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date: 16 January 2018

East Asia and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

The study of East Asian foreign policies has progressed in sync with mainstream international relations (IR) theories: (1) from perhaps an inadvertent or unconscious coincidence with realism during the Cold War to consciously using different theoretical tools to study the various aspects of East Asian foreign policies; and (2) from the dominance of realism to a diversity of theories in studying East Asian foreign policies. Nonetheless, the old issues from the Cold War have not been resolved; the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait remain two flashpoints in the region, with new twists that can derail regional stability and prosperity. New issues also have emerged and made East Asia most volatile. One issue is concerned with restructuring the balance of power in East Asia, particularly the dynamics among the major players, i.e. Japan, China, and the United States. Regionalism is another new topic in the study of East Asian foreign policies. A review of the current state of the field suggests that two complementary issues be given priority in the future. First, the foreign policy interests and strategies of individual small states vis-à-vis great powers in the region, particularly those in Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula. Second, what could really elevate the study of East Asian foreign policies in the general field of IR and foreign policy analysis is to continue exploring innovative analytical frameworks that can expand the boundaries of existing metatheories and paradigms.

Keywords: foreign policy, East Asia, realism, Cold War, regionalism


The vast region of East Asia is composed of Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia (the geographical area south of China, east of India, and north of Australia that constitutes the subregions of continental and maritime Asia). In this essay, the autonomous actors of Northeast Asia include China, Japan, the two Koreas, and Taiwan, and those of Southeast Asia include the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Since the end of World War II, the study of East Asian foreign policies has evolved in significant ways. Similar to the domain of foreign policy analysis (FPA) itself, the boundaries of East Asian foreign policies are porous and cannot be clearly drawn. In fact, some of the literature discussed below may appear in other subfields (e.g., security policy or economic integration). The vast literature from scholars within and outside East Asia shares commonalities but differs in scope and methods.

This essay reviews the study of East Asian foreign policies. It does not intend to survey comprehensively all aspects of the fast growing literature of East Asian foreign policies. Rather, it aims to: (1) highlight the major themes, debates, and advances in the FPA literature; (2) address critically the major weaknesses in the state of the field and their implications; and (3) identify the main trends and priorities of future directions in the FPA of East Asia. The essay unfolds in the following sections: section two reviews East Asian foreign policies during the Cold War, with a focus on the literature produced in the 1970s and 1980s. Sections three and four highlight the expansion and progress of the study of East Asian foreign policies in the post–Cold War era, including the growing scope and methodological sophistication. Section five examines the major theoretical advances in the current state of the field, which will be exemplified in section six in a discussion of the critical issues facing the region. The paper concludes with a review of the main accomplishments and weaknesses in the field, along with the priorities for future research.

A survey of the literature on East Asian foreign policies leads to a mixed review. Steady progress has been made in conceptual and theoretical development, in empirical richness, and in methodological rigor and sophistication. Most notably, since the 1970s, the field has evolved from an idiographic enterprise to a theoretically driven one. One particularly noteworthy development in the thriving literature has focused on the dynamics between foreign policy interests, institutions, and identities in East Asia. Meanwhile, three important general aspects of the literature demand greater attention. It is important to note that some of the criticisms addressed here are not unique to East Asia; they may apply to other regions or fields as well. First, with some exceptions (e.g., regionalism and regional order), studies on Northeast Asian foreign policies, in relative terms, are more theoretically driven and methodologically diverse than those on Southeast Asian foreign policies (such a limitation may be attributed to a general lack of interest in the foreign policies of smaller states in Southeast Asia, among other factors). Second, East Asia largely remains a testing ground for extant theoretical and methodological approaches, rather than a nurturing field for new breakthroughs in general IR/FPA theories and approaches. This is an important future agenda for all FPA scholars of East Asia to explore. Third, regionalism and regional institutions have emerged as a new and increasingly strong force to bring together East Asian states. As suggested in some of the recent studies, another challenge in this area is to explore how states in East Asia have continued to wrestle with the contrast between their traditional bilateral interests and the increasingly interwoven multilateral regional institutions and identities.

East Asian Foreign Policies during the Cold War

The bipolar structure in East Asia, one of the important theaters of the Cold War, greatly conditioned the foreign policies in the region. The confrontation was intensified with the outbreak of the Korean War when the US-led UN forces intervened and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) sent “volunteers” to “resist the Americans and assist the Koreans.” The foreign policy of the PRC during the Korean War, in particular, is a focus in the study of East Asian foreign policies both during and after the Cold War (Whiting 1960; Welfield 1988; Goncharove et al. 1993; Chen 1994; Zhang 1995). The PRC and the Soviet Union, as a security alliance, stood behind the Democratic Republic of Korea (DPRK), while the US formed an alliance with Japan, the ROK, and Taiwan to contain the spread of communism. The rivalry between the Sino-Soviet alliance on the one side and the alliances between the US–Japan and the US–ROK on the other side set the general parameters for East Asian foreign policies.

However, these countries had different emphases and characteristics in their foreign policies in the early days of the Cold War. The PRC, on its founding, pursued a policy of “leaning to one (the Soviet) side” and thus developed close relations with the socialist camp headed by the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, China opposed the US and, more directly, Japan. The study of foreign policy within China only began after the reform and opening up in the late 1970s. In the mainstream, diplomatic historians describe China’s foreign policy chronologically, often with analysis of continuities and changes as a result of the (shifting) balance of power (Han 1987; Xie 1988, 2002; Tian 1993; Pei 1994; Wang 1998, 1999). Such a trend remained within China after the end of the Cold War, which coincided with the three distinct schools developed outside of China: the traditional/historical school, the Maoist/communist ideology school, and the realist school (Yu 1994). The traditional/historical school tried to understand Chinese foreign policy behavior based on the legacy of the past (Fitzgerald 1964; Fairbank 1968), while the ideology school saw the operating principles of China’s foreign policy as originating from Sinified Marxism-Leninism and Maoism (Van Ness 1970; Armstrong 1977; Hunt 1996). The realist school applies the prevailing realist notion of power, national interests, and international constraints to the study of China’s foreign policy (Whiting 1960; 1975).

Japan’s foreign policy after World War II followed the Yoshida Doctrine, which supported economic rebuilding by permitting Japan to de-emphasize military defense by relying on the US–Japan security alliance (Chai 1997). In this respect, Japan took bearings from the US in the confrontation with the Sino-Soviet alliance (Ward and Sakamoto 1988; Green and Cronin 1999). Yet the impact of the Sino-Soviet alliance on Japan was so divisive during the early period of the Cold War that it led to diverse Japanese-Chinese and Japanese-Soviet relations (Johnson 1986; Whiting 1989; Braddick 2004). As such, Japan’s foreign policy was characterized as a risk-free, low-cost, and benefit-maximizing strategy that served its national interest well.

