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Southeast Asia: Identity in Search of a Name

What does “Southeast Asia” mean beyond a random chunk of geography?

May 4, 2019

In his recently published “Empire of the Winds: The Global Role of Asia’s Great Archipelago” Philip Bowring takes a longue durée look at the history of the region commonly known as “Maritime Southeast Asia.”

In the process, he points out important but barely known facts of this history and addresses the widespread misconceptions of those schooled in Euro- and Sino-centric narratives about Vasco da Gama and Zheng He.

This is the context needed to assess today’s issues of the South China and adjoining seas.

In this series of five articles for The Globalist, he points out some key themes and their relevance to issues today.

There is much written about “Southeast Asia,” with dozens of departments in universities and think tanks devoted to its study. But who stops to think about what it means beyond a random chunk of geography?

Few who study it may be aware that it only became common use in English in the 1940s thanks to the British military command facing the Japanese who had overrun it. They, in turn, seem to have borrowed it from the Japanese equivalent tonan ajiya which dates to the late 19th century.

Until then, the West had referred to this area in terms of its constituent political parts – the Dutch East Indies, Malay States, French Indochina, Philippine islands, etc – or to geographical components, notably the Malay Archipelago, which might or might not include the Philippine islands.

In writing this book, I have chosen to discard modern political boundaries and strictly geographical definitions to focus on what should technically be referred to as Austronesian Asia.

The whole of the archipelago (the Indonesian and Philippine portions as one) and the peninsula is the domain of Austronesian-speaking people. The region formerly also included pre-invasion Taiwan and the Malay-speaking, Hindu states of Champa in central and southern Vietnam.


For lack of any other single word, I have chosen to call this region Nusantaria, an expansion of Nusantara. This Sanskrit for “outer islands” and in this context dates to the 14th century, describing the island realm of the Java-based Majapahit empire.

In modern Malay it simply means “archipelago” and is normally if wrongly understood not to include the Philippines. Today, it is the home of some 400 million people.

Despite innumerable local variations, all the languages of the archipelago, of which the best known are Malay, Tagalog and Javanese, share a common root — all are atonal. None are to be found on the mainland, except the peninsula, where only tonal language groups prevail – Austro-Asiatic, Sinitic etc.

Despite centuries of influence from various religions from India and the Middle East and the impact of rival empires Nusantaria retains some common cultural characteristics and once had many more.

No coincidence

This is not just a coincidence. Take an additional step back in history and the explanation lies in the changes wrought by the melt after the last Ice Age.

Just 15,000 years ago, Java, Sumatra and Borneo were all joined to the mainland. Their northward flowing rivers had basins in what is now the south western part of the South China Sea. Hainan, Taiwan and Palawan were not islands. There was no Melaka or Sunda strait.

The rise of the sea, reaching approximately its current level 7,000 year ago, and the mountainous terrain of many of the islands, induced the development of boats and navigation skills and hence to the spread of language and cultural norms to widely dispersed areas.

For example, people from Borneo settled coastal Vietnam — 1,000 km away.

The islands were mostly mountainous and largely lacked the large rice growing plains and large settled populations of the mainland. Climate was also a challenge in regions with perennial heavy rain.

Sailing ability was key to survival for dispersed communities which were barely self-sufficient. Sailing and trading were integral to life, and previously the afterlife. Even today these people remain the world’s leading seafarers, albeit in subordinate roles.

No common identity

Lack of recognition of common identity is their problem today. Even English-language usages sometimes conspire against them.

Take the so-called South China Sea, the largest component of a maritime region which also includes the Java, Sulu, and Banda and various key straits – Luzon, Melaka, Sunda, Karimata, Lombok and Makassar.

It is naturally widely assumed that the sea is closest to or somehow part of China. Beijing’s supporters sometimes make this point even though Chinese refers to it as the South Sea.

Vietnam calls it the East Sea and the Philippines recently started referring to the West Philippine Sea, and Indonesia to the North Natuna Sea.

Arabs once called it the Clove Sea, and Portuguese the Cham sea, others the Luzon sea. Early western maps made it part of the Indian Seas, later ones the China Sea and then South China Sea. Even including Taiwan, China accounts for, at most, 30% of its coast.


The construction of ASEAN, though beneficial in many respects, now frustrates the common interests of the peoples of these maritime states, which are often separate them from the mainland members – Vietnam, with its seagoing past and present spirit excluded.

These interests include freedom of the seas for trade (local and foreign), protection of their archipelagic status and now protection of Chinese claims of “historic” sea hegemony.

What they currently lack is a common forum for their interests and international as well as local recognition of their common identity.


What does “Southeast Asia” mean beyond a random chunk of geography?

Southeast Asia only became common use in English in the 1940s -- thanks to the British military command facing the Japanese who had overrun it.

Sailing ability was key to survival for dispersed communities in Southeast Asia which were barely self-sufficient. Sailing and trading were integral to life.

It is widely assumed that the South China Sea is somehow part of China. Even including Taiwan, China accounts for at most 30% of its coast.