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date: 16 August 2017

Peace, War, Theory, and Evidence in East Asia

Summary and Keywords

Historically one of the world’s most conflict-prone regions, since the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, East Asia has enjoyed a relative interstate peace. Implications of some of the relevant “East Asian peace” literature for theories of international relations need assessment. The central conclusion is that, contrary to often expressed dissatisfaction with the state of IR theory, it is possible to identify a core of theoretical knowledge that has considerable explanatory power for war and peace in East Asia, and is also based on general theory with considerable support across global regions. This diverges somewhat from the well-known argument of Lake in 2011: It is not the “-isms” that lead us astray, but how we use them. Unlike Lake, but consistent with Legro and Moravcsik (1999), it is argued that broad theoretical constructs are needed, and indeed useful ones exist, while mid-level or problem-focused analysis is no substitute for a theory-based research program. What is often lacking is an effort by empirical researchers to clearly and coherently tie their research design to theoretically important claims.

Empirical political science as a whole is becoming more sophisticated in its methods and capabilities for causal inference, and it is also becoming more relevant and useful for policy makers. We should devote as much attention to the theoretical contributions of our research. The article addresses the role of theory in IR, the ways that empirical analysis of East Asia (and other regions) can contribute to theory building and theory testing, the existing literature on East Asian peace, some informed speculation about how the potential for mid-term military conflict between the United States and China might be assessed, and thoughts about current and potential contributions to IR theory based on the study of the East Asian peace.

Theorizing in social science is hard, and any scholar’s dissatisfaction with existing theory should be heavily tempered with acknowledgment that s/he has not proposed a more powerful one. Regional analysis, and comparative regional analysis, can provide important potential gains by challenging current theory with hard tests. East Asia not only is a crucially important part of the world for the future of interstate peace, it also presents challenging and useful empirical puzzles for our theories.

Keywords: peace, war, interstate conflict, East Asia, liberalism, realism, power-transition theory, developmental peace, empirical international relations theory


A number of scholars have noted what seems a surprising pattern in international conflict in East Asia. While it had been one of the most conflict-prone regions of the world for most of the period from the Opium War through the 1970s, since the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, East Asia has enjoyed a relative interstate peace (Kivimäki, 2011; Solingen, 1998, 2007; Tønnesson, 2009). In most of this literature, and in this article, international conflict is taken to mean the use of lethal violence between states, rather than simply tensions or threats of military action. This article surveys some of the recent literature related to this observed East Asian peace, and to war and peace in the region in general. The main motivation is to assess what analysis of regional interstate conflict and peace can tell us about the state of theories of international relations (IR).

The central conclusion is that, contrary to often expressed dissatisfaction with the state of IR theory, it is possible to identify a core of theoretical knowledge that has considerable explanatory power for war and peace in East Asia, and is also based on general theory with considerable support across global regions. While important arguments remain about causal mechanisms and evidence, there is nevertheless a reasonable explanation of major patterns of war and peace in East Asia based on military power and preferences, tied to perceived intentions and domestic politics. There is reasonably coherent theory with informative, substantive assumptions. These in turn lead to testable hypotheses that have shown themselves more consistent than not with the available evidence. One should not exaggerate the extent of current understanding, nor underplay the major limitations, but neither is it helpful to dismiss existing theory and explanation wholesale. In order to make further progress, it is necessary to sharpen the understanding of theoretical foundations and theoretical divisions behind current debates.

Certainly existing theories have gaps and are debated, but the only viable alternative for a science is to accept and work with the available theory with the best explanatory power. Whether we are satisfied or dissatisfied with existing theory, the challenge is not to argue about the need for theory, or whether our theories resemble those in other areas of knowledge, but to focus on how to improve knowledge by theory testing and theory development. That this process is messy in a relatively young, and perhaps especially challenging, area of knowledge is hardly a surprise. In this sense the article diverges somewhat from the well-known argument of Lake (2011): It is not the “-isms” that lead us astray, but how we use them. Unlike Lake, but consistent with Legro and Moravcsik (1999), it is argued that we need broad theoretical constructs, and indeed we have them, while mid-level or problem-focused analysis is no substitute for a theory-based research program to improve understanding of international relations.

What is often lacking is an effort by empirical researchers to clearly and coherently tie their research design to theoretically important claims. There simply is no alternative to theory-driven research in building understanding of a phenomenon like East Asian peace, but in some instances theoretical differences have been underemphasized or researchers have talked past each other rather than focusing on sharpening hypotheses to provide key empirical tests. One can argue that empirical political science as a whole is becoming more sophisticated in its methods and capabilities for causal inference, and it is also becoming more relevant and useful for policy makers. We should devote as much attention to the theoretical contributions of our research. This would not only improve the cumulation of knowledge, but push further improvement to our methods and relevance.

The remainder of this article first discusses the role of theory in IR. This is followed by a discussion of the ways that empirical analysis of East Asia (and other regions) can contribute to theory building and theory testing. Next is a discussion of the existing literature on East Asian peace, beginning with those that claim a sui generis Asia-specific explanation, followed by those that draw on theories emphasizing the role of military power, and then turning to theories that emphasize the role of actor preferences. The penultimate section provides some informed speculation about how the potential for mid-term military conflict between the United States and China might be assessed, and the final section concludes with a summary of thoughts about current and potential contributions to IR theory based on the study of the East Asian peace.

