East asia international relations essay topics

International Relations Concepts

Not only does Wang conduct his own original research, utilizing massive primary sources, his research design is also methodologically sophisticated, particularly with regard to the criteria of case selection and the manner of testing hypotheses competitively against evidence. No such sophistication exists in the work of Kang, who uses far too many quotes out of context from other authors and makes far too many judgmental statements without substantiation.

As far as Japan is concerned, which case I know the best, this characterization is totally inaccurate. I am surprised, even shocked, to find that such basic mischaracterizations of history so many of them indeed can be found in the work of this established scholar. Third, there is some irony in that, if my reading of the debate is correct that structural realism, not constructivism, is more convincing, one would have to conclude that IR scholarship does not gain much by focusing on East Asia per se.

As forcefully argued by its founder Waltz, , the beauty of structural realism lies in its parsimony and generalizability, and the reasoning based on this theory will not be influenced by any region- or country-specific attributes. Does this mean, then, that we do not have to pay special attention to East Asia after all? My answer to this question is a tentative no, because it is possible that we may be missing out some points of importance because of the way the current debate itself has been framed so far.

In the following section, I explore this possibility further. As surveyed in the previous section, the most significant cleavage in the current debate on East Asia appears to lie between the constructivist and structural-realist positions. It must be noted, however, that despite the contrast, these two theories share a common ontological premise. Structural realism describes the international system as anarchy, and Wang is convinced that such characterization applies to East Asia as well.

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Kang's constructivist account, on the other hand, perceives the East Asian international system as hierarchy. Does this ontological separation of system and units really hold? In my view, this is the key question that the analysis of East Asian international relations must address, and which the current debate has not yet raised properly. The long history of East Asia is full of events and phenomena, which cast doubt on this premise.

Let me offer just two cases for illustration. In the late 13th century, the Mongolian empire led by Kublai Khan carried out a series of military campaigns against Japan. Japan managed to fend off the attacks, and the Mongolians were forced to retreat to China. Prior to this incident, Japan was hardly a unified state.

Soon after the incident, the regional fragmentation progressed even further and internal wars ensued all over Japan. The frustrated government Bakufu of Ashikaga based in Kyoto sent troops repeatedly, but could not conquer the region for some time. In the midst of the stalemate, Yoshikane decided to form tribute arrangement for trade with the Ming dynasty. This incident prompted Ashikaga leaders themselves to apply for a tribute relation with the Ming dynasty as well as to step up their military and political pressure against the independent Kyushu. What do these two cases illustrate? At a glance, one might not notice anything particularly unusual or significant about them.


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Both the Mongolian invasion and the conclusion of a tribute agreement could be counted as ordinary incidents of state-to-state interactions. After all, states do invade other states, and they do establish trading relations with each other all the time. Note these two cases show that the state of Japan, at least during these years, existed both as a unit and as a system.

On the one hand, Japan was certainly a unit that interacted with other units the Mongolian empire and the Ming dynasty in China in engaging in military conflicts and concluding trade agreements. On the other hand, Japan then also existed as a system where various autonomous entities, themselves being individual units, competed for territorial control and hegemony.

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The most interesting and significant point revealed in these two cases was that Japan became less more of a system itself when the pressure for unification imposed upon its units heightened faded. I am not making the point, to be sure, that Japan in those eras, or states more generally, should not be assumed to be unitary actors.

That would be an empirical criticism. And, that kind of criticisms, hardly original, have been raised many times against theories like structural realism.

Executive Summary

It is precisely such inseparability that the above-mentioned two cases pointed to, illustrating that the degree to which Japan could be treated as a system and that to which Japan could be treated as a unit were interdependent. As indicated earlier, none of the perspectives available in the emerging debate on East Asia has raised this issue as a central agenda for research.

In my view, the failure to be sensitive to the ontological dimension of international relations leads to wrong inferences and conclusions. Take a look, for example, at one of the tables presented in Kang's second book reproduced partly as Table 2 , which counts the number of conflicts that China engaged in under the Ming and Qing dynasties. A more candid and fair reading of the data would lead anyone to an entirely different inference, perhaps not about peace and stability, but rather about conflict and disorder inherent in this region.

Kang's problem is his ontological prejudice with which he regards China only as a unit, but not as a system. Throughout its history, the continent of China presented itself as a vast theater, in which various autonomous forces competed for territory, resources, authority, and legitimacy. Viewed from the nexus of unit and system, it is entirely possible that the infrequency of interstate wars was directly related to the frequency of internal wars.

Theses & Dissertations

And, if that were the case, to characterize such an ambivalent situation as being peaceful would be a judgmental call, to say the least. Waltz had simply equated these two concepts and was convinced that the latter's relevance for international politics would disappear because of the inevitable process of selection and imitation. The history of East Asia provides an extremely fertile ground for investigating the analytical relevance of unit differentiation. The brief argument and examples, which I have presented in the latter part of this article, suggests that in East Asia, the principles for differentiating units were in constant flux.

Japan, China, and possible other states in this region were interacting with each other, not only as units belonging to a common international system, but each as a system in which autonomous units existed and competed with varying analytical relevance.

Such a complex and dynamic pattern is the definitive characteristic of international relations in East Asia, clearly distinct from the one that originated from Europe. Unfortunately, as reviewed in this article, the emerging debate on East Asia, as it currently stands, is yet to capture its significance. I am grateful to the Suntory Foundation for financially aiding my research, which led to the critique presented in this article. I also thank participants of the workshop held at the Munk School of Global Affairs, University of Toronto, March , where an earlier version of this article was presented.

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