Dr. Ja Ian Chong (Department of Political Science) recently received the Faculty Award for Promising Researcher. This award is presented to researchers who have produced research that shows potential impact and promise.
Dr Chong has been with FASS since 2010 and his research focuses on international relations, especially IR theory, security, and international relations in the Asia-Pacific. Of particular interest are issues that stand at the nexus of international and domestic politics.
We caught up with Dr. Chong to congratulate him on the award...
Q – Ian, congratulations on the Award for Promising Researcher. Please can you tell us a little about how you became involved in your area of research?
A - Thank you. I study politics, particularly international relations, because issues of governance, contestation, cooperation, and conflict always interested me. I wonder especially about ways in which people and societies regulate different interests, as well as why and when cooperation works, when it breaks down. As for my more specific research on external intervention and state formation, that came from my interest in how sovereign statehood took shape in Asia. Polities with discrete territorial boundaries, exclusive internal rule, and equal international standing are relatively new to Asia. Moreover, when you think about sovereignty disputes, they are much more common in Asia today than in Europe, where modern notions of sovereign statehood first develop. So, I was curious about what led to these changes.
Q - What was the particular piece of research that showed potential impact and promise that then led to your nomination for this award?
A - This would be the work on external intervention and sovereign statehood that I mentioned earlier. The work was different because it took seriously the role that foreign competition and local collaboration with external actors played a big role in establishing sovereign statehood. When international conditions are competitive enough, outside powers may prefer to build up sovereign statehood in a particular locality by supporting indigenous actors than to let it fall under the dominance of a rival. In this respect, the story of sovereign statehood, at least in Asia, is not just about nationalism and resistance to foreign domination, which tends to be the standard narrative. This perspective, I argue, is more analytically and historically accurate. It also suggests ways - as well as the costs and risks - of trying to build up a weak state. Additionally, I point out that nationalism is not some irresistible force. It can be suppressed, it can take different forms, it can even compromise with avowed enemies.
Q – Although your research is partly theoretical, it does have implications for current sovereignty disputes in East Asia as well as the effects of foreign intervention on domestic politics. How do you hope your work might have some sway in the way such disputes or interventions play out?
A - Well, I think what my research suggests are that sovereign claims are actually malleable over time, but they require time and political will to change. That means to say that sovereignty disputes in East Asia are not impossible to resolve, but they do need time and people need to keep talking about them, even if they disagree for now. They can also change if governments have the resolve to change the domestic narrative about a dispute. As for foreign intervention into domestic politics, it is a myth that it is a phenomenon that doesn't occur. There is the channelling of money and arms to various domestic groups that I write about, but there is also the quieter lobbying of governments to change domestic policy. Where my research is most relevant is in point out that foreign driven state-building is possible. However, they take a lot of time, money, and persistence. These are extremely long-term processes. So, if you are not ready for such an endeavour, it may be best to avoid it. Otherwise, interventions can complicate domestic politics in a weak state, which may be relevant to places like Egypt and Syria today.
Q - Please could you share what you are currently working on?
A - I am working on several projects right now. The bigger one tries to understand why states that just moved away from authoritarian rule tend to upset their security guarantors. Here, Taiwan with its testy relations with the Mainland during the 1990s and early 2000s, South Korea with its anti-Americanism in the 1990s, and the Philippines with the status of American bases in the late 1980s and early 1990s come to mind. Another project examines how efforts by non-major power states to protect their interest during periods of power transition - times when there is are major powers in relative rise and decline - can aggregate to exacerbate suspicions among the top powers of the day. Together, smaller states can inadvertently make regions with major powers more tense during times of transition.
So, think of Asia today, how different countries from Japan through Australia (and everything in between) act in their own interests can add up to encouraging Chinese fears of encirclement or American worries of being shut out of the region. I also have a piece questioning standard narratives of Chinese nationalism and traditional world order coming out with the European Journal of International Relations. This is part of another larger area of research is am doing that looks at how historical and national myths gain political purchase and change over time. The project is fun for me as I find so much of popular wisdom and interpretations of history to be based on immediate political expediency. This is the case whether looking at claims of Chinese nationalism, traditional world order, or narratives about nationhood elsewhere.
Now Available External Intervention and the Politics of State Formation, Ja Ian Chong
For more information see www.cambridge.org/9781107013759
Thank you Ian. We wish you well in your future endeavours.
For more information on Research Accolades e-mail: fasvlg [at] nus.edu.sg