The high tide of the Cold War gave way to two “hot wars” in East Asia, in which the US directly intervened in Korea and Indochina to deter the “domino effect” of communism (Zagoria 1975; Zhai 2000). The first hot war between the East and the West perpetuated the separation of Korea under two governments by centering on rivalry in their foreign policies during and after the Cold War. This has wider implications for regional security. While South Korean foreign policy generally followed the ideology of buguk gangbyong (rich nation, strong army) (Min 1973), North Korean foreign policy relied on the juche (self-reliance) ideology and the principle of songun (military first) (Jun 2004; Kang 2004; Um and Yoon 2006). At the same time, the two Koreas often had to juggle politics in the complex alliance and thus lost a significant degree of autonomy in their foreign policies. North Korea struggled in the balancing act after the Sino-Soviet split (Park 1987). Similarly, South Korea had to depend on the US for its security (Lee 1992). The second hot war in Indochina not only had fundamental ramifications for US foreign policy, it also deeply influenced the foreign policies of the countries in the region. The US’s Indochina policy prompted Thailand’s switch from a close ally to a neutral state adopting “equal distance diplomacy” in the 1970s (Buszynski 1982; Porter 2005; Yu 2008). After the US withdrew from Vietnam, Indochina continued to be a strategic region for the balance of power among the US, the Soviet Union, and China (Chanda 1984; Chen 1987; Ross 1988).

The Taiwan Strait was a relatively calmer battlefield. Taiwan, which became a Japanese colony after Japan defeated the Qing Empire in the Sino-Japanese War (1894–1895), was returned to China at the end of World War II. The government of the Republic of China (ROC) retreated to Taiwan after its defeat in the Chinese Civil War in 1949, and the Chinese Communist Party established the PRC on the mainland. When the PRC entered an alliance with the Soviet Union, the ROC on Taiwan formed an alliance with the US. The Taiwan Strait crises in the 1950s brought the US and the PRC to the brink of war, and also became one of the roots of the Sino-Soviet split (Christensen 1996; Xie 2002). During the Cold War, both the PRC and the ROC on Taiwan claimed to be the sole legitimate representative of the whole of China – i.e., the mainland and Taiwan – in the international community. The ROC on Taiwan later “unilaterally renounced the use of force to unify China, no longer competes with Beijing to represent China in the international community, and now acknowledges that the PRC exercises ‘de facto authority’ over mainland China” (Hickey 2001:18; Hickey and Li 2002). After peacefully taking over power from the long-time ruling KMT in 2000, the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) pursued a policy of de-Sinification in Taiwan and a bid for a larger diplomatic space in the international community.

The PRC regards Taiwan as an internal affair that remains unresolved from the Chinese Civil War. Therefore, Beijing insists that the final settlement of the Taiwan issue be free from interference by any other state or international organization (Han 1987; Yang 2003:321–2). While having maintained a policy of peacefully resolving the Taiwan issue, Beijing has never renounced the use of force if necessary, especially in case of Taiwan’s unilateral declaration of independence. Interference from the US since the Chinese Civil War, however, has perpetuated the status quo across the Taiwan Strait. As such, the Taiwan issue is the most critical in Sino-US relations (Hughes 1997; Romberg 2003; Tucker 2005).

After switching its diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, the US has acknowledged the PRC’s “one China” position while maintaining de facto diplomatic ties with Taiwan – in all but name. Most countries have followed this formula in their relations with the ROC on Taiwan, making it a de facto autonomous actor, or in Hill’s (2003) words, a “partial foreign policy actor.” Important studies of the foreign policy of the ROC on Taiwan include Hsieh (1985), Wang (1990), Sutter and Johnson (1994), Chen (2002), and Hickey (2007).

Much of the earlier literature often portrays the foreign policies of Southeast Asian countries as reactive to the games among great powers, rather than initiatives of their own (Gurtov 1971; Taylor 1976). As Gurtov (1971:3) argues,

The fixation in much of the literature on Southeast Asia on the behavior of the “dominant system” members has obscured the maneuverability, changeability, and manipulative power of the region’s governments, perhaps because power has been equated too much with military punch and has not taken sufficient account of diplomatic cleverness and ideological pliancy.

With the strategic confrontation during the Cold War, foreign relations in Southeast Asia revolved around indigenous and international communist movements, nationalist movements, and covert interventions from the US, the Soviet Union, and China (Taylor 1976). Among the classic works, Gurtov (1971) conducted a comparative case study of relations between China and Southeast Asian countries, including Thailand, Cambodia, and Burma. Gurtov focuses on the role of the Maoist worldview by setting the conditions under which foreign policy objectives were shaped and orientations changed in the 1950s and 1960s. The various degrees of suspicion in the Thai, Cambodian, and Burmese governments of Beijing’s support for indigenous communist movements largely dictated their carefully calculated strategies, which were neither to provoke China nor to be dominated by China. Similarly, the fear of communist-oriented internal insurgencies and communal strife, in conjunction with the external communist powers, defined Malaysia’s national security and its alliance strategy during the Cold War (Singh 2004). Indonesia’s hostility toward China during the Soeharto era also came from its allegation that Beijing had conspired and supported the 1965 Gestapu coup and other communist-related activities that aimed to topple the Indonesian government. This turned out to be the very foundation of legitimacy for the Indonesian Armed Forces (ABRI).

These studies of foreign policies during the Cold War share a common emphasis on realism: 1) all treat countries as unitary actors consciously or inadvertently, and as heavily influenced by the bipolar structure in the region, along with their own ideologies; 2) all tend to consider national security as the top foreign policy priority; and 3) all treat foreign policy as a rational choice by the unitary governments to maximize their national interests through the balance of power and alliance building.

From Bilateral Centered to Multilateral, Omnidirectional Foreign Policy Studies

The foreign policy literature on East Asia during the Cold War emphasizes bilateral relations between an East Asian state and either of the superpowers. Studies of Soviet-China relations, from the initial alliance to the split, benefited greatly from the declassification of archives following the collapse of the Soviet Union (Lieberthal 1978; Kim 1987; Goncharove et al. 1993; Yang 1999; Li 2002; Sheng and Li 2006). Studies of US–China relations are punctuated by several significant periods: the pre–Cold War era (Cohen 2000), the confrontation up to the early 1970s (Christensen 1996; Xia 2006; Qing 2007), the rapprochement and tacit alliance against the Soviet Union in the 1970s (Harding 1992; Ross 1995), and the post–Cold War interactions (Lampton 2001b; Suettinger 2003; Yuan 2007; Zhao, 2008). Mirroring its outright confrontation with the Soviet Union, Japan has generally enjoyed stable political and security relations with the US, with the guarantee of a US–Japan alliance since 1954 (Kim 1997; Green 1998). Some studies note potential challenges confronting the bilateral alliance in the post–Cold War era, particularly under growing domestic pressure in Japan to revise its “Peace Constitution,” which in effect would allow it to become more independent from the US (Calder 1997a; DiFilippo 2002; Green 2003). Moreover, economic frictions and trade disputes have been a major source of tension between the two governments since the later 1960s (Destler and Sato 1982; Kraus 1993; Armacost 1996; Green and Cronin 1999; Lincoln 1999).

In addition, a triangular analytical framework is frequently used in conceptualizing the relations of great powers in East Asia. Developed earlier from the realist school, this approach focuses on various aspects of a state’s behavior in relation to the other states in the triangle, such as the US–China–Japan (Liu 2000; Wang 2000; Ito 2003) and US–Japan–Korea triangles (Cha 1999). With the Sino-Soviet rift in the late 1960s and its impact on the balance of power in East Asia, studies of the US–Soviet–China triangle have produced the most qualitative and quantitative works (Lieberthal 1978; Segal 1982; Kim 1987; Nelson 1989; Chang 1990; Goldstein and Freeman 1991; Zhang 2001).

