Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific

College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University

Languages of Security in the Asia-Pacific header image 3


by Matthew Hill

1. ‘Introducing Languages of Security’

2. Approach

3. Methodology

4. Language and security: instrument and conflict

5. Languages and Security: Mistranslation, Misperception, Incompatible understands and Conflict

6. Conclusion

‘Introducing Languages and Security’

The standard understanding of ‘security’ within international relations has carried with it the connotations of the nation-state, the soldier, and the threat of physical harm. Underpinning these images is a narrative of hard-headed strategic calculus, of a political reality at once tangible and irresistible. Yet these images, ideas, and underlying discourses are not immutable; as theoretical developments over the past thirty years have demonstrated, so-called ‘traditional’ security is only one paradigm amongst many other possibilities structuring the human experience of violent harm, and the international politics of threats. Challenges to this intellectual monopoly have come in the form of powerful criticisms of the underlying positivist approach towards international relations, grounded in the broader methodological and philosophical debates into the nature of our understanding of the world, the relationship between the ideas and perceptions of the individual and those of a state’s leadership, and the tension between the individual actor and the forces that structure its existence.

It is into this debate that the present volume plunges, by drawing attention to the under-examined relationship between security and language. For language plays a fundamental role, not merely in transmitting and recording our perceptions of conflict, but in defining them. This volume seeks to tease out the constitutive role of language within security, as both a foundation of meaning, and a rejection of objective foundations. This ineluctable relationship between the two concepts is consequently the basis for advancing the argument that language plays a critical role in shaping security developments at all levels of human experience, from the individual village to regional diplomatic forums. At the same time, language is constantly redefining the boundaries of our myriad legitimate conceptions of security itself.

Our examination of these protean concepts of language and security is centred on Asia, specifically the sub-regions of Northeast and Southeast Asia. The dizzying cultural, political, ethnic, religious, economic, geographic, ideological, and institutional diversity of what is increasingly the focal region of international relations and security studies in the twenty-first century provides a fascinating and ultimately inexhaustible vista for investigation. However, it must be made clear at the outset that this study does not represent a comprehensive survey of the region. This reflects not only practical limitations but also explicit methodological scepticism of such aspirations. If perspectives flow from the pragmatic intersection of language and experience, then no outlook can ultimately claim to be privileged beyond a specific intellectual purpose and context.

Nonetheless, within these parameters the cases contained in this study provide a fascinating snapshot of the various language and security interactions across the region.  On the one hand we have I-Ling Tseng’s analysis of the complex linguistic manoeuvres structuring the reaction of the United States and China to the 2001 EP-3 reconnaissance plane crash on Hainan Island, a classic traditional security interaction where tensions surrounding the regional balance of power intersected with concerns for national reputation. At the other end of the continuum is Nicholas Farrelly’s investigation into the role of language in the framing of amphetamines, a key non-traditional security threat to the Thai government due to its immense human and social costs.  As these two examples demonstrate, the cases selected for this study cut across all dimensions of security concepts, referents, scope and responses. Equally, language plays an active role, both as something to be mobilised by different actors, but also as an implicit structuring concept.

These two key themes – language as an instrument of security, but also as a source of security crises – represent the uniting focus of the following case studies. Instrumentally, language is harnessed in a wide-ranging fashion depending on the objectives at hand, the actors, and structuring conditions. Propaganda by non-state groups in South Thailand, identity formation at the Asian regional level, and manipulations of the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable discourse in the context of US-North Korean relations represent only a few of the dynamics explored in the cases that follow. Equally, language itself operates as a locus of conflict. Misperception, particularly regarding the intentions of an opponent, has frequently been driven by communication errors across linguistic boundaries, as for example in Malaysia-Thai relations. Equally, once conflict has escalated, language and the systems of meaning it represents can serve as an exacerbating factor potentially prevent a durable resolution to a crisis, as has been the case between the Burmese central government and various sub-state groups that have in been in varying degrees of conflict since 1947.

The examination of the intersection of language and security takes us to the coalface of key meta-theoretic debates within international relations and security studies. Exploration of these, and an explanation of the approach taken by this research is thus a clear initial priority.



This research takes as its starting point the constructivist insight that our understanding of security dynamics are not merely an objective reflection of the world, but are intrinsically bound up in social networks of meaning that we absorb and remould. With the so-called ‘linguistic turn’ in philosophy and social sciences,[1] it is increasingly recognised that these networks are fundamentally communicative in nature. This specifies a fundamental role for language in conceiving and engaging with any issue, including security. The role of language in constructing and defining security is under-examined in the literature. As David Capie and Paul Evans have noted, amidst the diversity languages, particularly in the Asia-Pacific, “…the act of translation raises difficult issues of linguistics, conceptual starting points, and world-views that need further, and we hope collaborative, programmes of study.”[2] The purpose of this volume is to advance this goal through just such a collaborative intellectual program. In doing so, this chapter will first attempt to define a cohesive theoretical framework, by reconcile the underlying the most obtuse methodological differences between security studies, and Asian studies.

