Alternative imaginaries of China’s presence in Southeast Asia

Asia Research Institute (ARI) & National University of Singapore (NUS)

13 & 14th August 2020

Max Weber Foundation & ChinaMade project

On August 13-14 the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS) ran a fascinating 2-day workshop on alternative imaginaries of China’s presence in Southeast Asia.

Supported by the Max Weber Foundation (https://www.maxweberstiftung.de/en/ueber-uns.html) and the ChinaMade project (https://chinamadeproject.net), the workshop considered:


China’s rapid rise in the last few decades has (re)shaped its international relationships with many countries through trade and investment, especially in Southeast Asia where the Chinese engagement has arguably been the most intensified. In recent years, popular media and academic scholarship have largely focused on China’s presence in Southeast Asia, especially the Chinese government’s recent “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Such BRI connections matter for Southeast Asia in current and future contexts, but it is also issues beyond simply recent BRI associated developments that has seen Southeast Asia being pushed in uncertain and new directions with its engagement with China. Communities and states in SEA have to ‘feel’ their way forward in the midst of the Chinese ‘currents’ with alternative imaginaries (therefore “Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones”).

This workshop focuses on how both recent intensification and various historical sources (post-World War II) contribute to producing “alternative imaginaries” that are different from and slightly outside BRI-related narratives in Southeast Asia. We will unpack these processes of producing these alternative imaginaries in times and spaces that are not directly associated with the BRI and their implications to contemporary and potentially future socio-economic, cultural and political dynamics in Southeast Asia.

The workshop will focus on alternative ways of interpreting and engaging various Chinese activities from individuals to institutions at the local, bilateral and regional (such as ASEAN with China) levels in both mainland and island Southeast Asia.


With papers from scholars across (and beyond) the Asian region, the workshop offered some fascinating insights into China’s contemporary engagements with Southeast Asia. This was my first experience in participating in a 2-day international workshop via zoom, and the workshop convenors Yang Yang and Shaun Lin did an outstanding job of ensuring that everything ran smoothly.

In my own paper I drew on Winter’s work on Geocultural Power and Scott’s work on Zomia to consider how the normative scholarly adoption of BRI discourse risks producing epistemic violence through the re-writing of ethnic minority histories and contemporaneities. The recording of my presentation will be soon made available on the ChinaMade website: https://chinamadeproject.net