ICAS 10
 

Keynote Presentation

The Chinese Silk Road: Re-territorializing Politics in Southeast Asia

Aihwa Ong, University of California Berkeley, United States of America

On May 14, a Beijing forum introducing China's "One Belt, One Road" policy prominently displayed the 15th century voyages of Admiral Zheng He to the Nanyang and Africa.While OBOR intends to encompass 65 countries, the imagery of a maritime Silk Road signals that Southeast Asia is the most immediate and critical region for materializing of China's foreign objectives.

OBOR has been presented as an avowedly non-political "win-win" policy initiative to improve economic and security conditions in the emerging world. Focusing on the Silk Road initiative, I explore the material power of infrastructure to reconstitute the political in Southeast Asia. By engineering roads and ports overseas, China aims to re-route flows and remake topologies.

First, I argue that the neoliberalization of infrastructure in China allows it to "rule beyond the state." Second, I view the Silk Road building of railways, ports and zones as a process that re-territorializes politics in SE Asia. PRC financing, technology, and expertise are engendering a cascade of zones, by repurposing manufacturing sites and by recasting Thailand, Myanmar, and Indonesia as nodal points in an emerging PRC-oriented trade and logistical system. Third, the inroads of The Silk Road compromises national power. Political exceptions made to accommodate PRC interests contribute to the effects of "graduated" or unevenness in sovereign rule. By shaping infrastructure, Chinese investors and developers come to control land use, property, and labor, thus re-territorializing politics, and embedding foreign spaces in host countries.

Finally, what are the nationalist implications of China's infrastructural power for SE Asia?


Aihwa Ong's work has always dealt with the particular entanglements of politics, technology and culture in rapidly changing situations on the Asia Pacific rim. Currently, her work focuses on regimes of governing, technology and culture that crystallize new meanings and practices of the human. Her field research shifts between sites in Southeast Asia and China in order to track emerging global centers and biotechnical experiments in East Asian modernity.

As a foreign-born anthropologist, Aihwa Ong has approached research from vantage points outside or athwart the United States. This angle of inquiry unsettles and troubles stabilized viewpoints and units of analysis in the social sciences. From her early work on Muslim factory women in Malaysia, to the experiences of migrant Chinese and Cambodian refugees in California; from the selective deployment of neoliberal norms to the rise of biotech projects in Asia, Ong explores how the interaction between global forms and situated politics and cultures shape emerging globalized contexts.

Ong's inter-disciplinary approach and her ideas -- 'flexible citizenship', 'graduated sovereignty', 'global assemblages', among others are featured in debates on globalization and modernity. She has lectured internationally and been invited to the World Economic Forum. Her awards include grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the National Science Foundation, and some book prizes.