Core themes

De-coupling and Re-coupling in Post-Pandemic Asia

Over the past years, relations throughout the world have come under harsh strain. Crises ranging from pandemics to climate catastrophes, from wars to economic breakdowns, have ruptured what long seemed like an ever-increasing trend towards connectivity. Some of these ruptures are new, for instance when supply-chains break apart unpredictably or when vulnerable groups are hit hardest by the unprecedented environmental fallouts of unfettered industrial developments. Other breaks and tears extend earlier problems, or shine a new spotlight on unresolved issues, for instance when resource scarcities reveal long-standing vulnerabilities in economic systems, or when Cold-War mentalities become revived in the face of geo-economic struggles.

As we confront the often-seismic shifts that the recent crises are bringing about in politics, economics, and society, it is worth turning to Asia for a better understanding of how these dynamics work, and what they mean. Many of the fault-lines of these changes run through Asia, and the newest cycle of the Leiden Asia Centre’s research (2023 to 2025) will consequently focus on the much-evoked processes of ‘de-coupling’ that seem to be haunting contemporary affairs in the region. Projects will explore the extent and nature of such ruptures, as well as the agents that drive, hamper, or revamp these processes. This research agenda will provide important reality checks, both for local stakeholders and foreign partner engaged in the region. However, it also provides a chance to ‘re-couple’ important connections – between researchers, diplomats, civil societies, and more; connections that risk being severed during these tumultuous times.

Three themes will provide the foundation for these activities:

Theme 1: re-coupling relations

Rather than taking fatalistic interpretations of ‘de-coupled’ relations at face value, whether within Asia or without, this theme will explore how various actors are using the momentum of crisis to maintain connections. Which channels have remained open, for instance between an increasingly closed-off China and its neighbours in the region? How are European and American entrepreneurs, workers, administrator, educators, and others (re)establishing relations in the wake of the pandemic and its fallout? What damage have the three years of isolation and division done in this regard, and what would be a constructive way forward, to mend such damage? The Leiden Asia Centre will explore these issues both through grounded empirical research and through its own outreach activities, e.g in the form of diplomatic and academic dialogues.

Theme 2: alternative couplings

From one perspective, it may seem like the processes of neoliberal globalisation have been de-coupled, for instance as the US and China develop ever-more antagonistic relations. However, the reality is far more complex: actors across Asia are rapidly establishing new couplings to replace the old ones, for instance across the corridors of the Belt and Road initiative. Meanwhile, critics of such developments are countering these efforts with their own initiatives, though at times with questionable efficacy. Are we looking at a future of parallel couplings, and if so: who benefits from the economic, political, and technological networks that are now under construction in different places across the region? With an eye on such questions, our research will explore the partnerships and competitions that are forming in the wake of crises, and it will assess their implications in Asia and beyond.

Theme 3: de-coupling realities

While discussions about ‘de-coupling’ are understandably focused on the way that recent crises have disrupted economic, social, and political relations, a much more profound de-coupling has been taking place: a de-coupling of realities. Ideological fissures have driven states to promote often mutually exclusive versions of current affairs, for instance when interpreting the war in the Ukraine or the origins of the COVID pandemic. These divides have proven to be more than mere rhetoric by a small number of ideologues: entire demographics are disappearing down the rabbit-holes of disinformation, often guided there by self-interested economic and political actors. How should we make sense of these fragmented understandings of reality, and can such fissures be kitted?