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Social Positioning and International Order Contestation in Early Modern Southeast Asia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 July 2021

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Identities and ideas can lead to international order contestation through the efforts of international actors to socially position themselves and perform their identities. International actors try to shape the world to suit who they want to be. To substantiate this argument, I examine the contestation of international orders in early modern Southeast Asia. The prevailing view portrays a Confucian international order which formed a consensual and stable hierarchy in East Asia. However, instead of acquiescing to hegemonic leadership, both Siam and Vietnam frequently sought to assert their equality and even superiority to the Chinese dynasties. I argue that both polities engaged in political contention to define their places in relation to other polities and the broader social context in which they interacted. I examine how international order contestation emerged from efforts to define and redefine background knowledge about social positioning, social categorization, and the political ontologies and beliefs about collective purpose on which they are based. I claim that agents seek to interact with others in ways that reify their sense of self, and challenge the background knowledge embedded in performances of other actors that threaten their ability to perform their identity. I also argue against theories that attribute international order contestation to hegemonic decline or the breakdown of a tacit bargain, which assume that orders are held together by a dominant power. One implication is that hegemony and hierarchy are based on dominant ideas, not dominant states.

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