October 8, 2009, Dr. Amitav Acharya

(Click to enlarge) Dr. Amitav Acharya discusses Asia regionalism.

Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism


(Washington D.C.) October 8– Asian nations do not passively adopt foreign concepts of regionalism but instead adapt them to serve the unique needs of the region. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Amitav Acharya, professor of international relations in the School of International Service at American University, introduced his new book Whose Ideas Matter? Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism in which he examines Asian regionalism from the viewpoint of Asian actors.


Dr. Acharya pointed to a long history of the adaption of outside ideas in local Asian communities. For example, Southeast Asia imported Buddhism from India and China along with religious art and architecture. However, temples, paintings, and statues associated with Buddhism in Southeast Asia are quite different in appearance from the original Chinese and Indian sources; in each instance, the ideas from outside were modified by local craftsmen who created a distinctively local take on a foreign concept. As with ancient art, foreign ideas of regional institution building were not passively acquired, but were adapted with modification by regional actors. The foreign concepts, Dr. Acharya explained, did not make local ideas go extinct. Rather, local actors synthesized outside concepts of regionalism with local ideas to create a new concept of regional interaction unique to Asia.


Dr. Acharya explained that Asian institutions tend to focus less on the creation of material concepts, such as power and money, and more on the normative sharing of ideas. These institutions are not designed to be problem-solving mechanisms like the institutions of other regions. Further, he noted that while many Western institutions are interested in collective security, Asian institutions are more focused on common security and tend to avoid humanitarian intervention activities.


Dr. Acharya also pointed out that no Asian great player has ever successfully dominated any regional grouping in Asia. He explained that Asian nations are uninterested in institutions where one or two major countries hold most of the power, instead preferring groupings where each nation, regardless of size or power, has an equal voice. He noted that this makes Chinese attempts to create a China-dominated organization in Asia unlikely to succeed: while Asian institutions need Chinese involvement to be viable, local Asian actors will not join an organization where China holds all the power.


Thus, Asian actors adapted Western ideas to best suit the needs of the local populations, creating a distinctively Asian version of regional architecture. Civilizations, Dr. Acharya argued, learn from each other, adapting foreign ideas through creative synthesis with local ideas to create new and unique concepts, allowing the local and the foreign to grow together.


Amitav Acharya is professor of international relations at the School of International Service at American University. He is also chair of the University’s ASEAN Studies Center. His previous appointments include professor of global governance and director of the Centre for Governance and International Affairs at the University of Bristol; professor, deputy director, and head of research at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore; professor of political science at York University, Toronto; fellow of the Harvard University Asia Center; and fellow of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Professor Acharya’s publications include Constructing a Security Community in Southeast Asia (Routledge 2001, 2009); Asia Pacific Security Cooperation (M.E. Sharpe 2004); Crafting Cooperation: Regional International Institutions in Comparative Politics (Cambridge 2007); Reassessing Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (MIT 2007) Singapore’s Foreign Policy; The Search for Regional Order (World Scientific 2007); The Age of Fear: Power Versus Principle in the War on Terror (New Delhi: Rupa and Co. and Singapore: Marshall Cavendish, 2004), Asia Rising: Who is Leading? (Singapore and New York: World Scientific, 2007). His most recent book is Whose Ideas Matter: Agency and Power in Asian Regionalism (Cornell, 2009). He has published in journals including International Organization , International Security , World Politics , Journal of Peace Research , Pacific Affairs , and Washington Quarterly .