My work focuses mainly on Chinese foreign policy and, in particular, the politics and practices of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This is informed by practice theory, which forms the theoretical pillar for most of my work. Additionally, I am also interested in the practices and norms of ASEAN integration.
1. Chinese Foreign Policy
Most of my research agenda has focused on Chinese foreign policy. Specifically I study China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and tease out MOFA’s empirical and theoretical significance in the field of Chinese foreign policy. I seek to answer questions such as China’s diplomacy and what role MOFA and its diplomats play in signaling, defending and advancing China’s interests in the world. To that end, I study diplomatic discourse, body language and technological practices and the consequent political effects. Questions that I seek to continually address include: What role does China’s MOFA play in domestic and international politics? How has diplomacy evolved in China? How does image-building work through diplomacy? Why (and how) has diplomacy taken a more ‘assertive’ turn?
From these questions, I try to gain a better understanding of broader phenomena such as China’s rise, Chinese identity, the South China Sea disputes and the Belt and Road Initiative. My publications on China reflect the above research interests:
My 2017 article – Defending China’s National Image and ‘Defensive Soft Power’: the Case of Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution (Journal of Chinese Political Science) – for instance, examines how Beijing made use to state media to project a particular, defensive, self-image during the 2014 ‘Umbrella Revolution’. Specifically, I argue that China promoted three particular images: a victim, a reasonable rising power and as a benign and tolerant leader in the China-Hong Kong context in response to criticism to her image during the protests
Focusing on the South China Sea dispute, my 2015 co-authored book chapter analyses China’s policy in the South China Sea – It traces the trajectory of Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea dispute and argues that China’s policy could be characterized as ‘fluid assertiveness’ where Beijing can selectively choose to display heightened assertiveness and/or closer cooperation.
More recent publications include my 2018 article – Diplomatic Control, Foreign Policy, and Change under Xi Jinping: A Field-Theoretic Account published in the Journal of Current Chinese Affairs – where I tease out the ways President Xi has re-asserted control over diplomatic institutions in China. Inspired by Bourdieu’s notion of ‘fields’, I suggest that inter-field interactions can create ‘transversal disruptions’ that help introduce change and innovation. I illustrate this process through three cases of field encounters: the multilateral Track II diplomacy field; the transnational fields of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN); and, the China–Malaysia bilateral diplomatic field.
2. Practice Theory
My work is heavily informed by Bourdieu’s practice theory (PT). In a nutshell, practice theorists take ‘practices’ (the doings, sayings and performances of humans) as the basic constituents of social reality and as the core units of analysis. My publications inspired by PT include:
My 2019 article in the International Studies Review journal: Institutional Habitus, State identity, and China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In this article, I study China’s MOFA and argue that it possess an ‘institutional habitus’. This rendering of habitus responds to sociology’s invitation to extend Bourdieu-inspired analysis toward organizations and organizational change and, more broadly, complements existing theorization of state identity by showcasing an important but omitted source of identity: the foreign ministry. To that end, I find that MOFA sustains this habitus through three principal ways: an iterative reinscription of institutional memory and invocation of history; through displays of fealty and third organizational and personal self-regulation, discipline, and taciturnity. These institutional practices, I add, supply and inform Others (non-Chinese diplomats and officials) of China’s identity.
Through PT, I also study how the BRI and the ‘China Dream’ is promoted and performed. My article: The ‘Chinese Dream’ and the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’: narratives, practices, and sub-state actors (published in 2019, in the International Relations of Asia-Pacific journal) studies the two narratives and its links with concrete political/diplomatic practices. Drawing again on PT, I trace an explicit link between narratives and practices to demonstrate how narratives activate, anchor, produces and contest political practices of sub-state actors in China, namely: diplomats, scholars and provinces. Through these sub-national actors, I argue that four narrative-practice processes are seen in the Chinese example: contestation, sustenance, activation, and production.
3. ASEAN norms and integration
I hold an enduring interest in the norms and practices of ASEAN integration. This is largely shaped by my work experience at RSIS where I was a research analyst. This interest in ASEAN is almost-always examined through the lens of the ASEAN-China relation.
In that way, my 2015 article ‘ASEAN’s norm adherence and its unintended consequences in HADR and SAR operations‘ published in the Pacific Review, suggests that a strict adherence to the norms and practices of ‘respect for sovereignty’ and ‘consensus decision-making’ inhibited closer ASEAN cooperation during disaster events, specifically during Typhoon Haiyan disaster and in the search for missing flight MH370.
Also focusing on norms and practices of ASEAN integration, my 2018 article (The disturbance and endurance of norms in ASEAN: peaceful but stressful) in the Australian Journal of International Affairs interrogates how norms of ‘ASEAN way’ are increasingly put under pressure from extra-mural force by a more muscular Chinese foreign policy that disrupts but does not yet break the fundamental norms of ASEAN but also through internal contestation over ASEAN norms that challenges (and potentially alters) the meaning of these norms.