On Friday 21st June the Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Scholars (AMSEAS) hosted its inaugural Mainland Southeast Asia Seminar. The 2019 Seminar theme was ‘China’s Presence in Mainland Southeast Asia’ and included presentations by scholars researching Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as presentations on China’s Belt and Road Initiative and growing Chinese academic literature on engagement with Mainland Southeast Asia. Reflecting AMSEAS commitment to promote new scholarship on Mainland Southeast Asia, the inaugural seminar focused strongly on ECR research, and it is hoped that a Special Issue will emerge from the event.


Thanks to funding from a small grant by the Asian Studies Association of Australia, and catering at hosting support by the Sydney Southeast Asia Centre (SSEAC) at the University of Sydney, the Seminar was a resounding success. AMSEAS is a small association but it is growing quickly. 


In my own paper, I drew on my research in Northern Laos to call for nuance when invoking the term ‘China’ to describe complex entanglements where the Chinese state may be simultaneously present and not-present.


At a time when both Chinese and non-Chinese actors seem to have a proclivity for naming everything outside of China that involves a Chinese person or company as part of some grandly unifying ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, careful nuance is required in how we seek to understand Chinese engagement with Mainland Southeast Asia and beyond. We can’t just talk about China – we need to be much more precise about the specific way in which we are invoking China. 


To look at things just from an Area Studies perspective, or a sociology or international relations or development studies perspective – and so on –risks missing much of what is taking place. And, to take this one step further, perhaps to look at things using the existing categories that we apply to make sense of the world, is actually to obscure what is really taking place.


My point here is not simply that we need to be wary of overly simplistic metanarratives – but that we also need to search for new ways of understanding, to borrow from Saskia Sassen,“not yet fully visible and recognizable” shifts that require us to call into question familiar categories for organizing knowledge about our economies and societies.


How do we make sense of all this? What disciplinary frameworks or ideas are useful?


Glick and Schiller and Prasenjit Duara are amongst a number of scholars who have taught us to be wary of methodological nationalism, and perhaps talking about Laos and China obscures as much as it reveals. Similarly, Lewis and Wigen have brought our attention to the myth of continents, while many have questioned the construction of Southeast Asia as an imagined region.


The questions that I raise here are not new – but they need to be reconsidered – particularly given the astonishing speed at which Silk Road or Belt and Road discourses seem to have become normative both within academia and wider, political, economic and cultural spheres.


Perhaps this is something that can be picked up further at next years ASAA conference in its exploration of the diversity of past and contemporary understandings of Asia, and where these plural Future Asias are headed. AMSEAS will be there, so please come and join our panels and have a drink with us J