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The Sea Beyond all Borders: The Link between Southeast Asian Countries

La mer au-delà des frontières : le lien entre les pays d’Asie du Sud-Est
Nguyễn Quốc-Thanh
p. 5-12
Cet article est une traduction de :
La mer au-delà des frontières : le lien entre les pays d’Asie du Sud-Est

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  • 1 These words were pronounced by Jean Chaussade during the international geography festival “Oceans a (...)

1To speak about sea, whether it be in Asia or elsewhere, necessarily means to speak about a multidisciplinary subject, for it is an extremely rich and complex topic. Archeology, anthropology, geography, history, etc., all subjects combine to reveal, each through a specific angle, this element which has always been part of the history of mankind. Because of the peculiar geography of South-East Asia, sea represents a link between the various countries of that region, except for Laos, the only inland country. For each one of these countries, it represents an important component of their history. The sea once was a “space of adventure and experiment1”. The sea, being a the same time a traffic route, a place of exchanges or one of confrontation, is to all peoples of that region an accelerating factor of economy, which can have great political and cultural consequences. This “conscience of the existence of the sea and of the possibilities of development which it offers” is qualified by Pierre Flattres as a “sense of the sea” (Flattres 1996). We shall aim, in this issue, at dealing with this notion, and the consequences produced by this feeling. This “sense of the sea” has led South-East Asian countries to exchange, both on economic and cultural levels. It is again that “sense of the sea” that we are witnessing, when Asia displays today its maritime advantages.

  • 2 Source : UNCTAD/PRESS/PR/2014/060 (Geneva, November 20th 2014).

2We have seen, at the beginning of the 21st century, the tipping over of South-East Asia continental grounds towards the sea, and the development of its coastal cities, stimulated by the increase of exchange flows. Harbors have developed into strategic points, providing urban centres with more and more imports. 99% of the exchange of goods are now taking the sea routes, where commerce has risen by 3,8% in 2013. Harbors have thus become real traffic platforms for commerce.2 Asian harbors are now well positioned in world ranking as to their traffic and the performances of their terminals. A new economic space, redistributing cultural influences, is developing in the new South-East Asia. One might imagine that this change, which has created a new geostrategy in Asia, is a new phenomenon, born from globalization. But history teaches us that this part of the world once was a busy exchange hub. Denis Lombard and Jean Aubin have traced these Asian networks from the 18th to the 20th century (Lombard & Aubin 1988), but we can reasonably think that they already existed in ancient times.

3“Maritime Asia is one of the matrixes of world history” as François Gipouloux states it in La Méditerranée asiatique: les réseaux marchands de l’espace maritime est-asiatique, in which he shows the role played by Asian harbors in international trade (Gipouloux 2009). Quoting geographer Jean Gottman, Gipouloux expounds the concept of hinge space or region which East China Sea represents (ibid.: 22). Both maritime areas, North and South of China Sea, have a very dense flow network, and interact both with inside Asia, i.e. the hinterland of each South-East Asia country, and the outside world. The south of China Sea has been the centre of economic transactions:

For most of the eighteenth to mid-nineteenth centuries this area was a single trading zone woven together by the regular itineraries of thousands of large and small junk traders, mostly Chinese but also Malay, Cham, and Vietnamese. These overlapping itineraries in turn formed a regional component of wider trade networks that linked southern China to mainland and insular Southeast Asia. (Cooke & Li 2004: 11)

4Thus, the sea seems to be the link between the different countries of the region. It forms a network that allows economic and cultural exchanges. Far from separating South-East Asia nations, it brings them together, creating a common base linking one to another.