The core friction between the social sciences and language-centred humanities such as area studies, pithily summarised by Deli Hymes, is that “the social scientist has been intent upon seeing through language to other things, the linguist upon stopping at grammar’s edge.”[3] While the social scientist seeks to craft theoretical and conceptual frameworks in order to better understand reality writ large, the area specialist seeks to grasp the systems of meaning as already existent within a given society. While one agenda orientates itself towards universality and generality, the other focuses on grass-roots specifics of context and local understanding. In the extreme, the distinctions in approach between the two agendas would seem to threaten an unbridgeable methodological chasm. As Max Weber argued:

The focus of attention on reality under the guidance of values which lend it significance and the selection and ordering of the phenomena which are thus affected in the light of their cultural significance is entirely different from the analysis of reality in terms of laws and general concepts.[4]

This divergence has led to conflict over the desired approach at those points where the two research agendas meet. Indeed, this breach is given added significance by the fact that it provides a basis for the very disciplinary relevance of area studies, and the humanities in general, to be contested by the ascendance of social science.[5]

Yet these differences of perspectives and assumptions should not drive us to discard hope of reconciliation between the disciplines. With the challenges to universalising narratives in social science posed by the rise of culturalist and interpretivist analyses of human events, a route may appear open towards bridging the gap between the subjective and the objective via a constructivist approach towards the implications of language for security studies. Of course, it is not enough merely to assert that we will pursue a constructivist approach. If language is in some fashion fundamental to, and constitutive of security, then a deeper investigation is warranted into the underlying mechanisms through which this interaction occurs, and the countervailing perspectives raised by other approaches. Furthermore, due to both the plurality of forms of constructivism, and their eclectic ontological and epistemological foundations,[6] it is necessary to clarify the specifics of the methodological framework conceived of in this research. This serves an additional, practical purpose in terms of the research agenda. By clarifying the importance of failures in understanding and communication, and the manipulation of meaning, we lay the basis for asserting a decisive role for them within security dynamics.

Underlying the primary theoretical frameworks of international relations are a set of assumptions about the nature of the world (ontology) and our understanding of it (epistemology). Both realist and liberal theories have their roots in the positivist and neo-positivist theories of the 1960s and 1970s, ultimately grounded via game theory and utility analysis in similar materialistic assumptions as economics.[7] These theories involve the ontological assertion of dualism, a separation between an objective world and a mental environment containing representations of that world.[8] The degree of accuracy in the correspondence of those representations to the objects in world they specify provides the arbiter of truth. The purpose of social science is consequently to craft better and more effective representations through theorising. Importantly, the presence of an objective reality against which they can be tested allows for falsification of theories, thus allowing for a progressive improvement of our conceptual frameworks in an iterative fashion. Within the context of specific international relations theories, this is best reflected primarily in the structuralist conceptions of neo-realism, which claim objective access to a security reality whose ontology is defined by the presence of the nation-state as the fundamental referent of security.[9]

Nonetheless there are fundamental challenges to this perspective. Firstly, how are we supposed to know, as neo-positivists would have us, that our knowledge exists in some specific relationship to reality? The acceptance of such a relationship could represent a value-consensus, rather than an authentic account of reality.[10] Even should such an objectively valid account be possible, it would nonetheless be difficult for us to distinguish it from mere preferences, if those preferences are widely held. Secondly, and more fundamentally, the assertion that a reality exists that is objectively intelligible is challenged by the sheer empirical disagreements observable, for example, between different security communities. These understandings themselves become a fixture of the world, and consequently shape the flow events and causal dynamics. Their truth or falsity thus becomes secondary, given that they are in fact acting as more than representations, but rather as facts of the world in and of themselves.

An alternative focus is that of the broad family of constructivist theories. While the specific ontologies and epistemologies of constructivism vary widely, they all mark a significant distinction with positivism over the nature of ideas. Contra to positivism’s relegation of ideas to the secondary role of representations, mere mirrors to reality, constructivism advances the subjective assertion that ideas have their own independent value as constructing a frame to human perception and action that can be just as relevant to the study of social dynamics as the physical objects of the world. It is important to note that this construal is equally dualist in nature. The overlap of perspectives shaped through common interaction with the world provides a basis for defining meaning socially, through language. It reflects the insights of Peter Winch, Jürgen Habermas, and Hans Georg Gadamer amongst others, who argue that meaning, while lacking a tangible material source, is nonetheless inter-subjectively intelligible as a relationship of common interpretation between two subject to an object.[11] This represents Max Weber’s concept of Verstehen, the theory that meaning exists as a structural element held collectively by a language community, but which is also capable of individual change and manipulation. Constructivism, under this interpretation, is defined by “the view that the manner in which the material world shapes and is shaped by human action and interaction depends on dynamic normative and epistemic interpretations of the material world.”[12] Meaning is rule-governed behaviour, embodied in language games that we are tacitly educated into, and which form the structures of meaning that we interact with. It consequently represents both a denial of positivist foundations and a wholesale replacement of it with the view that “language is the fundamental mode of operation of our being-in-the-world and all-embracing for the constitution of the world.”[13]

