Asian Law in Australian Universities: Research centres as critical institutional commitments

*this was first published at Asian Currents, April 2020
Asian Law in Australian Universities: Research centres as critical institutional commitments

Melissa Crouch, Law School, University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney)

In November 2019, Edward Aspinall and I convened a workshop on the state of Asian Studies in Australia. Bringing together leading academics in Asian Studies, we discussed the state of the field for the past two decades (2000-2020) across the disciplines (law, political science, international relations, anthropology, history), languages (Japanese, Korean, Indonesian, Chinese) and area studies (Mainland Southeast Asia, Indonesia, South Asia, China, Northeast Asia, and Asian diasporas).

In this post, I reflect on the field of Asian law. While law as a discipline is grouped as part of the social sciences, it became clear from our discussions that the study and research of Asian Law has a distinctive history in Australian universities.

The study of law around the world has traditionally been the study of a national legal system. At its core, legal education remains this way, despite the turn towards transnational or global law over the past two decades. In Australia, there are over 800 academics at or above the level of Senior Lecturer based in Law Schools. These academics are experts in Australian law, a legal system based on the common law, derived from a history of settler colonialism and affiliated with Western liberal democracy. Most law academics are required to teach core courses in Australian law. If legal academics do engage in comparative work, the focus is often on the West – perhaps comparing the Australian legal system to that of England, Canada, the United States or New Zealand.

Among this academic cohort, there are just 34 academics based in Australian law schools with permanent positions who primarily focus on Asian law. These academics have a sustained academic career commitment to the study of law in Asia, and most either speak an Asian language, have undertaken sustained research in Asia and/or have Asian law as their primary research focus. Out of these 34 academics, China, Indonesia and India are the three most common areas of focus, with Japan, Singapore and Malaysia following behind. However, the majority these academics are concentrated at just five out of the 44 law schools in Australia. This greatly limits the opportunity most Australian law students might have to learn about the legal traditions and systems of Asia from Asian law scholars.

What is distinctive about academics working in the field of Asian law is that many (although certainly not all) are supported by research centres that reflect a certain institutional commitment on the part of their law school. Throughout the rise and fall of Asian Studies in the past two decades, the experience of law suggests that research centres are critical for specialised fields to foster the next generation of scholars of Asia specialists and to weather the insecurities of bilateral and trade relations.

Research Institutes in the Asian Century

It is undisputed that the 21st Century is the Asian Century. This idea is a reference to the rising economic, social and political influence of diverse societies in Asia. Research centres can play a major role in promoting the study and knowledge of Asia.

Generally, university-based research centres are a tangible demonstration of academic and research leadership. Research centres are a means of offering intellectual leadership, facilitating professional networks among scholars and students, and supporting their members through a range of activities including conferences, publications and public engagement. Research centres can facilitate interdisciplinary engagement, which is certainly a hallmark of Asian studies research centres in Australia.

Research centres offer a community of intellectual support for scholars and students. A key role for research centres is to train the next generation of scholars, which is particularly important in highly specialised areas of expertise. Centres are a critical means to facilitate student involvement in academic life, as research assistants, through academic events and projects, and through mentoring and career building exercises.

This core internal role of building and fostering a support research community is similar to Robert Cribb’s idea of ‘circles of esteem’ in academic life.[1]

Centres also play a critical external facing role - promoting a concentration of research expertise and priorities to a national and global audience. Given Australia’s place in the region, it makes sense for Australian universities and law schools to make institutional commitments to the study of Asian law through research centres in order to foster such expertise.

The Rise of Asian Law Research Centres in Australia

One characteristic that marks a university’s or a faculty’s institutional commitment to Asian Studies is the establishment of a research centre. There are at least five research centres specifically dedicated to the study of Asian law in Australia universities today. These research centres are concentrated at three of Australia’s 44 law schools. I acknowledge that some other centres and programs based at Australian law schools also foster scholarship on Asian Law even if this is not been their primary focus.[2]

1985, Asian Law Centre (ALC), the University of Melbourne
1995, Centre for Asian and Pacific Law (CAPLUS), University of Sydney
2013, Centre for the Study of Indonesian Law, Islam and Society (CILIS), University of Melbourne

These centres have a diverse range of expertise (that is, across the public-private law divide) and act as a hub for fostering higher degree research students and early career scholars who are developing region-specific expertise.

