- Introduction to the Special Issue
"Power" remains a central, if not indispensable, concept in the social sciences and humanities. In no discipline is this clearer than international relations (IR), where the distribution of power is believed to explain many outcomes in international politics, particularly the propensity for war and peace (Mearsheimer 2010; Friedberg 2011). The importance of the concept notwithstanding, academic and policy debates about international power have long occurred within overly restrictive conceptual boundaries, focusing on the distribution of power defined as tangible assets to explain international politics at the expense of other ways in which power is exercised. Even though this materialist theory of power has failed to help us understand some of the most conspicuous international developments of recent decades, it continues to permeate the literature about international politics.
There are few places in the world where power is as crucial to shaping international dynamics as in East Asia. The critical question of whether a power shift is ongoing in the region, from Japan and the United States to China, is a central preoccupation of contemporary IR. Given the actors that are involved, the region is arguably the epicenter of a possible global power shift from the West to the East, and from the North to the South. In the East Asian region, a power shift has been seen as impending for more than two decades (Betts 1993; Friedberg 1993; Roy 1994). Today, the concept of a regional power shift is widely accepted both among scholars and observers outside of academia (Shambaugh 2005; Mearsheimer 2010; Layne 2018). A consensus has emerged that there has been a redistribution of capabilities among the major players in the region, although there are different opinions about the extent and outcome of such power shift (Li and Kemburi 2014; see also the Asian Perspective special issue "The East Asia Power Shift: A Critical Appraisal," vol. 38, no. 3, 2014; of particular interest is the introduction by Linus Hagström and Bjorn Jerden).
This special issue goes beyond materialistic power theory to examine the role and impact of narratives themselves in the (apparent) power shift in East Asia. It investigates the extent to which the narratives produced and spread by key actors succeed in producing effects on third [End Page 215] parties, exploring if and how they succeed in shaping their preferences, interests, and identities regarding contested issues in East Asia. Its focus is on the narratives about China, Japan, and the United States. The underlying idea is that it is the narrative(s) that ultimately define(s) the dynamics of the East Asian security setting and IR more broadly, creating a framework for what actions are possible, when, and for whom. In short, it is ultimately the victorious/dominant narratives that themselves define what is seen as legitimate and illegitimate, what is normal and abnormal, and ultimately what is within the realm of possibility and what is not.
Special emphasis is put on third parties, as it is they who are the audiences and ultimately the judges of what narrative to accept or is most attractive. For example, the fact that narratives about a more "assertive" and "threatening" China have received increased attention and acceptance is limiting China while at the same time opening new space for Japan and US foreign policy, as they are perceived as important to manage China's purported rise.
This special issue starts with an article by Mikael Weissmann titled "Understanding Power (Shift) in East Asia: The Sino-US Narrative Battle about Leadership in the South China Sea." Weissmann analyzes competing US and Chinese narratives about the South China Sea. He argues that the practice of calculating power shifts in terms of changing distribution of material capabilities is inadequate. The article aims to complement existing literature by taking ideational and normative dimensions of power into account. The article asks what the Chinese narrative of power and leadership in the South China Sea looks like and how it is perceived by others in comparison with the dominant US narrative. Weissmann concludes that while a "hard" power transition is ongoing, China's preferred narrative has yet to become widely accepted and...