Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Idea Change Matters: China's Practices and the East Asian Peace

Academic journal article Asian Perspective

Idea Change Matters: China's Practices and the East Asian Peace

Article excerpt

PEACE HAS REIGNED IN EAST ASIA SINCE 1979, AND THERE ARE DIFFERent explanations for it (Kivimaki 2014; Tonnesson 2009; Weissmann 2012). I argue that the East Asian peace cannot be sufficiently understood without a study of China's shifting worldviews, which have determined its international behavior over the last three decades or so. I examine why China's ideational changes matter for the East Asian peace.

International peace has largely been maintained in East Asia since the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese border war. Despite a number of disputes between countries, an active international military conflict in the foreseeable future seems unlikely. For Robert Ross, "Since the end of the Cold War and the emergence of the United States as the sole superpower, East Asia has been peaceful both at sea and on land. Yet the source of the mainland peace has not been U.S. power but rather Chinese power" (Ross 2009, 76). How is this conclusion related to internal developments in China?

The history of the People's Republic of China (PRC) since 1949 falls neatly into two periods, one marked by recurrent conflict both internally and internationally and the other by rapid economic growth and opening up to the outside world. During the first period, China was engaged in a "continuous revolution" both at home and abroad. The reform period by contrast coincides with what has been coined the long East Asian peace period. Do developments in China affect the East Asian peace? Specifically, do ideational changes matter?

Ideas and Foreign Policy Making


These questions involve the role of ideas in shaping foreign policy. International relations scholars have long debated the enduring and decisive elements that influence state behavior. Power appears not to always be the most important factor. Neither pursuit of power nor power balancing can explain China's adoption of a strategy to simultaneously confront the United States and the Soviet Union, the two superpowers, throughout the 1960s. Without careful consideration of the collectively held ideas of the leadership, realist theory tells us only what states could do to secure or enhance their power in the international system, not about the main driving forces behind specific behaviors. Having studied US policies toward China during the Eisenhower administration, for example, diplomatic historian Nancy Bernkopf Tucker concludes that "individuals matter" when it comes to the institutional and systemic constraints on policymaking. "Their mindsets, values, emotions, and experience influenced their thoughts and actions, limiting or broadening what they understood about events, behavior, and potential outcomes" (Tucker 2012, xi). Researchers have to look at the collective ideas of national leaders to find these driving forces for major policies. After all, "There is peace in East Asia despite the absence of effective international organizations, common political and economic systems, soft power, and cultural affinity" (Ross 2009, 86).

Some recent scholarship has shed light on the question of how ideas affect state behavior. According to Judith Goldstein and Robert O. Keohane, "Ideas help to order the world. By ordering the world, ideas may shape agendas, which can profoundly shape outcomes" (Goldstein and Keohane 1993, 12).1 They define ideas as beliefs held by individuals and go on to distinguish three types of beliefs: worldviews, principled beliefs, and causal beliefs. Ideas have their broadest impact on human action when they take the form of worldviews. Principled beliefs consist of normative ideas that specify criteria for distinguishing right from wrong and just from unjust. Causal beliefs concern cause-and-effect relationships that derive authority from the shared consensus of recognized elites. Causal beliefs provide guides for individuals on how to achieve their objectives. Goldstein and Keohane also argue there are three causal pathways by which ideas can affect policy: by providing principled or causal road maps, affecting strategies, and becoming embedded in institutions. …

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