As the bipolar structure in East Asia relaxed to détente and finally gave way to the end of the Cold War, the study of East Asian foreign policies has evolved from a historical based, bilateral centered enterprise to a multifaceted, omnidirectional one with a focus on new directions and a variety of methods. Many studies provide broader analytical perspectives on the effect of historical legacy, ideology, domestic politics, and decision-making structures and processes (Kim 1994; 1998a; Park 1987; Inoguchi 1993; Robinson and Shambaugh 1994; Lu 1997; Nathan and Ross 1997; Inoguchi and Jain 2000; Liu 2000; Green 2003; Kawashima 2003; Garrison 2005; Togo 2005).

Moreover, the scope of East Asian foreign policy studies has expanded to various functional and issue areas, including economic and trade policy (Johnson 1995; Schoppa 1997; Zhang 2001), territorial disputes (Lo 1989; Fravel 2008), strategic culture and the use of force (Scobell 2003), arms control (Medeiros 2007), democratic development (Goldman 1994; Pei 1995; 1998; 2007; Perry and Goldman 2007), public opinion (Jhee 2009), human rights (Tang 1995; Kent 1999; Li and Drury 2004; Drury and Li 2006), energy (Manning 2000; Ziegler 2006), environment (Hyon and Schreurs 2007), multilateral organizations (Kim 1979; Kent 1999), multilateralism and regional integration (Jacobson and Oksenberg 1990; Economy and Oksenberg 1999; Calder and Fukuyama 2008), and so forth. Books and edited volumes mushroomed to offer a comprehensive examination of the impact of social and economic changes in China and that of globalization on Chinese foreign and security policy making (Robinson and Shambough 1994; Swaine 1995; Kim 1998a; Lampton 2001a; Deng and Wang 2005; Johnston and Ross 2006). A significant number of the omnidirectional, functional foreign policies examine the multilateral diplomacy of East Asian countries at the UN and other international organizations. China’s policy toward the UN and other multilateral organizations has undergone transformations from being an outsider before the 1970s to a reformer in the 1980s, a maintainer in the 1990s, and an advocator for multilateralism in the twenty-first century (Kim 1997). Integration into the global community forms the focus of recent studies of Chinese multilateral diplomacy (Jacobson and Oksenberg 1990; Economy and Oksenberg 1999; Johnston 2006).

Having been integrated into the international system during the Cold War, Japan faces a series of different challenges. As Japan’s relative passivity evolves into a proactive role in international organizations, how can and should Japan share more international responsibilities, especially within the UN peacekeeping framework and in joint military operations with the US? The barriers for Japan are twofold: one is the constitutional constraint set in Article Nine on Japan’s security independence (Green 1998), and the other is the concerns of China, the two Koreas, and other Asian neighbors about Japan’s aggressive past and its potential to remilitarize (Breen 2008). Theoretical advances regarding both of these issues will be elaborated later in this essay.

Foreign Policy Decision Making in East Asia

Studies of foreign policy decision making aim to identify the decision-making agents, define foreign policy interests, unveil the decision-making structure, trace the decision-making process, and examine their influences on foreign policy behavior and outcomes. Differences in these dimensions mean that the study of foreign policy decision making varies greatly among East Asian countries.

The study of foreign policy-making structure and process in Japan has a longer and more accomplished track record than those in its East Asian neighbors. Early studies analyzed the roles of various actors in the decision-making process, including the role of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Diet, diverse interests of public and private sectors, and public opinion. The hallmark formation of zoku (policy tribes) exerted extraordinary influence on foreign policy making during the Liberal Democratic Party’s rule, particularly on the economic and security dimensions (Vogel 1975; Scalapino 1977; Togo 2005).

The end of the Cold War not only changed the external environment but also further complicated Japan’s foreign policy decision making. Domestic changes, such as political realignment, economic transformation, and attitudinal changes, have affected Japanese foreign policy in different ways (Mochizuki 1995). Studies reveal that the dominant institutions of the government in Japan are still in charge, but they have become “more brittle, less cohesive, and less hierarchical” (Green 2003:8). Foreign policy making is becoming more pluralistic and less predictable, with contentious policies more difficult to sustain and reactions to external shocks more assertive and sometimes even nationalistic (Cowhey and McCubbins 1995; Grant 1997; Green 1998; Breen 2008).

By contrast, studies on Chinese foreign policy decision making are scarce. Early efforts on this topic emerged outside of China in the 1970s, when scholars used materials leaked by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution to identify factions among the elite. Factional struggle was the main explanatory variable in explaining Chinese foreign policy decision making (Nathan 1973). But it did not bear enough fruit until a breakthrough was made when Barnett (1985) unveiled an institutional picture of Chinese foreign policy decision making based on his interview with senior Chinese leaders. Not only did Barnett find a major shift of decision-making powers from the Politburo to the Secretariat of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee and the State Council, his study also was the first to try to untangle the web of secondary-level institutions involved in Chinese foreign policy making.

China’s reform and opening up unveiled a vast array of information and the opportunity to revitalize the second generation of FPA scholarship (Neack et al. 1995). With China increasingly integrated into the international community, research on Chinese foreign policy has improved, benefiting from more diverse perspectives and more sophisticated theoretical lenses and analytical approaches (e.g., Zhao’s (1996) micro–macro linkage). This has contributed to a “great leap forward” in integrating general foreign decision-making theories and idiographic examination of Chinese foreign policy. Progress also has been made in empirically oriented approaches. In a number of case studies, Lu Ning, a former Chinese diplomat, provided unique insights into the key players and the formal as well as informal structures, processes, and dynamics of Chinese foreign policy making (Lu 1997; 2000). Lu’s work also makes a notable effort to test the validity of Allison’s three models of decision making in the Chinese context. Other recent studies try to apply general theories or empirical models of foreign policy decision making to the Chinese context and test their validity (James and Zhang 2005; Ye 2007).

In a similar fashion, the realist paradigm remained dominant in studying the two Koreas’ foreign policies, while few studies examined decision making during the Cold War (Choi 1998; D. Kim 1998; Koo 1999). In the post–Cold War era, some scholars adopt the power transition theory to capture South Korea’s changing international status as a middle power and explain its foreign policy behavior in the light of such changes (W. Kim 2008). Other case studies find that ROK foreign policy has become strongly affected by bureaucratic politics since the ROK democratized in the later 1980s (Mansourov 1994; Yim and Kim 1997; K.-J. Kim 1998; Bae 2002).

North Korea remains one of the most mysterious countries. Limited studies reveal two outstanding features in North Korean foreign policy making: the supreme status of the ruling Workers Party in the decision-making hierarchy and the dominance of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. Compared with his father, Kim Jong-il’s exclusive influence on foreign policy is relatively weak due to the increasing importance and complexity of North Korean foreign policy to deal with, which requires expertise. This indicates that other political elites may gain more opportunities to shape Pyongyang’s foreign policy (Lim 2002).

Unfortunately, only a few studies in English focus on the foreign policy decision making of Southeast Asian states (Weil 1975; Amer 1999). The importance of decision making in these countries often seems eclipsed by the power structure of the region and the external influence of great powers. In the study of East Asian foreign policies, this gap needs to be filled in future research.

