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Why No Non-Western Ir Theory in Asia


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INTP354 Reading Report, Assessment 1

Reading: * Preface: “Why is there no non-western IR theory in Asia: Reflections on and from Asia”; * Conclusion: “On the possibility of a non-Western IR theory in Asia”.

A Consideration of IR Theory in (East) Asia: Main Points, critiques and discussion

Report By J.R Brown
Submitted 06/08/2013

This two-part essay is a collection of papers collated after the completion of the workshop entitled “Why is there no Non-Western IR theory: Reflections on and from Asia.” It conception arose out of Amitav Acharyas’ realisation about the concerning gap between his academic speciality (Third world and Asian security) and International Relations Theory (IRT). His co-author Barry Buzan felt similarly after his various work in and around Asia led him to realise how little asia-specific IRT development was taking place.

Acharya and Buzan stipulate their overall purpose as that of stimulating “non-Western voices to bring their historical and cultural, as well as their intellectual, resources into the theoretical debates about IR”. Their opening (and decidedly founding) question is ‘What is the possibility of a non-Western IRT in Asia?’ which they answer through a critical examination of their collective findings. It is important to note that they stipulated forcefully within their discussion the important note: “We are not....concerned with identifying or advocating an Asian school of IR......which would involve constructs (Asian values, Asian Way etc.)....which are problematic because of the generalisations they involve...”

To answer their main question the essay is divided into two main parts:(1) ‘Why is there an absence of non-Western IRT in Asia?”;(2) “Is Non-Western IRT possible in Asia.”

Part (1): Acharya and Buzans main argument in this section revolves around five hypotheses upon which their four-fold matrix burgeon’s from. The five hypotheses stated include: 1. “Western IRT has discovered the right path to understanding IR; 2. Western IRT has acquired hegemonic status in the Gramscian sense; 3. Non-Western IR theories do exist, but are hidden; 4. Local conditions discriminate against the production of IRT; 5. The West has a big head-start, and what we are seeing is a period of catching-up.”

What they describe as their “four-fold matrix” consists of :

“classical ideas, the thinking of modern leaders and elites; attempts by IR scholars to apply Western theory to the local context (outside-in), and similar attempts by scholars to generalise from the local experience for a wider audience...(inside-out).”

Part (2): Acharya and Buzan examine whether, ultimately a non-western IRT theory is in fact possible in Asia. They do this by examining ‘conceptual and practical’ issues that would first need to be addressed. They finish with a “Yes and No” conclusion, explained by what would aid the development of a non-western IRT as well as what might possibly withhold its evolution. Their final point stands that Western IRT does not and should not be replaced it ‘merely’ requires a broadening of cultural ‘voices’ and a much wider understanding of world history and the incorporation of ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ perspectives within the political, socioeconomic and ‘world’ economy.

Acharya and Buzan’s essay is based upon the increasingly popular discussion over why there is no obvious non-western IRT in Asia. They asked the questions of why , as it stands there is no obvious non-western IRT in Asia and what the possibility of a non-western IRT stands of flowering in Asia. To best engage a critical examination of this reading I will broadly examine the underlying message of the reading, incorporating contributions from other authors with minds both alike and unlike.

A scholarly consensus exists that appears to portray the notion that general IRT is ‘western-centric’. One of the main ideas behind Acharya and Buzan’s thinking is that a non-western IRT could be a gateway through which the ‘balance of power’ within the broader IR field of study could be changed. By doing this ,subsequent branching ideas based upon priorities, norms and perspectives etc. would also (be expected and permitted) to change. This notion is widely accepted among fellow IRT scholars. For example Tickner and Waever similarly state a founding dissatisfaction with the dominance of western IR and the way in which it has permeated and assimilated into cultures and countries (in a way that is counter-productive to understanding IRT from a different standing) where the key (western IR) does not fit the lock (E.g Asia) due to variables such as history, norms, cultures, goals etc.
There also seems to be agreement upon the issue stated by Acharya and Buzan in their essay, that although there is little IRT in Asia, there is “an abundance of pre-theoretical resources”. They state that in every case study (their case studies included Japan, China, S. Korea, SouthEast Asia and India), a western IRT hegemonic presence existed. Their dissatisfaction lay in categorising this presence as ‘uniform’ due to each country possessing different variables which made it difficult to subsequently rank each country.