Since the end of the Cold War, constructivist approaches have been applied widely to the analysis of regional politics, sparking debate against existing perspectives such as neo-realism and liberalism. However, the shift towards approaches emphasising social and cultural factors in defining the nature of security has not been unproblematic, for two related reasons. Firstly, the widened application of constructivist approaches has not necessarily been matched by advancement in awareness of the underlying ontological requirements of such a research agenda. Emphasis remains on uncovering an underlying reality, which is itself a fundamentally positivist exercise. As See Seng Tan observes:

…the relentless search for essence – or, more properly, the desire, if not for the reality of essence then certainly for its ideal – could well be an improbable quest for a holy grail.[14]

Indeed, this obscures the fact that there remains significant disagreement regarding the ontological foundations of security studies, particularly between theories that assert the primacy of rational agency, versus the determinism of structures such as the competitive system of global power. One of the major criticisms advanced against such subjective approaches is that “[l]anguage apparently determines both social and physical reality, rather than reality determining language; consequently we cannot appeal to what language is about.”[15] While making claims as to the nature of knowledge, traditional constructivism suffers from the problem of having to specify the foundations of its authority. By placing the locus of knowledge and meaning in internal, subjective mental structures, rather than in some relationship to the external world, falsifiability is challenged. Constructivism, in its contemporary guise, nonetheless harks back to its structuralist ontological roots, in implying that language defines and shapes the boundaries of the possible. As George V. Zito contends:

…in may respects, society may be a product of language. Both language and society are things we are born into, and both constrain our ability to conceptualize and perhaps make thinking itself possible.”[16]

This emphasis on the delimitation of knowledge by form rather than by action both undercuts our ability to evaluate it (since implicitly the system of meaning pre-dates our rationality), and our ability to evolve that system.

The alternative is to focus on communicative action, conceived as being shaped by both structure and agency. Action, consequently, represents the point at which object and subject are united. Indeed, Albert, Kessler and Stetter’s assessment of the ‘Communicative Turn’ in IR emphasise that:

[C]oncepts such as intersubjectivity or convention already point to some underlying notion of communication embedded in IR theorising by the linguistic turn – yet these notions arguably hide behind the ‘broader’ notion of ‘language’… intersubjectivity would barely make sense if communication were absent.[17]

Interpretivist conceptions of knowledge consequently need a distinct focus on actions.[18] This is vital if we are to find a generating mechanism for the rules that structure meaning, without a reliance on asserting an ultimately speculative role to specific individuals or institutions. It is how actions occur through the weave of these constructs that we attribute them with meaning, and can consequently resolve the agency-structure problem in a neutral fashion.

Secondly, despite its roots in a more subjective, interpretivist tradition, constructivism has ended up pursuing similarly broad-brush epistemic ambitions to realism and liberalism. Like them, it too has engaged in a take-no-prisoners approach towards other theories. This has opened up space for pragmatic critiques. As Peter J. Katzenstein and Nobuo Okawara have argued:

…the privileging of parsimony… has become the hallmark of paradigmatic debates. The complex links between power, interest, and norms defy analytical capture by any one paradigm.  They are made more intelligible by drawing selectively on different paradigms- that is, by analytical eclecticism, not parsimony.[19]

The key, then, is to open up the epistemic foundations of constructivism, to move beyond asserting it as a competing paradigm with other theories, but instead exploring its value as a pluralistic meta-theoretic outlook that incorporates a diversity of different construal of security through a focus on the role of language and communication in the definition and formulation of meaning.  In doing so, we aspire to overcome the challenge of reconciling particular interpretations and general conceptualizations. This is to be achieved, not by suggesting an over-arching epistemic theory linking the two, but rather by accept that their influence on human events occurs regardless of the foundations of the knowledge we hold, instead focusing on the causal mechanisms through which they operate. We can acknowledge Clifford Geertz criticism that there is a challenge inherent in the proliferation of “interpretive approaches to anything – literature, dreams, symptoms, culture – is that they tend to resist, or be permitted to resist, conceptual articulation and thus to escape systematic modes of assessment.”[20] Where we disagree is that absence of systematic assessment is a failure, when instead it represents the logical extension of the natural proliferation of countless systems of meanings and individual interpretations, many of which are fundamentally irreconcilable. In this again, we hew to Max Weber’s argument that:

There is no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture – or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes – of “social phenomena” independent of special and “one-sided” viewpoints according to which – expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously – they are selected, analysed and organized for expository purposes.[21]

A desire for homogenous explanations cannot simply be asserted out of a desire for parsimony. No single discipline can aspire to providing a cohesive vision of reality, and the best that can be hoped is that principles of classification can be tailored to our particular requirements in analysing the world.[22] Indeed, “[o]ne’s subjective viewpoint, then, will be reflected in the problem one selects for study and also in the concepts one employs as tools for study.”[23] The very diversity of understandings present with regards to human events is indicative of the centrality of pluralism to our view of security realities.

