ADI Academic Profiles - Kai He

By Kasper Ørntoft Thor, Asian Dynamics Initiative

ADI Academic Profiles series puts spotlight on individual researchers working on Asia related issues in the social sciences and humanities, and promotes remarkable publications and innovative research projects.

Kai He

Kai He, Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science since August 2014, recently published an article in the peer-reviewed journal Asian Survey.
In this ADI Academic Profile interview, he presents his current work and fields of interests as well as the inspiring academic path which led him from Indonesian Studies at the Beijing Foreign Studies University to his current position at the University of Copenhagen.

What is your academic background?

I received my BA in Indonesian Studies from Beijing Foreign Studies University in China, an MS in Economics from Arizona State University in the United States, where I also received my Ph.D. in Political Science, and I did my postdoc at Princeton University. After having worked in the United States for several years, I came to the University of Copenhagen last August. I think it is a great university with some very interesting programmes and platforms like the Asian Dynamics Initiative.

Having studied Indonesian Studies, Economics and Political Science, your academic field has an impressive scope. What brought you from one thing to the next? How does it all connect in your current work?

That is an interesting question. My study in Indonesian Studies paved my career path, because in my first job working at a research institution in Beijing, I used my knowledge on Indonesian language, culture, and politics to do policy analyses. Afterwards I went to the United States to pursue my Ph.D. in Political Science, majoring in international relations. Since my research focuses on the interactions between security issues and economic development, I concurrently got a MS in Economics with my Ph.D. in Political Science. So my academic training really framed my professional path. I started in area studies focusing on Southeast Asia, in which Indonesia is the largest country and has a leading role. The Asian economic model had a lot to say in the development of the region. Later on, the regional development of multilateralism provided the empirical foundation of my first book’s theoretical framework, institutional balancing, which also linked area studies, economics and political science together. So we can say that these degrees are all interconnected in that the combination of these degrees helped me to connect my research interests.  

What are your current fields of interest?

My primary research area is International Relations, especially with regards to Asian security, global governance, multilateral institutions, and great power politics in the international system, particularly in the case of China’s rise. At the moment I have three ongoing projects. The first deals with China’s crisis behavior after the Cold War, which was also the topic for Asia brown bag lecture I gave at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in February. In this project, I investigate the patterns of Chinese behavior during foreign policy crises, that is, under what circumstances will China decide to escalate a crisis and when will it not? Secondly, I am collaborating with Tsinghua University in Beijing on a survey-based research project about Chinese scholars’ perceptions on international relations entitled “Understanding China’s rise through the eyes of Chinese IR Scholars”. Basically, since the opinions of Chinese policy makers are difficult to gain access to, we will use Chinese scholars dealing with international relations as a proxy measure of the policy makers’ perceptions on world politics. This project has received a three year funding by the MacArthur Foundation. Finally, I have a book project on negative balancing in world politics, which examines how states, rather than strengthening themselves, undermine and constrain each other’s power and influence in world politics. The case studies include the United States, China, Russia, and EU.

Your current research areas are represented in your recent article “A Strategic Functional Theory of Institutions and Rethinking Asian Regionalism”, which was published in the peer-reviewed journal Asian Survey. Can you briefly outline some of the main points of the article?

As you know, in world politics, one popular argument is that the European Union is a good example of a well-functioning model of institutionalization or supranational organization in world politics. In comparison, Asia’s multilateral institutions are widely criticized amongst European scholars as inefficient or “a talk shop without any teeth”, which can be said to be true in some aspects. My paper focuses on examining different functions of institutions over different issues and areas. I argue that, although institutions are good, depending on the issue at hand they do not always matter. They can make it easier for states to deal with non-traditional security threats and alleviate arms races, but they are less likely to matter in dealing with territorial disputes and negotiating multilateral trade agreements. I am not trying to argue whether institutions matter or not. My point is that they matter in certain issues and certain areas. Therefore, we should neither overestimate nor underestimate the utility of ASEAN-centered regionalism in the Asia Pacific.

This theory was of course developed in the context of the Asia Pacific. Further developing the theory, a new project might be to try to apply it on Europe, or maybe Latin America, to see if it has the potential to apply to other regions. That is the next step of my research.

You have studied as well as worked in all parts of the world. On a personal as well as professional level, what are the experiences and insight that you have gained from your international career?

Well, it is a good question. I was born in China, and studied in China and the United States. I have had working experiences in China, Australia, the United States, and Singapore, and now I am working in Denmark. This kind of international career has deepened my theoretical and empirical understanding of world politics in two ways. On the one hand, I have opportunities to exchange views and learn from leading scholars from places like China, Europe and the United States. On the other hand, I am building an academic network across different continents, which will create research opportunities for me and the institutions I am affiliated with to collaborate with scholars all over the world.

Research on international politics cannot be conducted in a lab. In my understanding, you need to travel to learn from others and to broaden the empirical vision of your research. We need to go international or global, so that we can understand how the world works.

ADI would like to thank Kai He for featuring in this interview.
March 2015