IR Theory

This article is motivated in the spirit of this volume to contribute to the improvement of theory in international relations through an assessment of the existing state of theory in a particular area of inquiry. Although the emphasis here is on reviewing and assessing existing theory and knowledge as it relates to interstate conflict in East Asia, the underlying assumptions about theory and knowledge in social science should be made clear. The approach is explicitly Lakatosian, taking Lakatos’s (1970) ideas as broadly consistent with Popper (1959) and, to a lesser extent, Kuhn (1962). Most important, the article draws on Lakatos’s belief that a scientific field can advance rationally as a research program progresses, degenerates, and is replaced by a more powerful one. Knowledge cumulates; anomalies are grappled with; new ideas are developed and tested; new theories predict new facts that are confirmed or falsified; and we gradually gain firmer understanding in specific areas of inquiry, such as IR.

Of course, these choices potentially limit the relevance of the discussion for those who reject this sort of approach to knowledge, or who believe that international relations does not fit this conception of a social science (e.g., Jackson & Nexon, 2013). But these are fundamental disagreements that cannot be addressed in this article. The approach is to present the value of studying the East Asian peace for scientific understanding of international relations, defined in this way.

What does this imply? Social science should be seen as a science in that it is an area of knowledge that employs scientific method to develop, establish, and refute knowledge claims. The most important steps in this process are deductive theorizing, hypothesis generation, and empirical hypothesis testing. Theory has to do with causal relationships, and requires some fundamental assumptions, for example about actors, agency, and structure (Legro & Moravcsik, 1999). The counterfactual approach to causation is taken as the most useful, and is also consistent with probabilistic analysis (Lewis, 1973, 1986). That is, we can consider a relationship causal when effect Y would not have occurred in the absence of cause X, and probabilistic statements about the likelihood of Y, given X, can be seen as generalizations of this logic.

A core body of well-supported and logically coherent theory represents established knowledge, while new knowledge claims can challenge or expand understandings at the periphery or at the core. When core knowledge is challenged, there is the potential for a fundamental advance or paradigm shift (to use somewhat contradictory but widely accepted Kuhnian language). The standard for judging theory is primarily explanatory power for observed evidence. Thus any new knowledge claim must not only explain equally well the observations already encompassed by existing theory, but must also either improve on the explanation of the known observed evidence, or anticipate new facts, or both. The result of a hypothesis test can be positive, negative, or inconclusive. All results should add to an assessment of confidence in existing theory, and contribute to theory development by reinforcing, or creating doubt, or greater precision, regarding existing knowledge.

There are particular challenges to developing scientific knowledge in international relations (many of which are also common in other areas of social science). These include the apparent complexity of observed phenomena to be explained, the difficulty of collecting reliable and valid data appropriate for answering questions of interest to the field, and the related challenge of the limited opportunities for design-based inference such as from natural or laboratory experiments.

Another important challenge that is less commonly discussed is lack of clear, consensual understanding of the types of analysis that are included in the community of IR scholarship. The church is probably too broad, but there is disagreement and hesitation about excluding some practitioners as “unscientific.” A related challenge is that of application and attempted production of knowledge beyond the scientific community, for example, in government policy formulation, diplomacy, the work of nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups, or journalism. While it can be advantageous to have an area of knowledge perceived as important and urgent in the wider world, in the case of international relations this wide interest has probably blurred the lines between scientific knowledge and well-intentioned but unsystematic speculation, and allowed applications of valid knowledge to be distorted through, for example, politicization or poor understanding among practitioners (or poor communication by scholars).

Why a Regional Focus?

Common rationales for regional foci in the study of international relations are that regional dynamics are distinct and therefore deserve a distinct theory (Kang, 2003, 2007), or that supposedly universal theories have a parochial bias based on cases most familiar to their (often Western) authors (Acharya, 2011, 2014b; Johnston, 2012). In the former instance, each region must be understood on its own terms. In the latter, better understanding of the region will also improve general (global) theory, or, as Johnston (2012, p. 70) writes, “the search for generalization requires, but is likely to be tempered by, local knowledge.” Each motivation has some validity, but logically the former must be subordinate to the latter. If a supposedly general theory cannot account for local dynamics, then the two must be reconciled. The attempt to carve out an independent explanatory framework and treat one region as a sort of alternate universe makes less sense than the attempt to understand the conditions under which “local” differences obtain. This is a way in which, as Johnston suggests, local knowledge can temper general theory.

But there are dangers in the tendency to view existing theory as “Western” (Acharya, 2014b) or “transatlantic” (Johnston, 2012), and facing non-Western challengers. The concept of bias must be understood more broadly. To give it a national or cultural label is not very productive, both because it unnecessarily implies that entire groups of scholars should be categorized together based on their origins or location, not their ideas; and also because the search for whatever biases or deficiencies exist in a theory should not be limited to its reliance on evidence or intellectual traditions from a particular region. Theoretical deficiencies can only be identified by examining the internal logic of the theory, and especially by testing the theory against relevant evidence, including more refined or alternate versions of the evidence it is supposedly derived from.

