The Asan Forum on the Occasion of Its First Anniversary

A new journal in a crowded field at a time when specialists on ongoing international relations in the Asia-Pacific are inundated with online information does not readily attract attention. I often encounter persons with an abiding interest in this area who have yet to hear about the journal. Others may have seen it once or twice, aware of something newly posted in the journal but with little sense of its broader coverage. Looking back on what the first seven issues of the journal—three in Vol. 1 over the second half of 2013 and four in Vol. 2 through early August 2014—have covered, I think that it is time to restate the journal’s objectives, to offer an initial assessment of how they have been pursued during our start-up phase, and to acknowledge the serious challenges we face in today’s increasingly tense international environment.

Some have asked about this journal’s relationship to the Asan Institute, surprised, perhaps, that it does not reflect what they surmise is the editorial perspective of the institute or of the Korean government. When President Hahm Chaibong asked me to be the Editor-in-Chief and launch the journal, he made it clear that he had in mind a high-quality, policy-oriented journal based on the academic standards with which I was familiar from my more than four decades on the Princeton faculty. At a time of persistent tensions between South Korea and Japan, I have felt totally free to cover views on both sides and subject them to similar critical scrutiny. The same goes for other controversial issues and national points of view. A main objective is to grasp viewpoints in each of the countries covered, to clarify discrepancies between them or contradictions that contribute to distrust without any obligation to one side or another. Living in Washington, DC and closely following discussions in the capital of the United States, I am able to keep US ways of thinking in the background; however, given widespread coverage of them elsewhere, the journal prioritizes presenting the views of China, Japan, South Korea, and Russia—keeping Northeast Asia at the core.

One challenge that is growing more serious is to get authors to probe clashing points of view even as they present their own. As censorship tightens in China and Russia, it is becoming more common for specialists in those countries to stick to a line of argument without addressing questions that readers are likely to raise. Standards of academic discourse are difficult to maintain in a more polarized environment, when writers feel obliged to echo a top-down message rather than to review its premises. Our response is to keep seeking contributions and pressing the authors to broaden their horizons, while at the same time requesting more outside analysts to dig into the meaning of what they are reading from Chinese and Russian publications. This problem is not unique to those states. Emotional approaches today overwhelm the search for compromise solutions in bilateral disputes to the extent that writers in any country at a time of intense disputes may lose track of appeals by pragmatists. This journal seeks to air both the one-sided emotionalism steeped in arguments about national identity and the back-stage diplomacy to prioritize national interests.

In an effort to avoid idealism in the search for solutions to regional problems, The Asan Forum strives for two, distinct orientations. The first reflects my background as a sociologist who chose the discipline with the intent to analyze international relations in Northeast Asia through the prism of perceptions, identities, and mutual gaps in understanding. Whether one calls this a constructivist or a national identity approach, it pervades the journal, but not at the expense of excluding both realist and liberal theoretical perspectives. In our times, there is an increasing need for historical and cultural awareness in keeping with this sociological perspective. The second orientation is to look through the lens of officials and think tank experts in the capitals of each country, keeping abreast of their thinking on regional issues. In this way we put policy debates in the forefront without sacrificing academic depth. Washington, DC is the ideal location for gathering the needed, up-to-date insights.

A mainstay of this journal is the alternation of Country Reports for Japan, China, South Korea, and Russia at two-week intervals, i.e., the coverage of each country is updated once every two months. With the assistance of assessors who search for articles of interest (the exception is Han Minjeong’s role in both locating articles in Korean publications and interpreting them), we strive to identify recent debates and trends of thought in the newspapers and international relations journals of these countries. The material varies in quantity as well as quality, leading to rather short summaries of the findings from Russian publications and ever-longer analysis of the substantial debates seen in Japanese publications. Few specialists on international relations in Northeast Asia have the time or language background to follow many of the sources we cover; so we are helping to build a foundation for understanding the viewpoints in the region on international relations in East Asia, useful for reading the rest of the journal, which seeks to reach informed readers, not to repeat common knowledge.

Every two months we post Washington Insights, an addition to the journal after its first issues. Just as there is much to be learned from the newspapers and journals of the four countries we examine closely, seminars and lectures in Washington, DC are a valuable sources of information not only for the way US policymakers think, but also for the way unusually candid officials and some of the world’s leading think tanks are evaluating the policies of East Asian countries. In this case, the information does not come from published sources, but from presentations and discussions, often including remarks by East Asian officials and analysts visiting Washington.

We are still fine-tuning how we handle Topics of the Month, a series of statements, rejoinders, and responses on three timely themes. We started with three topics covered over six months, then shifted to three topics presented over three months each, and then cut back to two topics over three months each, while staggering the introduction to a third topic. The number of rejoinders has fallen short of our initial plans, and they are solicited rather than spontaneous reactions. We will continue to aim for three topics at a time—staggered as they may be in when they begin—with a roughly 5,000-word statement supplemented by two approximately 1,500-word statements or responses. We also will keep looking for more rejoinders, hoping that livelier exchanges will ensue, albeit not the unedited, harsh tone that too often characterizes online exchanges in some of this era’s Internet groupings.

For diversity of opinion, readers can also turn to Special Commentaries. Normally, there are three of these on a selected topic representing views from different states. For certain topics this pattern is broken. Topics are chosen in the month or two before the commentaries are posted with the aim of finding a timely theme about which there is considerable controversy and heightened international interest.

In contrast, the Special Forum customarily consists of 4-5 articles as well as an introduction offering background on the overall topic and cohesion to the diverse points of view in the articles. The introduction normally also compares the separate articles, which may cover a set of related themes or the way a common theme is viewed in four or more countries. More than any other part of the journal the Special Forum serves as the core of each issue—planned well in advance, coordinated to address a common set of questions, and intended to delve into far-reaching causes of current trends in international relations. A diverse group of authors attentive to viewpoints in many countries is a hallmark here as well as throughout the journal.

The Open Forum is a selection of 4-5 articles and synopses of large Asan Institute conferences or plenums. The journal welcomes submissions while also soliciting articles from specialists. The focus must fall within the broad scope of international relations studies and include coverage of Northeast Asia—the core of the journal’s geographical range—, but we welcome linkages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, and Australia, New Zealand, and Oceania. Submissions are quickly reviewed. Editing proceeds with little delay. So far, the time between receipt of a draft and posting of the article on the journal website is a matter of weeks—even days in some cases. Fast turnaround should be expected. In some cases, authors write in Chinese, Japanese, or Russian and can rely on translations by the journal. This may speed the process and make it easier to communicate most effectively.

A Review Article typically appears in each issue as well. The purpose is to take a broad look at a genre of books from one country, normally starting with one recent publication that opens a window on this genre. The first review article on a Russian book about Sino-Russian relations set an example for this expansive approach. The journal welcomes suggestions for reviews of new books that may fit this criterion.

We face trying times in East Asia, which demand from the academic community and policy analysts attentiveness to the latest information and assessments in ways that a new journal can help to provide. This is only possible through the contributions of numerous contributors from all of the countries that we cover. For these, we remain deeply grateful, as we encourage many more specialists to join in this new endeavor, which the Asan Institute with its strong support is continuing to make possible.