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Emerging Asias: Presidential Plenary Los Angeles AAG Meeting

December 18, 2012

It is by now a truism that remarkable geopolitical and geoeconomic changes are underway, for which the land mass called Asia is acting as a strange attractor. The 2013 Presidential Plenary, Emerging Asias, seeks to draw members’ attention to these goings-on and their implications. With the AAG annual meeting now the global meeting place for geographers, this occasion of meeting in the US’ most Asian metropolis, on the Pacific Rim, is singularly appropriate for such a discussion.

The term emergence has the popular connotation of an object coming from darkness into light, with the positive sense of improvement, a usage that melds with popular notions of (east) Asia as a putative new global core following Europe and North America. I use emergence in a more conceptual sense, however, as has been articulated in both complexity theory and philosophy: Emergence refers to how a phenomenon, as it changes, exhibits novel features that cannot be predicted from its previous state. Obviously, novel features need not be positive, and this is certainly the case for some Asias.

The plural is deliberate: ‘Asia’ is a vast land mass characterized by enormously diverse biophysical systems, landscapes, languages, cultures, identities, polities and economies. It is sutured together in our minds principally by how European elites came to label it a continent, because these lands share geographical positionality as Europe’s self-prescribed ‘orient’. On the one hand are the Asias of spectacular dynamism, wealth creation and emergent political power: Dubai,

Singapore and Shanghai’s spectacular built environments, China’s growing influence on the world’s stage, central Asian oligarchs, Islamic and sovereign wealth funds, and the special economic zones generating profits across south, southeast and east Asia. From elsewhere, these developments have gained considerable attention, not a little envy, and some fear mixed with xenophobia. Yet there also are the Asias inhabited and made by those whose labor makes such spectacles possible: Bangladeshi construction workers in the Middle East, Philippina and Indonesian maids in Hong Kong, Chinese migrant workers, Indian cotton farmers, Malaysian sailors bringing Asian products to global markets. Such variegation is replicated at every geographical scale: The Asia of India’s elites, for example, seems worlds apart from, albeit underwritten by, those of Dalits and ‘scheduled tribes’ with whom they may reside cheek by jowl. They may cohabit the same place, but with very different connectivities and livelihood prospects.

Different Asias are entwined with one another and with other regionalized dynamics. The various Asias stretch around, across and through one another, dialectically entangling the emergent places, networks and scales through which they are constituted. Yet they also long have been complexly co-implicated with variegated and emergent Europes, Americas, Africas and Oceanias that they co-evolved with. Stretching back centuries, distant entanglements still exhibit strong contemporary echoes. Various Asias are domesticated elsewhere through such processes as Asian diasporas, resource and land grabs in Africa, Chinese products in North American homes, overseas trading and familial networks, or hybrid cultural practices (Asian music and musicians, food and cooks). Conversely, the various Asias emerging through this continent are shaped from elsewhere: US investment banks and troops on the ground, drone strikes in Afghanistan, NGOs and multilateral policy advisors in Cambodia, European and North American universities’ Asian campuses, mobile Euro-American cultural and policy norms.

It is impossible, of course, to do justice to such complexity within the span of any single plenary session. I have chosen to concentrate on south, southeast and east Asia, and on political and economic changes. The plenary session speakers are prominent Asia specialists in their own right, but also have close personal connections with various sub-regions. This is vital: If we are to take such Asias as seriously as they deserve, then local knowledge and expertise must be adequately incorporated into our knowledge production, whether acquired through personal connections or through collaborative research networks involving diverse Asian co-researchers. I am fortunate to have been able to persuade four outstanding speakers to participate:

Jim Glassman is Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia. He has conducted research in Thailand, China, and South Korea, examining the political economy of development, state and crisis theory. His book Thailand at the Margins: Internationalization of the State and the Transformation of Labour explores transformations in the Thai state through interactions with the United States and Japan, and Thailand’s uneven development and industrial transformation. Bounding the Mekong: the Asian Development Bank, China, and Thailand examines transnational forces in the production and uneven development throughout the transnational Greater Mekong Subregion. His current research focuses on the geopolitical-economic forces shaping formation of an East and Southeast Asian regional economy during the Vietnam War.

Ananya Roy is Professor of City and Regional Planning and Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice at the University of California, Berkeley. She has undertaken pioneering research into urbanism, planning, informality and poverty reduction initiatives in South Asia, also examining how India’s Asias articulate with those elsewhere. Her books include: City Requiem, Calcutta: Gender and the Politics of Poverty, Urban Informality: Transnational Perspectives from the Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America, Poverty Capital: Microfinance and the Making of Development (recipient of the Paul Davidoff Book Award of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Planning), and Worlding Cities: Asian Experiments and the Art of Being Global.

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz whose scholarship examines the intersection between culture, political economy and the more-than-human world, interrogating the global in the local. She has written two books on southeast Asia: In the Realm of the Diamond Queen (recipient of the Henry J. Benda Prize in Southeast Asian Studies), and Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (American Ethnological Society Senior Book Award), as well as such anthologies Communities and Conservation: Histories and Politics of Community-Based Natural Resource Management and Words in Motion: Towards a Global Lexicon. She has founded the ongoing multidisciplinary Matsutake Worlds Research Group that is studying global scientific, ecological and commercial connections involving matsutake mushrooms.

Fulong Wu is Bartlett Professor of Planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London. His current scholarship examines Chinese urbanism and urban development, urban and regional governance, urban poverty, social spatial differentiation and urban sustainability challenges, in the context of the evolution of China’s political economy. He has co-authored Urban Development in Post-Reform China: State, Market, and Space and Urban Poverty in China, and edited or co-edited Restructuring the Chinese City, Marginalization in Urban China, International Perspectives on Suburbanization, Globalization and the Chinese City and China’s Emerging Cities. He draws on 25 years’ experience of Chinese urban system, strategic and master planning to advise local governments in China on urban and regional development.  

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