Comparative research in/of Southeast Asia
By Shaun Lin
As a geographer, comparative research is central to my training. In particular analysing the similarities and differences in spatial transformations (both visible and structural) in two or more places. Spatial transformations influenced by the same factor(s) may result in highly diverse outcomes. Whilst similarities are easier to be identified and made sense of, uncovering the differences in various places are more challenging and require detailed locality studies. As such, Evans’ (2002: 161) argument that comparative research should be encouraged to chart “thematic issues, ‘deep analogies’, and contextual meanings” is helpful to understand why and how such differences in spatial transformations, specifically in terms of their different intensities and natures arise, change, or persist in various places.
Comparative research is rewarding in Southeast Asia as a region shaped geopolitically by colonial powers, the Cold War, and now to a large extent, Chinese interests and responses to them, where it has resulted in intriguing patterns across the region as changes unfold in various permutations and responses to these changes vary tremendously. I would like to echo what van Schenedel (2002) pointed out in his call to “pay close attention to the academic politics of scale that create and sustain area studies” and place it in the context of comparative research. Elsewhere, Sidaway (2013: 992) states that “it has been more common to compare and contrast the geopolitics and development of East and Southeast Asia than, for example, those of Zomia [a term used to refer to marginal highland areas in Asia] and the Indian Ocean”. Hence, the question of what to compare exactly and why select or to some extent favour certain issues to compare merits careful reflections.
I refer to one example in mainland Southeast Asia to (re)examine an issue that we could “favour” and “promote” for further comparison. In recent years, the worsening environmental problems of the Mekong River in mainland Southeast Asia, particularly its prolonged droughts and China limiting the water flow in the upper portions of the river have led to some discussion in op-eds (for example, Kausikan, 2020) arguing that this issue should be seen as significant as the regional issue of the South China Sea between Southeast Asia and China. Whilst the South China Sea disputes draw in some of the maritime/island Southeast Asia states such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (along with substantial international maritime transport taking place in this body of maritime space) to justify a supposedly “bigger” significance in terms of geography, it is argued that the Mekong issue is of a rapidly growing worry implicating a water crisis that affects millions and should be viewed and regarded as an international concern (ibid). Comparing in this sense is fruitful as changing circumstances on the ground should encourage us to relook at certain places and cast new lens on them as we re-evaluate the situation. After all, the situation of the Mekong Southeast Asian riparian states also relates to a common actor in China as seen in the South China Sea but it demands a more nuanced understanding of the regional and international politics surrounding it considering it is transboundary water management and water and food security and not sovereignty and fishing rights matters (South China Sea). As Sidaway (2013, 996) noted: “it is imperative, however, to supplement historic and history with geographic and geographical, signifying spatial comparison, perspective, and position”. In this light, the Mekong river deserves more critical attention as its problems escalate spatially, including manners that the river was, for some years, considered for the wider Belt and Road Initiative and part of the Lancang Mekong Cooperation plans of riverine transport aspirations at the expense of local environmental degradation (Lin and Grundy-Warr, 2020). On a wider perspective in area studies, one could also alternatively view the historic and contemporary region names of Indochina and mainland Southeast Asia more aptly as Mekong Southeast Asia as the river winds through all five countries of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam (in running order).
Whilst I may think it impossible to achieve a unified or agreed approach to comparative research in geography, let alone the wider humanities and social sciences, it is crucial to sustain the aspiration for doing comparative research.
Shaun Lin is a Max Weber-NUS Research Fellow at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore. His research interests include border studies, political geography and environmental and resource politics.
Evans, G. (2002). Between the global and the local there are regions, culture areas, and national states: A review article. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 33(1): 147-162.
Kausikan, B. (2020). Why Asean should treat the Mekong like the South China Sea. South China Morning Post (17 July). https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/opinion/article/3093546/why-asean-should-treat-mekong-south-china-sea (last accessed 19 September 2020)
Lin, S. and Grundy-Warr, C. (2020). Navigating Sino-Thai ‘rocky’ bilateral ties: The geopolitics of riverine trade in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Environment and Planning C: Politics and Space, 38(5): 826-833.
Sidaway, J.D. (2013). Geography, globalization, and the problematic of area studies. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 103(4): 984-1002.
Van Schendel, W. (2002). Geographies of knowing, geographies of ignorance: Jumping scale in Southeast Asia. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20(6): 647-668.
Citation: Shaun Lin , Comparative research in/of Southeast Asia, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 28.09.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24996.