Thus the broader rationale for taking a regional perspective is to provide hard tests for the claims of supposedly universal theories. This is related to Johnston’s understanding, if the test on “local” data leads to revision of the theory. However, it might not. Not only might testing a theory on a specific region provide an especially hard and valid test if the theory was not developed with this region in mind, but it might also provide a hard test for theories that are usually tested on global data, as is often the case in quantitative international relations scholarship. This can force scholars to think more carefully about causal mechanisms and microfoundations, because smaller datasets including more homogenous cases provide fewer chances of false positives and inflated statistical confidence due to large sample sizes and statistical assumptions such as, for example, linearity (Achen, 2002; Gleditsch, 2002). In these ways, testing general theories on regional data should provide a sort of “out-of-sample” test in which previous apparent confirmation of a hypothesis is shown to be based on some anomalous or poorly understood aspect of the global dataset that is not present at the local level. This leverages the claim to universality of a general theory—a universal theory should apply at the local level, or else it is unclear what is meant by universal.

This perspective emphasizes not just testing a general theory on data from one region, such as East Asia, but testing it across multiple regions. The approach must be explicitly comparative (Goldsmith, 2006). This is not to suggest theory testing with single case studies, or with too little inferential leverage to support the claims made, as is not uncommon among some country- or area-studies specialists. Regional specialists rightly point out that many scholars of East Asian international relations produce theoretically engaged analyses (Johnston, 2012, p. 70). The value of case studies for theory development should not be dismissed, but they incur well-known challenges for theory testing (Achen & Snidal, 1989). While it is unfair to claim that area-studies tends toward atheoretical analysis, from the perspective of developing general theory, area studies that is explicitly non-comparative with relation to the unit of analysis of its key concepts (e.g., Asian values), suffers from either a lack of variation in the independent variable, or selecting on the dependent variable. To assess the impact of Asian values, one must include Asian and non-Asian cases, or at least include Asian cases that both are and are not supposed to adhere to these values. To assess the causes of the East Asian peace, it is not wise to focus only on peaceful East Asian states.

This perspective stems from a broad view of theory in social science. Logically, theories should be general, and any “local” theory should either condition a general one, or make clear why the general theory does not apply. The latter situation would indicate some important flaw, because a general theory does not deserve the label if important exemptions must be carved out, while a local theory that contradicts a broader theory but fails to say how it is superior has no basis to be considered instead of the broader one.

Thus the approach taken in this article gives pride of place to generalization beyond East Asia. This already leads to a contradiction with some of the literature focused on the East Asian peace, most notably that of Tønnesson (2017), who argues that his explanation for the relative peace after 1979 does not travel to other regions.

It should also be distinguished from arguments that there are normative bases to study Asia in a different way than it is currently studied, or than other regions are studied. Certainly it is important to address the most urgent questions, and design social science research to serve the greater good, but the motivation to study state violence against civilians or the destructive nature of foreign interventions does not require undoing existing theory, for example, on international security (Hamilton-Hart, 2009). If new theory is required to study urgent problems, new theory should be developed. But existing theory should be changed in response to logical critiques and failed empirical tests, and then only when a theory with superior explanatory power accompanies these things. Calls for reconsideration of vague concepts like security in Asia because Asia’s security problems are different than those in other parts of the world tend mainly to muddy the concepts we use, rather than to clarify important questions or develop new theory that seems especially relevant in Asia or elsewhere.

These issues are not new. Differing perspectives on how (or whether) to approach the study of regional subsystems in international relations have a considerable history (for discussions see Gleditsch, 2002; Goldsmith, 2006). Lake and Morgan (1997) strike a good balance between maintaining focus on general theory, and emphasizing the possibility of regional distinctions based on conditioning factors. Lemke (2002) is an example of a general theory that can be used to predict regional differences.

The focus here is on international relations and international conflict only, although there is parallel research on an intrastate East Asian peace. Key intra-state studies have focused on effective repression of political dissent (Eck, 2015; Svensson, 2015), demographic trends (Urdal, 2017), and the elite motivation to provide political stability to facilitate economic development (Kivimäki, 2011; Tønnesson, 2015). This work is touched upon only as it relates to possible mutual causation or other interactions between intra- and interstate conflict and peace. For example, the weak connections of religiously motivated (e.g., Jihadist) groups to transnational networks is noted by Svensson, while the developmental state ideology can be seen as a potential cause of both intra- and interstate peace in the region.

If East Asia has been excluded from mainstream analysis in international relations as Johnston (2012, p. 54) claims, then a focus on the East Asian peace can help correct for any resulting biases in theory or conclusions. Indeed, while regional biases in social science are not welcome, correcting for such biases can, as noted, provide useful hard tests for supposedly general theories. Similarly, explanations with an overwhelmingly regional focus should be challenged to move beyond parochialism, and connect more explicitly to general theory.

The article now turns to a discussion of some explanations for East Asian peace portray the phenomenon, or indeed East Asian international relations overall, as sui generis.

Asia-Specific Arguments

For reasons that seem common sense, analysts emphasizing regional explanations for regional outcomes like the absence of interstate war since 1979 (the East Asian peace) often focus on the development and persistence of regional norms and apparently path-dependent practices. Two prominent examples of this in the area of East Asian security studies are the norms-based work of Acharya (2007, 2014a) and the tradition or practice-based work of Kang (2003, 2007).