Acharya and Buzan believe that, with the exception of China which due to its awareness about its growing global dominance as a possible leading power (perception initially perhaps) eventually developed an evolving Chinese IRT,most Asian nations were unable to look deeper into IRT study. The important point to note here is that Acharya and Buzan concluded that China's development of its own ‘brand’ of IRT suggested a bond or pathway between ‘power and ideas’, i.e. the way in which western IRT evolved, the Chinese IRT did as well.

Acharya and Buzan were notably the first in their field to intelligently analyse the ‘methodology’ and ‘epistemology’ of Western IRT. Because of this I believe it gives them a broader and deeper base upon which inferences about non-western IRT (in Asia) can be justifiably pursued with less confusion and quarrel than the ideas of some other authors.

Is non-western IRT possible in Asia? Along with many other IR theorists Acharya and Buzan ask this question. They bring up various issues that would first need to be examined practically so as to move beyond the central issue of how a non-western IRT is supposed to evolve when western IRT has such a dominant and hegemonic presence in the international arena? To answer their initial question Acharya and Buzan simply state “Yes and No”. This appears a rather unsatisfying answer given their intensive research, however their findings portray a logical and unbiased collection of ideas that are shared by many other theorists and scholars including Qin Yaking ( who wrote initial essay upon China; Navnita Cadvha Behera (India); Takashi Inoguchi (Japan); Alan Chong (SouthEast Asia).
The case studies (conducted by the authors listed above as well as Achara and Buzan) found possibilities and issues regarding a non-western IRT in Asia: (1) There is enough non-western historical and pre-theoretical resources that would theoretically be able to give rise to a new or modified IRT; (2) There has been no conclusion to state that western IRT has ‘found all the answers’ and therefore there definitely is enough scope for a non-western IRT; (3) western IRT has ‘built the stage and written the play’, in other words being the initiator and the pre-dominant and founding backer of IRT. This means that any attempts to breach the area of IRT differently involves certain choices i.e they can ‘add local colour and ideas to the already existing theory or they could attempt to begin with ‘local exceptionalism (‘ASEAN values’). There are other possibilities that also exist.

As a student stepping for the first time into the study of East Asian International Relations, it was, and continues to become,increasingly apparent that in order to understand Asian IR in any context or from inside-out/outside-in standpoints etc. one must have a firm grasp of not only the history of (East) Asia but also the way in which Western IRT has shaped (or not) the way the different nations of the region approach issues such as foreign policy, war and peace and general local and domestic policies (within each singular nation and between each nation in the region.) This paper provides the aspiring academic with an insight into the most recent and relevant findings regarding IRT in Asia. Although not conclusive, i.e with no definitive answer to the essays main question, this essay did provide me with a deeper understanding of what a developing non-western IRT faces as well as the importance of western IRT upon (East) Asian politics and International Relations. I admit, in all honesty that much alluded me in research, and an even deeper look into any more subtle opposition and agreement to Acharya and Buzans theories, as well as a deeper insight into each facet of Western/Non-Western IRT,is needed for a more well rounded knowledge base. However this paper gave me more than a mere head-start and should be studied by any reader who wishes to understand the basics of Asian/Western IRT. With regards to Asian IR this paper was more helpful in providing the basic foundation upon which Asian IR can (and has) been built. It is a universal truth that in order to understand the bigger and more complex truths, theories, ideas and notions, one must first master the basics, and the basics of Asian IR lie within understanding how Asian IRT was and still is shaped.

[ 1 ]. Ibid, pp.286
[ 2 ]. Ibid, pp. 431
[ 3 ]. Acharya A.,Buzan B.’Conclusion: on the possibility of a non-Western IR theory in Asia. International Relations of the Asia-Pacific.’ 2007b;7:427-438.
[ 4 ]. Ibid (4), pp.428
[ 5 ]. Ibid (5)
[ 6 ]. Ibid (4), pp. 436
[ 7 ]. Tickner A.B.,Wæver O.,’ International Relations Scholarship Around the World’. London: Routledge; 2009.
[ 8 ]. Chen C.C., ‘The absence of non-Western IR theory in Asia reconsidered’, International Relations of Asia-Pacific, Vol11, Issue 1 (2011): 1-23
[ 9 ]. Ibid (4), pp.436-37

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