The Asian Law Centre has existed for 35 years, which is a remarkable achievement for a research centre at an Australian university. Mal Smith (d. 2006), a Japanese law expert, founded the Asian Law Centre at a time when interest in Japanese law was at a height. His institution-building efforts left a profound institutional legacy for the field of Asian Law.

This was followed in 1994 by the Centre for Asian and Pacific Law (CAPLUS) established by Alison Tey at the University of Sydney.

Law schools that support Asian law offer elective subjects that are either country or region specific (with the most common being China, Japan, Indonesia, South Asia and Southeast Asia) or subject-matter specific, such as Human Rights in Asia; Rule of Law in Asia; Asian Competition Law; Drugs in Asia; Law and Investment in Asia; and, Land Law and Development in Asia. However, student enrolments in such courses are generally low, with some exceptions. This is generally because law students are required to complete the ‘Priestley 11’ (a core set of Australian-focused law courses) to qualify to practise law, and so the number of electives they can choose is often limited.

The research of Australian-based legal scholars on Asia has often been driven by themes relevant to public debate, bilateral trade relations and global commercial legal practise. This includes all aspects of commercial law; legal pluralism; criminal law, particularly terrorism; and constitutional law.

From 2000 to 2010, there was a decline in the field in terms of government funding, a contraction in institutional university support and a decline in student numbers. Since the 2010s, there has been sporadic interest, institutional support and external funding. There has also been a rise in the focus on Chinese law, with several law schools hiring Chinese law specialists.

From 2014, law schools have also enhanced the opportunities for their students to study intensively in Asia through New Colombo Plan funding. Examples include short term law programs such as ANU’s program in Japan, Monash University in Myanmar; the University of Sydney in China, Japan, Indonesia and Malaysia; and UNSW in China, India, Vietnam and the Pacific.

There are also law study programs in Asia offered by consortiums such as the innovative Indonesian Law Practicum established in 2018, run by the Australian Consortium of In-Country Indonesian Studies (ACICIS). This program includes students from across 20-30 different Australian universities each year. There are now greater opportunities and more funding than ever before for Australian-based students to undertake intensive courses on Asian law in Asia.

Further, Asian law research centres have historically prioritised efforts to open access to primary legal materials of countries in Asia that can be difficult to access. For example, the Australian Legal Information Institute (AustLII) hosted jointly by UNSW Law and UTS Law has established a free online Asian Legal Information Institute. The AsianLII database covers 28 jurisdictions in Asia, and the most recent country database launch is the Myanmar Law database. Access to such sources is critical both for students and scholars of Asian law, as well as fulfilling a broader public service in enabling access to the law.

The Future of Asian Law in Australian Universities

An institutional history of 40 years of Asian law in Australia (1980s-2020) shows that the establishment and maintenance of Asian law centres by Australian law schools has been critical for three reasons: as a tangible demonstration of university and faculty support for Asian law; as an external signal of the concentration and importance of expertise on Asian law; and as an internal means of fostering a future generation of Asian law scholars in Australia.

Just as Australia is known for its strength in Asian studies, so too is it known for its expertise in Asian law. Yet like Asian studies more broadly, the field of Asian law has experienced a rise from the 1980s to the mid 1990s, followed by a fall since the late 1990s. It is arguable that post-2012 in particular has seen both more new hires of Asian law scholars (particularly of Chinese law, but also of Indian law and Indonesian law), and the establishment of three new institutional research initiatives (as listed above).

Law stands out from other disciplines in the social sciences in terms of its sustained and dedicated discipline-based research centres, although these are concentrated at a handful of Australian universities.

The continued importance of trade relations between Australia and the region, and the potential growth in areas such as ASEAN, means that Asian law will remain an ongoing area of interest for universities, the government and the private sector.

In fact, a key reason for the success of Asian Law centres is precisely their attraction to the government and the private sector (particularly law firms) in terms of informing trade relations, foreign investment and the promotion of the rule of law in the region. At the same time, for those of us who research and teach on Asian law, the reality of the close engagement between academia, government and the private sector should be a cause for critical reflection in terms of who we partner with, the projects we prioritise, and where our funding comes from.


[1] Robert Cribb (2005) ‘Circles of esteem, standard works and euphoric cuplets’ Critical Asian Studies 37(2) 289.
[2] For example, the former ANU Law, Governance and Development Initiative, the ANU Centre for Public and International Law, and the University of Queensland Centre for Public International and Comparative Law.


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