“Asian Studies”, whether broadly defined as the production and dissemination of scholarly knowledge about Asia or narrowly limited to the specific field of study named as such, has constantly been framed by a changing geopolitical context. The term “geopolitics”, borrowed from the study of international relations, denotes a perspective of considering power relations as embedded in the spatial structure (size, distance, adjacency) of geographical territories. By “framing”, we refer to the process by which a configuration of contextual factors (economic, political, cultural, historical or organizational) leads to an inclination towards a particular pattern of knowledge.
This point is illustrated by considering the colonial roots of Oriental or Asiatic scholarship, the war-driven migration of Asian scholars and the dispersion of their expertise, and Cold War American investment in both social sciences in East Asia and in “Asian Studies” at home. The rising scholarly interest in Japan, China and India following their growing political-economic significance in recent decades, as well as the emergence of various “alternative discourses” and “inter-Asia dialogues” as attempts at intellectual decolonization, provide further examples.
This framing effect is at least partially mediated by various institutions involved in the social process of knowledge production — such as foundations, professional associations, publishers, journals, research institutes, cultural societies, governments and multinational entities. These institutions operate in ways that reflect their roles, agendas and power relations within the geopolitical context, and leave their imprints, through funding and agenda setting, on their associated scholarly networks and subsequently the intellectual landscape of human knowledge about Asia.
While institutions often can be seen as mechanisms by which geopolitical priorities help to frame Asian Studies, it is important to recognize that institutions and their associated networks can also be centres of opposition to the prevailing foreign policies and their geopolitical underpinnings.
Investigating these themes further invites critical examination of the power structure underlying this knowledge: Who has written about Asia — for what and for whom? Where has Asian knowledge been disseminated and consumed? Which (institutional, societal-structural, national) interests and biases have been brought into knowledge production? Which topics have been emphasized or excluded? Even the term “Asia” as an epistemological unit is subject to question, in part for its historical roots in being associated with European perspectives for more than two millennia.