The definition of a meta-theoretic framework of constructivism represents a second-order attempt to engage with the issue of language and security. Instead of asserting a specific ontology and epistemology of security language, we focus on the pragmatic fact that the metaphysical validity of security discourses is irrelevant to understanding their practical relevance to individuals and institution. What matters is that people believe, internalise, and indeed perceive the world through those discourses, shaping the definitions, parameters and moves that they and others make within the security sphere. In other words, the role of language in facilitating understandings that guide action is more important than the ‘truth’ of those understandings. For us then, constructivism is a means to engage in a neutral manner with the role of language in security processes without attempting to impose an absolute criterion on that language vis-à-vis an asserted external, ‘real’ world beyond the social interactions of humanity. In such a fashion we sidestep the dualistic pitfall that lies in Patrick Thadeus Jackson’s distinction between “…whether the knowledge that academic researchers produce is in some sense a reflection of the world, or whether it is irreducibly a perspective on the world.”[24] The important thing is that it is ‘in’ the world in some practical manner, empirically shaping perceptions and actions.

This research proposes as a form of pragmatism that can frame meta-theoretical investigations across social science and the humanities. Interpretative, like subjective, conceptions of meaning pose an understanding of knowledge that aspires ultimately to be foundation-less – that goes ‘all the way down.’ However, such an approach, by asserting explicitly a rejection of foundations, and of the relevance of an external world, in fact generates  “a priori theorising on transcendental conditions that are deemed to hold universally.” [25]There appears no reason for granting Interpretivist conceptions this sort of privileged position, since there is no external perspective available from which to justify these assertions.  Instead, what is proposed is a pragmatic turn that builds upon the uniting role of language in the action of communication, linking subject and object into webs of mutually comprehensible meaning. Such a conceptions says nothing about the component facts of the world, nor attempts to define a dualist relationship between the subject and object. Instead, it sets aside those debates in favour of the practical reality that meaning is carried through communication, which provide a strong causal description of how interpretations relate to effects in the world.

The ‘rules’ that define this communication are not transcendental, nor are they specific ascribable properties of the world. Rather, following the tradition of cultural pragmatics highlighted by Emma Campbell in her contribution to our understanding of security dialectics in US-North Korean discussions, we identify the definition of meaning with both agent and structure, with behaviour and culture. Discovering such meanings is not a matter of ‘grasping’ an understanding, but rather being socialised in an iterative learning process. This conception is reinforced by the practical approach of trans-lingual studies highlighted by Nicholas Farelly, which explicates the processes by which new or translated meanings develop, circulate, and acquire legitimacy.

Exploring the ontology of this position in the context of security studies, the burden of reality is located within language as part and parcel of broader cultural webs. Nonetheless, these webs are ultimately evolved, redefined and intelligible only in the context of acts of communication that take place within linguistic communities. The challenge of operating at the interface of such communities is that the webs of meaning will only be as complete as the mutual linguistic and cultural awareness of the parties involved. While this interface can be manipulated, ultimately it also a structural source of potential misperceptions, mistranslations, and disagreements.

In summarising the approach taken by this study, the key insight is that attempts to assert universalising, trans-historical assumptions about any aspect of social world likely to push our analytic apparatus too far, especially if we cross boundaries of culture, language and meaning. If we do not have an objective view of the world, “[i]t is not that ‘the world’ does not exist, but that at the most basic logical level it is quite impossible to disentangle that world from the practical knowledge activities that we use in constituting and studying it.”[26] The argument, advanced by Adler, that to focus exclusively on social reality is to ignore the material basis for that reality misses the point entirely. [27] No line can be drawn between the object, the perception of the object, and the use of the object. All three internally presuppose a subject, just as the existence of a subject presupposes relationships with a broader reality. Asserting a dualist conception that separates the world ideas from a material world is consequently a legitimate move, but says something a lot less important than its proponents would suggest: it merely indicates the majority of our discourses we treat the idea of an idea differently from an idea of an object. This offers no earth-shattering insight beyond the realm of discourse-centered inter-subjective meaning.

However, with an awareness of local meanings and context we can still develop insightful interpretations of the interaction of language and security. What is more, there is an advantage in recognising the inherent flux of meaning and interpretation that surrounds our perspectives on the world – as it inclines us towards analytic flexibility, appreciating the fact that the nature and subject of our knowledge is constantly changing.[28] As a result, we can assert with Tan that:

…what constructivist adventurism inadvertently confirms is that no such metaphysical foundation and ultimate centre, already secure, stable and unambiguous, exists within the IR and security studies discipline. As such, every constructivist effort to resolve contradiction and reconstruct international politics and security only ends up generating new contradictions in an endless and quite unintended deconstruction.[29]



The structure of this research is focused upon fifteen case studies, designed to flesh out the geographic, cultural, referential, strategic, and linguistic diversity of the intersections of language and security within Asia. The cases primarily fall across a divide between, on the one hand, the instrumental use of language to alter or recast security realities, and on the other hand the role of misperceptions, misunderstanding, and incompatibility of meanings in provoking, prolonging, and institutionalising conflict.

