Which International Relations theory best explains East Asian international relations today?
In analyzing contemporary international relations of North East Asia, neo-realism, neo-liberalism, and constructivism all provide respectively important insights; but in ‘explaining’ the situation, neo-realism is relatively the most appropriate one.
In the view of neo-realism or structural realism, the international relations are conformed to the “anarchic structure” where each state behaves rationally in seeking relative gains and security maximization. According to the security dilemma assumption that derives from the basic “three Ss” of realism—Statism, Survival, Self-help—the utmost importance lies in the “Rise of China”. Offensive Realists including John Mearsheimer do not believe that China can rise peacefully and in the course of it, China will impose the biggest threat in the East Asian security and by extension, to US security and hegemony. (Even Japan is taking a part in military intervention alongside with US in the Middle East, slowly regaining its position regarding hard power.) In this point of view, there is very little room for security governance or multilateral regionalization in North East Asia. The Realist assessment of the situation would include strengthening alliance with the US and Taiwan, establishment of Missile Defense, and the balance of power, etc.
On the other hand, neo-liberal view can perceive things quite differently. Neoliberal ideas are often referring to a combination of three major branches—democratic peace, economic liberalism, and neo-liberal institutionalism. In terms of political economy, the ever-growing economic interdependence inspired by the virtue of free trade and economic collaboration creates what neo-liberals refer to as the “complex interdependence”—the sensitivity interdependence among states, TNCs, NGOs, individuals, etc.—making it almost impossible to discard the merits of cooperation for the sake of high politics. This is why neo-liberals do not assess the “Rise of China” or the rearmament of Japan as a critical security threat in the North East Asia. However, there are other problems that concern the neo-liberals. In democratic peace assumption, People’s Republic of China does not fall under the category of “liberal democracy”, even though it pursues capitalism and open markets. And in neo-liberal Institutionalist point of view, there are no regime supported by viable international organizations in North East Asia. So, the neo-liberal assessment of the situation would be the lack of multilateral cooperation except perhaps in the area of economy, and the absence of security governance or regime itself.
That brings us to the Constructivist idea. Alexander Wendt and his Constructivism states that the structure of international relations are not “given” as an anarchy, but socially constructed by the globalized norms, ideas, and interactions among states and other actors. That interaction is a matter of inter-subjectivity, thus each actor’s respective identity creates a new common identity which in return shapes individual ones. In this cycle of interaction, shared ideas lead to shared interests that can replace the realist concept of “national interest” of individual states. In assessing the situation of North East Asia through this point of view, one might say it is somewhat mixed. In historical perspective, even though Western world mistakenly perceives the East Asian value as conglomerate “Confucian”, China, Korea, and Japan have had quite hostile disputes with one another. And these disputes—at least that of 20th century, including Japan’s imperialistic expansion and the Korean War—did not help shape the constructivist concept of “shared identity” among them. The three nations differ quite significantly in terms of cultural aspects too. On the other hand, in accordance with BeSeTo Belt, Han-lyu, or other forms of increase in socio-cultural interaction, the chances of forming common identity are indeed rising. But the rate is painfully slow or superficial at best, leaving us questioning the emergence of normative structure.
Each theory has its viable insights, but obviously neo-realist views bound to have certain advantages in “explaining” the situation. Since North East Asian relations are definitely not Kantian anarchy to which Alexander Wendt referred, they are either Hobbesian or Lockean—in other words, self-help or rivalry. Even though neo-liberal economic interdependence is somewhat on the way, it does not cancel out the fact that China is still politically based on oppressive totalitarian socialism, and the fact that DPRK is a predatory state that sets its top priority in “survival”. And the more important question is not that China can rise peacefully, but that the US can ‘fall’ peacefully. I don’t think that US could voluntarily transfer its hegemony to China. No single global hegemony yielded its power uneventfully or spontaneously. About time when the economic hegemony of China surpasses that of US, some kind of clash between them will definitely occur—whether in a direct military confrontation or in other forms of conflict.