While neither of these authors addresses the East Asian peace explicitly, their work has connections to that of subsequent scholars of East Asian peace, mainly Kivimäki and Tønnesson. For Acharya, a key explanation for regional outcomes is the local adaptation of external norms. This localization of norms means that ideas with similar or the same macro labels, can have substantively distinct meaning and impact. Thus, sovereignty takes on exceptionally important and specific meaning in Southeast Asia, which it does not have in Europe. For Kang, practices of international politics based on deep-rooted issues of identity and cultural order are not easily muted and exhibit strong staying power. Thus, interpreting the rise of Chinese power in terms of power-transition theory ignores the reasons that Chinese preponderance has been and again will be a pacific force in Asia.

Both Kivimäki and Tønnesson focus on developmentalism as a driving factor behind East Asian peace. Kivimäki’s argument is perhaps closer to the norm-based approach of Acharya, focusing on the ASEAN way and the norms of noninterference and peaceful development that it fosters. Tønnesson’s argument is also for a developmental peace, but his perspective is practice based and historical, emphasizing potential path dependencies. East Asian states learned from the successful example of the Yoshida doctrine, which came about in a very specific historical and regional context. Emulation of Japan’s example made sense in the specific context, and as each new regional state adopted a developmental outlook, the chances of others joining the flock probably also increased.

Tønnesson lays out an argument based on East Asian leaders’ developmental goals, which he claims require that they avoid international war (and civil war as well). He spells out a multistage process beginning with a national crisis, and leading to both international accommodation and domestic repression in the pursuit of economic growth. This is presented as a “series of national priority shifts” (Tønnesson, 2015, p. 14), which draws connections to the work of Legro (2008) on shifts in national purpose. While he acknowledges that there may be implications outside of East Asia, he characterizes his approach as “historical theory, meant to explain the emergence of the East Asian Peace” (Tønnesson, 2017).

One implication of such an exclusively regional focus seems to be that the explanation depends heavily on the motivations of individual leaders and their ability to direct their respective state systems toward national goals incorporating a belief that large-scale political violence is inimical to the goals pursued. As Ljunggren (2015) points out, the East Asian interstate peace may be entirely dependent on shifting Chinese priorities, in this conception. Since there is no general understanding of why some states do or do not adopt these priorities at a given time, it is hard to say much, except in retrospect, about why a given leader will or will not adopt or continue such priorities in the present or future, in East Asia or elsewhere. In terms of causal reasoning, the counterfactuals are not yet well defined and go largely unexamined.

If we consider these approaches in terms of their assumptions about actors, agency, and structure, however, it may be possible to draw connections to general theory. There is something profoundly unsatisfying and incomplete in explanations that claim a very narrow scope. Others point out that apparently local phenomena, such as the resolution of disparate intrastate conflicts in Southeast Asia from the 1980s, might have global roots (Kreutz, 2015). An important way in which analysis of phenomena like the apparent East Asian peace can contribute to general IR knowledge is to be more explicit about scope conditions, both in the sense of recognizing the potential illogic of sui generis explanation, and in challenging any supposedly general theory to supply the scope conditions under which it can be applied to any set of regional cases. That is, for example, if democratic peace does not apply to East Asia, as Tønnesson and others claim, it must be established what are the conditioning factors that make it irrelevant in that context. If that cannot be done, the theory must either be shown to actually apply, or we must consider that a falsifying result has been found, that weakens confidence in the general theory.

While this logic might seem straightforward, it is not often reflected in practice, which can exhibit a preference for global data and ignore regional anomalies. Regarding the democratic peace, for example, Russett and Oneal (2001) have dismissed the potential breakdown of results at subsystem levels as unimportant given their global results. In this context, regional analysis can be part of better, tougher theory testing, and need not be seen as automatically ad hoc. Instead of asking “why focus only on Asia,” we can ask “why not?” As noted, in many areas of the empirical study of international relations, causal inference is a great challenge because of the widely acknowledged difficulties of design-based inference and experimental manipulation. Closer attention to causal mechanisms in smaller sets of relatively homogenous cases can have advantages in such circumstances.

Johnston (2012, pp. 66, 68), for example, sees the study of IR in East Asia as developing “an agenda focused on the microprocesses by which information flows and social contact inside myriad official, semiofficial, and unofficial cross-national networks affect actors’ security cooperation preferences and strategies”; he suggests that cases including Indonesia, Taiwan, and South Korea “raise[] questions about the scope conditions for democratic peace theory.”

Intersubjectivity, Bargaining, and Theory

Another connection may be drawn between claims of regional difference and the essential elements of a theory of international relations (specifically in the case of East Asian peace, one focused on interstate conflict). On the one hand, there may seem to be solid connections between constructivist approaches to international relations and regionally specific outcomes based on the power of regionally specific norms. However, these connections are illusory from the standpoint of empirical theory. Specifically, the constructivist frameworks do not supply assumptions about states’ motivations, goals, or priorities. Therefore, they are entirely indeterminate in their expectations or predictions, and do not serve the role of substantive theory. Little in constructivist theory tells us which practices, norms, or beliefs will be adopted; at what point; and which will not, nor when they will change. Rather, a process is described in which they are adopted, with the emphasis usually on the interactive nature of the process, and the potential deviations from some concept of material rationality.