Theories of International Relations and East Asian Foreign Policies

East Asia remains one of the contested regions in the extant epistemological and ontological debates on IR theories in general and FPA specifically. In broad terms, one of the debates is about the relative utilities and merits of general IR theories and area expertise (“old area hands”) (Rosenau 1994; Whiting 1994). While some consider it to be “time-wasting, irrelevant” and virtually moot (Rosenau 1994:525), the debate itself seems to have been intensified between area experts on East Asia and generalists in foreign policy analysis. In part, such divisiveness is derived from a lack of consensus on what would constitute a “theory” (the debate itself goes beyond the scope of this paper). Rosenau, one of pioneers in FPA, writes: “Only through a resort to theorizing can we begin to sort out the competing dynamics that differentiate the important from the trivial dimensions of China’s role and thereby clarify the interplay of the sources which underlie its conduct” (Rosenau 1994:528). What he refers to as a “theory,” for instance, is clearly different from what a “theory” means to Ikenberry and Mastanduno (2003) and Alagappa (2003).

Some scholars are particularly critical of the insufficient attention to area studies in US academia. Fukuyama (2004) criticizes the overemphasis of the rational choice approach in political science in the US at the expense of declining academic focus on and support for area studies. Indeed, among the studies published in the five journals of the International Studies Association (ISA), there appears to be a deficiency in bridging between area studies of East Asia and theoretically driven foreign policy analysis. The downside of such an imbalance, according to Fukuyama (2004), directly led to the lack of foreign policy experts and personnel during the war on terror who could master the languages and deep knowledge of foreign societies. It may help to explain why the US seems to be ambivalent about its interests and commitment in Southeast Asia. For some, Southeast Asia appears to be the periphery of US strategic interests worldwide, particularly given its preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. The US seemingly has few economic and strategic stakes there, and therefore only discusses human rights issues on an ad hoc basis. For decades, the US has only given sporadic attention to Southeast Asia in relation to democracy and human rights issues (Economy 2005; Grinter 2006; Mauzy and Job 2007). A case in point is US policies (or the lack thereof) toward Laos and Cambodia. Furthermore, many scholars and policy makers in the region consider the US’s failure to provide bilateral economic aid to Southeast Asian countries as a major policy blunder during the East Asian financial crisis. It deepened distrust and resentment in the region, with some lingering effects against the US to this day (Beeson 2003; Mauzy and Job 2007). The multilateral aid and loans from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) did not help much either; in some cases, the stringent conditions requiring the recipient countries to restructure their financial institutions and economies made matters worse (Beeson 2003).

A significant aspect derived from this debate concerns the methods of and approaches to the study of the foreign policies of the region. Traditional area experts, especially in the 1950s to 1970s, relied heavily on thick description and contextual analysis of government statements and documents (Gurtov 1971). Few studies employ quantitative approaches to foreign policy analysis of Southeast Asia. Although the intensity of the debate appears divisive, it drives scholars to think about the possibility and utility of integrating and synthesizing the two approaches. “[T]o undertake the intellectual operations required to probe deeply into the dynamics of a country’s foreign policy,” Rosenau (1994:532) argues, “all of us need to expand our expertise, or at least our analytic sensitivities, beyond their narrow disciplinary confines.” Some progress has been made in this regard (James and Zhang 2005; Ye 2007; Feng 2007; Ashizawa 2008). In recent years, more studies on Southeast Asia as a region have clearly attempted to bridge and synthesize IR/FPA theories and area expertise. For instance, Ikenberry and Mastanduno’s and Alagappa’s edited volumes (2003) demonstrate such a sophisticated synthesis. Still, many prominent FPA theories are yet to be integrated into empirical analysis in the region. This is an important direction for future research, particularly on Southeast Asian foreign policies.

Theoretically driven studies on East Asian foreign policies have re-energized debates among the realist, liberalist, and constructivist paradigms and have produced a number of insightful studies. The realist paradigm maintains the emphasis on great-power politics and the balance of power in the region (Gurtov 1971; Christensen 1999). In some recent studies, the balance of power theory is stretched to the use of policy strategies and instruments that traditionally are not regarded as “balancing,” such as international institutions, economic statecraft, and diplomacy (Pape 2005; Paul 2005). Debate on the theoretical and empirical bases of “soft balancing” in the era of US primacy in the 30 (1) issue of International Security (2005) indeed has led the way in more theoretically driven studies on the intentions and strategies of East Asian players.

In search for new approaches to East Asian foreign policy, the bridge between actor-general IR theories and actor-specific FPA is necessary and practically possible. For instance, in contrast to the previous emphasis on China as a sui generis foreign policy actor, scholars have called for theoretically driven studies and the necessity “to integrate the field of comparative foreign policy more fully into the study of Chinese foreign policy” (Johnston and Ross 2006:319; also Ng-Quinn 1983; Wang 1994). A body of outstanding research examines correlations between China’s (mis)perceptions and its relations with the Soviet Union (Rozman 1987), Japan (Whiting 1989), and the US (Shambaugh 1991a). Rozman (1987) finds that the improved Chinese image of the Soviet Union since the late 1970s paved the way for the eventual relaxation in relations with Moscow in the 1980s. By contrast, Whiting (1989) discovers that the underlying negative image of Japan across all levels of Chinese society, including the political elite, creates difficulty for the Chinese government in making its Japanese policy. Shambaugh’s (1991a) systemic study suggests that China’s American watchers are either ignorant or critical of America, or both, and that this “perceptional gap” will continue to contribute to the fluctuating nature of Sino-US relations. Two recent edited volumes, Johnston and Ross (2006) and Niu (2007), exemplify the growing scope of IR theories and methodologies that are integrated into Chinese foreign policy studies.

Based on the neorealist perspective, Friedberg (1993/94; 1998) envisions “Asia’s future” to be “Europe’s past,” on the premise that destabilizing factors, including historical animosity and balance of power, have made the region “ripe for rivalry.” Such a vision, along with the “China threat” debate (e.g., Bernstein and Munro 1997; Christensen 2001; Yee and Storey 2002; Ruan 2004; Yan 2004; Gries 2005; Rosecrance 2006; Kugler 2006), has almost dominated foreign policy circles for over a decade. Some scholars have challenged such pessimistic views. Among the most prominent, Kang (2003a; 2003b; 2003/04; 2007) rejects forecasts of Asia’s future through the lens of the Westphalian system. Instead, turning to the pre-Westphalian historical patterns of intraregional relations and regional order, Kang argues that East Asian states have accommodated, rather than balanced, China’s rapid rise in economic, diplomatic, and political terms. To him, it is Asia’s past – not Europe’s past – that may tell Asia’s future, a past in which the regional order was hierarchical, with a prosperous and powerful China stabilizing the rest of the region from the top through the tributary system. Kang believes that a strong China along with its neighbors’ accommodations, similar to the region’s past, would contribute to peace and stability in East Asia. By contrast, as shown in history, a weak China always left a void that tempts others to try to control the region and thus caused chaos and conflicts. Kang (2003a:66) suggests, “Historically, it has been Chinese weakness that has led to chaos in Asia. When China has been strong and stable, order has been preserved. East Asian regional relations have historically been hierarchical, more peaceful, and more stable than those in the West.” The key reason is that China and Southeast Asian countries share the values of nation building and respect for sovereignty. This is clear in China’s recent cooperation and collaboration with ASEAN. Instead of provoking China by targeting it as a major security threat, accommodation of China, in part, results from the fact that Southeast Asian states lack the military and economic capabilities to do so (Kang 2007:59). Goh (2007/08) also acknowledges this point, which is the premise for Southeast Asian states to play the extraregional powers to their own advantage. A more cautionary view, such as Shambaugh’s (2004/05:66), notes the complex and fluid nature of the regional order, without concluding that the regional order “is becoming a modern version of the imperial ‘tribute system’ or that China is becoming the dominant regional hegemon.”