The use of case studies within this study requires some degree of justification, as it goes against the grain of a significant proportion of contemporary practice. As political science and international relations have become increasingly drawn into the positivist quest for objective theory building, case studies have been deployed as an important means of applying small-n detailed tests of hypotheses.[30] This is not what is attempted in this study. The research method pursued here is fundamentally ideographic, seeking to focus on subjective and particular phenomena rather than the development of generalised theory. As such, case studies are being utilized to demonstrate the diversity of language deployment with regards to security across the Asia-Pacific. While the case studies are not themselves comparative, they do invite readers to appreciate the plurality of conceptions of security within the region.

In doing so, this research harks back to an older tradition of case studies. The utility of this process is grounded on the ideographic insights that only case study explication can bring: “…they either allow the facts to speak for themselves or bring out their significance by largely intuitive interpretation, claiming validity on the ground that intensive study and empathetic feel for cases provide authoritative insights into them.”[31] At the same time, there is nonetheless a broad, general idea at the core of this work that links these studies together. They all serve to illustrate a nebulous, though fundamental point that language frames the depiction, the pursuit, and even the resolution of security concerns within the region. In addition, however, ‘gaps’ in meaning, misinterpretation and mistranslation can lead to security outcomes in and of themselves.

The selection of these studies has been based on the discretion of the various sub-regional specialists engaged by the project, guided by their admittedly subjective judgements of the conflicts that best represent the diversity of regional encounters between language and security. The cases have been framed and delineated accordingly to best encapsulate this focus; as such they do not aspire to represent comprehensive accounts of either key regional security issues or the wide fronts of cross-linguistic encounters, but rather specific aspects thereof. In all cases review has been sought by other regional specialists in order to maintain a check on comparative analysis. Nonetheless, given the Interpretivist approach outlined above we have no pre-tense to offering a universal, trans-historical analysis of these issues, and accept that future perspectives are likely to challenge in part the studies produced. Indeed, we welcome such a debate, to the extent that it highlights the contestation and evolution of perspectives in line with the ever-changing nexus of language and security. Interpretations and definitions can be refined, and the relevance of specific terms will rise and fall with the currents of politics and culture within the region, and with academic and intellectual tides. Indeed:

The cultural problems which move men form themselves ever anew and in different colors, and the boundaries of that area in the infinite stream of concrete events which acquires meaning and significance for us, i.e., which becomes an “historical individual,” are constantly subject to change. The intellectual contexts from which it is viewed and scientifically analysed shift… A systematic science of culture, even only in the sense of a definitive, objectively valid, systematic fixation of the problems which it should treat, would be senseless in itself.[32]

Consequently, we anticipate a research agenda that advances constantly with both the academic debate and the practical evolution of the security and social realities of the Asia-Pacific.


Language and security: instrument and conflict

Having discussed the key structuring considerations of this research, we will now turn to an examination of the central themes brought out in the case studies that follow. As was alluded to previously, these centre around two aspects of the intersection of language and security. Firstly, woven through many of the case studies is a concern for the instrumental deployment of language for security ends. As we noted with regards to the pragmatic approach taken to this research, the nature of language and its relationship to meaning is such that there remains a strong role for agency to actively shape, extend and even distort the understandings of meaning that pertain within a given linguistic community. The struggle to authoritatively define an interpretation of a given security act or statement is an instrumental act, in that it consciously seeks to define or redefine the security reality as experienced by a third-party. This can be understood in the context of language games that overlap, not merely horizontally (i.e. as in professional understandings of the phrase ‘do no harm’ between surgeons and soldiers), but also vertically (as in the concept and referents of ‘security’ between the individual, the community, and the state). Such hierarchical definitions of meaning may exert a deeper hold in some societies than others, for instance between theocratic and liberal democratic nations, but are nonetheless present to some degree in all cultures, for example economic management structures, the armed forces, or educational institutions. At its core is an acceptance that some individual is at a given time in an epistemically privileged position vis-à-vis another.

The strategic deployment of interpretation can thus be seen reflected in several crucial practical forms. Firstly, there is the leveraging of meaning for propagandistic purposes. This is most obvious perhaps with regards to government attempts to redefine its relationship with sub-state actors. As Nicholas Farrelly notes in his discussion of the Burmese government’s use of the languages of security, various terms such as ‘ceasefire’, ‘peace’, and ‘war’ are variously interpreted and defined by the state depending on its particular objectives with regards to specific segments of its domestic population. Despite the Tatmadaw’s attempts to couch negotiations with sub-state actors in terms of peace and stability, there is persistent suspicion on the part of those groups that such offers are merely tactical in nature, designed to buy respite or to soften opposition before a renewed offensive. However, government actors are not unique in their attempts to harness meaning.  Farrelly also draws attention to parallel actions on the part of Burma’s various sub-state actors, in particular Shan efforts to leverage interpretations of the word ‘independence.’ Moving the boundaries of demands provides tactical negotiating leverage, while also allowing groups to parse their message to their own supporters.

