Blog: Research on Southeast Asia in Central Eastern Europe 

By Alfred Gerstl and Filip Kraus (Palacký University, Olomouc, Czech Republic)

Central Eastern Europe in China’s Belt and Road Initiative
During the Cold War, the Socialist Central Eastern European (CEE) countries had close relations with their Socialist counterparts in Asia, notably Vietnam, a member of the economic cooperation format Comecon. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, the economic and subsequently political importance of Asia grew significantly for CEE. In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, for instance, South Korean and Japanese companies are, similar to German carmakers, heavily engaged in the automotive sector. More recently, Chinese enterprises invested in CEE under the frame of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which aims at better connecting Asia and Europe. However, the initially high expectations of Chinese investments did not materialize, causing disappointment. More realism in the relations of the CEE with China is required.

China’s activities in CEE, notably the establishment of the cooperation format 17+1 with 17 Central Eastern and Southeastern European nations, stir many controversies in the region.

Yet, the broad and substantial knowhow of Southeast Asia specialists in the CEE countries provide a corrective against the danger that Asia will be in the broad public reduced to China.

Another corrective is the reality of life in CEE with well established political and economic relations, not least tourism, with the Southeast Asian countries and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Another important factor are Southeast Asian migrants living in CEE, with the Vietnamese community being the most prominent one in the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The connection and immigration date back to the mutual Communist times.

Long and rich tradition of research on Southeast Asia
Research on Southeast Asia has a long and rich tradition in CEE. The Austrian Robert von Heine-Geldern (1885–1968), an ethnologist and prehistorian, was a pioneer in the promotion Southeast Asian Studies. Being Jewish, he lived in during the Second World War in exile in New York where he was a key figure in establishing the Southeast Asia Institute (formerly East Indies Institute of America) in 1941. Already in 1923 he used the term “Südostasien” in the title of a book chapter in Georg Buschan’s “Illustrierte Völkerkunde”, arguing that Southeast Asia is a region in its own right rather than merely an extension of India (or China). In his understanding, however, the region, also included Taiwan and parts of India.

Another forerunner of Southeast Asian Studies was Harry J. (Jindrich) Benda (1919–1971). Born in Prague (Czechoslovakia) in a Jewish family, he had to flee the invasion of Nazi Germany to Java in 1939. He became “a legendary figure” (Tomáš Petrů) of Southeast Asian Studies and founding father of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS) in Singapore. Benda served as the first ISEAS director (1968/69), and even after his return to Yale he strongly supported the work of the institute.

In all CEE countries, students can enroll at various universities in Asian Studies. Languages, culture, economics and politics are the main areas of study. For instance, in the Czech Republic Palacký University’s Department of Asian Studies offers both Bachelor and Master studies in Indonesian and Vietnamese Studies as well as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean studies. Indonesian and Vietnamese Studies also have a strong tradition at Charles University in Prague.

In Austria, the University of Vienna has a Department of East Asian Studies where students can enroll in Chinese, Japanese and Korean studies (Bachelor and Master) as well as in the Master program East Asian Economy and Society (EcoS). In the latter, Southeast Asia is also covered. At other departments, notably International Development, Social and Cultural and Social Anthropology and Geography, research on Southeast Asia is conducted as well. Southeast Asia is also well covered at the Institute for Social Anthropology at the Austrian Academy of Sciences. Last but not least, since 2008 the interdisciplinary Austrian Journal of South-East Asian Studies (ASEAS) publishes articles with topics ranging from culture, society, economics to geography and politics.

Regional cooperation between Asia specialists
Fostering cooperation among academics and students from CEE countries who research on Northeast, but also Southeast Asian topics is an aim of, for instance, the annual Lodz East Asia Meeting (LEAM). It is organized by the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Lodz (Poland). The Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) with offices in Bratislava, Olomouc and Vienna has the same objective. It also covers current political, economic and societal developments in Southeast, Northeast, Central and South Asia.

Even though comparisons with other Asian regions and trans- and interdisciplinary research on Southeast Asia have many advantages, specific university departments and/or academic journals in CEE dedicated to broadly defined Southeast Asian affairs would further increase the visibility of Southeast Asia in academia and the broader public in this region.