SSU Forum with Professor Evelyn Goh

Date:Wednesday, March 26 2014, 10:30-12:00
Venue:Seminar Room, 3rd Floor, Ito International Research Center
Subject:“Japan in the East Asian Order Transition”
Lecture:Evelyn Goh (Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the School of International, Political & Strategic Studies of the Australian National University)

Evelyn Goh, Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Australian National University, was the distinguished speaker at SSU Forum, taking place on March 26, 2014. The event, chaired by SSU Director Professor Kiichi Fujiwara, introduced the audience to her latest book, entitled “The Struggle for Order: Hegemony, Hierarchy, and Transition in Post-Cold War Era”.

Professor Fujiwara introduced the speaker, whose work is outstanding for the fresh perspective it offers to the analysis of East Asian international politics, and briefly introduced professor Goh’s book by highlighting its innovative theoretical approach, together with the ability of the author to combine clarity with very comprehensive and detailed narratives of the complex East Asian political situation.

Professor Goh thanked the host for the introduction and for the invitation to talk at the SSU Forum, before moving to a thorough discussion of the volume’s argument. The main aim of this work appears to be centred on the idea of finding new explanations of the East Asia political dynamics, outside the scope of “traditional” theoretical schemes which are currently dominating the discourse, particularly in the US and US-influenced academic circles. The book is not traditionally organised as the empirical testing of a theoretical standpoint, but rather on the contrary it tries to proceed inductively from the creation of narratives in different areas of interest to the construction of a more comprehensive theoretical model.

Indeed, Professor Goh has remarked that IR studies are often, and in particular for this region of the world, characterised by explanation patterns which tend to lean towards the production and reproduction of elegant but parsimonious theories, which have the unfortunate downside of being exposed to the dangers of oversimplification, while alternative narratives can easily convey the feeling that “the reality” may be significantly more “messy”. Overly simplistic approaches seems to entail a genetic link to the proliferation of equally simplistic labels to describe complex movement and tendencies (power shift, rebalancing, etc…), and to the rise of the corresponding myths.

Professor Goh has pointed at three factors which presently characterise East Asia: 1) the continuing, albeit changing, role of the US as a hegemon. However, the definition of hegemony in this context is not the one traditionally employed by realist authors, but as it will be made clearer below, it has a different nature. 2) China’s position is strengthening, but on the other hand the actual Chinese influence in the region is not as large as often claimed, while expectations of future Chinese influence are creating an inflated image of Beijing’s actual power. 3) The role of non-great power states, which are often behaving in ways which contradict the most common theories of power politics (bargaining, bandwagoning).

This book intends to take this complexity into account by looking at four areas of studies: a) Regional institutions, which have to be understood not as the opposite approach to power politics, but often as a complementary channel. In the East Asian context, institutions, it has been claimed, have their main role in helping the socialisation of China, but on the other hand, according to Professor Goh, they can be seen as a major tool to ensure US continuous involvement and presence. b) While regionalism has been portrayed as a substantially anti-American stance, it is arguable that many factors prevent East Asian countries to proceed towards deep and functioning forms of regional integration, as visible in the strained Japan-China relations. There is here a resilience in the structure of regional political divisions. c) The role of great power is also that of providing public goods for the rest of the international community, particularly in the case of security. The US has been the traditional provider of security in the region and globally. Even if the US is trying to shift at least part of this burden to main allies, the demand of US presence and US-provided security in the region is still strong. China on the other hand has been providing this kind of public good only in a fairly limited way, being unable to restrain North Korea and sometimes aggravating tensions in the South China Sea. d) The fractured regional order of East Asia suggests that this specific regional framework maybe somewhat limited, and a true understanding of East Asian dynamics requires looking at least to the broader Asia-Pacific system of international relations.

The new theoretical framework provided by professor Goh is based on three themes: 1) The concept of hegemony ought to be reconstructed by abandoning its image of full overlap with the exercise of brute power and coercion, it is has to be re-focused instead on the consent that it is inherent to many forms of hegemonic influence. Particularly in the case of US hegemony, there is an active demand for this hegemony to be exercised, and an effort towards its perpetuation. 2) East Asia may not be witnessing soon the dreaded “power transition” many scholars are envisaging, rather an “order transition”, whereby “order” is conceptualised along the lines of a social contract, or a web of contracts, where actors can shift from the consensual hegemony provided by one great power to the one provided by a different great power. 3) The East Asia order is hierarchical in two ways. On the one hand, there is the US-provided regional hegemony. On the other, there is differential authority among the various regional actors, China, Japan, India, South Korea and ASEAN.

In conclusion, Professor Goh has highlighted the necessity of thinking about East Asian politics in a different fashion, particularly by abandoning Cold-War-era narratives. Two challenges appear to be more prominent for the future of East Asia, namely how to prolong the US regional order even in the face of the narrowing gap of US strategic primacy, and how to help China in becoming a satisfied power, with adjustments in the regional order which other players may be able accept.