Interview with Professor Michael Wesley

A talk with the dean of the College of Asia-Pacific

Society and culture, International relations | Asia, Australia

13 February 2017

Interview conducted by Catia Rizio and Mish Khan, written by Reza Mazumder. 

Michael Wesley is Dean of the College of Asia and the Pacific (CAP) and Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University (ANU).

Professor Wesley gained his PhD from the University of St. Andrews (Scotland) and his BA (Honours) from the University of Queensland. He was Assistant Director-General for Transnational Issues at the Office of National Assessments (Australia’s peak intelligence agency), from 2003 to 2003, Director of the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University from 2004 to 2009, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute for International Policy from 2009 to 2012. He took up the position of Dean at ANU in 2013.

Here at The Monsoon Project, we sat down with Professor Wesley to talk about his experiences as an academic and as Dean of CAP.

The Monsoon Project: What is your role as the Dean of the ANU College of the Asia-Pacific?

Prof. Wesley: I’m responsible for the community of scholars that occupies this college. I look on it as being the temporary custodian of a very proud history – the antecedence of the College of Asia and the Pacific’s stretch back to 1946. Generations of scholars and students have created what I think is a national and international treasure of resource. I see myself as being the custodian of that really important legacy and hopefully setting it up for another proud seventy years and beyond.”

TMP: Why did you come to work at ANU?

Michael Wesley:  After I started at the University of Queensland, ANU became a very big part of my life. Many of the books, articles and scholars discussed in my studies of government, international relations and Asian studies had come from the ANU. From then on, I always harboured a desire to end up at the ANU and did so in 2013.

TMP: Why did you become an academic?

Prof. Wesley: I came to university because I wanted to become a diplomat. The time I started at university was pretty exciting – it was a period in which the Cold War was getting really interesting.  In my second year I studied a course on Soviet Politics. It was at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power and the Soviet Union was instituting significant reforms.  You felt like you were studying politics as it unfolded.

In 1989, during my third undergraduate year, there was the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests. I still remember those days very clearly and events like this made my academic journey more concrete and real. By the time I got into my honours year, I didn’t really want to be a diplomat anymore since I really liked the research side of things.

TMP: In terms of your research, what sorts of recent developments do you find the most interesting?

Prof. Wesley: I think the big story of our lifetime is the re-emergence of Asia as the world’s centre of gravity- strategically, economically and politically. You get up, you read and listen to the news and there’s stuff happening that you people will look back on and study as a significant period that reshaped the world for us and our kids.

TMP: What do you find most rewarding in your field?

Prof. Wesley: Coming up against how little I know about the Asia-Pacific and how complex its history, society and cultures can be. The potential for it to surprise you constantly is always there. Who would have predicted Duterte and the way in which he conducts politics? Or how Philippine society and regional Asia is responding to his presidency? It’s something fascinating to watch. That’s just in Southeast Asia – you can look further to the phenomenon that is Xi Jingping in China.  It’s a challenge trying to find an intellectual construct to understand what all this means for the rest of the world.”

TMP: Speaking about challenges, how do you handle criticism as an academic?

Prof. Wesley:  If you’re not prepared to have people criticise or disagree with you, you don’t really have any business becoming an academic. I quite like people disagreeing with me because if it’s in the spirit of academic inquiry it provides for some of the most productive thinking you can do. If you have to defend a position from someone who has a genuine disagreement with what you’ve said or what you’ve done, then that’s a growing experience. It makes you think clearly in justifying what you say. It may even point out something you haven’t thought of.

TMP: What’s your favourite part about living in Canberra?

Prof. Wesley: I love the sheer natural and physical beauty of Canberra. Its sense of intellectual space and absence of pretension. I think Canberra is an open-minded city in ways in which other cities would think they are but really aren’t.

TMP: What do you see is the future of CAP?

Prof. Wesley:  The changing meaning of Asia-Pacific studies is most significant. Before, it was generally accepted that if you studied Western topics you were a generalist, but studying the Asia-Pacific was more of a niche topic. Today, Asia-Pacific studies are increasingly becoming the mainstream. This is exciting, as it means we will need to reconceive the way we see ourselves, making the case to the rest of the world that this sort of scholarship is path-breaking in understanding what the world’s future will be.

TMP: Finally, what’s an interesting fact about you that students might not know?

Prof. Wesley: I failed to learn Chinese twice. I first took night classes at UNSW but got too busy to keep up. My second time was when I was in Hong Kong with my family – my wife was on a diplomatic posting – but again I was too busy to continue my studies when I moved back to Australia. My wife actually studied Chinese at university and while on exchange at Fudan University for a year. My two boys are also learning it. I may soon have to face the fact that I’m the only person in the family who can’t speak Chinese.

We’d like to thank Professor Wesley for taking the time to speak with us. If you’re interested, you can take a look some of Professor Wesley’s publications here.

Image taken from the Annual Asia Pacific Year in Focus Lecture – listen to the podcast here.

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