Similarly, Tony Diller’s analysis of the Thai government’s relationship with various sub-state actors has identified several instances of the instrumental deployment of language to shape political and security outcomes. For example, the conscious mobilisation of the term kabot (rebel) by supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra can be seen as an attempt at delegitimising the opposition. Notable here is the counter-mobilization of the term by anti-Thaksin groups. In an attempt to maintain the political momentum against the government, these groups embraced the term, in an attempt to highlight the moral hypocrisy of the act of labelling. More broadly, language can be harnessed to shape and control perceptions that affect the actions of domestic audiences. Here again, in his second contribution to this volume, Farrelly highlights the Thai governments efforts to respond to the human security impact of widespread use of drugs within Thailand.  In reframing the meaning of the amphetamine ya ma (horse pills) to ya ba (crazy medicine), the Bangkok authorities sought to undercut the attractiveness of the drug and associated lifestyles by reducing there susceptibility to glorification.

Secondly, language can be used as a specific tool for defining the strategic realities that state and non-state actors confront. In doing so, it can directly determine the parameters of security interests. For example, as Antony Milner contends in his contribution to the study, states can seek to consciously contest the scope of security, by defining who is in and out of a regional community, and where the boundaries lies. The contrasting constitution of ‘community’ in the context of Asian regionalism by Japan (i.e. kyoodootai, with the connotations of community and society), versus that of Australia’s proposal for an Asia-Pacific community, reflect different operational concepts of region combined with fundamentally divergent security objectives in defining the scale and scope of community. An additional example can be seen again in Tony Diller’s discussion of regional identity formation in Southern Thailand, where, for instance, a pamphlet, the Berjihad di Patani (“The Struggle for Patani”) became a central point of mobilization of Malay youth around a constructed identity that deliberately emphasized distinctions with Thai culture in moulding an historical narrative of Islamic heritage. In doing so, the point is reinforced that the parameters of the state, and even geopolitical interests, are an ideational and cultural question, not merely geographic. This is a point echoed in the broader constructivist literature, notably in Adler and Barnett’s assertion “that regions are socially constructed and are susceptible to redefinition.”[33]

The strategic deployment of language also provides a tool for actors seeking to communicate reputation and intent. In this regard, Emma Campbell’s analysis of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) mobilisation of party rhetoric towards other Six-Party talks participants provides an insightful examination of how subtle signals can be sent via changes in otherwise verbose statements. Likewise, softening and reposition the meaning of key terms in some cases provide a tool for resolving crises, by attempting to square away the reputational requirements of both parties. Just such a deployment of language is explored by I-Ling Tseng in her discussion of the role of word choice and translation in providing flexibility in parsing rapprochement during the EP-3 Incident of 2001, a period of strained relations between the United States and China. Negotiations between Beijing and Washington over the specifics of term required to end the confrontation, whether it be ‘apology’ (daoqian), with the connotations of admitting mistake, ‘regret’ (yihan), or ‘sorry’ (qianyi), were overlaid with specific translations directed at domestic audiences, allowing both Washington and Beijing to reconcile and demonstrate mutual respect while placating domestic audiences. Despite both parties coming under sustained domestic pressures on what they could and could not accept, flexibility in meaning allowed for a compromise that fulfilled their reputational requirements.

The EP-3 case demonstrates that the leveraging of key translations to provide subtly different messages to different audiences can be an important capability in formulating a state’s approach to security crises. As Emma Campbell has indicated, similar dynamics are at work in the DPRK’s framing of its international relations, which demonstrate a significant segmentation of message both with regards to its own domestic population and international audiences. These factors attest to the importance in considering the instrumental role of language in regional security dynamics that has hitherto been under-acknowledged.


Languages and Security: Mistranslation, Misperception, Incompatible understands and Conflict

The role of breakdowns in communication in fermenting conflict is well acknowledged in the critical literature on international relations. Indeed, Mathias Albert, Oliver Kessler and Stephan Stetter articulation that “a conflict crucially depends on a continuous (discursive) processing of difference” cuts to the core of what is in fact the challenge languages pose to security.[34] These authors go so far as to suggest that the very nature of conflict is defined by communication failure. However, as they acknowledge, the primary focus has tended to follow that of security and peace and conflict studies towards the extremes, centred on the role of “diametrically opposed ‘understandings’” in driving violent conflicts,[35] leading to a certain degree of neglect with regards to the more subtle misunderstandings and misinterpretations that can generate conflict and strategic crises short of violence.