The Role of Sea in Commercial Exchanges

5This role has been largely explored during the 1991 international seminar entitled “Ancient Trade and Cultural Contacts in Southeast Asia” (Chutiwongs, Prabha Ray, Glover et al. 1996), during which the question of maritime routes leading to or originating in China Sea have been discussed at large. Ian C. Glover, partly basing himself on studies by George Cœdès, has showed how exchanges took place between India and South-East Asia via the Bay of Bengal at the beginning of the Christian era (ibid.: 57). But these were not only inter-Asia exchanges. Trade with European countries already existed too. Goods circulated between South-East Asia countries and the Mediterranean Sea. Roman coins found in Thailand or Vietnam, as well as Indian figurines found in Pompeii illustrate these multilateral exchanges (During 1981). Trade existed between Europe and Asia in ancient times, for as Anthony Reid puts it, “Commerce has always been vital to Southeast Asia […] the lands below the winds naturally responded to every quickening of international maritime trade.” (Reid 1993: 1)

  • 3 We shall cite, among others, Alain Forest’s paper, which traces the voracious appetite of civil ser (...)

6Sea has played a fundamental part in the economic development of South-East Asia nations. Once the questions of climate and maritime routes settled, thanks among others to Arabic texts (Ferrand 1914) and Ptolemy’s geography, travelers could set up trading networks between the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Exchanges through maritime routes, in spite of particular local markets3, and of many dangers, others than those related to navigation (Wonderaer 1995), contributed to the “opening” of that part of the world to Europeans traders. The settling of Dutch, Portuguese and other merchants allowed a greater circulation of riches. According to Pierre-Yves Manguin, goods such as gold, silver, silk, aloeswood, circulated and were exchanged in South China Sea between the 16th an 18th centuries (Manguin 1972).

7Europeans were not the only traders: according to John Whitmore, who studied the appearance of coastal cities, the Chinese had intensive exchanges with the South through maritime routes (Whitmore2006).

8After the golden age of trading posts, sea trade still carried on. Political events in that zone sometimes slowed down trading activities, particularly during the most violent episodes of the Indochina War, then of the Vietnam War, but exchanges never ceased. South China is still nowadays a major link in the circulation of goods. Figures are enlightening: the maritime corridor along the coasts of Vietnam sees 11 million oil barrels4 passing by each day. The role of sea is essential in the exchanges of the countries of this zone, whose growth partly depends on its harbor activities. According to geographer Nathalie Fau, in 2014, 12 out of the 15 largest harbors in terms of tonnage are Asian ones,5 so are the 20 biggest container shipyards in the world.6 These figures reveal the importance of exchanges on these waters. The role of sea in international commerce is by no means diminishing, as the number of container ships steadily increases (Frémont & Soppé 2005).

The Role of Sea in Cultural Exchanges

  • 7 This observation is by Frédéric Lasserre (1996: 277).
  • 8 See the question of the peopling of South-East Asia in Louis Bezacier’s works (1972).
  • 9 See Les contributions de la délégation française au deuxième congrès international sur la civilisat (...)
  • 10 See Antoine Cabaton (1901), Georges Maspero (1990).
  • 11 See Information report n° 723 (2013-2014) from the French Senate, written by Messrs. Jean-Claude Pe (...)

9As it is often the case in countries having a maritime façade, “national identity is based on the sea.”7 Sea also allowed the spread of arts, as Nandana Chutiwongs pointed out when tracing the influence of travelling artists, or that of war prisoner artisans taken from one country to another by sea (Chutiwongs 1996). According to Chutiwongs, the stupa architecture one finds today in Thailand or Myanmar, finds its origins in Northern India, and has much in common with those found in Sri Lanka. Archeology too provides many interesting tracks. Without going as far back as the prehistoric times,8 one finds abundant traces of cultural influences everywhere, and many researchers have examined the question. Pierre Dupont, for example, revealed resemblances between the Đông Dương Buddha and that in Sulawesi (Dupont 1959), whereas Olov Janse pointed out that Dong Son antiquities presented a number of shapes and motives that are found in the Middle East and Central Europe ancient art (Janse 1961). The spread of arts through maritime exchanges has been brought to daylight during the international conference on Malay civilization in 1990. Pierre-Bernard Lafont and Nguyễn Thế Anh have by turns pointed out the importance of local maritime networks and their implications.9 Once again, it is through sea routes that Islam reached continental South-East Asia. Many authors have studied the phenomenon.10 Harbors are thus places where anything can be exchanged, where anything can start to spread. Léon Cadière mentions Vietnamese coastal areas in his study upon sea harbors in 1931, pointing out their possible development. We must admit that his “predictions” have proved accurate, if we look at the growth of maritime traffic (Cadière 1931). Today, the spread of culture via the oceans is still important. A report issued by the French Senate in July 2014 encourages the government to “recapture” South-East Asia by aiming at coastal harbors and cities, and using the cultural lever.11

