Why do the Middle East and Central Asia get so much attention and Southeast Asia, especially island Southeast Asia (ISEA), gets so little? Are those really such vital regions, and is ISEA really so peripheral? Let's look a little at the factors considered so important in Central Asia and see to what extent they apply as well in ISEA.
When people think of Central Asia they tend to think of the 'silk road' or 'silk roads' (as Peter Frankopan has it, based on Ferdinand von Richthofen's original formulation, Seidenstrassen), and they also think of on-going attempts by European or Euro-American powers to maintain some kind of influence there - in Afghanistan, Bukhara, and so on. They might be aware of earlier Arab, Tibetan, and Chinese attempts to take control there as well. The image of the silk roads is entrenched in our minds: a melange of exotic merchants stopping at caravanserais while their camel-steeds spit and groan in the background (and all that). 'Silk road' is a catchy name, too, and that certainly helps recall. Scholars are attracted to the region, but so are travellers, and there are big, glossy popular historical books filled with beautiful photographs on Central Asia in all periods.
|The exotic Silk Road(s). Dunhuang - a Han dynasty watchtower. h/t The Real Bear.|
But let's be clear here: the volume of trade on the overland routes was probably always smaller than the volume traded across the sea. Connections by sea were not necessarily more reliable than overland ones - piracy has been a problem on the Indian Ocean as far back as records go - but the pay-off is much greater if you have a ship full of produce than if you have a wagon, and you can also carry a greater range of goods (including porcelain, which is trickier to transport overland). Most of the famous travellers of the overland routes between Europe, India, and China - like Marco Polo, Xuanzang, Yijing, Niccolo de' Conti, Ibn Battuta, and so on - also went by sea, and as soon as the sea routes opened up after da Gama, most European voyages to China and 'the East' went by sea, partly due to political necessity and partly due to the comparative ease of using ships.
|The Portuguese settlement in Melaka - not exactly the image we have of ancient trading routes... h/t Chongkian.|
There are no Roman coins known from China, even western China, and very little evidence of Roman influence in Central Asia - but there is a Chinese record of a visit in 166 CE by Greeks claiming to represent Marcus Aurelius, and they arrived on the coast in ships, not overland in a caravan. Roman coins have been found in what is now Thailand and Vietnam; Roman pottery has been found in Bali, along with Indian pottery of a similarly early period. There's even a claim that the name Theophrastus gave to the cubeb, komakon, comes directly from Javanese kumukus (presumably a slightly different sound 2,300 years ago). That wouldn't be too surprising; sailors from ISEA seem to have had no problem travelling to Africa (and Madagascar specifically) and South Arabia in early historic times, and medieval Arabian sources claim Malays were present even in Ptolemaic Egypt. It's certainly possible, if unverifiable.
And that's not to even mention the enormous number and range of Chinese products found in Southeast Asia from a very early period - in prehistory, in fact - as well as Indian ones and, later, Arabian, and Persian ones. It's also not to mention the Southeast Asian products found outside of Southeast Asia at a very early period, including cloves, bananas, and cinnamon (mentioned in the Old Testament; cinnamon is generally considered to be a loanword from an old Malayo-Polynesian language). It's also not to mention the vocabularies of Southeast Asian languages, which are packed full of words from other languages from throughout Eurasia. Malay is basically an Austronesian language, but it has a huge amount of Sanskrit and Arabic in its lexicon alongside Chinese and Portuguese and, depending on the dialect, more or less Dutch, English, and Javanese.
Melaka in 1511, the year of the Portuguese conquest under Albuquerque, was probably one of the richest city-states in the world, and it had districts full of Chinese people, Persians, Armenians, Arabs, Javanese, Thais, Tamils, Gujaratis, and just about everyone else on earth who had any business in the Indian Ocean. There was a lot of mixing going on. People were attracted by the wealth of the place, and the fact that they could buy, almost from the source, things like pepper and cloves, something totally impossible in Central Asia. Albuquerque's plan for world domination rested on taking over emporia like this around the Indian Ocean, forcing global trade into Portuguese hands. You'll note that he didn't try to take the whole of Afghanistan or establish a crusader state in Palestine.
|Possible locations for Thai canals on the Peninsula, linking the Gulf of Siam/South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. You can see the Straits of Malacca and Sunda on the map as well.|
Needless to say, no similar volume of goods travels overland between China and western Asia/Europe in 2015, and there's every reason to believe that that's always been the case. Chinese and Russian attempts to re-start the 'silk road' have yet to really get off the ground, and they seem more political dream than viable commercial reality given the low population densities of Central Asia and the sheer convenience of container ships.
So why do we have this impression that the overland routes were so important? I suspect it's partly because of the exotic beauty of the landscapes and architecture of Central Asia, but it could also represent the political interests we have in the area. Protecting British/Russian/American/Chinese interests in Central Asia and the Middle East has always been an important aim, even up to the present day, and I suppose there's a natural assumption that this reflects the inherent importance of the region, which I don't think it does. We tend to think about Central Asia and the Middle East a lot anyway.
And we don't tend to think about the Indian Ocean or ISEA. Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines are all reasonably stable countries that don't tend to make trouble on the world stage. They're all supporters of the West and allies of the USA. The Philippines has been an ally since the war, as has Malaysia (which only became independent in 1957); Indonesia has followed the way of the West since its anti-communist genocide and Suharto's coup in 1965. These aren't countries we pay much attention to because they tend to tick along without offending us, even if the world's most apocalyptic environmental disaster is currently happening in Indonesia.
|A Nasa photo showing the extent of the kabut asap (smog/haze) over Borneo, Sumatra, and the Malay Peninsula this year.|
Alpers, E. A. 2014. The Indian Ocean in world history. Oxford: OUP.
Tomber, R. 2008. Indo-Roman trade. Bristol Classical press.