Scholars who disagree with Kang’s assessment derive their counterargument with an emphasis on the strategic concerns and worries of Southeast Asian states about overdependence. These concerns can be categorized into economic concerns (Ravenhill 2006a; Goh 2007/08) and security concerns (Acharya 1999, 2003/04). Acharya (2003/04), for instance, forcefully opposes Kang’s view that Asia is returning to a hierarchical order to be dominated by China again. According to Acharya, India is evidently balancing against China through its newly strengthened alliance with the US and increasing activism in Southeast Asia (e.g., boosting ties with Burma). In his view, Southeast Asia is “double-binding” in its behavior vis-à-vis China, rather than balancing against, hedging, or bandwagoning with it. Such a posture of “engagement” is a result of the internal and external dilemmas facing Southeast Asian countries. From a historical perspective, after hundreds of years of the Sino-centric system, the long-time imperialism and colonialism by Western powers and Japan, and their hard-fought independence, Southeast Asian states understandably would strive to remain independent as much as possible. They clearly do not wish to be forced to take sides between the US and China or between China and Japan (Gurtov 1971; Acharya 2003/04). Similarly, Roy (2005) argues that Southeast Asian countries generally have been hedging and engaging with China to avoid its dominance of the region again. The engagement is limited to business, while hedging reflects their wariness over China’s long-term strategic intentions. Hedging is most clear in the Philippines and Singapore and more subtle in Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, with Malaysia’s policy appearing neutral and more nuanced in the 1990s (Denoon and Frieman 1996). For Roy, Thailand practices a simple form of hedging, while Myanmar does not seem to have a coherent strategy towards China (however, the analytical difference between “hedging” and “low-intensity balancing” is not entirely clear).

In the post–Cold War era, the initial “engagement v. containment” or “balancing v. bandwagoning” debates were at the center of the general theoretical debate. The latest debate has expanded and become more sophisticated, with a growing number of analytical labels for the strategies of Southeast Asian states. In this respect, Kang (2007) proposes the “balancing–hedging–accommodation–bandwagoning” spectrum, whereas Goh (2007/08) innovatively uses “omni-enmeshment” and “complex balance of influence.” Indeed, “balance of influence” has become an informal phrase in Southeast Asian policy circles, highlighting their nonmilitary power and influence in the game with more powerful states (Goh 2007/08:147). These subtly different understandings and interpretations of the strategies of Southeast Asian states provide richer analytical tools to further theorize the foreign policies of East Asia.

However, failure to predict the end of the Cold War, among other things, led to reflections on (neo)realism and spurred development of other IR theories. Different theoretical tools, along with the expanding scope of foreign policy issues, have brought about an explosion of quantitative and qualitative studies in East Asian foreign policies. Traditional topics are re-examined through new perspectives, while new issues continue to arise, calling for rigorous theoretical explanations. Micro-oriented methods, such as political psychology, and the rise of social constructivism have further enriched East Asian foreign policy studies.

Sharing a pragmatic tradition with realism, the English School has recently become a useful theory for understanding the regional order in East Asia (Alagappa 2003; Odgaard 2007; Goh 2007/08). The English School explains “rivalry” among the extraregional powers in terms of institutional design and the relative significance of the regional institutions in Southeast Asia. Odgaard’s (2007) empirical study, for instance, suggests that the interests and legitimacy of the balance of power between the US and China in Asia-Pacific, as a social practice toward the regional order, are bound to collide in the long run, and thus predicts that the majority of regional powers will join the bandwagon with the US to balance against China. Trying to keep the institutional dynamics under control boosts the influence of the extraregional powers, which intends to work to the benefit of their strategic interests. For example, China had preferred the East Asian Summit as the driving vehicle for exclusively East Asian regional security dialogue, but Indonesia, Japan, and Singapore lobbied to include Australia, India, and New Zealand in the summit (Goh 2007/08). China then switched to promoting ASEAN Plus Three as its favorite regional institution. The US, on the other hand, prefers “open regionalism,” pioneered by APEC for regional economic dialogue and ARF for regional security dialogue. Using the English School’s “order” framework to describe and explain Southeast Asian countries’ strategic preferences and strategies to shape and change the regional order, Goh (2007/08:121) argues that these countries “have in fact adopted a broader, multidirectional, ‘omni-enmenshment’ strategy” towards the great powers in the region – not only China, but also the US, Japan, India, etc. In contrast to realists or liberalists, the key premise is that the goal of Southeast Asian states is “to manage regional order rather than to bring about or to forestall a power transition” (Goh 2007/08:154). It is a “complex balance of influence” that allows the smaller Southeast Asian states to achieve their collective strategic advantage.

By contrast, the liberal paradigm emphasizes the importance of common economic interests, democratic development, and multilateral institutions in promoting a regional order featuring interdependence and stability. Peng’s (2002) systematic investigation of the informal business networks linking East Asia demonstrates the potential of regional integration. To a great extent, the Chinese “bamboo” network is the primary nongovernmental force driving the bottom-up integration process of the region (Kang 2007). In addition to economic interdependence (e.g., the creation of the largest free trade zone), studies of the democratization movement (Alagappa 2004), regional integration, and multilateral diplomacy also highlight the contributions of the liberal paradigm.

Among scholars of South Korean foreign policy, the liberal paradigm offers an alternative understanding of the tectonic shift in its policy toward North Korea in the post–Cold War era (Park and Ha 1995; Chung 2000). South Korea had started reassessing the threat from North Korea and the possibility for cooperation with the North after Kim Dae-jung took office. Advocates of the “Sunshine Policy” argue that South Korea needs to recognize the structural transformations of world politics in the aftermath of the Cold War and better engage North Korea to create opportunities for peace on the Korean peninsula (Moon and Steinberg 1999; Kim 2002; Kim, 2005). Some urge the need to correct the previous assessment of the balance of power on the Korean peninsula and build a new framework within which peace and cooperation can be achieved (Koo et al. 2005). Others criticize the misperception and even intentional exaggeration of Pyongyang’s military threat, especially in sharp contrast to Seoul’s rising power (O’Hanlon 1998; Hamm 1999; Kang 1995; 2003c).