Nourishing Sea

The sea is a source of food for the protein hungry; it is a source of materials necessary to grow land-based foods, especially as land-derived, finite minerals for fertilizers become increasingly necessary and increasingly scarves; it contains a wealth of untapped resources, such as metals and oils, which are not only needed to maintain the entire life style which man has evolved, but which also may mark the difference between a nation’s political and economic continuance or collapse […]. (Smith 1977: 2)

10These words, by Estellie Smith, sound peculiar half a century after they were written, for we must admit that there has been very little change ever since. We still need sea as much (if not more) and for the same reasons.

  • 12 Source : “Atlas 2015 des enjeux maritimes”, Le Marin, HS, 4 : 112.
  • 13 Ibid.

11Among the first twenty countries involved in sea fishing, five belong to South-East Asia (Indonesia, Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand and Malaya).12 Asia is way ahead with its 30,865,000 fishermen out of 39,411,000 for the whole world,13 and their number is continually increasing. It is the sole area which knows no decrease in spite of successive economic crisis, quite the opposite in fact. This nourishing role has made countries having a sea border rich ones. But these riches have to be controlled and protected. The Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), adopted 30 April 1982 in New York and signed December 10th of the same year in Montego Bay, was precisely created in that spirit. Territorial waters are henceforth protected. But open seas remain res nullius and have to suffer intensive fishing, whose dangers researchers such as Jean Chaussade (1997), Cury and Miserey (2008) have denounced.

The Sea as Peoples’ Unifying Element or Source of Conflicts

  • 14 See Pierre Gras’s essay (2010), Le temps des ports, déclin et renaissance des villes portuaires (19 (...)

12The creation of EEZ did not put an end to the conflicts between South-East Asia nations and countries. Sea resources and the importance of sea routes have made this element a “place of power projection” (Coutau-Bégarie 2007: 67) and a theatre of conflicts. Sea, as a means of communication, has never been as crowded as over the past fifteen years. But although goods are still exchanged, culture on the other hand does not seem to circulate on sea routes any longer. Tourism could be an interesting alternative for the circulation of culture, but it is too early to judge.14 Economically speaking, the main international harbors are but exchange platforms today, hubs as jargon puts it.

13As to the “[…] relation between demographic size (of cities) and traffic volume on world level, the continuous decrease of the correlation coefficient (from 0.62 to 0.36 between 1975 and 2005) confirms the networks’ growing geographical complexity” (Ducruet 2008). The international marine traffic volume by itself allows an agreement in principle between countries sharing an economic partnership. The common maritime policy set by the European Parliament perfectly illustrates this agreement.15 But sea can also become a source of conflicts as soon as territorial sovereignty is contested, as it is presently the case in South China Sea.16 Even if they do not call into question maritime trade, these conflicts might in the end threaten the stability of world economy.

14Sea is therefore a broad, multifaceted topic, which it is not easy to deal with in the small format of a review. What we are aiming at in this thematic study, is merely to bring to light some of its historical, anthropological and archeological aspects.

