National Identity Frameworks and International Relations in Asia



As the strategic significance of Asia increases with the region’s economic and diplomatic influence, and as analyses broaden in geographic scope by devoting greater attention to India and Southeast Asia in addition to the traditional players in Northeast Asia, growing uncertainty complicates the region’s prospects for maintaining peace and extending prosperity. In particular, tensions involving emotionally held and politically operative beliefs about identity threaten to destabilize the Asian model of delinking politics from economics and promoting business and trade expansion to raise living standards. The risks of miscommunication and unintended escalation in Asia because of identity conflicts over history, territory, and regional leadership are arguably the greatest questions for the region’s future. This Special Forum brings together scholars from different disciplines, representing various university and think tank projects and examining myriad national cases, to provide new insights on these identity questions.

Theories of international relations are at last moving past the “paradigm wars” waged by IR scholars, especially as policymakers and analysts demand new frameworks for understanding complex interactions among states. Power-focused or realist theories were dominant at the height of the Cold War, as analysts concentrated on US-Soviet competition and its implications for various regions. With globalization drawing attention at the Cold War’s end, liberal internationalist theories took center stage, focusing on trade and institutions. Leading up to and following September 11, 2001, clashes among and within civilizations—involving ethnic and civil conflict, religious fundamentalism and global responses to terrorism—brought constructivist theories to the fore. However, no one theoretical approach could claim explanatory victory, and analyses pitting the three paradigms against each other have become stale.

The area focus for many IR scholars and policymakers continues to shift from Europe to Asia, the importance of the Arab Spring and emergence of economies in Africa and Latin America notwithstanding. Asia is increasingly the center of global power politics, trade, and institutional innovation, but it is also a region rife with conflicts over identity. At this critical juncture involving the rise of China and India, the pivotal role of South Korea, and the enduring relevance of Japan, theoretical frameworks better specified than “paradigms” and more empirically informed about Asian cases are an urgent priority in the study of international relations.

This Special Forum presents current research on identity and geopolitics in Asia. While the articles that follow weigh in on the most current debates, the study of ideational factors in Asia’s international politics is by no means new. In the 1960s-1980s, the concept of culture was often raised by East Asia area specialists, producing extensive literatures on what was distinctive about Japan’s modernization, China’s Cultural Revolution, and Korea’s national division. From the 1980s, the importance of “history problems” was frequently noted in analyses of East Asian bilateral relations. As scholars turned to broad themes of national identity in the post-Cold War, these cultural narratives endured, but work at the intersection of IR and area studies has struggled to develop frameworks for analysis that are systematic, parsimonious, comparative, and capable of predicting policy outcomes and recommendations.

Recently, specialists in political science and sociology with a concentration on one or more countries in Asia have been working to link different approaches for studying national identity with explanations for patterns of diplomacy. The following five articles explore different approaches, each with its own conceptual orientation and geographical scope. The juxtaposition of the authors’ frameworks makes possible a comparative assessment of the field of national identity studies relevant to Asia’s international relations.

The first article by Gi-Wook Shin explains the incomplete nature of historical reconciliation in Asia. Bilateral relations have become more vulnerable to historical memory as civil societies in South Korea, China, and elsewhere have become more outspoken about war-related grievances. Shin points out that while Korean textbooks concentrate on Japanese imperialism, Japanese textbooks pay more attention to the American role in defeating Japan in World War II, including the use of firebombing and atomic weapons. Shin argues that focusing on Japan’s victimhood, rather than aggression, complicates Tokyo’s efforts at historical apology and joint textbook projects. He questions whether apology diplomacy has any remaining utility for reconciliation, and whether joint textbook projects can be successful when Asian governments are so deeply involved in history education. Shin maintains that while US prioritization of geopolitics allowed identity and territorial issues in Asia to remain unresolved, questions of history and security can no longer be separated. He concludes that governments must be self-reflective and self-critical about history, and promote civil exchanges, including youth visits to war memorial sites.

Kim Jiyoon writes about South Korea’s changing national identity, largely as a function of the country developing multiculturalism. She argues that Korean national identity has traditionally been dominated by ethnic nationalism, but is moving toward civic nationalism. Kim uses public opinion polls to show that Koreans, especially the younger generation, care less and less about native birth and bloodline, and instead emphasize political values, legal commitments and an understanding of national culture as the key aspects of Korean identity. Kim concludes that changing demographics are transforming national identity, with serious implications for the will for unification. Since the raison d’etre of unification is the ethnic bond among Koreans, a more heterogenous South Korea may develop different policies for dealing with Pyongyang.

The third article by Gilbert Rozman accounts for recent foreign policy thinking in Japan via gaps along multiple dimensions of identity. Increasingly, Japanese are faced with how to interpret war history, deal with China, balance the roles of politicians and bureaucrats, and to associate with Asian or universal values while effectively asserting Japanese identity. Rozman argues that what many analysts saw as postwar Japanese pragmatism was in fact a standoff between major schools of strategic thought, which since the end of the Cold War have broadened to four contending schools. At present, Japanese pacifists have largely been marginalized, with the notable exceptions of mobilizing against nuclear power and a state secrecy law. Statists are pushing for leader visits to Yasukuni Shrine and patriotic education that glorifies the country. Ethnic nationalists are lining up against the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a bid to protect rural culture. Internationalists are advocating global norms and quasi-alliance relations with India, Australia, and Southeast Asian neighbors. Rozman concludes that while South Koreans and Chinese are preoccupied with negative views of Japanese identity, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s obsession with national identity is upping the ante between two imagined communities: a US-led Asia-Pacific and a China-led East Asia.

