Thursday, May 13, 2021

The sea as the focal point


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THE Chinese referred to Southeast Asia (SEA) in ancient times as Nanyang, or the “southern seas.” In some ways, this name can be traced to the same logic that gave SEA the name Suvarnadvipa, or “land of gold” for the South Asians: they are rooted in the commercial relations of SEA with both neighboring giants.

Trade between SEA and China was always done through the now-contentious South China Sea (SCS) — renamed West Philippine Sea (WPS) by Filipinos for nationalistic reasons. Russell Fifield makes an interesting point when he said: “It should be stressed that… [Nanyang] reflected the roles of the sea-minded people who used them and focused on seas with their adjacent lands rather than on lands with their adjacent seas.”

The sea was always the focal point. As it is now.

China kept tabs on the affairs of the region because of the supreme importance of the southern seas to China, and China to the lands adjacent to the southern seas. Historical knowledge about SEA often started with the Chinese records. Archaeological findings and other social science research have since supplemented the Chinese records to make the narrative of early SEA history richer. Even so, it is still difficult to reconstruct SEA history before the common era. In the Philippines, for instance, before the celebrated Laguna Copperplate Inscription (LCI) of the 10th century was unearthed some years back, the earliest historical records about the country also came from Chinese records. China became interested in the Philippines primarily because of trade.

We already discussed in the previous column (Oct. 23, 2020) the links between SEA and South Asia. Similar to the region’s relations with China, trade was also the key point in SEA-South Asia relations. Insular SEA (we will discuss mainland or continental SEA in a later column) underwent a long period of rapid development primarily because of its commercial intercourse with South Asia and China. Both Asian giants were pulled into insular SEA — as would Europe later on — because of the spice trade. The early trade routes connected insular SEA, the coastal polities of mainland SEA — the Mon-Khmers (covering modern-day Cambodia and Thailand), Champa (modern-day Vietnam) and Funan (a Mekong delta-based polity) — with South Asia and China. Nanyang was an extremely busy thoroughfare of seaborne trade from more than a millennium ago. Thus, the volatility produced by Chinese aggression in the SCS/WPS should come as no surprise because China does not have a monopoly whatsoever of either its history or its trade.

If it appears quite curious that SEA polities were more heavily influenced by Hindu-Buddhist statecraft than by China, it is because Hindu-Buddhist influence was often passed on by the more benign non-state entities (i.e., merchants, religious personalities, etc.). In the case of China, the empire was more directly involved, consequently the SEA polities were more guarded against possible Chinese imperialism compared to the seemingly more innocent Hindu-Buddhist agenda.


By the 11th or 12th century, according to the studies of Roderich Ptak, China was forced to divert a sizeable chunk of its insular SEA trade away from the Java Sea to the Philippines and Borneo/Brunei. Chinese merchants established roots in the Philippines as a base for direct spice trade with the Moluccas instead of sourcing it from the usual trade routes because of the intransigence of an emerging regional commercial powerhouse based in the Java Sea area. It was roughly at this time that rapid changes occurred in the Philippines, especially among important coastal communities that became hubs for entrepot trade. The Philippines became an alternative base for the lucrative Chinese trade, accelerating development in the archipelago that was at its peak when Ferdinand Magellan sluggishly entered the fray in the 16th century.

In fact, the Spaniards would later take advantage of an existing trade network and divert it all the way to the Americas through the Galleon Trade. To be more precise, there was a triangular commercial relationship between China, Japan and the Philippines that the Galleon Trade exploited. The Philippines was key in this triangular network because of the turbulent relations between the Chinese empire and the Japanese wako “pirates.”

Balance of trade between the East Asian neighbors heavily favored Japan. When the Chinese imposed trade restrictions to correct the imbalance, the Japanese turned to piracy to harass China. The happy compromise saw the Chinese and Japanese use the Philippines for indirect trade of their goods, especially with the introduction of Mexican silver into the mix.

* * *

We extend our sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of Mr. Jobert Garcenila of Mala-iba, San Jose, Antique who returned to the seas of his Austronesian forebears on Oct. 24, 2020. Be at peace in your next journey, dear friend.



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