asia, whereas many Asian experts have expressed growing optimism about the region's future. 4 It is an open question whether Asia, with its very different political economy, history, culture, and demographics, will ever function like the European state system. This is not to criticize European-derived theories purely because they are based on the Western experience: The origins of a theory are not necessarily relevant to its applicability. Rather these theories do a poor job as they are applied to Asia; what I seek to show in this article is that more careful attention to their application can strengthen the theories themselves.

In this article I make two claims about the levels of conflict and types of alignment behavior in Asia. First, I argue that the pessimistic predictions of Western scholars after the end of the Cold War that Asia would experience a period of increased arms racing and power politics has largely failed to materialize, a reality that scholars must confront if they are to develop a better understanding of Asian relations. Second, contrary to the expectations of standard formulations of realism, and although U.S. power confounds the issue, Asian states do not appear to be balancing against rising powers such as China. Rather they seem to be bandwagoning. [End Page 58]

I make these claims with great care. Asia is empirically rich and, in many ways, different from the West. Thus efforts to explain Asian issues using international relations theories largely derived inductively from the European experience can be problematic. Focusing exclusively on Asia's differences, however, runs the risk of essentializing the region, resulting in the sort of ori- entalist analysis that most scholars have correctly avoided. 5 I am not making a plea for research that includesa touch of realism, a dash of constructivism, and a pinch of liberalism. 6 The same social-scientific standards—falsifiability, generalizability, and...


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