Deepa Ollapally investigates national identity in India vis-a-vis the US “rebalance” to Asia strategy. She sees India’s national identity as framed by non-alignment and anti-colonial nationalism and uses these characteristics to explain why Delhi has not strategically balanced against Beijing to the extent that realist theorists may expect. Despite the geopolitical opportunities available to India via the civil nuclear accord with Washington and strengthening coordination with the US “pivot” toward Asia, Indian elites continue to underscore their state’s strategic autonomy. Meanwhile, despite tensions with China over border disputes, military modernization, and economic competition, Indian elites stress good inter-civilizational relations with China, emphasizing India’s legacies of tolerance, pluralism, non-aggression and non-interference. Against realist expectations for India using the United States as an external guarantor of shared interests, Ollapally concludes that India’s vision of multipolar leadership in Asia comports with Chinese diplomatic initiatives more than the US rebalance strategy.

The final article by Marlene Laruelle focuses on Russian foreign policy toward Asia through the lens of national identity. Laruelle contends that the sudden disappearance of the USSR defined the two main facets of Russian identity: seeking positive distinctiveness vis-a-vis Europe after the geopolitical humiliation of losing the Cold War, and maintaining national unity after various minority groups looked to assert their independent identities. In the context of Asia, the former motivates Moscow to pursue national strength and promote global multipolarity by expanding economic relations, while the latter drives xenophobic paranoia about the Sinification of Russia’s sparsely populated Far East. Developments to watch include Russia’s military cooperation and arms sales competition with China, territorial dispute negotiations with Japan, energy and infrastructure cooperation with the Korean Peninsula, and how a Putin-dominated government glorifying Russia’s past will present Russian identity to the world at the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Reading the five articles together offers at least three sets of comparative insights: theoretical, methodological, and empirical. In terms of theory, this Special Forum demonstrates multiple pathways by which national identity affects foreign policy. Despite different concepts of identity under consideration, and various diplomatic outcomes of concern at national, dyadic, and sub-regional levels, the articles together reinforce the importance of identity-linked variables for foreign policy in Asia. In particular, the authors offer mechanisms for future comparisons useful for addressing theoretical questions such as: under what circumstances does regional identity formation manage to trump more parochial national identity concerns? When can pride in present-day international leadership overcome resentment over past humiliations? When do elites choose to stir up populist sentiments, and when do they manage to transcend domestic politics to pursue long-term strategic interests? How are some gaps between nationalist histories bridged while others widen? How can commitments to civic responsibility and international norms win out over beliefs in ethnic competition and cultural superiority?

The different methodologies employed by the following articles suggest comparative strengths and limitations of various frameworks in answering these and other theoretical questions. Shin’s qualitative analysis of historical memory details gaps between national narratives and asymmetries in national efforts at reconciliation. As Shin recognizes, “no nation is immune to the charge that it has formed a less-than-complete view of the past.” What constitutes fact or objective reality is bound to be contested. However, it is helpful to have methods to identify the mainstream—a baseline for measuring deviation, identifying outlier positions, and tracing change over time. Kim’s use of public opinion polling presents such a tool for examining cross-sectional and cross-temporal variation. However, analysis of Kim’s survey data in itself can only go so far in drawing causal inferences, since views about unification and other policies are likely affected by geopolitical and economic calculations, and not just by ethnic vs. civic conceptions of Koreanness. Moreover, opinion polls face internal validity issues when, for example, asking about feelings toward North Korea may conflate views about the North Korean regime and the North Korean people.

Rozman’s approach of examining different dimensions of national identity and the influence of competing ideological groups can provide a framework for examining multiple pathways of causation or policy formation. However, reliably measuring variations in identity across six dimensions is challenging in the space of an article. Ollapally thus applies a simpler typology of “hard” vs. “soft” nationalisms to explain deviations from realist expectations of foreign policy. But predicting outcomes can be difficult without controlling for endogeneity because identity can motivate foreign policy and foreign policies can distinguish identities. Moreover, while delimiting the concept of identity is key for making analysis manageable, doing so can lead to a kind of omitted variable bias. For example, treating the United States and China as India’s relevant others may underestimate the role of Pakistan in India’s domestic debates over foreign policy. Laruelle’s attention to the search for development models and national unity takes more domestic pressures into consideration, but may not take full account of Russia’s varying relations with different members of the “West” and “East.”

This raises the empirical contributions of this Special Forum in previewing a major task for research on national identity and diplomacy going forward: the interaction among different countries’ foreign policies tied to national identity. Shin writes on how Korea-Japan relations interact with US-Japan relations; Kim on how relations between North and South Korea interact with US-ROK relations; Rozman on how Japan-China relations interact with Korea-Japan relations; Ollapally on how US-India relations interact with India-China relations; and Laruelle on how Russia-Europe relations interact with Russia-Asia relations. Further research can build on these explications to help us understand other lines of interaction and how a particular shock—from a North Korean nuclear test, a Chinese maritime provocation, or a Japanese offense against historical sensitivities—reverberates through a network of identity and diplomatic relations.

The articles in this Special Forum provide a roadmap for further study of national identities and regional diplomacy that will be pursued by a Korean Economic Institute-sponsored panel at the Association of Asian Studies annual meeting in March 2014. At a time when studying interactions among identities and foreign policies requires better theoretical tools and involves more scholars engaging various empirical cases, this project aims to productively link these endeavors and offer new insights for academics and policymakers.