At the Africa-Asia conference Dar es Salaam in 2018, an ad-hoc roundtable discussion was put together by the organizers titled ‘Africa-Southeast Asia: Relations, Connections, and Comparisons’. The idea was to take advantage of a substantial presence of Southeast Asian and African participants (and institutions supporting panels) at the conference.
The aim of the meeting was to explore ways to bridge an intellectual gap that seems to persist between Southeast Asia and Africa – arguably among the most academically underrepresented Southern areas – not only by drawing geo-political connections between the two regions, but also by addressing the transformative question of how intellectual and academic inter-regional exchanges can be rethought to move beyond the traditional North-South area studies model, notably with regard ‘Southeast Asian and African Studies’.
There was a consensus that the aged paradigm of Western intellectual hegemony has not only shaped lasting hierarchies of center-periphery in the process of academic production, but that this hegemony is now being reproduced and expanded through its cooptation by new ‘northern’ knowledge hegemons in Asia, with China, Japan and India developing their own Area Studies traditions with Africa and Southeast Asia as their objects of inquiry. The development of a Southeast Asia-Africa ‘axis of knowledge’ in its own right can thus help create a new economy of trans-regional intellectual exchange free from hierarchy or hegemonic impulses.
As was briefly discussed in Dar es Salaam, the Southeast Asian-African connections are embedded in the histories of the two regions, from the maritime routes of the Indian Ocean to the shared experiences of European colonialism and decolonization. The aftermath of World War II has brought both Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa closer in their exposure to new global powers, i.e. the Soviet Union, the United States, Western Europe, Japan and China – putting the two southern regions at the heart of the globalized capitalist-neoliberal circuit. Many of the developing states of Southeast Asia and Africa share a weak politico-economic system characterized by the phenomenon of wealth accumulation in the hands of parasitic elites. These structural features have helped create new sociological urban categories prone to erratic social and political movements.
With these similarities in mind, we believe that a fresh perspective for a South-South academic platform between Southeast Asia and Africa can help scholars and citizens of Southeast Asia and Africa to perceive their own regions and the broader global context in a new emancipating light, through the useful tool of simultaneous comparisons and connections, to directly challenge the traditional paradigms of area studies as construed in the Western world.
This roundtable discussion constitutes a first step aimed at framing an original theoretical model built on a set of methodological themes.