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  • Author or Editor: Emilian Kavalski x
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Bemoaning the deepening fractures in Sino–US relations, Yangyang Cheng (2021), a Chinese-born scholar working in the United States, noted in exasperation that she finds herself ‘at a loss for words’. Cheng was not merely vexed by the mutually reinforcing centrifugal forces of Beijing’s growing authoritarianism, which prevented free exchange of ideas both within China and between China and the world, but also by the intensifying (and thinly veiled xenophobic) Western rhetoric that China is either a threat to be managed or a problem to be resolved. While these dynamics backstopped Cheng’s immediate concern, her main preoccupation has been with the disregard for the language with which knowledge about China and China’s role in the world is produced. She insisted that language is not just a means for communication. It is primarily ‘an instrument of power, a measure of humanity, a map for world-making’. Cheng called for building polyphonic understandings that challenge the linguistic hegemony of knowledge production ‘both in my birth country and my adopted home, [where] English is coded with whiteness and whiteness signals expertise’. In the context of such silencing of ‘other tongues’, what counts as ‘Chinese-ness’ and who gets to define it is never a neutral exercise. Cheng concludes with the poignant observation that the:

end of the world does not arrive through water, fire, or the plague: it begins with the slow death of language, when words grow stale and complacent with power, when artificial boundaries between nations harden. A new order for our collective survival can only be birthed when we acquire new ways of speaking. (Cheng, 2021)

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Bringing together leading scholars from Asia and the West, this book investigates how the dynamics of China’s rise in world politics contributes to theory-building in International Relations (IR).

The book demonstrates how the complex and transformative nature of China’s advancement is also a point of departure for theoretical innovation and reflection in IR more broadly. In doing so, the volume builds a strong case for a genuinely global and post-Western IR. It contends that ‘non-Western’ countries should not only be considered potential sources of knowledge production, but also original and legitimate focuses of IR theorizing in their own right.

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This project started with the aim of reconsidering the effects of China and its rise on the knowledge production of International Relations (IR). In particular, the contributions to this volume have probed why the phenomena and transformations spurred by China’s rise do not seem to have been accorded the requisite attention by IR theory. Both the scholarship on and the history of the discipline indicate that any major junctures in the patterns of world affairs have invariably exhorted urgent reconsideration of IR’s frameworks for explanation and understanding. From the origins of IR in the wake of the First World War, all through the vicissitudes of the ‘long twentieth century’ – the Second World War, the decolonization conflicts, the end of the Cold War, and the ‘war on terror’ (to name only some of the cornerstones) – IR theory has tended to respond quickly to such momentous events in the dynamics of world affairs by offering new perspectives, interpretations and formulations. Even if we were to put aside the narrow focus on warfare as the marker of major change, Japan’s economic – and potential political and military – rise during the 1970s and 1980s provoked substantive critical reflection and theory building. Starting with the so-called ‘neo-neo’ debate and the analytical framework of ‘complex interdependence’, going through the proliferation of perspectives in International Political Economy, and the introduction of concepts such as ‘developmental state’ and ‘soft power’, all these innovations in IR theory developed against the background of either concern about, or consideration of, the question how the West (and, especially, the United States) would fare under possible Japanese hegemony.

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The development of International Relations (IR) theory is closely bound up with significant events and tectonic shifts in world politics (Acharya and Buzan, 2017: 12). Such watershed moments often prompt IR scholars to recalibrate their frameworks of analysis to better make sense of a changing world. In the 1930s, modern realism emerged ‘as a reaction to the breakdown of the post-World War I international order’ (Wohlforth, 1994/95: 91). In the last decade of the 20th century, the abrupt end of the Cold War saw both a fall in realism’s fortune, and the opening of new space for theories from a broadly defined post-positivist persuasion (Lapid, 1989; Smith, Booth and Zalewski, 1996). Emerging out of the ensuing Third Debate between positivist and post-positivist theories (or between what Robert Keohane calls ‘rationalist’ and ‘reflectivist’ approaches, see Keohane, 1988), constructivism has since become a new fixture in the IR theory landscape (Guzzini, 2000). Thus, ‘although indirect, the connection between events and theory was undeniable’ (Wohlforth, 1994/95: 91).

Interestingly, such a supposedly undeniable link is yet to clearly emerge in the case of an ongoing major ‘event’ in contemporary international relations, namely, the rise of China. At one level, there is no denying that China’s rise has been one of the most frequently studied and debated contemporary phenomena (Kang, 2007; Lampton, 2008; Kavalski, 2009; Nathan and Scobell, 2012; Pan, 2012; Shambaugh, 2013; Christensen, 2015; Mahbubani, 2020; Breslin, 2021).

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