The studies within this volume contain a significant focus on the security implications of structural failures in mutual understanding. This represents the reciprocal dynamic to the agent-driven, instrumental role of language in security dynamics emphasised in the previous section. Despite the ability of individuals to harness elements of language, the overall whole remains far beyond their sole control, existing within the structure of wider communicative acts pursued by an entire cultural group. Indeed, the parameters of culture and language are so vast as to be beyond the grasp even of highly centralised government institutions. The scale of the endeavour is too great, regardless of the nightmarish predictions of George Orwell in his novel, 1984.[36] To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, you can manipulate all the language to some people, or you can manipulate some of the language all of the people, but you cannot do both. At the macro-scale of language use, meaning exerts a powerful constraint on general perceptions, values, and actions. In the context of security interactions between groups of differing linguistic and cultural backgrounds, this can lead to frictions through misperception. This can result in a wide range of negative security implications. Emma Campbell highlights for example the differences in interpretations between the US and DPRK regarding the former’s use of the phrase ‘carrot and stick’ in relation to its policy towards the latter. Despite Washington’s intention to communicate its willingness to consider both punishments and rewards as part of its interaction with Pyongyang, the DPRK interpreted the statement as the derogatory assertion that it was ‘donkey-like’. In this case, such misperceptions came close to derailing a potential solution to outstanding nuclear proliferation issues between the US and North Korea.

This points to a fact that is frequently is missed in the broader literature: while the evolution of crises may indeed be shaped by the uncertainty of leaders regarding the relative values they associate with given issues,[37] of perhaps even more fundamental importance is the lack of shared understanding of the terms with which they are communicating. Tony Diller describes another example of such misunderstanding with reference to former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahatir Mohamad’s statements on ‘autonomy’ vis-à-vis ethnic Malay populations in Southern Thailand. Mahatir’s use of the term word isaraphap was interpreted as ‘independence’ by Bangkok, leading to a further failure in the resolution of the domestic crisis within Thailand.

Furthermore, the relationship between language and security can have impacts that structure perceptions such that conflict and other actions become effectively mandatory. As Tony Diller notes, “[w]ords can have tangible effects. There can be a direct connection between a word’s meaning and specific actions or concrete outcomes that follow.” Diller emphasizes this point with regards to the aforementioned pejorative term kabot (rebel), which in linked to the serious act of du-min (challenge to authority). Within Thai society, the designation of kabot carries with it certain implicit requirements for actions to reinforce the status quo of society, particularly as focused on traditional institutions such as the royal family. Similarly, Lu Peng’s discussion of the concept of ‘zhuquan’ (sovereignty), and its historical connotations regarding China’s interests in the South China Sea evokes emotions and cultural perspectives regarding its national place in the world, which hold not only contemporary symbolic implications, but material demands on the reaction of Beijing to a perceived slight to its prerogatives in the region. In another relevant example, Tseng also explores these pressures, in the context of the EP-3 incident.  Examining calls for the US government to apologise, Tseng notes Beijing’s emphasis that the referent of that apology needs to the Chinese people rather than the Chinese government, a demand that is perhaps reflective of deep structural political and ideological associations of ‘people’ with the ‘state’ arising out of Communist doctrine.



This chapter has attempted to survey the various dimensions of the intersection of language and security, with the intention of framing the research that follows from both the perspective of the broader theoretical and conceptual developments within international relations, and between the social sciences and humanities. As a consequence, it is hoped that readers will have a greater appreciation for the deep methodological currents that flow through the case studies, as well as the subtleties that animate the local and particular deployment of language in the context of regional security dynamics.

The approach towards the research has been defined with reference to the tension between objectivist, generalising attempts towards concrete theory, and more limited subjectivist accounts focused on context-laden understanding. While both approaches contain valid contributions to our understanding of the meanings of security in Asia, ultimately some form of reconciliation has proven necessary in order to transcend their various methodological conflicts. Through a discussion of the epistemology of the social sciences and humanities, a pragmatic constructivist structure has been developed that provides a meta-theoretic framework for incorporating linguistic diversity of understandings of security. It is argued that this can be achieved through an inter-subjective epistemology that attempts to link general abstract conceptualisation to the particulars of concrete local usages.

The specific methodology of the research has also been explicated. In particularly, this has focused on the nature of the case studies chosen, the rationale behind those decisions, and the suitability of these cases for the objective of exploring the languages of security in Asia. It is important to state again clearly that this research does not have any aspiration towards providing a comprehensive analysis of the various intersections of language, culture and security. Rather, it seeks to lay the foundation for further debate. This foundation can be seen to be in good order, given the spectrum of key themes within the research. Primarily these fall into two categories, namely the use of language as an instrument of security, and the role of language in sparking or exacerbating conflict. These themes pervade the studies that follow, indicating perhaps an underlying cultural logic to the intersection of meaning and conflict.




[1] For an overview, see Richard Rorty (ed.), The Linguistic Turn: Essays in Philosophical Method (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1992); Paul Rabinow and William M. Sullivan, Interpretive Social Science: A Second Look (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1987)

[2] David Capie and Paul Evans, The Asia-Pacific Security Lexicon (Singapore: Institute for Southeast Asian Studies, 2002), p.2

[3] Deli Hymes, ‘Linguistic Aspects of Comparative Political Research,’ in Robert T. Holt and John E. Turner (eds.), The Methodology of Comparative Research (New York, The Free Press, 1970), p.339.

