Conclusion: The State of IR in Southeast Asia--Heavily Western but Still Evolving.

Date01 August 2022
AuthorThalang, Chanintira Na

Based on cross-national surveys and reflexive stocktaking, this special issue of Contemporary Southeast Asia seeks to gain a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges to advancing the debates on Global International Relations (IR) in Southeast Asia. The surveys were distributed among 615 IR scholars in six Southeast Asia countries, which include Cambodia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam. Altogether 250 responses were collected which equates to a response rate of 40.65 per cent. With this data, the contributors examined the current teaching, research and theoretical trends in IR in their respective academic communities. Reflecting on a variety of factors that have shaped the state of IR today, the contributors discussed how these six academic communities share some commonalities but also diverged in several surprising ways.

Most notably, the primary challenges to advancing Global IR shared among all six academic communities are the dominance of existing mainstream IR theories, and the propensity for scholars based in Southeast Asia to conduct policy- and empirical-oriented research as opposed to theoretical-based studies. Nevertheless, there are opportunities for globalizing IR, specifically the prospects for pre-theorization and conceptualization based on the abundance of empirical-based research, the considerable support for familiarizing students with the writings of local scholars to balance out the dominance of mainstream IR and constructivism's growing popularity.

This concluding article is divided into three parts. First, it explores why mainstream IR theories remain the dominant feature in Southeast Asia and why regional scholars prefer to conduct empirical- and policy-based research over theoretical-based studies. Second, it explores the opportunities for the development of Global IR. Third, it addresses what can be done to advance the debates on Global IR in Southeast Asia.

The Current State of Affairs

Even as debates on Global IR are gaining traction in many parts of the world, the level of interest in and contributions to Global IR in Southeast Asian IR academic communities still lags behind those in other Asian countries, such as India, (1) Japan (2) and China. (3) Furthermore, discussions on regions such as Africa (4) have inspired conceptual debates on negative sovereignty, (5) while Latin America's experience gave birth to dependency theory. The latter has sparked many debates beyond its geographical origins. (6) Such examples not only show how different localities have contributed to the diversity of IR, but also how the exercise of contributing to the literature on Global IR is not necessarily a task confined to academics from outside the West.

Moreover, existing cross-national and cross-regional comparative studies of the sociology of IR primarily focus on the state and status of American and Western IR communities. For example, although the most recent 2017 Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) project has expanded its data collection to 36 countries, many non-Western academic communities were excluded from this survey. In fact, Singapore and the Philippines are the only Southeast Asian countries featured in the TRIP project. (7)

As one of the editors of this project and a scholar local to the region, learning from the survey results and subsequent discussions at the online workshop that the debates on Global IR in Southeast Asia remain marginal was not entirely beyond my expectations. (8) However, based on previous projects as well as this one, I believe there are some opportunities for the advancement of local thought, concepts, and pre-theorization derived from indigenous history and contemporary experiences. Furthermore, in recent years there have been emerging and noteworthy contributions to the debates on Global IR from Southeast Asian academics and non-local scholars interested in Southeast Asia. To illustrate the point, there have been studies based on a broader regional analysis (9) and on specific national trends, notably in Indonesia, (10) Thailand, (11) the Philippines (12) and Malaysia. (13) Meanwhile, there have been a few group projects, including a special issue published in the Journal of International Relations of Asia-Pacific (IRAP), edited by Alan Chong and Natasha Hamilton-Hart, that explore how various factors, including history and national legitimating myths, have shaped the direction of teaching IR in Southeast Asia. (14) Prior to this project, my co-editor and I, along with several contributors to this special issue were involved in a separate project which investigated the implications of weaker state agency in Southeast Asia for Global IR. (15)

In addition, some other region-wide projects or country-based contributions have explored local experiences, some of which did not necessarily have the explicit purpose of contributing to debates on Global IR. Though an exhaustive list is beyond the scope of this article, significant contributions include debates on the regional order, (16) which differs from that in Europe or Africa. Other research areas worth mentioning include smaller state strategies amid major power rivalry, (17) such as institutional hedging (18) and different types of alignment behaviour. (19) Some have argued that the latter often comes as a result of domestic factors, (20) such as local leaders' desire to secure authority and regime security, (21) which are closely associated with local notions of legitimacy. (22) These studies not only reveal alternative experiences that differ from Western accounts but also provide cases of comparisons with or implications for other smaller states in different regions. These discussions, in turn, hold the potential to stimulate further debates on Global IR in the region and beyond.

While there is an emerging awareness, this small body of literature is a reminder that levels of interest in the debates on Global IR in Southeast Asia have yet to gain momentum. This is also reflected in the survey results. Ja Ian Chong and Herman Kraft have cited a general lack of enthusiasm for advancing the Global IR project in the Singaporean and Philippine academic communities, respectively. In contrast, the levels of interest in Global IR are somewhat mixed in Thailand. The results also revealed that scholars whose works engaged with theory responded, to varying degrees, that it was important for students to learn about Global IR. However, they were less enthusiastic about contributing to the debates themselves. While this may be disheartening for proponents of Global IR, it must be emphasized that the survey results reflected the view of the majority, and there were nuances within each academic community which may not necessarily have been captured by the overall survey results. To illustrate this point, academics from these three countries have made recent contributions to the literature, as mentioned above.

In contrast, some academic communities cited a small but growing interest in Global IR. According to Thuy T. Do, a series of seminars given by Amitav Acharya in 2011 on Global IR inspired many local scholars (including herself) to contribute to the construction of non-Western IR theory. In fact, the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam's (DAV) forthcoming IR textbook will have a section on non-Western IR theory. Likewise, I Gede Wahyu Wicaksana and Yohanes William Santoso claim that there has been a growing awareness of non-Western IR discourses, as reflected in some recent publications by Indonesian IR scholars, though they have yet to become a more prominent feature within the Indonesian academic community. In Cambodia, scholars are supportive of theoretical pluralism in IR. Furthermore, 75 per cent of those surveyed deemed it crucial to introduce students to debates on Global IR.

Overall, the level of interest in Global IR varies across countries. Nevertheless, I personally think we have come a long way, given that it has been almost 20 years since the idea of a non-Western IR theory (which later became known as Global IR) was first introduced in Singapore at a conference organized by Amitav Acharya and Barry Buzan in 2005. Furthermore, more than a decade ago, Acharya observed that Asian scholars were generally averse to theory. (23) Yet, a special issue was published in 2007 by IRAP entitled "Why is there no Non-Western IR Theory?", while other publications have similarly followed suit, as aforementioned. At the same time, this is not to deny that those interested in globalizing IR are still a minority in Southeast Asia. Based on online discussions, personal reflections and the survey results, the common challenges to advancing Global IR shared among the six academic communities are explored in the subsequent sections.

The Dominance of Mainstream IR Theories

The key questions pertaining to the debates on Global IR are how dominant existing mainstream theories are in local academic IR communities and whether there have been any attempts to draw upon indigenous experiences to formulate theories and concepts that may have implications beyond the region. To be clear, the aims of this special issue are by no means an attempt to dichotomize the debates on Global IR by essentializing the West and non-West. None of the contributors genuinely believed we should be done with studying and applying Western IR theories altogether. Rather, the purpose is to encourage diversity within IR by inspiring different localities to take stock of their own histories and experiences. Equally important is to think about alternative theories and concepts based on these histories and experiences, which can ignite conversations that serve to advance debates on Global IR.

Unfortunately, as the survey results reveal, many Southeast Asian IR communities are still dependent on mainstream IR theories. To understand the present state of affairs, it is crucial to recognize that IR as a...

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