In this sense, historical approaches like Tønnesson’s are not much different from constructivist accounts. But more is needed for a substantive theory. The same can be said about so-called rationalist “theory” or bargaining “theory” in IR (Reiter, 2003). Rationalist approaches tell us that peace can result from credible bargaining. Constructivists argue that identity conditions interaction, and is conditioned by it. Neither approach tells us how we are to understand the power structures or the origins of actor preferences that inform the issues at stake and the values assigned to those issues by actors. Only substantive theoretical assumptions can fill in these key elements of actors’ utility functions. Why do states prefer one norm to another, or change norms at a given point? Why do states have certain levels of resolve for certain types of issues at stake?

This is not to say that norm-based or bargaining-process based frameworks are not useful or important. Clearly they are, and have contributed much to empirical IR theory. But counterfactuals and scope conditions need to be clearly defined. An early example of a revealing test of the “strategic culture” approach is Johnston’s (1996) study of Chinese strategic norms, which attempted to assess the staying power of a particular, constant, strategic culture among Chinese elites while the power structure in which China found itself underwent variation. However, assumptions about the specific norms or values, and their origins, as well as about the expected effects of power structure, are exogenous to a constructivist or rationalist approach. Actor preferences are given—but it is an essential role of theory to provide them through basic assumptions.

If theories of politics provide the political substance that necessitates assumptions about value, then rationalist or constructivist frameworks still fundamentally need political theories of value. We cannot only know that bargaining is affected by a certain strategic structure and process. We must also know what players’ preferences are, and how preferences and structure interact. More precisely, theories of international relations must supply simplifying assumptions about the essential elements of structure and value that are most useful and powerful for explaining interstate relations.

In order to move beyond frameworks for actor interactions, therefore, theoretical assumptions about what states or other actors value are needed. Assumptions simplify reality, and so may not be themselves empirically testable. But they must lead to testable propositions in order to be useful elements of theory. For the purpose of assessing theory and the East Asian peace, assumptions can be categorized into those that privilege power and those that privilege preference in international relations. The article now turns to examining studies of East Asian peace in these two categories of general IR theory.

Power: Balance, Hierarchy, and Transition

This section and the next rely on Legro and Moravcsik’s (1999, pp. 12–18) characterizations of major IR theories and their core assumptions about actors, agency, and structure. Realist theories based on the fundamental role of military power in shaping international relations are strongest and most coherent when they assume rational, unitary actors; with fixed and uniformly conflictual goals; operating in an anarchic structure that gives primacy to material capabilities.

Legro and Moravcsik argue that structural realist accounts (Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979) are clearly consistent with these assumptions, as are their “classical” predecessors such as Carr and Morgenthau. They take issue with some “neoclassical” and “defensive” approaches that, in the main, seek to modify realism by making different assumptions about actor preferences, allowing them to vary. If actors are not considered like units, but are permitted to vary in their essential preferences, the logic for a power-based IR theory begins to erode, as does the distinctive potential contribution of realism. This is so because it allows states to escape the security dilemma, a fundamental causal mechanism shaping realist predictions of limited cooperation, the ever-present potential for violent conflict, and states’ inability to overcome the underlying anarchic structure of the international system. Without such elements, there can hardly be a distinctive realist theory.

In studies of peace and conflict in East Asia, structural realist accounts have shared the spotlight with power-transition theory. Some studies attempt to combine ideas from both theoretical schools, although the schools’ logics are often seen as competing rather than complementary. Among the prominent accounts are those of Mearsheimer (2014) and Ross (1999). Ross (2017) specifically provides an explanation for East Asian peace. This section will focus on these as well as Lake’s ideas about hierarchy, which seem to provide a potential generalization of Kang’s Asia-specific discussion of the Chinese tribute system. Specifically, this section addresses the degree to which a realist, power-based approach might be preserved in discussing East Asian peace, and the degree to which variation in state preferences might enter into the discussion. The attempt to reconcile structural realism and power-transition theories is both problematic and potentially productive.

It is telling that two important realist discussions of the causes of peace and conflict in East Asia seem to extract divergent understandings of the stability and future of East Asian peace. Mearsheimer is decidedly gloomy, even alarming, while Ross has a greater emphasis on the roots of peace in balanced power and settled borders, and its prospects for enduring. This divergence appears to be due at least in part to the indeterminacy of realist theory itself when dealing with the likelihood of war, and especially wars other than those pitting great powers against each other.

For realists, war occurs through miscalculation (Mearsheimer, 2001; Waltz, 1979), in a sense quite similar to the underlying insight behind bargaining models, with roots going back at least to Blainey (1973). In bargaining models, war is irrational in that the eventual loser would retrospectively always prefer to save the costs of war by ceding some value (equal to or less than what would be lost in the fighting) that would nevertheless sate the eventual winner. Victors would also prefer to achieve the spoils, but avoid the costs, of war. Private information and the inability to credibly signal sometimes leads states to fail to make such bargains, and go to war, a suboptimal outcome for each. Similarly, realists posit that states balance power as they pursue their own security. Transparently balanced capabilities and intentions lead to peace, but when one side misjudges the other’s capabilities or intentions, deterrence can fail or attempts to communicate resolve can spiral to war.

When the fundamental cause of war is miscalculation, the causal argument is clearly probabilistic. The solidity of explanations for many decades of peace, based solely on this logic, would hinge more on the complete implausibility of war as a rational proposition, rather than on a finely balanced relationship between potential adversaries, each of which might see a plausible gain from war. Thus, a realist explanation for East Asian peace might focus on the reasons why the peace is fragile, and (so far) a lucky product of chance, or why the peace is solid, because some aspects of the military balance make war an implausible option for one or more states, while also making exploitation of that fact for excessive advantage an implausible option for potential adversaries.

