Beware the polarisation


Statement of the DGA board on the geopolitical consequences of the Corona crisis and the role of modern Asian Studies

published: 2020-06-12

For about half a year the world is now struggling with Covid19 and the related pandemic. What started with rumours from China about a new and weird coronavirus soon translated into a discussion about the systemic causes of its spread, only to later leave many governments of different system types unprepared for the scale of the challenge. While the virus itself is still not fully understood, we now face discussions about post-virus changes of the world. All this has happened against the background of a mounting wave of protectionism and nationalism over the years prior to the virus outbreak. Most importantly, the pandemic has added to the deterioration of China-US relations already witnessed by the world in the course of the so-called trade war. And here we are, in the summer of 2020, which abound with speculations about de-globalisation, decoupling of economies, cold-war scenarios and power play in the Asian region.

The situation is grave and the board members of the German Association of Asian Studies, an association of senior scholars and graduates as well as doctoral students specialised in research on countries of the region, are deeply concerned. Our concerns relate to numerous issues of which we would like to highlight the following:

  • The perspective on the current dynamics is very focused on the US-China relations and thereby caters to the idea that countries and companies eventually should choose between either party of the conflict. Cold war rhetoric and de-coupling fantasies are combined as if there were no alternatives. For many countries in Asia-Pacific and Europe this is no reasonable choice given the complex supply chain networks which have emerged over the past decades. However, calculations of the potential costs and benefits of such an approach more often than not focus on the impact on a small group of countries, and mostly on the US and China. In reality, the impact would go far beyond this. Indeed, the scenario hardly is without alternatives. If the rest of the countries joined hands to reign into this bifurcated narrative, new option could arise.
  • The restrictions that come with the fight against Covid19 deeply hurt academic exchange and cross-border research. This is not only dangerous for research as such, but also because these activities involve conversations and personal relations that contribute directly and indirectly to mutual understanding. Digital teaching and social media are poor substitutes for the vibe that comes with direct intellectual exchange and personal experience. Unfortunately, national policies and perspectives on student and scholar exchanges, visa regulations etc. currently neglect these aspects. Arguably, some countries even misuse coronavirus arguments as welcome pretext to reduce personal academic cooperation.
  • In this context, many countries neglect the importance of disciplines other than natural and medical science or economics. If anything, the crisis should teach politicians and the public about the relevance of, for example, Asian studies. In fact, scholars of contemporary Asia were among the first to understand the challenges of the virus and the different coping strategies in Asia (as well as the importance of mask wearing), if only they were used to observe discourses in the countries of interest. Attracting attention to their insight proved difficult, though.
  • In addition, the scholarly community is increasingly confronted with the bifurcated narrative mentioned above for their positioning as researchers. Scholars are expected to take sides. The attempt to stay neutral and contribute to understanding rather than fuelling the conflict is either interpreted as weakness or even as moral decay. We, of course, accept if scholars engage in political discourses or reflect about their personal position to critical issues of our time. However, we oppose any attack against scholars for their scholarly attitude of questioning positions, for looking deeper and for sometimes opposing to the mainstream. Doing these things is part of what scholars do and should be appreciated. Some virologist had to experience how their academic disputes were misused in public and became subject of personal attacks. Unfortunately, we observe that these problems also emerge for scholars in Asian studies, although this problem gets less media attention.
  • Last but not least, we observe that the discourse about Asian countries’ role, experiences and impact in this context, most prominently China’s role, seems to be dominated by representatives of think tanks with funding from interested parties or little Asian research background. While university scholars were confronted with the task of transitioning to digital teaching from home office, think tanks of all kinds were fast to produce papers, interviews and prophecies. We of course do not oppose the workings of think tanks, but we would encourage the public to make equal use of the independent research and scholars enabled by our public university system.

It is part of the mission of the German Association of Asian Studies to enhance the visibility of the expertise on Asian policics, societies, economies and cultures accumulated among its members. For this purpose, the association regularly published the academic journal ASIEN. Against the background of the corona crisis, the DGA additionally highlights relevant publications of members in newspapers and journals on the associations homepage to make them easily accessible for the interested public.