Part two is here.
The Institute of Chinese Studies at Pusan National University held this two-day conference with Chinese and Japanese scholars also invited. I was a discussant on a panel entitled “China’s Changing Role in NE Asia.” I provided feedback on a Chinese paper on Obama’s foreign policy. My remarks are my next post. It was a new opportunity for me to sit to meet with Chinese and Japanese scholars at a conference.
1. The Chinese were very policy-oriented, while the Japanese were more like American IR, and the Koreans split the difference (just like their geopolitics). I found it difficult to respond to my paper, because it was mostly a normative interpretation of US foreign policy, talking about what the US should or should not do. None of the Chinese papers used much IR theory; most of them cited news magazines, Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy in order to make policy points. By contrast, the Japanese work looked more like what I read in ISQ or IO. In a side discussion, a Japanese scholar said to me that this was quite common from Chinese scholars at conventions, and that it used to be more so. S/he felt uncomfortable, because these things frequently degenerated into foreign policy contests. This reminded me of my earlier observation that Korean IR is also slanted toward public policy, although not as much.
2. The Chinese attitudes towards Japan, Korea, and the US were fairly hostile (or paternalistic toward Korea) in the formal discussion, but in the private conversation it was all smiles and congeniality. For example, my paper was all about the US pursuit of “world domination.” (*Sigh* Thank the Bush administration for that attitude.) Another paper argued that China is becoming the dominant power in Korea, and will and should markedly structure the outcome of unification. China’s “3 No’s” are: a unifying Korea could not create chaos in Manchuria, not be a bulwark of US containment of China, and not indulge Pan-Korean expansionism. China would only ‘permit’ a neutral unified Korea. Yikes! This reminded me of Russia’s recent claims to a sphere of influence in the near abroad. I asked a few Koreans about these remarks, and they generally agreed that they were pretty sinister. This sort of talk will clearly push Korea toward the US more as an over-the-horizon guarantor of its sovereignty against a rising China. Empirically, the argument struck me as a correct reading of China’s attitude toward Korea, but normatively, I would be pretty nervous if I was a Korean. Japan too came in for lots of fire about history, its nationalist right, hidden expansionist impulses, toadying to the US. The Japanese scholars seemed to take this pretty well, but it was awkward. In the end, I got the clear impression that the Chinese would like the US out of Asia and think that the Japanese are closest militarists.
3. The body language of the conference became noticeable over time. The Japanese and Korean scholars tended to speak in low tones and short bursts. The Chinese spoke quite loudly, tended to wave their fingers and point, went on quite longer than others. I don’t know if this is culturally-encoded or belligerence or what though.
4. The Chinese scholars also seemed to speak for the government or nation. They comfortably and frequently used the first person plural –’we China will do this or that’,’ or ‘we will permit/not permit this or that.’ I and the Japanese scholars spoke in the third person generally. This made me wonder if their work is in some way cleared or approved by a government agency.
The IR scholar in me, of course, immediately perceived a sociology of power in all this. The Chinese clearly spoke with a self-confidence and assertion about their government’s “interests” in Asia that the rest of us did not. You could easily feel the ‘China rising’ vibe in their presentations and comments. They weren’t openly belligerent, but I did feel a little ‘bullied.’
Further, their presentations were quite normative and policy-focused, so they subtly polarized the panels. Other participants felt cast into national roles as ‘defenders’ of ‘their’ governments; certainly I felt that way. It easily could have become a foreign policy showdown between nationals rather than an academic forum. I remember when my turn came to speak – after an openly maoist, anti-American policy paper (covered in my next post) – that I did feel this ‘patriotic’ urge creeping up on me to play the ‘American’ in the room and say posturing, RISK-boardgame stuff like, ‘my government can hardly be expected to tolerate this…,’ or defend the US allies in room – the Japanese and Korean scholars. It was tempting to play the macho superpower and throw that back at the Chinese by, e.g., saying that the US will defend Korea’s sovereign right to reunify as it sees fit without Chinese guidance/permission. This was a genuinely uncomfortable, bizarre, and new feeling. I think I restrained myself reasonably well – I certainly don’t think of myself as a nationalist – but some of the comments (like the US wants to invade NK) were so outlandish I felt compelled to dismiss them as “fantasy.”
All in all, it was a great experience. The papers were a mixed bag academically, but as examples of attitudes and cleavages in NE Asia, they were superb, and the sociology of the conference was a huge learning experience – better than the papers themselves.