Scary Dragon or Cuddly Panda? Why Role Change Matters for Hegemony in Asia

20 September 2019, 0857 EDT

The following is a guest post by Dr. Daniel Nicholls. Daniel Nicholls is an adjunct professor of IR at ESADE and the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona. His research looks at the interplay between relational structures, roles and hierarchy.  

In an interesting piece on the Japan-South Korea spat in Foreign Affairs, Bonnie S. Glaser and Oriana Skylar Mastro argue that by failing to mediate the dispute between the keystones of its Asian alliance system, the US risks losing regional influence to a fast-moving and wily China. In short, if Washington doesn’t jump in as a relationship counselor, then China will. Whilst the arguments are couched in terms of diplomacy and strategy rather than IR theory, it doesn’t take an elbow-patched journal editor to spot the clear theoretical subtext of political influence as a consequence of relational ties and role-structures.

In line with network approaches, if China can intensify relational ties around itself, it will pull US allies towards it, leaving the US relationally isolated, at least in relative terms, and this will affect Washington’s scope for influence. It is, after all, difficult to convince people of your worth when they’re all listening to someone else, and by buddying up with its East Asian neighbors, China will be more involved in decisions on who does what in the region. US security guarantees are still highly coveted, so nobody is likely to start turning down dinner invitations from their neighborhood security guarantor just yet. But Asian states do find it increasingly difficult to square their desire for US security with their quest for Chinese market access, and Washington’s aloof approach to intra-regional dynamics may generate switching effects which nudge its dazed allies a bit further down the road towards China’s embrace.

Who has access to whom is not only relevant for bargaining games and direct influence, perhaps what is more important is how shifting relational configurations might be used to develop new role-structures. As Glaser and Mastro observe, China is pushing a role for itself as a benevolent peace broker and facilitator of free trade within Asia, which complements the role it is alter-casting onto Japan and South Korea as squabbling children who need the guiding hand of a helpful Beijing to reorder their fractious relationship. This sends out a message to the wider region that the US is an unreliable alliance leader and that the future of a peaceful and prosperous Asia requires an increasingly willing China to step up and provide low-cost regional public goods.

In his fascinating work on role-development, McCourt argues that there are three main processes through which roles are generated. Role-taking refers to an actor taking into account what its ‘significant others’ consider to be the range of appropriate roles for it to take on in a particular context. Role-making is a more internal process whereby states try to manage the development of a particular (accepted) role in line with their goals and show how their actions tie in with this. And alter-casting refers to the creation and projection of roles onto others in order to give meaning and purpose to one’s own role. As role-bargaining is highly dependent on the perceptions and influences of others, the way in which actors are connected to their ‘others’ is incredibly important. If Asian states start to slowly edge away from the US, and if Beijing can manage regional tiffs in such a way that it keeps its periphery sparsely interconnected, China may find itself at the centre of a system of relational ties where it can use its central position to control discursive flows, role-making itself into a ‘selfless peacemaker’ and ‘promoter of regional economic growth’, and alter-casting dependent sidekick roles such as ‘needy fight-picker’ and ‘economic laggard’ onto others. As China would be the only significant ‘significant other’ for its fellow Asian states, it would be able to develop role-structures through asymmetric bilateral ties to suit its (open secret) goal of uncontested regional hegemony.  

As I argue in a recent piece, a secondary effect of these role-structures is the social locations they assign. Actors with executive roles such as ‘provider of social order’ or ‘responsible mediator’ enjoy not only special functions to carry out these roles but also privileged status as socially and/or morally advanced authority-bearers. And actors with dependent roles, such as ‘security consumer’, ‘irresponsible economic governor’ or ‘regional troublemaker’ will internalize their lower social location as rightly corresponding to their low levels of social development, meaning that positions of advantage and authority become naturalized and structural. So the stakes of regional relationship management are dramatic and allies should not be miffed lightly. Of course, while North Korea continues to fire off existential threats, the effects of this will be limited and gradual. But if Beijing can rein in and co-opt Kim Jong-un, then we may see Asian states sidling up to China with a newfound vigor. As, although regional peers bristle at the prospect of Chinese hegemony, Beijing has sneakily dressed up its intentions in a language of cozy multilateralism, and swapping one hegemon (who’s undergone an unwanted role makeover) for another (with purported good-guy intentions), especially where there are shared value systems in play, may turn out not to be such a great leap.