Think Tank (1/2023)
Speaker Dr Nam Kyu Kim
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Elite Nationalism and Territorial Disputes: Implications for East Asia and Southeast Asia
06 Feb 2023

On 6 February 2023, RSIS hosted a Roundtable on “Elite Nationalism and Territorial Disputes: Implications for East Asia and Southeast Asia.” It was organised and chaired by Dr Su-Hyun Lee, Assistant Professor and the Coordinator of the MSc International Political Economy Programme. The key speaker of the event, Dr Nam Kyu Kim; Associate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Korea University and the Director of the CAMPUS Asia Programme that involves Nanyang Technological University, Peking University, Waseda University, and Korea University; presented his paper on the relationship between elite nationalism and the initiation and resolution of territorial disputes, co-authored with Dr Jaebeom Kwon, Jeonbuk National University.

How does nationalism affect territorial disputes? Dr Kim noted that despite the global rise in nationalism and scholars’ high valuation of territory as a core element of nationalism, the relationship between nationalism and territorial disputes has not been subjected to systematic empirical scrutiny. Drawing on the existing literature, Dr Kim argued that nationalism makes political leaders and elites with foreign policy decision-making powers more likely to challenge the territorial status quo for several reasons. Nationalism is inherently territorial due to the critical role of territory in the formation and maintenance of national identity. Nationalistic sentiments also significantly affect the world views and policy preferences of political leaders and elites who have capabilities to use territorial disputes for their political interests.

Relying on empirical analysis of all existing territorial claims from 1901 to 2001, Dr Kim presented his findings that nationalism in political leaders increases their likelihood of initiating territorial disputes, especially when a territory is perceived as all-important to a nation’s history and identity. He also suggested that elite nationalism increases risks of settling territorial disputes by military means and of experiencing more fatalities as a result.

During the Q&A session, Dr Kim had a lively discussion with the audience about the implications of his analysis and further extensions, considering current geopolitical conflicts and political economic factors affecting the link between nationalism and territorial disputes. Increasing levels of nationalism in Asian countries and their effects on regional stability were also discussed.

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