Departing from the realist and liberal paradigms, social constructivism explains how culture, identity, and norms are socially constructed, internalized, and in turn externalized through foreign policy. As such, it has greatly advanced East Asian foreign policy studies. Many studies employ a constructivist approach in the understanding of Japan’s changing identity as a foreign policy player in East Asia (Berger 1993; 1998; Katzenstein 1996; Suh et al. 2004). Berger (1993; 1998) and Katzenstein (1996) find that Japan has experienced substantial changes in its relative standing in the international system without great changes in its national security policy. The inconsistency in Japan’s security policy challenges neorealism and leads to a focus on nonmaterial, socially constructed factors, i.e., Japan’s postwar anti-militarist social norms, in explaining Japan’s anomaly. Others pursue a similar approach to explain how Japan’s economic identity is historically constructed, which has shaped Japan’s interest in challenging the American-led neoliberal world order (Lee 2008). With regard to Japanese perceptions toward regional institutions, Ashizawa (2008:574) argues, “[A] set of conceptions about Japan’s state identity – ‘the sole member of the West in Asia’ and ‘a one-time aggressor in the region’ – served as a key determinant for the country’s policymaking in both the cases of APEC and the ARF.”

Constructivism plays an active part in the study of South Korean foreign policy, as South Korea adapted to the material and ideational changes in its environment and relations with the US, Japan, China, and North Korea (Shin 1998; Chung 2000; Kim 2000). For instance, relations between the two Koreas are examined through the lenses of their evolving identities (Lee 2001; Lee and Chun 2001). The dynamics of the ROK–US alliance in the post–Cold War era are regarded as a function of ROK’s building of its interdependent identity (Suh 2004).

Some scholars examine China’s foreign policy from a cross-level, “psychocultural-cybernetic” perspective by focusing on the cultural-historical context of Chinese leaders (Shih 1990; Feng 2007). As communism loses ground, China faces ambiguity over its identity and Chinese nationalism has gained new momentum in foreign policy (Dittmer and Kim 1993; Zheng 1999; Gries 2004; Zhao 2004). Others try to identify the cultural sources of Chinese security strategy from Chinese military classics (Johnston 1995) or explain China’s integration into the international community as a socialization process (Johnston 2006).

Ideational change similarly plays an increasingly important role in understanding and managing peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. In particular, democratization and the subsequent de-Sinification campaign promoted by the pro-independence DPP have expedited the change of Taiwan’s identity (Brown 2004) and affected its foreign policy-making structure (Hickey 2007).

In addition, regional institutions are effective ideational instruments to socialize individual states into embracing the core principles and norms of regional integration (Johnston 2003). The “ASEAN Way,” or the “process of regional interactions and cooperation based on discreteness, informality, consensus building and non-confrontational bargaining styles,” has been widely seen as a distinctive set of norms contributing to cooperative security and community building in the region (Acharya 2001:64). These norms have become the foundation of socializing extraregional powers into the regional order.

It is particularly worth noting, from this discussion, that a recent trend has emerged to address the limitations of the existing paradigms and break the rigid paradigmatic boundaries among (neo)realism, (neo)liberalism, and constructivism by seeking theoretical integration, theoretical niches, or new theoretical perspectives in the study of East Asian foreign policies. Some recent theoretical advances take a hybrid form that does not neatly fit any of the mainstream IR/FPA theories, as indicated in thriving new concepts and theoretical frameworks, such as “relational power analysis” (Hagström 2005), “Regional Security Complex” (Buzan and Waever 2003), “institutional balancing” and “institutional realism” (He 2008, 2009), and so forth. Most notably, Regional Security Complex Theory (RSCT), built on securitization theory (Wæver 1995; Buzan et al. 1998) and developed in Buzan and Wæver (2003), blends important elements of neorealism and constructivism at the regional level to explain regional securitization in structural and historical terms. Similarly, He’s (2008; 2009) “institutional balancing” is a hybrid model of neorealism (distribution and balance of power) and neoliberalism (economic interdependence). Sato and Hirata’s (2008) comparative case studies demonstrate the impact of norms on Japan’s security, economic, and environmental policies and suggest that the three paradigms are potentially complementary rather than mutually exclusive. More ambitious studies have explored Asia’s own IR theories, as an alternative to the Eurocentric mainstreams (e.g., Qin 2006; 2007; Wang 2006; Callahan 2008). These represent a new wave of scholarship that seeks to blaze a new trail to understand the regional dynamics in East Asia.

Critical Issues in East Asian Foreign Policies

The end of the Cold War and the latest round of globalization added more complexity to East Asian foreign policies. The old issues from the Cold War have not been resolved; the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait remain two flashpoints in the region, with new twists that can derail regional stability and prosperity.

In the meantime, new issues have emerged and made East Asia most volatile. The first issue is concerned with restructuring the balance of power in East Asia, particularly the dynamics among the major players. What made Japanese foreign policy after World War II noteworthy was the continuity in its primary reliance on economic tools for power and influence. The Yoshida Doctrine – limiting the role of its armed forces while relying on the US security umbrella – secured Japan during the Cold War and made possible its rapid economic growth. This allowed Tokyo to achieve its foreign policy goals via highly effective economic tools, ranging from official development assistance, financial contributions to international organizations, and overseas direct investment. Even after the end of the Cold War, Japan’s first response to regional political and security crises has usually been financial (Calder 1988; Miyashita and Sato 2001; Green 2003). Economic success has led to a more active Japan in international politics. As early as the 1980s, some scholars saw a possibility of “Pax Nipponica” replacing “Pax Americana” (Vogel 1986) or considered Japan’s economic rise a major problem (Wolferen 1986/87). After the end of the Cold War, more research focuses on Japan’s rising international status (Mulgan 1995; Sato and Destler 1996; Drifte 1998). As the most significant change in Japan’s postwar foreign and security policies, the 1992 Law concerning Cooperation for UN Peacekeeping Operations (commonly known as the PKO Law) was a step toward Japan bidding to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council (Drifte 2000). As Tokyo coped with the post–Cold War era and its constitutional constraint in the newly emerging global order, some argue that war-renouncing Article Nine in the Japanese Constitution was written shortly before the onset of the Cold War and thus was outdated, with a need for change (Cooney 2002). Meanwhile, Japan’s more active foreign policy has caused worries within its society and among its neighbors about its potential remilitarization, particularly considering the inadequate handling of its past. To them, “Japan will never gain its full stature as a nation until it deals with its historical responsibilities in a forthright and honest way […] Japan’s quest for normalcy in East Asia will be obstructed until it adequately addresses this issue” (Cooney 2002:177).

China’s rise has resulted in the same, if not more, concerns about whether China will become a revisionist power and thus a threat (Johnston and Ross 1999; Deng and Wang 2005). To alleviate these concerns, some Chinese scholars propose a policy of “peaceful rise” (Ruan 2004; Yan 2004; Zheng 2005), signaling that China’s rise is intended to be peaceful. However, some realists doubt that there could be a peaceful rise for a growing power (e.g., Mearsheimer 2005). Negative repercussions like this made the “peaceful rise” mantra short lived (Suettinger 2004). Whatever policy China may pursue, the power shift has caused concerns among countries with vital interests in East Asia (Shambaugh 2005). However, little consensus exists among American scholars as to whether China’s rise may be good for the US (Sutter 2005) or at its expense (Lampton 2005). Recent research suggests that none of the mainstream IR theories can neatly explain China’s foreign policy, considering its growing sophistication and further integration into the international system (Deng 2008). It presents a practical need to explore new theoretical thinking.

