Some Thoughts and Observations on Russian Studies in South East Asia

The first Russia-ASEAN Youth Summit has provoked a heated discussion concerning the information gap between Russia and ASEAN member states including the sphere of Russian studies in South East Asia and South East Asian studies in Russia. As a follow-up to this discussion ASEAN Centre web-site publishes a comment by Dr. Paradorn Rangsimaporn.

Paradorn Rangsimaporn completed his doctorate degree in International Relations at St.Antony’s College, University of Oxford, UK, specializing in Russian foreign policy. He is the author of Russia as an Aspiring Great Power in East Asia (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and articles in Asian Survey and Europe-Asia Studies. In October-November 2005 Dr. Rangsimaporn was a visiting researcher at MGIMO-University (Russia). He can be considered one of few researchers from Southeast Asia professionally specializing in the studies of Russia.

Currently Dr. Rangsimaporn is a diplomat at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Kingdom of Thailand and is working at the Royal Thai Embassy and Permanent Mission to the UN in Vienna, Austria. His views expressed at the Summit are his own and do not reflect the official position of the Ministry.


1. Overview

- When we talk about the study of any country or region this would mean the study of a whole range of subjects related to that country or region, and not just the study of its language. Therefore, Russian studies does not merely mean the study of Russian language but also of its history, politics, economics, society, culture, literature, and much more.

- From this premise, one can say that Russian studies in South East Asia is not so well developed with the possible exception of some countries like Viet Nam which have close historical ties with Russia. While the study of Russian language may be increasing in some countries, for instance there is a growing interest in studying Russian in Thailand, the study of Russia in its other dimensions, and research related to this, is sorely lacking.


2. Reasons

- An important reason for the lack of Russian studies in South East Asia is to do with Russia herself. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia today is not a superpower. It is a great power among many others. While it continues to be an important player in world affairs, its role and presence in South East Asia, and the Asia-Pacific region more generally, has diminished. Despite attempts to play a greater role in the region, it has not yet fully returned as a major player. The relative lack of interest in Russia in South East Asia mirrors Russia’s limited importance in the region.[i] In comparison to China, which is rising steadily in importance both regionally and globally, and established powers like the US and some European countries like France and Germany, the interest in Russia of South East Asians is marginal. This is why there is a dearth of Russian studies in the region when compared to Japan or China where Russia is important not least due to its proximity, and especially when compared to the US or Europe where Russia continues to be of considerable interest due to its significant role in issues that concern these countries.

- Another reason related to the first is the lack of Russia’s “soft power”. This was noted by several participants at the ASEAN-Russia Conference in April 2011 organized by ISEAS and MGIMO. Interest in a certain country may not necessarily be due to its military might or “hard power” as may have been the case before but due to its cultural influence and appeal. For South East Asia, this has proven to be the case with Japan and now South Korea where its entertainment industry has attracted not just regional but worldwide attention. The “soft power” of countries like the US, the UK, France, and Germany is long established through its cultural influences, the dissemination of which has been helped by the work of cultural centers like the British Council, Goethe Institute and Alliance Francaise. China too has promoted its “soft power” through the work of its Confucius Institutes worldwide, though in South East Asia’s case the importance and influence of China is historically well established. Russia is trying to catch up with the establishment of Russian Centers of the Russkiy Mir Foundation worldwide, although it has only opened in two South East Asian countries so far – Thailand and Viet Nam.

- Another reason is the dearth of experts on Russia in South East Asian countries themselves and hence the difficulty of establishing well-regarded Russian Studies centers or courses that are of an in-depth and academically vigorous level compared to such centers or courses elsewhere. Although there are an increasing number of students from South East Asia who study in Russia they are mostly not there to study about Russia. They acquire their skills and education from Russia but are not academically equipped to teach about Russia.

- To sum up, there is the problem of both lack of demand – the interest to study about Russia – and of supply – the insufficient resources or resource persons available in South East Asia.


3. Possible solutions

- At the state level, Russia must pay greater attention to South East Asia and enhance its relations with South East Asian countries. Asia is rising in importance and South East Asia, through ASEAN, is one of the driving factors of this rise. Russia, due to its unique position straddling both Europe and Asia with two thirds of its territory in Asia, can play a greater role in shaping Asia’s future and to fully benefit from Asia’s development and prosperity. In addition to its military and political might and its increasing economic weight, Russia can utilize its advancement in science and technology and its abundant natural resources, especially in energy, to enhance its role in South East Asia and its importance to the region.

- Russia also has so many potential tools of soft power at its disposal to pique the interest of South East Asians and to enhance its attraction for these countries. Russia has a rich and varied history and culture with leading lights in literature and the arts, both classical and contemporary. The government should actively promote these cultural influences which would also lead to further people-to-people contacts. Initiatives like the Russian Centers and the holding of cultural events are steps in the right direction and should be further promoted.

- Russia and South East Asian countries should work together to promote the buildup of academic resources and experts on Russia in South East Asia. Scholarships should be provided for those with a keen interest in studying about Russia as well as other CIS countries. Training in the Russian language is essential to equip these experts to be able to use and study Russian sources and material and to become a true expert on Russia.

- Given the limited academic resources and experts on Russia as well as the lack of significant interest to study about Russia in some South East Asian countries, it is necessary to pool these resources and to work together to achieve a well-regarded Russian studies center or course that not only provide training and education to students at an academically high standard but also produce high-quality research and publications. Another possibility is to establish an ASEAN Russian studies center by pooling resources from all ASEAN countries in order to achieve courses and research on Russia, and its relations with ASEAN, at a high educational standard. The ISEAS in Singapore can be one candidate for the establishment of such a center.

- Russia and South East Asian countries should also work together to find ways of promoting exchanges of students and researchers/academics to study, conduct research or teach at each other’s educational establishments. Joint degrees between a Russian university and a South East Asian one should also be seriously explored. This would not only build up their academic capacity but also create networks of professionals that could help further cooperation between Russia and South East Asia. MGIMO’s ASEAN Center can play a key role in this respect from the Russian side.

- To broaden the attraction of potential students, it may be useful to explore the possibility of expanding the scope of studies to encompass other CIS countries, especially those using Russian language. Central Asia, for instance, has become more important in recent years and by broadening the education to include such states, this may widen the attractiveness of the course. These countries also have a strong link to Russia in many ways and studying them would widen the knowledge of South East Asians in both Russia and its neighbours. Nonetheless, given the limited academic resources and experts available, this may not be effectively achievable in the near future.

Paradorn Rangsimaporn

[i] This is not necessarily to say that there were more Russian studies in South East Asia during Soviet times. In countries that were strongly anti-communist like Thailand, the study of Russia or even its language was frowned upon by the authorities.


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