Mearsheimer, true to his offensive-realist perspective, describes a tenuous and perhaps doomed peace, pointing to the increasing temptations for China to use its military power, and the correspondingly growing imperatives for the United States to react, or for regional actors hoping to draw the United States in as a defender. Ross, on the other hand, points to China’s success in establishing security along its land borders. With much lower vulnerability, and growing military power, China has had little need for further costly confrontations after 1979. It may only be when its power expands to such an extent that its ambitions and vital interests extend to outcomes well beyond these land borders that a high degree of alarm is called for.

This indeterminacy of realist theory is not necessarily a flaw, but simply a scope condition. As Waltz admonished at least about his structural realism, it is a mistake to think of realist IR theory as a theory of foreign policy. It is not a theory to explain specific actions by specific states, even great powers. Rather, it is a theory to explain general patterns of behavior (and therefore probabilistic), even though any major state may at any time miscalculate, and cause great power war, or have an “overreaction” such as the decade-long U.S. involvement in the Vietnam war (Waltz, 1979, pp. 171–172).

Power-based approaches often have difficulty addressing the behavior of smaller states, or even any non-great powers. This can be problematic for understanding East Asian peace, and regional patterns in general, because the outcome of interest is not only great-power war or peace, but the overall pattern of conflict among all states in the region. Additional assumptions, at the least, are needed, such as perceptions of the offense-defense balance (Christensen & Snyder, 1990; Jervis, 1978). While this begins to introduce variation in state preferences, or at least beliefs, it is perhaps consistent with realist assumptions in that it is still based on military capabilities and the severity of the security dilemma. Such extensions based on learning (Reiter, 2003) and perception can lead to somewhat more specific predictions of balancing or bandwagoning behavior, affecting the dynamics of deterrence or spirals of conflict, for example. But to date no such systematic realist interpretation of East Asian peace has been attempted for all states in the region. This could be a useful new research direction.

Another set of assumptions that can be used to modify power-based theories relates to states’ satisfaction with the status quo. This is most commonly raised as a conditioning factor of power transition theories. However, it is also often combined with a realist approach, for example, as both Mearsheimer and Ross (2017) do. But this distinction sits more uneasily with realist theory than these authors seem to acknowledge. If states can be exogenously satisfied with the status quo, in a way that is causal and independent of their power capabilities, then the causal primacy of those capabilities is clearly undermined. This is one fundamental tension between power transition and realist perspectives—for a realist, it can only be resolved by eliminating the distinction between status quo and revisionist states. This would allow realists, echoing Thucydides, to posit that any rising challenger will be a threat to any dominant great power, but perhaps severely limits the degree to which power transitions can explain actual empirical patterns of great power war and its absence.

Another source of tension in power-based theories as they apply to East Asia is the standard realist explanation (and prescription) for peace of power balancing, as juxtaposed with contending perspectives on power transitions and power hierarchy. The dangerous aspect of a power transition is the period when the challenger is approaching, or surpassing, power parity with the dominant state. But, parity, of course can also describe balanced power. Such pointed theoretical contradictions can be good if theories are intended to be tested against each other. However, given that realism and power transitions are often discussed together in the context of the rise of China in particular, it is either the case that these ideas are incoherent when combined, or that there can be a way to reconcile their logics. Without pretending to provide an answer to this, two possible important distinctions can be identified: that between great powers and all other states, and that between a static balance and a dynamic overtaking or relative power fluctuation. These too may be productive areas of future research. Dynamic power transitions among great powers (but not other states) may be impossible for external states to moderate and may make miscalculation of intentions as well as capabilities especially likely, even if power is close to parity, conditioning the realist prediction that balance is conducive to peace.

But power transition theory in current form is indeed a different animal than realism (Lemke, 2002; Organski, 1958), and this is often lost in discussions of East Asia. Hierarchy, or at least power preponderance, which power transition focuses on as the main source of peace in the international system, has resonance especially in Kang’s characterization of a supposedly Asia-specific order based on culture and history. Recently, Lake has developed a sophisticated theory of hierarchy in international relations. Although this has not been specifically applied to the East Asian peace, such an application could be promising. Johnston (2012, p. 70) notes that “one could argue that local concepts of interstate order, such as the Sino-centric tribute system or the Southeast Asia mandala system, do not fundamentally challenge Lake’s theorizing about hierarchy.”

For power-structure theories, examination of the East Asian peace presents the challenge of synthesis of concepts of parity, transition, and hierarchy. Regional analysis, by forcing us to think about regional structures embedded in a global structure, and static versus dynamic (im)balances, makes advances in realist or at least realpolitik theory possible, in ways that maintain core realist assumptions and avoid the loss of theoretical integrity criticized by Legro and Moravcsik (1999).

Preferences: Development, Democracy, Community

The security dilemma remains at the core of explanations of war and peace in power-based theories. It is equally central to preference-based theories. Liberal theories in particular posit a continuum of possible worlds of international politics (Keohane & Nye, 1977; Moravcsik, 1997). At one end is the familiar power-based realist world, in which the security dilemma is a constant concern, but it can be managed with power balancing, and perhaps is less acute when technology exogenously creates a defensive advantage in military affairs (Jervis, 1978). Recurrent warfare is nevertheless expected, because miscalculation is highly likely with some frequency among great powers. At the other end of the continuum, however, is a world in which states exhibit restraint in one form or another, which ameliorates the security dilemma (Keohane & Nye, 1977). States are no longer assumed to be like units, because core preferences may vary.