[4] Max Weber, ‘”Objectivity” in Social Science’, in Edward A. Shils and Henry A. Finch (trs. and eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1949), p.77.

[5] See for example the critique leveled from the perspective of Political Science in Robert H. Bates, ‘Area Studies and the Discipline: A Useful Controversy?’, PS: Political Science and Politics, vol.30, no.2 (June 1997), pp.166-169.

[6] For further discussion on this see Thierry Balzacq, ‘Constructivism and Securitization Studies’, in Myriam Dunn Cavelty and Victor Mauer (eds.), Handbook of Security Studies (London: Routledge), Emanuel Adler, ‘Seizing the Middle Ground: Constructivism in World Politics’, European Journal of International Relations, vol.3 (1997).

[7] Stefano Guzzini, ‘Structural Power: the Limits of Neorealist Power Analysis’, International Organization, vol.47, no.3 (Summer 1993), p.444

[8] Jackson,  ‘Foregrounding Ontology’, pp.132-133

[9] Keith Krause and Michael C. Williams, ‘Broadening the Agenda of Security Studies: Politics and Methods’, Mershon International Studies Review, vol.40, no.2 (October 1996), pp.231-233.

[10] Jackson, ‘Ontology and IR’, p.138.

[11] See Peter Winch, The Idea of a Social Science 2nd Edition (London: Routledge, 1990); Hans Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977); Jürgen Habermas (Maeve Cooke (ed. and tr.), On the Pragmatics of Communication (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1998).

[12] Adler, ‘Constructivism in World Politics’, p.322.

[13] Hans Georg Gadamer, Philosophical Hermeneutics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977), p.3.

[14] See Seng Tan, ‘Rescuing Constructivism from the Constructivists: A critical Reading of Constructivists in Southeast Asian Security’, The Pacific Review, vol.19, no.2, (2006), p.241.

[15] Robert Trigg, Understanding Social Science: A Philosophical Introduction to the Social Sciences (Oxford: Basil Blackford, 1985), pp.187-188.

[16] George V. Zito, Systems of Discourse: Structures and Semiotics in the Social Sciences (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984), pp.8-9.

[17] IR and the ‘communicative turn’, pp.52-53.

[18] Martin Muller, ‘Reconsidering the Concept of Discourse for the Field of Critical Geopolitics: Towards Discourse as Language and Practice’, Political Geography, vol.27 (2008), p.325.

[19] Peter J. Katzenstein and Nobuo Okawara, ‘Japan, Asian-Pacific Security, and the Case for Analytic Eclecticism’, International Security, vol.26, no.3 (Winter 2001-2002), p.154

[20] Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), p.24.

[21] Max Weber, ‘”Objectivity” in Social Science’, in Edwards A. Shils and Henry A. Finch (trs. And eds.) Max Weber on the Methodology of the Social Sciences (Glencoe, IL: The Free Press, 1949) p.72

[22] A. Saloman, ‘Max Weber’s Methodology’ Social Research vol.1 (1934), p.157

[23] J.E.T. Eldridge, Max Weber: The interpretation of Social reality (London: Michael Joseph, 1970), p.12

[24] Patrick Thaddeus Jackson,  ‘Foregrounding Ontology: Dualism, Monism, and IR Theory’, Review of International Studies, vol. 34 (2008), p.130.

[25] Nigel Peasants, Wittgenstein and the Idea of a Critical Social Theory: A Critique of Giddens, Habermas, and Bhaskar (London: Routledge, 1999), pp.37-38.

[26] Jackson, ‘Dualism, Monism, and IR Theory’, p.147

[27] Adler, ‘Constructivism in World Politics’, pp.332-333

[28] Keith Webb, An Introduction to Problems in the Philosophy of Social Sciences (London: Pinter, 1995), p.61

[29] Tan, ‘Rescuing Constructivism from Constructivists’, p.254

[30] Harry Eckstein, ‘Case Study and Theory in Political Science,’ in Fred I. Greenstein and Nelson W. Polsby, Handbook of Political Science, Vol.7: Strategies of Inquiry (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company), p.80.

[31] Eckstein, ‘Case Study and Theory in Political Science’, p.97.

[32] Weber, ‘”Objectivity” in Social Science’, p.84.

[33] Emanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, ‘Governing Anarchy: A Research Agenda for the Study of Security Communities,’ Ethics and International Affairs, vol.10 (1996), p.77

[34] Albert, Kessler, and Stetter, ‘On Order and Conflict’, p.48.

[35] Mathias Albert, Oliver Kessler and Stephan Stetter, ‘On Order and Conflict: International Relations and the ‘Communicative Turn’’, Review of International Studies, vol.34 (2008), p.49.

[36] George Orwell, 1984 (London: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1983).

[37] Anne E. Sartori, ‘The Might of the Pen: A Reputational Theory of Communication in International Disputes’, International Organization, vol.56, no.1 (Winter 2002), p.126