Professor Amitav Acharya, friend of South-east Asia


Professor Amitav Acharya, friend of South-east Asia
by Asad Latif
(This article appeared in the Straits Times, 3 September 2000)

Professor Amitav Acharya is an Indian-born Canadian scholar who fell in love with South-east Asia. The result is a book which he describes as his tribute to a region which contains the finest mosaic of societies. He tells ASAD LATIF his thoughts on the region.

When I first ran into Professor Amitav Acharya years ago, I realised that, in the young scholar of international relations, South-east Asia had found a friend from South Asia.

Though technically an outsider, he thought and spoke like an insider, one to whom the rhythms and patterns of South-east Asian life were not alien at all.

Over the years, familiarity with this region has turned, not into contempt, but love.

Born in India in 1962, he was educated there and in Australia. He spent two years in Singapore, from 1987 to 1989, as a fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies. Since then, he has traveled extensively in the region and has held research and teaching positions at several universities.

Now a Canadian citizen, he is an associate professor at Canada’s York University and a fellow of Harvard University’s Asia Centre.

Currently, the bachelor is a visiting associate professor at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Nanyang Technological University.

In an interview before the release of his book, The Quest For Identity: International Relations Of South-east Asia, published by Oxford University Press, he said that his love affair with the region was one reason for writing it.

“”I have traveled extensively throughout the region, trekked in some of its remotest corners, climbed its highest mountain, sailed in its mightiest rivers, and relaxed on its finest beaches. I have made friends with people of all cultures and have been amazed by their receptiveness towards outsiders like myself,” he said.

“”I have a deep feel for the region’s tremendous diversity, cultural, political and human. It is a diversity which I find profoundly enriching and immensely alluring.

“”This book is my way of paying tribute to a region which contains the finest mosaic of societies and cultures, many of which, in spite of being unique, are always open to ideas and influences from outside.”

The book was launched by President S.R. Nathan on Friday.

There were two other reasons why he wrote the book. First, he wanted to provide an alternative to “”event-driven narratives” of South-east Asia’s international relations that focus on short-term and narrow policy debates and issues, ignoring the long-term historical context of events and actors.

Second, event-driven studies are not taken seriously by other South-east Asian specialists, such as historians, sociologists and anthropologists.

“”As a result, there is a gap in understanding between the various disciplinary approaches to South-east Asia. Many of them talk past, rather than talk to, each other. My book is intended to bridge this gap to some extent,” said Prof Acharya.

His own achievements in the field of international relations help to strengthen the bridge.

Not only has he co-taught a project on new institutionalism in Asia with the renowned American scholar Ezra Vogel, but also, he has served on a number of international panels concerned with global and regional security.

They include the Japan Forum on International Relations’ project on Asia-Pacific security cooperation, the American Council on Foreign Relations’ study group on China, Harvard’s Vision Asia 21 project and its project on regional governance in Asia

Imagined Community

IN THAT spirit of cross-disciplinary fraternising, he invoked the historian Benedict Anderson’s concept of a nation as an “”imagined community”.

“”Regions, like nation-states, are imagined, nurtured and defended. Just as the nation-state cannot be viable without a sense of nationalism, regions cannot be viable without a sense of regionalism,” explained the international relations scholar.

While his approach is similar to the other scholar’s work, a crucial difference is that Prof Acharya is writing about regions, not nations.

Also, the historian thought of “”imagining” in terms of a local elite learning an alien concept — nationalism — while training in the West, a concept which had been propagated through the print media.

“”My book develops a more indigenous take on “imagining’, based on local historical, cultural and normative traditions, and indigenous patterns of statecraft and diplomacy. “”In this way, I believe that this book creates the basis for developing a new framework for understanding regionalism and the idea of region,” he added.

Elaborating on the theme of indigenous forces, he referred to the pre-colonial pattern of international relations in South-east Asia.

The pattern, he recalled, had been described as a patchwork of overlapping mandalas, rather than “”a configuration in which a strong centre, a local hegemon, dominates its peripheries, as in the Chinese world order”.

A mandala is a sacred diagram that resembles a wheel which turns forever and is supposed to represent the universe.

Colonialism disrupted the traditional pattern, but regionalism had gone a long way in re-establishing it, he added.

It is easier to understand now why his book is entitled The Quest For Identity.

Too Diverse To Be Distinctive

TO PROF ACHARYA, South-east Asia’s international relations could be best understood as a process of identity-building.

He noted that there had been no notion of South-east Asia before the South-east Asia Command, the seat of the Allied effort in the region during World War II. Before then, the region was seen as a cultural extension of two neighbouring civilisations, India and China.

Even today, South-east Asia remained too diverse to stake a genuine claim to be a distinctive region.

But the answer, Prof Acharya reiterated, was to study the region from the perspective that it is an imagined community.

“”It is imagined and constructed both from without (by outsiders, including colonial powers, and Western scholars on the region) as well as from within, by leaders, peoples and scholars.

“”Crucially, there has been a gradual shift from the importance of external actors in imagining the region to local actors,” he added.

Hence, he pays tribute to local regionalists, who tried to develop regional cooperation both before and since Asean’s formation, in making the notion of South-east Asia a reality.

An entire chapter of the book is devoted to early regionalist efforts by the Myanmar nationalist leader Aung San, the Vietnamese hero Ho Chi Minh and the Indonesian leader Sukarno.

Their vision of South-east Asia after the departure of colonialism was that of a region free of foreign domination and one in which countries themselves determined the nature of the regional order.

The book goes on to examine how different forms of nationalism — especially the divide between the moderate version preferred by Malaysian founding father Tunku Abdul Rahman and the radical versions desired by Ho and Sukarno — led to different approaches to constructing regional identity, and why the moderate version prevailed.

The South-east Asia that came into being after colonialism was certainly anti-imperialist, but the break with the past in non-revolutionary countries did not take the form envisaged by revolutionaries such as Ho, who foresaw a radical break with the political institutions inherited from the colonial period.

Asked whether he was optimistic about the future, the professor responded with a note of warning.

“”Since South-east Asia was and remains an imagined or constructed notion, there is also a possibility for it to unravel if those involved in the act of imagining and constructing it, like the current Asean leaders, lose their political will to do so,” he said.

“”I am worried that this may have been happening since the Asian economic crisis,” he added, noting however: “”My point is that in spite of adverse material circumstances, regionalism can be made to work if there is political will and if actors continue to imagine themselves and socialise themselves as being part of a community.”

That is a reassuring comment, coming as it does from a scholar who takes the long view of things.