The key question for IR theory then becomes this: What moves state preferences along the continuum?

Regarding the East Asian peace, such preference-based explanations have been advanced with reference to economic interests, developmental state ideology, and common identity or norms. It is important that preference-based theories take power-based IR as their starting point, and then explore additional ways in which the security dilemma might be mitigated and even made irrelevant. In order to do this, they should (perhaps among other options) show ways in which military power ceases to be fungible into other areas of interstate relations. This lack of fungibility can come about when issue linkages are sometimes not possible (Keohane & Nye, 1977), which implies that there are conditions under which military force loses its primacy among the sources of power in interstate relations.

Liberal theory, conceived in this way, encompasses an idealized realist world at one pole of its continuum, and an idealized liberal world at the other pole. Typically we will find existing international politics in various regions or at various times at points along the continuum. A fundamental contribution of liberal theory, conceived in this way, is to identify state preferences, and their variation, as the key driving and conditioning factor in international politics (Moravcsik, 1997). This provides an interesting lens through which to consider some preference-based explanations of East Asian peace.

My own research in this area makes only limited claims at preference change, but I believe has strong empirical support. I argue that high trade volumes provide states with high-value or high-profile signaling tools when they reach a situation of potential conflict escalation with a trading partner (Goldsmith, 2013, 2014a). These allow states to avoid conflict escalation through enhanced credible and informative signaling of interests and intentions. There are clear roots in the realist insight that war results from miscalculation, but preference change is evident in the limited sense that trade represents domestic and national interests that create unanticipated consequences for state behavior. It is not that states with high trade volumes categorically fear losing trade with a particular partner more than they value a given issue at stake in a militarized dispute. Rather, the degree to which they value the issue can be more clearly signaled, such as in 2010 when China cut off all rare-earth metals trade with Japan in the midst of maritime tensions, or 2008–11 when Thailand’s leaders repeatedly appealed to Cambodia to focus on the value of their mutual trade, and even offered additional trade-related loans, instead of further escalating violence over land around a disputed temple (Goldsmith, 2013).

States with such trade links behave differently than they would in the counterfactual, in the absence of such links, and this is because of different manifest preferences created exogenously by the trade. That is, the trade links were not created, in most cases, for the sake of managing potential future conflicts. Nor do conflicts arise due to the trade links in most cases. Further, I argue and present evidence that it is specifically the large expansion of intraregional trade volumes after China’s opening and marketization in 1978 that corresponds to the period of the East Asian peace. Levels of economic interdependence, defined as the mutual level of dependence of national economies on the trade among two states, remained relatively flat (as the size of economies and their trade volumes increased in tandem), and these are more likely to play a role in the consideration of overall opportunity costs for the initiation of conflict, but then be priced into decisions regarding escalation.

But this trade-based explanation for East Asian peace marks only a modest theoretical departure from a realist foundation, in that preferences move toward valuing trade, and using that valued trade to more effectively signal security and other interests. Other preference-based approaches make bolder claims.

Although Tønnesson suggests that his “developmental peace” approach is not a general theory, it clearly implies changed preferences among foreign policy decision-makers. Founders and inheritors of developmental states may have much lower utility for military conflict. A more general and perhaps well-elaborated version of such claims is Solingen’s (1998, 2007) arguments about internationalist versus statist elite coalitions. She explicitly provides an explanation for the lack of interstate war in East Asia, although the dates do not perfectly coincide with what most current analysts call the East Asian peace post-1979. Chan (2013) also advances an argument that preferences for economic development ameliorate security concerns that have previously driven enduring military rivalries in the region.

Norm- and law-based explanations are also fairly ambitious. Acharya, Kivimäki, and Scott (2017) advance arguments that rules of the international system, or the (South) East Asian subsystem may have an exogenous impact on preferences, again reducing the utility of military conflict in favor of conforming to identity and community.

Generally, while a power-based explanation of the East Asian peace would attempt to identify balancing, deterring, or reassuring structural-power configurations conducive to such long-term interstate peace, a preference-based explanation would focus on factors that ameliorate the security dilemma in spite of potentially conflict-inducing power structures, by causing states to worry less about potential military threats, and to give higher value to means and ends that are not based in military power. While for power-based explanations states are assumed to be like units, in preference-based explanations, states can be fundamentally unlike units because they have different utility functions.

There can be no realist-liberal synthesis here. The theoretical issue at stake is fundamental. Either the security environment conditions states to self-help in all non-trivial contexts (Mearsheimer, 2001), or it does not (Moravcsik, 1997). Either sustained peace can come about through changed state preferences that devalue military security, or it cannot. In theoretical terms, this is a desirable quality because it leads to testable propositions. I do not pretend to be neutral on this question. To my mind, the evidence for a liberal East Asian peace is much stronger than that for a purely realist one. Preferences of regional states have changed drastically since the 1970s, at least through the massive increase in intraregional trade (Goldsmith, 2013), and perhaps through changes to ideology and norms that speak to more deliberate conflict avoidance. I also find evidence that the mechanisms of democratic peace operate in Asia (Goldsmith, 2014b). Devising empirical tests to establish the relative weight of economic interests and developmental-state norms in the East Asian peace is one challenging area for future work related to state preferences.