On the other hand, US interests and presence in the region are crucial variables in the power shift, especially in a region filled with deep-rooted distrust among neighbors. Sharing the common concern about China’s potential dominance in East Asia, Japan and the US have reaffirmed and expanded their security alliance (Mochizuki 1996; Christensen 1999; Green and Cronin 1999). Conversely, the Korea–US alliance has changed in a different direction. South Korea, highly dependent on the US in the past, recently has shown its own voice backed up by its rising power (Bandow and Carpenter 1992). South Korea does not seem as concerned as the US and Japan about the rise of China and is more amicable with China than might be expected (Chung 2001). Therefore, it approached China in the late 1980s, in a move independent of the US (Lee 1996). South Korea is double-dating by expanding its relations with China and maintaining its alliance with the US.

The North Korean nuclear issue has tested East Asian foreign policy over two decades. China supports the US goal to de-nuclearize North Korea, but does not support any policy that would topple its socialist neighbor. Therefore, China walks a fine line between maintaining its relations with North Korea and protecting its national interest, which coincides with that of the US. China has hosted and meditated the six-party talks to resolve the issue. Japan, by contrast, chose to stand behind the US, but with its own calculations and demands, particularly regarding the issue of the abduction of Japanese citizens. South Korea ironically pursued policies confronting that of the US. When the Clinton administration adopted a neoliberal approach toward North Korea, the Kim Young-sam government preferred a neorealist approach. When the Bush administration pursued a hard-line containment policy in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Kim Dae-jung and Rho Moo-hyun governments, however, switched to engage North Korea (Hwang 2003). Since South Korea moved away from the US and closer to China, Pyongyang’s relations with Beijing have awkwardly weakened (Kihl 1994; Kim and Lee 2002). A strong voice can be heard among Chinese scholars, though not publicly aired, calling for the normalization of Sino-North Korean relations by getting rid of the straitjacket over their traditional alliance.

With regard to Southeast Asia, the theoretical advances discussed earlier heavily focus on the extraregional great powers, including the US, China, and Japan, and their “place” or “impact” in Southeast Asia. In spite of its growing influence in the region, China by no means dominates Southeast Asian politics. It is the US that has been playing such a critical role in Southeast Asia. Two distinct views emerge regarding US policy toward Southeast Asia: one advocates retreat from the region (Bandow 2001), while the other criticizes the lack of systemic engagement (Mauzy and Job 2007). Scholars who advocate more engagement point out the declining influence of the US, which has gradually given way to China’s growing influence in the region (Mauzy and Job 2007). The fall of Saigon symbolized the American, gradual but systemic, disengagement from Indochina and the greater region of Southeast Asia, with only sporadic attention to market access (via strategic sea lanes and trade) and local crises. Even after the Bush administration declared Southeast Asia as the “second front” of the global war on terror, US engagement in continental Southeast Asia has been limited to bilateral trade agreements (Grinter 2006). Overall, the US policy is unbalanced, with a predominant focus on security (particularly against terrorism) in maritime Southeast Asia, without much attention to socioeconomic and cultural issues. This has led to a decline in the US influence in Southeast Asia (Armacost and Roy 2004; Jackson 2004; Economy 2005). As the US has shifted its focus to the Middle East and Afghanistan, Southeast Asia has continued to suffer (further) neglect in the US foreign policy circles.

Furthermore, the US seems disinterested in and ambivalent about multilateral institutions and regional integration, with the exception of APEC. The US was suspicious of the utility of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), even though the ARF and its commonly agreed two-track mechanism for both governmental and nongovernmental activities appeared to be the most promising channel for regional security dialogues in the mid-1990s (Heller 2005). Concerned about potential limitations on its strategic maneuverability, the US also declined to sign the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. This, among other reasons, resulted in the conspicuous absence of the US in the East Asian Summit, which included ASEAN Plus Three, India, Australia, and New Zealand, with Russia as an observer.

East Asian states, in contrast, have increasingly embraced multilateral institutions as essential means to resolve issues of common concern (He 2008; 2009). China and India, in particular, have taken initiatives, along with much of their economic and diplomatic resources, to cultivate their strategic interests and partnerships in the region (Acharya 2003/04). China was among the first to initiate an FTA with ASEAN, compelling Japan and South Korea to follow suit.

Southeast Asian countries in general are ambivalent about the role and influence of the extraregional powers, including the US, China, the former Soviet Union, Japan, and India (Mauzy and Job 2007). The surge of nationalism in the Philippines led to the close of the US military bases there in 1991–1992. China’s advancement in the Mischief Reef in 1995 convinced ASEAN members to view Beijing as the biggest threat to regional security (Simon 1996). The Philippines, Indonesia, and Vietnam appear to be particularly suspicious of China’s intentions in the region, along with its military modernization (Denoon and Frieman 1996).

In recent years, the greatest challenges for the region include how China’s rising power may reshape the regional order and how Southeast Asian states can and should deal with such a reality. Among the various answers from policy makers and pundits, the general consensus is that the regional players should try to acknowledge China’s rising status, accommodate its legitimate interests, incorporate it into the regional order, and socialize it into a more predictable and responsible player so that regional stability and prosperity can be maintained (Deng 2008). Due to geopolitical and historical concerns, the premise to do so is to achieve the overall strategic preference of Southeast Asian states; that is, to minimize any possibility of being dominated by an extraregional power or creating overdependence on any great power (Goh 2007/08). The degree of such strategic preference varies by state: Singapore’s foreign policy is the most outspoken in Southeast Asia, while Vietnam and the Philippines seem more subtle and cautious in expressing their preferences (Goh 2007/08). In this regard, as discussed earlier, disagreement primarily lies with the specific strategies that Southeast Asian countries choose in order to accommodate the extraregional powers in the region. To this end, Southeast Asian states have utilized regional institutions as a channel of engagement to “tie down” the extraregional powers in regional affairs (Goh 2007/08). For instance, little evidence suggests that direct economic competition with China through an ASEAN–China Free Trade Agreement would inflict a cost on ASEAN’s trade and investment with the US, Japan, the European Union, and India, among others (Ravenhill 2006a). Nonetheless, Southeast Asian states have continued to express such concerns and tried to diversify their trade relations through negotiations over potential FTAs.

Regionalism is another new topic in the study of East Asian foreign policies. The progress in European integration galvanizes high hopes in East Asia. Regionalism has been gradually transforming the economic, political, and security dynamics in Southeast Asia, triggering a surge in studies of regionalism in recent years. Multilateral regionalism was driven and promoted for several reasons: (1) the lack of multilateral diplomacy within East Asia in spite of some preliminary versions of cooperation, such as SEATO (Calder and Fukuyama 2008); (2) the “hub-and-spoke” system forged in East Asia during the Cold War that features tilted bilateralism centering on the US (Cumings 2008); (3) the lack of adequate reconciliation and closure of Japan’s military aggression during World War II as the Cold War rapidly intensified; and (4) frustration in the ineffective roles of international institutions and the US in taming the East Asian financial crisis (Beeson 2003).

