Widening the window

Humphrey Hawksley on a book that chronicles the history of the world’s largest and most important archipelago, and the lessons we can currently learn from it

There is much swirling debate at the moment about the rise of China, the cohesion of Asia and the writing of an alternative world order.  Whether the threat comes from North Korea’s nuclear weapons or stealth espionage through the Chinese tech giant Huawei, the global commentariat is having a field day.

Their arguments range from high-minded topics such as democracy and authoritarianism to fine tuning terminology: should we talk about the Asia-Pacific or the Indo-Pacific, and what exactly is the difference?

What many of us may miss is that these issues now under the microscope stem from a very narrow window of history, a specific point around the middle of last century when the Second World War ended, the Cold War began, and Western powers withdrew their colonialism, but not their influence, from the Asian region. Even this colonial period lasted a relatively short few hundred years when the first European explorers arrived in Asia keen to export their religion and establish trade.

‘Modern nations need roots deeper than some twentieth century declaration of independence,’ writes Philip Bowring in his excellent Empire of the Winds, taking us with uninhibited flourish into other ages and cultures and exposing similarities between the ebb and flow of power then and what is unfolding today.

His area of focus is Nusantaria, unfamiliar to many of us because it no longer exists as a formal entity and originates from the 13th century Majapahit empire on what is now Java Island.

Nusantaria covers most of Indonesia, part of the Philippines, Vietnam and the Malay Peninsula. In short, it is modern-day Southeast Asia whose coastlines and archipelagos remain the world’s greatest maritime and cultural crossroads and encompass strategic choke points between the great Indian and Pacific Oceans, led by the Malacca Strait that runs between the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.

During the Cold War, Soviet and American submarines played cat-and-mouse manoeuvres around these choke points to war game what would happen to supply chains in a conflict.  Today, we witness ongoing disputes over China’s attempted control of the South China Sea and Beijing’s plans to balance its reliance on maritime trade by securing routes through its land-centred Belt and Road Initiative.

Geography, climate and city-state geopolitics played a similar role in the era of Nusantaria, forging the unique culture that makes up today’s Southeast Asia. The Khmer empire of Funan, for example, lost influence to the Chams in what is now Vietnam, when trade routes to India moved from land to sea.

One strain running through Bowring’s narrative is how the sway of China over the region stands pretty much as it is now.  As planeloads of business people and politicians regularly fly to Beijing (in April we saw world leaders gathered for the second Belt and Road summit), so the smaller empires and kingdoms of Nusantaria had constantly to take note of the China-factor. Between 420 and 559 CE, the Chams sent 25 missions there in order to guarantee continuing health to their economy.

Empire of the Winds is filled with strange names and exotic places. We are given a glossary of those that no longer exist, such as Temasek, which is now Singapore, and Langkasuka on the Malay Peninsula, as well as an array of maps. There could have been a single clearer one, layered onto the familiar contours of Southeast Asia, telling us exactly where Champa, Funan and the other now extinct kingdoms were, something easy to flip to without interrupting the intrigue of the stories.

One of the most fascinating tales is that of Srivijaya,a state which dominated trade between Chinese and Indian arcs of influence.  Its principle city was Palembang in southeast Sumatra, not on the coast but 120 kilometres up the Musi River on a wide stretch of water where vessels could dock for both inland and coastal trade amid relatively calm weather. From there Srivijaya controlled access to what is now the Malacca and Sunda Straits and became not only a hub of maritime commerce, but also one for inland trade for timber, gold and food.

The root of Srivijaya’s success was a system known as ‘thalassocracy’, from the Greek meaning ‘power at sea’.  In political parlance, it refers to a system of governance that centres on the control of trade rather than of land. Within that was the concept of ‘mandala’, whereby rulers within the Srivijaya region maintained status with their own laws but conformed to the overall interests of the kingdom. The aim was to create a free flow of trade and a fair distribution of wealth.

The Association of South East Asian Nations partly resembles both the thalassocratic and mandala concept, but more so the European Union, increasingly accused of wielding too much control over its sovereign members states.  The EU is adamant that its members cannot strike independent trade deals around the world, a rigidity that partly led to Britain’s vote to leave.

Srivijaya was more flexible. New traders from different parts of the world arrived, bringing pressure on the Srivijaya administration to adapt its rules towards wider globalisation, such that a tenth century Persian writer noted that the parrots of Palembang spoke many languages, including Arabic, Persian and Greek.

Srivijaya held sway for two hundred years and maintained influence for a thousand. The European project, which also focuses on trade and shared values, is barely sixty years old.

We come away from Bowring’s sweeping canvas with a refreshing perspective lacking in so much of today’s debate.  Essentially, Nusantaria or Southeast Asia is as it has always been in character, culture and outlook and won’t be changing anytime soon. It is no more Chinese or American in the 21st century than it was American or Soviet in the 20th, and it is skilled in dealing with outside forces that think they can change Nusantarian culture and ambition into a blueprint of their own.

Nusantarians are receptive to ideas and, while great powers fight over territory and ideology, Southeast Asia prefers a loose system of shared values based on trade and getting a good deal, as learned from the success of the kingdom of Srivijaya.

And perhaps, at some stage in the future, the international commentariat will introduce into debate the concept of mandala and thalassocratic ideology that will be powerful enough to find their way into a new world order.

Humphrey Hawksley is a former BBC Asia Correspondent. His latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy of Chinese Expansion

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