The Asia Memorandum

I am writing to you today to encourage you to consider whether our Institute (which, it should be stated, refers as much to students as its teaching staff) is doing enough to prepare us for playing an active role in what might well become known as the Asian Century. In my opinion, it is not.

By Julia E. Rozlach

Dear Members of the IHEID Community,

I am writing to you today to encourage you to consider whether our Institute (which, it should be stated, refers as much to students as its teaching staff) is doing enough to prepare us for playing an active role in what might well become known as the Asian Century.

In my opinion, it is not.

I would like all of us, from those who studied about Asia before to those who have little knowledge of, or even interest, in the region, to give it a brief thought now. Why, you might wonder? Above all, because regardless of what discipline you focus on, be it environmental governance, global health, or even the security dynamics in the Middle East, Asia is becoming increasingly impossible to ignore. Are you ready to embark on a quick journey to the Eastern hemisphere?

Fasten your seatbelt, sit back, relax, and enjoy your flight – but be prepared for the occasional turbulence.

The Background

There exist multiple terms for the changing nature of the current world order, with its centre of gravity crawling further and further to the east. It has been referred to as Easternisation (by Gideon Rachman), Asianisation (by Parag Khanna), the Asian Century, the Century of Asian Power (by Eiichi Shindō) or, more interestingly to us here in Europe, the Dawn of Eurasia (by Bruno Maçães). There seems to be widespread consensus about the fact that the time for ‘the West’ to lead the world is over. In terms of GDP growth, improving standards of living, the sheer population size, technological and scientific innovation, or even morally frowned-upon state activities such as Internet censorship or political manipulation, Asia is not merely catching up with the West. The fact is that Asia has been, or soon will be, outperforming it.

This, however, brings us to the first important conundrum and a potential rabbit hole: all right, Julia, you have made your point, Asia will be the future powerhouse, but what exactly do you mean by ‘Asia’? Where does it start, and where does it end? Do we include the Middle East and Turkey? How about Russia, where does it belong? Hang on, what about the infamous ‘Indo-Pacific’, does it mean Oceania counts as Asia, too? Should we not split Asia into smaller units such as East/Southeast/South Asia for the sake of simplicity? Do Indonesians, for instance, consider themselves ‘Asian’ in the same way as, say, Mongolians, or the Chinese diaspora abroad? Do we conceptualise Asia alongside ethno-racial divisions or more culturally, and what role does religion play in it? One might wonder if, with this avalanche of questions, we have more or less covered Asia’s identity dilemmas, but this is, in truth, just the tip of the iceberg. We are talking about a region of such immense diversity that one twenty-minute slot at the beginning of one of the Institute’s only Asia-related courses with a limited class size is definitely not enough to help us realise what exactly we are dealing with.

And we are dealing with Asia, regardless of our initial interest and specialisation. Those of us studying trade or security simply cannot disregard the omnipresence of the People’s Republic of China. Pick up the Tribune de Genève from as recently as April 19, and you will see the 5G debate (in which the Chinese tech giant Huawei is suspected of either already engaging in or potentially having to engage in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government) occupying the front page. On the most basic level, a significant percentage of IHEID students come from Asia, so even if professionally we might be occupied with a different region, it could prove a useful exercise to every now and then try and look at the world from our friends’ perspective.

Some might argue that Switzerland, or any other country in Europe, should first focus on its own regional matters, and only then worry about other parts of the world. While there are obvious merits to such an approach, because we do have our own fires to put out in Europe, this is no excuse to simply forget about Asia’s existence, because it is knocking on our doors right now. Like it or not, consider it a threat or an opportunity, but the Belt and Road Initiative is here, and it is here to stay at least in the near future. It should be noted that the Belt and Road would not only bring us closer to China, but also the other states participating in the project, and how better to benefit from increased cooperation than by knowing exactly what our partners have to offer, and what we can offer them?

