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International Security 28.3 (2003/04) 165-180

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Hierarchy, Balancing, and Empirical Puzzles in Asian International Relations

David C. Kang

In my article entitled "Getting Asia Wrong," I make two major arguments. 1 First, European-derived theories in general and realist theories in particular frequently have difficulty explaining Asian international relations. Second, international relations scholars need to be as careful about issues of empirical testing and theoretical rigor when studying Asia as they are when studying Europe. In a reply to my article, Amitav Acharya agrees with both of these claims while also critiquing my essay in arguing that shared norms and institutional linkages mitigate rivalry in Asia and that I am a historical determinist. Acharya, however, has misunderstood both international relations theory and the role of history. His response to my article provides me with an opportunity to clarify and briefly expand on the major themes in "Getting Asia Wrong."

As Acharya's reply exemplifies, most scholars not only dismiss the notion that the Asian experience might force a rethinking or modification of European-derived theories, but they also pay little attention to the historical Asian international system. Acharya writes, "Contrary to Kang's argument, Asia's future will not resemble its past" (p. 150). Acharya, however, has misunderstood my argument: To study the role of history is hardly to predict that it will replicate itself in the future. My main point is that there are good reasons to think that Asian states may not function like European states and that the study of Asia must begin with a discussion of some of Asia's empirical anomalies and what might explain them. Acharya seems to argue that the only goal to which scholars who study Asia can aspire is to unquestioningly apply existing theory. In contrast, my goal is to expand international relations theory so that scholars can better identify factors that help to explain regional and temporal differences in how states think about and achieve security and how they conduct their international relations. [End Page 165]

In this reply I make three points. First, I show that Acharya's assertion that I am claiming an exceptional role for Asia is unfounded; I also show that rigorous social science demands that scholars be open to the possibility that evidence may force theoretical modifications. Second, I demonstrate that the study of hierarchy is a well-developed branch of international relations theory, and I explain why balancing should not be the default hypothesis in international relations. Third, I examine Asia's empirical record to illustrate the importance of an increased focus on Asian history for the field of international relations; in addition, I enumerate several current empirical anomalies that scholars need to address given the challenge that these pose to conventional theoretical explanations of Asian international relations.

Theory Building and Theory Testing across Regions

International relations scholars must take seriously the possibility that different regions of the world might indeed be different. Relatedly, critiques of this claim as somehow fundamentally exceptionalist misunderstand the nature of scholarly inquiry. It is good social science to be open to the possibility that evidence may not fit a theory, just as it is possible to note difference without resorting to caricature—a trap into which Acharya falls when criticizing some of my assertions as having an "exceptionalist ring" (p. 162). An example of how progressive research might occur is perhaps best demonstrated through a comparison of scholarship on Asian development with scholarship on Asian international relations. According to a number of criteria—theoretical sophistication, attention to the empirical record, and impact on the wider field of social science—the study of Asian international relations lags far behind. A brief review of the intellectual history of Asia confirms this observation.

Beginning in the late 1970s, scholars of Asian development challenged their colleagues in the fields of economics, political science, and sociology to move beyond the long-standing dichotomy between a neoclassical free market and a centrally planned economy in their study of economic development. Chalmers Johnson, for example, was particularly forceful when arguing...


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