The conference titled “Transcultural Asia: Unlearning Colonial/Imperial Power Relations” was held on June 28th and 29th in the TOBB-ETU campus in Ankara. The conference was sponsored by the Strategic Research Center and supported by Bilkent University and TOBB-ETU. The conference was a panel for academics from around the world to discuss the academic papers they have written about Post-Colonial power relations and the position of Asia in Post-Imperial international relations. The conference took the form of a roundtable discussion, where each of the eleven academics summarized their work, and then discussed the meaning and implications of the papers alone and in relation to each other.
The conference was co-organized by Pinar Bilgin of Bilkent University and L.H.M. Ling of The New School. Nine other academics attended the conference attended the conference. The sessions were organized to include to papers at a time, each juxtaposing the other in some way. This led to substantial discussion and intriguing questions that were asked by other attendees.
The Strategic Research Center (SAM) sponsored the conference to follow on their new goal of producing linkages between academics and policy. As an advisory in-house think-tank of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, SAM holds the view that the advancement of such academic discourse provides valuable intellectual feedback to policy making channels. In accordance, the Transcultural Asia Conference aimed to solve the problem of Eurocentric international relations discourse in the world by voicing the particularities and points of view of the East. LHM Ling, in her opening speech, suggested that discourse created by the Global North reinstates the Eurocentric hegemony. The background diversity of the attending academics reaffirmed the goal to find a new voice in the global south.
Following opening speeches by LHM Ling and Pinar Bilgin, Everita Silina took the metaphorical stage to talk about her paper on Post-Industrial Cosmopolitanism. She pointed to the irony of ‘cosmopolitanism’, which as a concept carries colonial and elite connotations, now attempting to engulf post-industrial ideals of humanitarianism and universalism without a Western center. She also delved into anti-statism ideals and practical problems of global governance. As we are searching for a humanity common ground beyond the local and personal, would that exacerbate the conflict and would we be able to find a more functional system than the state to govern such conflicts? Following Silina’s presentation, Cao Qing presented his paper on the Rising China and its interpretation in and implications for the West. He analyzed four books written by Western authors on China, namely Kissinger, Friedberg, Jacques and Callahan. He found mostly neutral or negative portrayals of the Chinese culture by these authors.
In the second session, the relationality in international relations was discussed. Rafiul Ahmed took on the issue of micro-politics and boundary-making in Assam, India. He analyzed the ‘illegality’ of Bangladeshi immigrants as perceived by the Indian citizens living in Assam. This approach introduced a more local viewpoint on international relations and the human lenience. After Ahmed, John Hobson, a British international relations professor of Sheffield University explained the differences between Eurocentric Institutionalism and Scientific Racism and how Eurocentrism can be anti-imperialist. As an example, he gave Karl Marx, who adopts a critical approach to the West, but still gives all the power to Europe by claiming it the center of Capitalist problems.
In the third session, Binoda K. Mishra took on explaining the consequences of applying the nation state idea to the Eastern culture. He stated that modernity had presented itself in the form of the nation state with the Treaty of Westphalia, but this new imperialist application of the nation state problematized identities in Asia. He gave as an example Pakistan, which was built on the homogeneity of the religious identity of Islam, but later faced undercutting identities such as ethnicity and linguistics challenge the unity of the nation state. He also touched on positive and negative ways of dealing with homogeneity problems in nation states in Asia, such as linguistic rearrangement of districts and elimination of minorities. Mishra was later challenged by Silina, where she said there were two important incentives for a state system based on identity; one is the protection of the welfare and labor rights of citizens by protecting them from a surge of immigrant workers, and the second is the need to live with people who hold the same values as dear to them.
In the last session of the first day of the conference, Gavan Duffy and LHM Ling took a cognitive approach to international relations. Duffy pointed to the important elements in an academic paper, such as objectivity, cultural diversity and an avoidance of sophisticated falsification and theory of choice. Ling, on the other hand, presented a new model as a way to approach international relations. She suggested that a Western values imposed on the East through imperialism hits a wall in the Eastern culture. For instance, the liberal democratic appeals to the Paternal state does not work, and neither does moral appeals. She suggested that indicting the post-colonial state as not having western values creates a backlash on the ones who feel this is another example of modern imperialism and this in turn intensifies what the western countries suggest about the east. She proposed turning to domestic sources for a new approach to a different side of international relations. This concluded the first day of the conference.
The attendees reconvened the next day for the fifth session of the conference in TOBB-ETU. Pinar Bilgin initiated the session with a presentation on her paper on the problematic nature of the Dialogue of Civilizations project. She differentiated the security of the state and that of the individual and suggested that forming alliances of civilizations based on one point of view or identity alienates some citizens or defines their identities. She later proposed a more epistemological approach to dialogue of civilizations and more of an inclusion of the non-state security concerns. Afterwards, Chen Boyu of National Sun Yet-sen University explained the identity clashes within Taiwan concerning allegiance with Japan or China. As a contested region between the two giants, he brought the narratives of Taiwanese citizens on the table and analyzed how each identified with Japan or China on their claims of influence on Taiwan. He made an interesting comparison of this phenomenon and the historical novel “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and how it affected the viewpoints of the Taiwanese to the issue.
The last session of the conference opened with Payal Banerjee of Smith College and her paper on the Politics of the Green in Northeastern Himalayas. She pointed out how the Indian government contributed to seemingly eco-conscious projects to hide their oppression of the rural indigenous people. Lastly, Ikeda Josuke, a Japanese professor in the Centre for the Study of Political Violence in New Delhi presented his paper on the ‘road system’, which is a metaphor for a new kind of international relations. He claimed that even Post-Western approaches are western in nature and that the critical approach instinct from the Enlightenment period should be held critically. He defended a comparative history of cultures approach to find ubiquity among cultures. He proposed that the road would lead not to the ideational, but social and geographical connection of ideas. With the road metaphor, the conference circled back to the beginning, and the conversation of cosmopolitanism. Instead, however, the attendees focused on the feet on the road, instead of the head.
The conference ended promisingly. The academics agreed on criticality, dialogue and agency to be the common themes of the conference and arranged to work on publishing based on the papers discussed in the conference. Without a doubt, Transcultural Asia seminar led to the advancement of the theories of many international relations experts and such blooming of ideas will have a profound impact on how we understand Post-Imperial international relations.