The Problems and Their Possible Solutions

In terms of preparation for the advent of the Asian Century, the Institute’s efforts can be likened to the Japanese Self-Defence Force. We are receiving some training, particularly on China or India. We have a brilliant, constantly increasing stockpile of resources (big credit goes to the IHEID Library which, as far as politics, IR, and history are concerned, is as well-equipped as that of the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at Cambridge; go on a stroll around its underground corridors and see for yourself how many Asia-related resources can be found down under). We have a chance to go on exchange with universities in multiple Asian countries. There exists a Student Initiative on Asia, which brings us culturally closer to our fellow Asian students. We have all this, and yet a closer look reveals a lot can still be done.

Yes, there are several Asia-related classes we can take each semester at the Institute and I have had a chance to register for two, thus being able to attest to their quality. However, behind the illusion of diversity of choice lies the fact that many of these are taught by the same professor, and while his expertise cannot be doubted, would it not be more beneficial for students to at least have one or two more experts, if only to exchange notes and observe seemingly the same issues from a different point of view? At least, given that interest in Asia is only bound to increase in the next few years, it could be a good idea to increase the size of Asia-related seminars so that more students could broaden their knowledge about the region. Although some of the non-Asia-focused courses allow for ‘open’ essay questions where, if a student so desires, they can write about Asia or any other continent, most rely on the syllabi.

While this is understandable, given that we sometimes struggle to even do the readings on the list, let alone do extra research, in the same syllabi, Asia is frequently just an afterthought. One week, or even one reading, among many. This is fine and well – researchers have their own areas of expertise, but precisely for this reason hiring an extra Asia specialist or two could already have a significant impact on students’ performance. For instance, if we have a separate class to discuss the nuclear negotiations with Iran, having another one in which we study the largely failed but still intriguing handling of the nuclear threat of North Korea could allow for fascinating insights and more informed comparisons. The goal, after all, is not to train a herd of Asia specialists: this is not what the Graduate Institute does or should do; its aim is to educate future diplomats, leaders, economists, negotiators, or international organisation employees, and it is historically rooted in a different region altogether, Africa and the Middle East. My point is: the more we know about the world outside of ‘the West’, Asia forming an important part of it, the better professionals we will become, but admittedly, as graduate students we could take the first steps by ourselves.

Another problem I can see is the relative scarcity of Asia-related events. We have had a few lectures this year, be it a discussion of the state of Chinese democracy or the upcoming event co-organised with Asia Society Switzerland on the Indian elections. What could be interesting is a few more opportunities for students to actively participate in discussions of Asia outside of the classroom: how about setting up a ‘Window to Asia’ week with movie nights, Asian food in the cafeteria, student-led policy discussion groups, or whatever else there would be demand for? It would not have to be only Asia, other underrepresented but important regions could have their own Window Weeks, and with the international student body that we have, it might well give us an option to go on an academic trip around the world with people passionate about their region or country of choice. How about setting up a platform, for instance through social media or a subpage on a website, where students could recommend resources on given topics to those unsure of where to start from? Here, I am calling out to the students, because we ourselves could drive the change, at least if we saw the need for it. Only one question now remains: do we?

Show of hands

Dear Members of the IHEID Community,

If you read this far, first of all thank you for accompanying me until the end. Second, I would like to discover how many of us see the issue in a similar way. Does the Graduate Institute have an Asia Problem? Is the closest we come to East Asia the daily Air China flight to Beijing from the Cointrin Airport? Do you have an idea of how we can use the resources available to us for more useful purposes than extra holiday reading? Most importantly, we do have Asia here at the Institute, but would you like us to have more?

Spare a thought about what I said, compare it to your own programme, and get in touch: feel free to take my name and surname, separate them with a dot, and stick to it, then tell me what you think. If there are more of us who think along similar lines, we could get together and prepare ourselves better for the era of Asia’s growing importance. If not,  – at least be aware there is someone in here who cares about the issue a great deal; and more people like me might already be on their way to the Institute.

Let us do this, and together strive to remove the ‘Far’ from the Far East.

Julia E. Rozlach

Julia is a 2nd year Masters in International Affairs (Global Security major, East Asian Studies in previous life)

This article was released in the first print publication of the Graduate Press. Download the Spring 2019 print edition here.

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