Regional integration is defined as “a process and state of trans-border unification successively or simultaneously in political, economic or security fields voluntarily by several countries or societies in a certain region in response to internal or external challenges and pressures” (Yu 2008). It had a belated start in East Asia, without the favorable external and material support that Europe possessed. The East Asian financial crisis in 1997 severely weakened the regional institutions and created an unstable political and economic environment for most Southeast Asian countries. Their vulnerability as a whole dictates that the further growth and success of regionalism largely rely on the political (and strategic) wills of the extraregional powers. As Ganesan’s (2005) study suggests, Singapore has resorted to bilateral free trade agreements (FTAs) with its major trading partners since 2000 as a result of its loss of confidence in the ability of AFTA and APEC to take concrete and meaningful actions to have their members fulfill their commitments and obligations. While the “ASEAN Way” bears the spirit of enhancing good relations among member states, it lacks efficiency in the organization’s decision making and the implementation of integration (Yu 2008). The unique “ASEAN Way” of decision making and norms is derived from Malay cultural practices of musjawarah and mufukat. As the two main components of the “ASEAN Way,” the principle of consultation and consensus and the principle of sovereignty and noninterference require the member states to conform to a behavioral pattern of “no public challenges, comments, or criticisms of other regimes’ legitimacy, domestic system, conduct, policies or style” (Antolik 1990:156). Indeed, Acharya (2001) maintains that ASEAN needs to “reinvent itself,” in spite of his sympathy. Notwithstanding these obstacles, it is important to note that ASEAN is the most successful regional entity in the developing world (Acharya 2001) and still holds a promising future. It has laid out a plan of establishing a free trade area by 2015 and forming an economic community by 2020 (Yu 2008).

The meaning of regionalism deepens our understanding of the dynamics of regionalism in East Asia. According to Pempel (2005), Breslin (2007), and Frost (2008), regionalism, one of the broad processes occurring in East Asia, refers to “institution creation […] when national-states come together through top-down activities” (Pempel, 2005:19); by contrast, the process driven by societal forces through bottom-up activities such as trade and investment by private sectors is known as regionalization. The meanings of regionalism have evolved, initially through comparisons between Europe and Asia in terms of their integration processes. However, such comparisons are superficial and do not take the history and structure of regional relations into adequate consideration (particularly among China, Japan, and the US). For Katzenstein and Shiraishi (1997) and Yu (2008), Asian regionalism has been ill understood through European analytical frameworks and liberal theories. In the early years, regionalism for many Southeast Asian states was in effect a strategic shield from the interference, intervention, or manipulation of extraregional powers, including both the friendly and the hostile (Address at the University of Minnesota, Thai Permanent Mission, Press Release No. 62, October 22, 1968). Thailand has long committed to regional peace and stability through multilateral cooperation among the states in the region as a means of minimizing the sway of extraregional powers. The former Foreign Minister of Thailand Thanat Khoman was particularly outspoken about the idea that “Asian problems should be resolved by Asians themselves” or “taking our destiny into our own hands instead of letting others from far away mold it for us at their whims and pleasures” (Gurtov 1971:42). Thailand has defined three roles for itself in regional affairs: as a mediator, a leader in regional associations, and a coordinator of bilateral and multilateral cooperation that aims at strengthening Southeast Asian states without extraregional interference (Gurtov 1971:42). With such aspirations, Thailand took an active part in proposing regional initiatives, hosting and organizing regional conferences (e.g., the series of conferences in Bangkok held in 1964 and 1966 with Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines over the Indonesian military advance into Sabah and Sarawak), and mediating disputes among neighboring countries (e.g., providing an exchange forum for the Philippines and Malaysia regarding Sabah). Thailand has also turned into a hub for the headquarters of a number of international and regional organizations, including the Mekong River Development Committee, UNESCO, UNICEF, ILO, FAO, WHO, and the Economic Committee for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE). These multilateral initiatives have strengthened Thailand’s importance “within all-Asian organizations” by filling the void after the withdrawal of France and the US from Indochina and “reducing Thailand’s direct ties to the US-supported alliances” (Gurtov 1971:43).

As regionalism widens and deepens, East Asian states face a range of daunting obstacles to further regionalization. Both incentives and obstacles for East Asian countries in pursuit of common security and prosperity will continue to produce academic and policy debates with regard to the specific forms of regional community building. In Northeast Asia, the major players continue to be suspicious of one another’s intentions due to their historical memories, most recently during World War II and the Cold War. What can make things worse are the unsettled disputes between Japan and Korea over Dokdo/Takeshima Island, between China and Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and between Russia and Japan over the Kuril Islands/Northern Territories, among others. The leadership deficiency, caused by rifts and rivalry between China and Japan, does not bode well for the prospect of any feasible Northeast Asian Community (Rozman 2004; Sutter 2008).

In Southeast Asia, leadership of regional integration remains a contest, most notably among the original ASEAN members. Thailand claims to have championed the “flexible engagement” approach that allows other member states to discuss the domestic matters of a particular member state (Smith 2000). Thailand also proposed the “ASEAN troika,” in which three ASEAN countries take the lead in crisis resolution in the region. Meanwhile, Indonesia considers itself as ASEAN’s primus inter pares (“first among equals”) and ASEAN as a significant pillar of Indonesian foreign policy (Smith 2000:510). For the states that joined ASEAN in the 1990s, ASEAN membership was an instrumental springboard to gain fast-track access to regional institutions and to reorient their relations with the US and China. A notable exception is Vietnam. Ten years after Vietnam’s accession to ASEAN, its membership has turned out to be less in line with Vietnam’s own foreign policy interests, particularly in the lingering dispute in the South China Sea and its bilateral relations with the great powers (Dosch 2006).


The study of East Asian foreign policies has progressed in sync with mainstream IR theories: (1) from perhaps an inadvertent or unconscious coincidence with realism during the Cold War to consciously using different theoretical tools to study the various aspects of East Asian foreign policies; and (2) from the dominance of realism to a diversity of theories in studying East Asian foreign policies. With the gradual loss of the predominance of realism and the revival of liberalism in the 1970s, decision making became an increasingly important aspect of the study of East Asian foreign policies. From the later 1980s when constructivism emerged, social theories became a new set of tools to study East Asian foreign policy. With richer materials and pluralistic intellectual tools, the intellectual communities and their accomplishments in this field can be characterized as “one hundred flowers blossom” (Hudson 1995). As the above analysis suggests, IR theories and actor-specific FPA models provide theoretical edges and sophistication for the study of East Asian foreign policies. In the meantime, empirically grounded studies of East Asian foreign policies serve to test general IR theories and further enrich FPA. Fravel’s study (2008) of China’s policy toward territorial dispute settlement, for instance, advances the theory of derivative war by demonstrating how domestic instability can make a country more peaceful. Both point to the right direction for the future of research in East Asian foreign policies.

The review of the current state of the field also suggests that two complementary issues be given priority in the future. First, the foreign policy interests and strategies of individual small states vis-à-vis great powers in the region, particularly those in Southeast Asia and the Korean peninsula, deserve more in-depth and systematic examination in conjunction with their collective behavior in various regional institutions. Similar to much of the thriving literature on the great powers in the region, these studies should strive to integrate the area study of Southeast Asia and the two Koreas into general IR and FPA theories. Second, what could really elevate the study of East Asian foreign policies in the general field of IR and FPA is to continue exploring innovative analytical frameworks that can expand the boundaries of existing metatheories and paradigms.


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We would like to thank Nicholas Khoo, Kirk Evans, anonymous reviewers, and the editors of the International Studies Compendium Project for their comments and suggestions that helped us improve the essay. In particular, we have benefited from the expertise of Jihwan Hwang on South Korea, whose generosity we deeply appreciate.