China’s rapid rise in the last few decades has (re)shaped its international relationships with many countries through trade and investment, especially in Southeast Asia where the Chinese engagement has arguably been the most intensified. China and Southeast Asian countries have a long history of connections through migration, trade, religious and cultural exchanges, and diplomacy, and Southeast Asia further provides a sea corridor for China to reach out towards Europe and Africa (Lin et al. 2019; Oliveira et al. forthcoming). In recent years, popular media have largely focused on China’s presence in Southeast Asia, especially the Chinese government’s recent “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) (such as South China Morning Post; Sydney Morning Herald; The Straits Times). The emergence of the BRI and the associated infrastructural development in Southeast Asia has also seen academic scholarship interest in studying China and Southeast Asia’s connections via BRI (Gong 2018; Liu and Lim 2018). Such BRI connections matter for Southeast Asia in current and future contexts, but it is also issues beyond simply recent BRI associated developments that has seen Southeast Asia being pushed in uncertain and new directions with its engagement with China. Communities and states in SEA have to ‘feel’ their way forward in the midst of the Chinese ‘currents’ with alternative imaginaries (therefore “Crossing the River by Feeling the Stones”). In this light, this workshop wishes to engage the possibilities of exploring China and Southeast Asia’s alternative connections that both precede and exceed the BRI in the contemporary contexts (particularly 1945 onwards).

The workshop seeks to move beyond BRI-centred China-Southeast connections by uncovering alternative local perspectives of the Chinese relationships at subnational, national, and transnational levels. In doing this, we expand on earlier research by not just focusing on the bottom up local perspectives (cf. Nyiri and Tan 2017) but also engaging state discourses in Southeast Asia in light of China’s interactions with the local Southeast Asian state authorities. By focusing on both the bottom up and top down processes and their convergences, this workshop will move beyond the binary between the state and the non-state in economic, social, and political formations that concern China and Southeast Asia’s relations.

In addition to this concern with multiple standpoints, this workshop also focuses on how both recent intensification and various historical sources (post-World War II) contribute to producing “alternative imaginaries” that are different from and slightly outside BRI-related narratives in Southeast Asia. We will unpack these processes of producing these alternative imaginaries in times and spaces that are not directly associated with the BRI and their implications to contemporary and potentially future socio-economic, cultural and political dynamics in Southeast Asia.

We invite papers that focus on alternative ways of interpreting and engaging various Chinese activities from individuals to institutions at the local, bilateral and regional (such as ASEAN with China) levels in both mainland and island Southeast Asia. Contextually grounded papers that examine China and Southeast Asia’s interactions from innovative empirical, methodological, and theoretical approaches are particularly welcome in the following areas:

  • Chinese foreign policies and diplomacy engagement (Tracks I and II) in Southeast Asia from the Cold War period till present
  • Economic development in special economic zones (SEZs), cross-border trade, real estate development, infrastructural mega-projects
  • Transnational religious networks, cultural heritage, and tourism development
  • Migration between China and Southeast Asia and the impact of migrant communities on shaping local ethnic and cultural identities and vice versa.
  • Ethnic minorities and other marginalized groups in Southeast Asia and their engagement of and resistance to Chinese development in their daily lives.