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Domestic Interest Configuration and Island Disputes: Cyclical Surges of Nationalist and Internationalist Influence in Northeast Asia

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My dissertation explores the dynamics of Northeast Asia’s island disputes, specifically the Dokdo/Takeshima dispute between Korea and Japan and the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute between Japan and China. I focus on three questions that are important for academic and policy purposes and are not well addressed by existing theories: 1) what explains the frequent escalation of these disputes in the midst of high levels of economic cooperation? 2) how has de-escalation been possible following the arousal of nationalist sentiment? and 3) what factors might alter the patterns of recent decades, making violent hostilities more likely and/or diminishing the ability of leaders to de-escalate? I present a theory to explain dispute patterns in recent decades that focuses on the relationship between different types of domestic groups and leadership strategies of escalation and de-escalation. I argue that a particular interest configuration predominant in post-World War II Northeast Asia - with internationalist groups favoring a cooperative regional order in pursuit of private gains having mobilization advantages over nationalist groups focused more on collective, symbolic interests - helps to explain patterns of contained conflict in recent decades. Shifts in this interest configuration, particularly the alignment of new private interests behind nationalism, would bring more risky dynamics, making de-escalation more difficult and militarization more likely. The takeaways of this research resonate beyond Northeast Asia. The longstanding interplay of forces of economic interdependence and nationalism in these disputes now echoes ominously in other regions. My research suggests that conflict patterns in Northeast Asia can serve as a useful source of information in attempting to understand the implications of fresh divides between “nationalists” and “globalists” elsewhere in the world. I isolate a key factor to watch - specifically who uses nationalism, to what end - in assessing when nationalist-charged episodes of inter-state conflict are likely to result in violent hostilities or remain contained below the threshold of militarization.

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  • 02/11/2019
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