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.