"Asymmetry and international relations"

Tuesday - 11/12/2018 21:36


On December 10th, 2018, Prof. Brantly Womack (University of Virginia, US) had a presentation before USSH's staff, lecturers and students on the topic "Asymmetry and international relations".

Prof. Brantly Womack's presentation pointed out the differences between Western and Eastern international relations during the 1450s and related to those in the modern era.

During the 1450s, in the East and particularly Asia there were asymmetric international relations. China emerged as a stable center with overwhelming population, resources and territories compared to other countries and areas. The foreign policy put forth by Chinese emperor Ming Jingtai at that time was to manage relations with other countries so they did not threaten China, institutionalize a ritual of stable and trouble-free relations with countries like Vietnam, and strengthen border protection in the North and encourage stability beyond the Great Wall. For its part, to deal with China, Vietnamese king Le Thanh Tong stabilized his political leadership, adapted imperial Confucianism into Vietnam, maintained peaceful but autonomous relations with China, and tried to defeat and eliminate the Cham.

In contrast, in the West there were competition and antagonism between kingdoms. By introducing about the kingdoms of some Western medieval figures such as Henry VI of England, Charles VI of France, Alfonso of Navarre and Isabella I of Castille, and Pope Nicholas V, Prof. Grantly Womack argued in Europe the kingdoms sought to maximize their relative power and maintained a balance of power. Therefore there was no fixed center like China in the East.

Prof. Brantly Womack

The above pattern continued until 1500. After that, Western countries such as England, France and Spain rose to become great powers by exploiting their colonies, but they still fought each other in symmetric relations. Decisive wars such as the First and Second World Wars became a global concern, but were not able to destroy the balance of power. This symmetric setting continued throughout the Cold War with the bipolar competition between the capitalist and socialist blocs. However, at the beginning of the 21th century, competition as a model of international relations began to lose its merit in light of globalization and a multi-nodal world. In Asia, China increasingly became the most dominant force, fostering asymmetric relations with nearby countries.

According to Prof. Brantly Womack, modern international relations theories have been dominated by the Western model of symmetric relations and decisive wars among great powers. The management of asymmetric relations has been underrated. He said in an asymmetric relationship, instead of competing for power with the larger state, the smaller state can defer to the former to keep things peaceful while developing relations with other countries. This pattern not only applies to Sino-Vietnam relationship but other relationships such as the US-Cuba, Italy-Ethiopia, and Vietnam-Laos-Cambodia. Prof. Womack also emphasized trust-building and respecting differences in improving asymmetric relations.

USSH's staff, lecturers and students listened to the presentation

As for China and Vietnam, Prof. Womack expressed his optimism for improving this asymmetric relationship. China should avoid intensifying its relations with smaller states in Southeast Asia as well as the United States. It has to cultivate the image of a responsible and reliable partner to Southeast Asian countries, especially in such hot issues as South China Sea's disputes. As for Vietnam, it should maintain autonomy without antagonizing China, diversify its international relations, avoid joining camps, consolidate ASEAN's solidarity and prove to be reliable. The two countries have to develop a stable asymmetric relationship based on recognition rather than antagonism. 

In the Q&A session, many questions were given to Prof. Brantly Womack about such topics as the role of the United States' hegemony in modern asymmetric relations; the foreign policies of smaller states such as Vietnam and Thailand towards great powers such as the US and China; the relevance of asymmetric relations during the medieval-early modern periods compared to modern period; the influences of Roman Catholic on symmetric relations among European great powers in the 15h century; and the role of deference in maintaining stable asymmetric relations.

Author: Tran Minh

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