From Asian Engagement to the New ‘Cold War’: Asian Studies in Crisis

From Asian Engagement to the New ‘Cold War’: Asian Studies in Crisis

The recent decision by La Trobe and Murdoch Universities to discontinue the study of Hindi and Indonesia underlines the challenges that confront those teaching and researching Asia related themes. Further underlining the perception that Asian studies is in crisis are government  decisions  to  scrutinise  research collaboration with foreign – especially Chinese – universities, and the lack of support for ACICIS – the highly successful Indonesia focused  mobility program for Australian students – that eventually received funding after a protracted campaign. These shifts in public policies towards Asian studies are intertwined with a more fundamental crisis in the funding and financing of the sector. These changes even included a shift towards a more market oriented higher education system which deeply cuts into non-STEM programs, links curriculum and research directly to industry, and fundamentally changes employment conditions for academics by enhancing the already broad managerial prerogatives within the university. It is a deliberate ideological and political strategy to reshape the sector.

Since the 1980s Asian Studies has been an object and target of government policy within the higher education sector. Its development and support have been shaped via an instrumentalist notion of Asian Studies in the service of particular political and strategic projects. Notions of ‘capacity’ and ‘literacy’ associated with the Asian engagement strategy have shaped the rationale for the support for Asian Studies. Such strategies coincided with the expansion of the higher education sector over the last three decades. Asian engagement as a governance project is now under challenge with the increased emphasis on security and defence rationale for Australia’s regional engagement. This is associated with a more direct funding and research strategy that aligns with the government’s security and intelligence concerns. As I argue below, the changing global and national political and policy terrain for Asian studies – the new ‘cold war’– increasing authoritarian and directive higher education policy, and the rise of conservative populist politics have challenged the capacity of the Asia literacy agenda.

The intertwined relationship between Asian Studies and governmental policies towards the region has inhibited the development of a broader rationale and capacity for the study of ‘Asia’. At the core of the problem with these instrumentalist framing of Asian Studies is the view that it serves to locate ‘Asia’ ‘outside’ not merely geographically, but also in disciplinary terms.  Both theoretically and institutionally it helps to reinforce a division of labour that places the study of Asia on the margins of disciplinary endeavours. It is focused on understanding the distinctive cultural and civilizational foundations of Australia’s key neighbors – such as Japan, Indonesia, China, and India – and therefore eschewed the analysis of common trends, problems, and processes.

A consequence of these trends is that over the years the study of Asia has hollowed out in the humanities and social science disciplines of major public universities. For example, only a few political science departments (with the exception of the ANU) have dedicated courses on Asian politics or integrated Asia into comparative politics In institutional terms, this has led to the view that research and study of Asia has hinged on its perceived benefit to the university in terms of branding or aligning with government policy. It is instructive to see how in many universities, Asian Studies programs and strategies have become elements of the portfolio of global engagement or an international Deputy or Pro Vice chancellor. In turn, the support for Asian Studies within universities by Vice Chancellors and other senior managers has often hinged on its value in helping to situate the university in a positive relationship with government policies on the region. It has also implied that the constituency of support for these programs is narrow and limited to specific policy or business communities. We need to broaden the constituency of support for Asian Studies

The capacity and literacy strategy led to the formation of specific country oriented research/policy institutes – such as the China and World Centre (ANU), the Australia India Institute (AII), and the Australia Indonesia Centre. All these institutes have competing mandates – research versus engagement, multiple constituencies, and funding sources. It has led to a diminished capacity to develop an independent research mission.  

The changing geoeconomics of the region have undermined the political economy of the strategy of Asian engagement and the associated capacity and literacy models underpinning the development of Asian Studies. Such changes refer not only to competition between the US and China, but more crucially, to the rivalry between competing capitalist (and imperial) projects. There is now a discernible move away from a capacity and literacy strategy to one that is dominated by defence, security, and geo-economic intelligence agendas in the funding and research priorities for Asian Studies.

This is  evident in the focus of the National China Foundation, in the ARC Grant round on national intelligence and security support for research on the Pacific linked to geo-economic contention , on creating resilient supply chains and a defence led focus on the Indo-Pacific.  At the same time, there has been an evident favouring of intelligence and defence concerns within universities and often by academics with little limited ‘area’ expertise. Even currently Asia-focused research institutes funded by the commonwealth government will be expected to adapt to these new security mandates. Compounding these difficulties are the intensifying authoritarian restrictions on academic research and freedom in countries such as Indonesia, India, and China. These developments are disturbing and will diminish our capacity to build an independent and critical research agenda.

Such shifts to a defence and security agenda have been underpinned by conservative populist attacks on social sciences. In this respect, I wish to particularly emphasise that the current attack is not just on social science, but a more fundamental attempt to reshape the value and purpose of research. There is clearly a coercive push to make research more directly attuned to commercial interests as well as a robust use of ideologically charged notions of national security. Such policy frameworks are deployed  to direct research into certain subjects, encourage linkage grants with industry or security agencies,  and subject research grants and international collaboration to government scrutiny .There is no doubt that these changing  policy frameworks will have an inevitable impact on how and what we research in Asian studies.    

There is also another transformation in the growing Asian presence in our public universities that has been the effect of Australia’s complex economic incorporation into the region. Asia is not so much ‘out there’ as ‘inside’ Australia. Whether it be in business, migration, or cultural links, Asia is hard wired into Australian economic, political, and social institutions, all of which bring new contests and conflicts. This is very true of public universities in terms of students and staff of Asian heritage and increasing collaboration and research networks with Asia across the university. The paradox here is that the crisis of Asian Studies goes hand in hand with the ‘Asia’ that is inside the campus. Asian Studies departments and University managers have been slow to recognize and respond to these deep-seated changes in our public universities. For example, note the periodic anxiety about the distinction between native and non-native speakers in language courses.

The current challenges for Asian Studies should prompt us to move beyond instrumentalist rationales that have shaped Asian Studies by situating the study of Asia as part of a broader move to Global Social Sciences and Humanities. The fact that we are now dealing with an Asia which is not just rising, but already risen, allows us to challenge the lurking orientalism of the underlying assumptions of Asian Studies. These theoretical and empirical perspectives are still implicitly rooted in a modernisation framework that still views European and North American social, economic, and political transformation as the benchmark for the analysis of transformation in other areas. The challenge is not to simply add in Asia but to seek to incorporate the social, political, and economic experience of what we call ‘Asia’ – and other regions as well – into the key theoretical perspectives of social science or the humanities. A strategy for the study of Asia as part of ‘global social science and humanities’, constitutes a transformative concept for the development of Asian Studies. In institutional terms, it means bringing Asian Studies to the centre of humanities and social science disciplines. However, the struggle will be as much within as outside the university.

A further advantage of the global social science and humanities perspective outlined here is that it helps to build research around key issues, problems, and puzzles of social, economic, and political transformations pertaining to Australia as well as the region. This is strikingly illustrated in the current debates on policies in response to COVID-19 in which the experience of South Korea and Taiwan are crucial if we are to develop effective and robust policies around COVID-19. Such an approach will not only challenge those working with Asian studies but will also far better equip them to deal with the changing political economy of the region as well as responding to some of the key challenges posed by evolving research policy frameworks in Australia.

Kanishka Jayasuriya is Professor of Politics and International Studies at Murdoch University. He tweets @fafner100

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