Excavating the History of ‘Asia’ in Global Politics: An Interview with Ahmad Rizky M. Umar

Excavating the History of ‘Asia’ in Global Politics: An Interview with Ahmad Rizky M. Umar

Congratulations on being awarded an ASAA 2023 Postdoctoral Writing Grant! Can you tell us a bit about your current research?

I currently have three research agendas that lie in the intersection between International Relations, Global History, and Asian Studies. First, I am currently transforming my PhD thesis into a book project. My thesis, which I defended at the University of Queensland in 2022, explores the history of Asia as a political idea and how its meanings have changed since the 19th century. I try to show that Asia is not narrowly identified with a geographical space or cultural worldview, which differentiates it with ‘the West’. Asia has deeper normative and political underpinnings, and ideas of Asia have been contested by various political actors in the last two centuries. To illustrate this argument, I draw on five historical ideas of Asia that have emerged in world politics since the 19th century, including Western colonial conceptions, Pan-Asianism, decolonial ideas, regionalism, and trans-regional ideas of Asia.

Second, I am currently developing some ideas in the final chapter of my PhD thesis on ‘regionalism’ and ‘trans-regionalism’. Since the Cold War, regional organisations like ASEAN have become the main basis for inter-state cooperation in Asia. Yet, after the Cold War, some extra-regional powers, like China and the United States, have attempted to engage with countries in Asia through trans-regional cooperations, such as The Quadrilateral Security Cooperation, AUKUS cooperation, and Belt & Road Initiatives. These trans-regional cooperations politically influence ASEAN and other already-existing regional organisations in Asia. My research intends to show the politics behind this shift from regionalism to trans-regionalism in contemporary world politics.

The third line of research is related to Indonesia’s foreign policy. I am specifically interested in explaining how Indonesian leaders and policymakers articulate their visions of ‘international order’, as well as the important role played by identities and domestic politics (such as Islamic organisations). I have recently written an article on Indonesia’s conceptions of international order, and I also occasionally write op-eds about Indonesia’s foreign policy and talk about Indonesian-Australian relations.

How did you first become interested in this field of research?

I started my career as a researcher at the ASEAN Studies Center at Universitas Gadjah Mada in Indonesia, where I primarily worked on ASEAN and Indonesia’s foreign policy for four years. As an Indonesian, I took for granted some common ideas that we attach to ourselves as an identity, like Southeast Asia, Asia, or region. But as I began my PhD, I realised that these ideas were political construction. There are many political actors and intellectuals who articulate and use these ideas to justify their political projects. I then decide to trace how the idea of ‘Asia’, a notion that we often accept without questions, came into being today from a global historical perspective. This research was challenging, since I am not a historian by training and my academic background is mostly politics and international relations. But I also found this research fun and it widened my view about ‘Asia’ and my identity as ‘an Asian’.

What have been the most challenging aspects of doing your research? 

My research draws heavily on archival sources, including policy documents, published works, and diplomatic archives. This proved challenging during the COVID-19 pandemic, when I was unable to travel to Asia (even to Indonesia, my home country) due to border closures. However, I was able to conduct research at the British Library and the National Library of Australia (where I was an Asia Study Grant scholar) before the pandemic. I was also able to visit and conduct research at the Australian National University during the early days of the pandemic. These visits and archival research enabled me to complete my PhD based on the sources that I could obtain, although I believe that doing archival research in Asia will make my thesis better.

Another challenge has been to continue my research after completing my PhD. I am currently working as a sessional academic at the University of Queensland and Griffith University. Similar to other early career scholars, I spend most of my time teaching with only a little space for research and writing. This makes it challenging to develop my PhD into a larger and more ambitious project. I have to say that I’m grateful to my mentors at the University of Queensland and Griffith University, whose encouragement and advice help me to continue my work despites the challenges.

What are your hopes for the influence of your work?

I hope to contribute to both theoretical and policy debates about the future of ‘Asia’ in world politics and, more specifically, the position of Indonesia in it. I want to show that Asia is not a homogenous idea, and there are also close interactions and relations with actors outside Asia in the process, such as Australian communist and labour activists, African anticolonial leaders, and European progressive intellectuals. From this perspective, I hope to motivate a ‘global’ perspective that would expand our current understandings of Asia, so that we can appreciate shared connection that have been established between people in Asia and people in the West.

In particular, I also hope my research can contribute to improving Indonesian-Australian relations. For Australia, we can learn that Asia is an inseparable part of Australian identity and history, which is exemplified by contacts between Makassar fishermen and the Australian Aboriginal community. For Indonesia, similarly we need to also acknowledge historical relations that have been built by Australian people with Indonesian society, including the solidarity of Australian labour movements for Indonesia’s independence in 1945. Acknowledging this shared identity, I believe, would motivate our leaders to improve the relationship between Indonesia and Australia beyond diplomatic and business relations.

How will the ASAA Postdoctoral Writing Grant support you in your research? 

The ASAA Postdoctoral Writing Grant will help me to complete my research and writing, and submit my pieces for publication. As an early-career sessional academic, most of my activity is teaching and there is only little support for my research. The grant is very helpful for me to complete several works-in-progress and submit them for peer-review this summer. In addition, my book is currently under review process at one University Press, and I hope the grant could help me to revise the manuscript.

Feature image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

Ahmad Rizky M Umar is a sessional academic at the University of Queensland and Griffith University, where he is teaching International Relations Theory, Peace and Conflict Studies, and International Ethics. He is interested in exploring Asian intellectual history and political theory.

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