But, preference-based explanations purchase greater explanatory power at a cost of parsimony. Some studies limit their value by sacrificing too much parsimony. The importance of theorizing generally, and carefully guarding against questionable inference, is often evident in studies presenting elaborate theories to explain regional dynamics, with limited attempts at leveraging comparative analysis or examining alternative explanations. Goh’s (2013) English School inspired, rich, but inferentially fragile discussion of East Asia’s “layered” hierarchy and institutional infrastructure based on “social compact” is vulnerable to this sort of challenge, and therefore serves more as a set of hypotheses than an empirical analysis.

Coming Confrontations

Most observers anticipate a power transition in East Asia, given Organski’s basic calculus of per-capita efficiency multiplied by population size and tax effort. Even though China’s growth has slowed, it seems likely that its total GDP will surpass that of the United States at some point in the 21st century, and then continue to grow. Indeed, we might also look ahead to India–United States and, potentially, India–China transitions. What does analysis of the East Asian peace through the lens of IR theory tell us about the potential China–United States power transition?

The most likely scenario may be one of increasing tensions, right up to, but not across, the brink of war. Mutual interest in trade and other economic linkages should help stop the United States and China from going over the brink, and huge trade volumes should enhance the credibility and clarity of signaling to avoid miscalculation. The likely outcome will be a grand bargain in which China gets some of what it wants in its territorial grabs in the East and South China Seas, while other regional states achieve some recognition and reinforcement of their (diminished) sovereignty through tools of law, alliance, organizations, norms, and pure deterrence. In order to establish the legitimacy and credibility of such a bargain to domestic and regional audiences, the United States and China will probably have to come close to the brink of war. Trade volumes and other signaling tools can help establish where the line is drawn, but probably cannot establish each side’s bottom line without military probing that frightens leaders and populations.


Kuhn (1962) noted that in young fields, researchers often must attempt to construct a full theory to support each new research topic, but over time researchers develop common theories, accepted knowledge, and shared terminology. One way this manifests is in the change from producing mainly books, to more commonly seeing shorter research articles. While Kuhn did not necessarily see this as a progressive process, it can be seen as such from the Lakatosian perspective. International relations, and political science more widely, seem to have moved far along this path in the last three or four decades. The study of East Asian IR is also probably moving along this path. Our ideas are neither unsophisticated, nor without substantial empirical validation. We should not let active debate and strong disagreements obscure some powerful theory with relative consensus around it.

A central argument of this article is that empirical researchers should not conceive of middle range theorizing as hypothesizing driven largely by policy problems or common sense. If international relations is a scientific endeavor, scholars must challenge themselves to produce theoretically relevant empirical work, tied to central theoretical concepts and debates over them. If we have no core, we are not doing science, at least not in the Lakatosian sense. Perhaps we are in a prescientific stage, but such pessimism may mistake the existence of theoretically driven debates for a complete lack of consensual knowledge. Most analysts appear to agree, for example, that basic factors like China’s satisfaction with the status quo, the U.S.-backed regional security architecture, and the massive expansion of economic connections have played important roles in the East Asian peace, while the rise in military capabilities of China as a potential challenger to the U.S.-centric regional order puts the continuation of peace at risk. Theories reviewed in this article clearly point to such factors. Of course there remain disagreements and debates over causal mechanisms, evidence, and theoretical perspectives, but especially when seen through the lens of liberal IR theory focused on variation in preferences, these central factors have a solid theoretical foundation and form some core understanding.

This perspective is in disagreement with Lake’s (2011, p. 465) advice that “we should focus on developing contingent, mid-level theories of specific phenomena.” Rather, international relations scholars should continue to focus on the contradictions between our major theories, and continue to frame our research as driven by these theories, and contributing tests of them. We should not cede the area of “big” theory as too hard or too divisive—doing so risks losing scientific direction and rigor. Sophisticated methods for data analysis, or frameworks for categorizing phenomena, cannot substitute for theories with substantive assumptions and coherent, big-picture perspectives on the entire scope of phenomena we seek to understand as international relations.

Regional analysis of interstate relations provides one potentially useful tool for general theory testing. Although regional studies are sometimes criticized as atheoretical or ad hoc, they can be especially good ways to test supposedly universal theories. They may homogenize some factors, like the salience and/or nature of militarized conflict participation (Gleditsch, 2002). They may help control for unobserved confounders. This article has identified a number of areas for future research that would shed light on war and peace in East Asia, and also provide important theoretical tests, including establishing whether defining scope conditions can reconcile realist and power transition approaches to China’s rising capabilities, and attempting to distinguish economic interests from developmental norms as primary shapers of state preferences.

Regardless of our level of dissatisfaction with IR theory, there is little scientific value in atheoretical empirical pattern hunting. Theorizing in social science is hard, and any scholar’s dissatisfaction with existing theory should be heavily tempered with acknowledgment that s/he has not proposed a more powerful one. Regional analysis, and comparative regional analysis, can provide important potential gains by challenging current theory with hard tests. East Asia not only is a crucially important part of the world for the future of interstate peace, it also presents challenging and useful empirical puzzles for our theories.


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