From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
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Huiyun Feng and Kai He

International relations scholars Huiyun Feng and Kai He have developed a new theory to help explain why nations occasionally behave erratically in foreign policy crises.

Looking East

By Kristen Munson

China is the world’s second largest economy— and growing—and the leading exporter of goods to the United States. Both countries are permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. The two great powers are inextricably linked. So why does it seem so hard for them to get along?

Foreign policy scholars, Huiyun Feng and Kai He, assistant professors of political science, study Asia-Pacific security and Chinese-American relations. The husband-wife team is gaining traction on a new theory they developed to explain China’s behavior in foreign policy crises. Their hope is to provide a framework for analysts guiding policymaking to resolve future clashes peaceably.

“China is one of the most important countries for the U.S.,” He said. “We have deep economic interdependence. We all see that. Actually we all feel that every day. I think the better approach for the leaders in the two countries is to try and cooperate with each other.”

Professors Feng and He published Prospect Theory and Foreign Policy Analysis in the Asia Pacific: Rational Leaders and Risky Behavior in December (Routledge, 2012). The book—their first together—analyzes major events in Asian security since the Cold War, such as North Korea’s erratic nuclear behavior and Sino-Japanese territorial disputes, through the lens of prospect theory. The Nobel Prize-winning theory posits that whether people interpret their situation as advantageous or disadvantageous influences how they behave in risky situations.

Feng and He suggest political leaders are more likely to take risky actions, such as using military force, when they feel their authority or vital interests are threatened. The work stems from their different approaches to international relations. Feng uses cultural and political psychology to examine leadership in foreign policy decision-making. He studies international relations from a structural level and argues the state—not leaders—is the primary actor and always seeks to increase their power.

“Structuralists think individual leaders do not matter; it’s the environment that constrains the situation,” He said, nodding towards his wife. “Dr. Feng’s perspective is [that] individual leaders really matter in international politics. I think the book is really a fun combination. We use prospect theory as a bridge and then apply it to Asian-Pacific security issues.”

Understanding Risk

Both professors worked in Chinese think tanks before coming to the United States to pursue doctoral study in political science. They are currently Utah State’s only Asia-Pacific security scholars and are gaining recognition in the field. Feng, author of Chinese Strategic Culture and Foreign Policy Decision-Making: Confucianism, Leadership and War, was invited to participate in a roundtable session on foreign policy at the International Studies Association’s annual convention in April. She is contributing a section on China and her work will be included in an edited volume of the proceedings.

Over the summer, Professor He traveled to China, Japan, and South Korea presenting his work as a fellow of the East Asia Institute. He, author of the book Institutional Balancing in the Asia-Pacific: Economic Interdependence and China’s Rise, was awarded a second fellowship with the East-West Center in Washington, D.C., to work on his next book. He also serves on the editorial team for Oxford University Press’ Chinese Journal of International Politics.

Both Feng and He are valuable resources at Utah State. Last spring, the university responded to student demand by offering a minor in Chinese for the first time. The Jon M. Huntsman School of Business operates a program encouraging cross-cultural exchange between Utah State and Chinese scholars. As China continues to shape global markets—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development suggests China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy as early as 2016—the university’s emphasis on China Studies will likely only increase.

“In terms of global engagement programs there is an emphasis on global international security. There’s no denying China’s rising is probably the most important factor,” Feng said. “Look at the presidential election. [In the first] debate, Governor Romney mentioned China three times—and that was a domestic debate.”

Reconciling Differences

Isaac Allred, a double major in physics and Asian Studies, was definitely paying attention. His concentrations may seem an odd pairing, but they complement his goal of working in geophysics upon graduation, either by way of patent law or graduate study.

“Energy is a concern for every country,” Allred said. “They all want to know ‘How are we going to have enough for our country and industrial sector?’”

And no country has a larger demand for energy than China. The nation is the world leader in energy consumption and alternative energy development, according to the International Energy Agency. China’s border conflicts often involve disputes over energy resources such as offshore drilling. Professors He and Feng have helped put China’s actions in context for Allred.

“They have enriched my education so much,” he said. “Dr. He really emphasizes research and bringing something creative to the table. One thing that Dr. Feng has helped me with is to understand the government in China. It’s different from what I have experienced here. The leaders of the nation are selected behind closed doors.”

Allred served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Taiwan, and has spent two summers in China. He taught English to students aiming to study abroad, and he participated in the State Department’s Language Scholarship program to learn Chinese. He believes that a key to dealing with China is cultural understanding.

“Now we are connected with China in a way we cannot part from,” he said. “Our economy is tied to theirs and vice versa…We have to understand our friends and neighbors and partners, our creditors and debtors.”

Sorting Misconceptions

With the assistance of a seed grant from the college, Feng and He launched a longitudinal study examining China’s intellectual community. Just as scholars in the United States seek to better comprehend Chinese decision making, Chinese scholars look to America for clues. Feng and He’s project “China’s America Watchers,” explores how they view the United States and how they influence Chinese leaders. They circulated the first survey at international conferences over the summer.

“We think China’s America watchers play a very important role, the bridge role, between the policy leader and the public,” He said. “People may think that the Chinese people just hate America. But after we did the survey, we found that the people we call America Watchers, their opinion towards America is really moderate.”

In fact, their preliminary results may come as a surprise to some Americans.

“People [in China] are paying very much attention to the regional hotspots,” Feng said. “Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam are on top of the countries that those people see as potentially having a conflict with China—not the United States.”

The professors believe China and the United States do have conflicts. They are two nations with different ideologies and diverse strategic interests. However, their disputes do not have to lead to foreign policy crises or military action. Professor Feng argues there is too much at stake for conflicts to escalate militarily. There are different channels to solve things peaceably, she said. “In this time of the world no one wants war first.”

In China, leadership transitions occur once every decade. Leaders are chosen by outgoing Communist Party heads. In November, seven new leaders of China’s Politburo Standing Committee were announced. Feng suspects a younger generation of leaders will rise through the party’s ranks, resulting in more group dynamic decision-making with individual leaders having less influence on policy.

“That’s further proof that the outcome of decisions will be more peace-oriented, cooperative-oriented rather than conflict-oriented,” she said.

For graduate student Dave Aston, ’09, MA ’13, correcting the misconceptions people may have about China is critical for positive foreign relations. He is fluent in Mandarin and has both taught English and studied abroad in China in 2008 and 2010. He traveled to rural areas and saw poverty—the type where you know the little kids you meet don’t really have a future, Aston said.

“Maybe it sounds cheesy, but it’s just really nice being connected to a billion more people in the world,” he said. “I almost feel responsible to make that connection.”

Aston returned to Utah to figure out his next step in life. After meeting with professor He, Aston determined studying with Feng and He was where he wanted to be. Aston values their perspectives, and argues they can offer insight about the nation in a way that educators raised in the West can’t.

“I feel like I can get a fair understanding of China from them,” Aston said. “They were born there, but they were also educated here. The department is fortunate to have them. Obviously it would have been nice to have them here 10 years ago, but I don’t think the university can do enough to engage China. Since I was an undergraduate they’ve made a lot of progress. It’s exciting to be a part of growing something.”