15Ken Preston’s paper, “The Use of Basketry in The Hulls of Vietnamese Seagoing Boats: The Status as of 2015 and The Question of The Future”, the first in this issue, will give us a few hints through the study of different types and shapes of boats cruising in South China Sea. The evolution of naval architecture tells us about cultural influences in this part of the world. The example of basket boats, typical on Vietnamese coasts, illustrates technical evolutions in China Sea. No research on the subject had been carried out since Jean-Baptiste Pietri (1943), which makes the initiative all the more worthy. Ken Preston establishes a picture of the fleet in 2015, aiming at documenting research on these boats in their present use and over the last decade, establishing a link with past centuries, and imagining the future.

16The maritime network made up of the South China Sea corridor was a busy one right from the beginning of the Christian era, as is demonstrated in Đỗ Trường Giang’s article “Diplomacy, Trade and Networks: Campa in the Asian Commercial Context (7th-10th Centuries)”. Emphasis is given to the importance of the Muslim commercial network, but Chinese influence is not neglected.

17The period spreading from the 15th to the 17th century constitutes the golden age of commerce in South-East Asia. At the crossroads between the Chinese trading network, the Indian network and Middle-East nations, Philippines largely benefited from these exchanges. The accumulation of wealth in harbor cities brought about a large scale development and placed the Philippines at the very core of regional transactions. Based on archaeological finds, Bobby Orillaneda’s paper traces interactions between the Philippines and merchants from India and other places.

18It is through European travelers’ eyes that Charlotte Minh Hà Phạm suggests to revisit maritime activities in South-East Asia. “European Navigation and Charting of the Cochinchinese Coast (16th-19th Centuries)” is about that crucial period in the history of navigation in South China Sea. French, Portuguese, Dutch and English travelers drew precious navigation charts, taking into account the climatic changes related to monsoon.

19Two notes bring this sea focused special issue to a close, also providing numerous data. “‘Lands Below the Winds’ as Part of the Persian Cosmopolis: An Inquiry into Linguistic and Cultural Borrowings from the Persianate Societies in the Malay World”, by Tomáš Petrů, shows us, through linguistics, a particular facet of the cultural diversity in South-East Asia. The Malay world reveals itself through its borrowings to Persian culture. But the intensity of exchanges does not necessarily bring about the end of local cultures, as Nguyễn Quốc-Thanh’s note entitled “Maritime Cults on Phú Quý Island: Maintenance and Preservation of Vietnamese Fishermen’s Traditions” demonstrates.

20We shall not end this introduction without quoting Sir Walter Raleigh’s (1552-1618) famous sentence: “For whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.” South-East Asia countries, except Laos, all share this wealth. The sea has always been a place of exchange, and is today a place of opportunities.

21Traduit du français par Philippe Che.

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Note de fin

1 These words were pronounced by Jean Chaussade during the international geography festival “Oceans and seas: geographers are setting out”, which was held from October 1st to 4th 2009.

2 Source : UNCTAD/PRESS/PR/2014/060 (Geneva, November 20th 2014).

3 We shall cite, among others, Alain Forest’s paper, which traces the voracious appetite of civil servants and masters in Tonkin at the arrival of each merchant vessel, considering trading not as an exchange activity, but as a tribute owed by strangers who came to their port (Forest 1999). Frédéric Mantienne recalls the obligations imposed to foreigners in “Indochinese Societies and European Traders: Different Worlds of Trade? (17th-18th Centuries)” (Mantienne 1996). See also tributary trade and unofficial trade in François Gipouloux’s La Méditerranée asiatique (Gipouloux 2009).

4 Source : Le Marin,

5 Source : Review of maritime transport, CNUCED, 2013.

6 See “Économie, droit et diplomatie : la mer au cœur des enjeux sud-est asiatiques”, Étude quadrimestrielle, 2, cycle 2003-2004, Observatoire Asie du Sud-Est, juillet 2014.

7 This observation is by Frédéric Lasserre (1996: 277).

8 See the question of the peopling of South-East Asia in Louis Bezacier’s works (1972).

9 See Les contributions de la délégation française au deuxième congrès international sur la civilisation malaise organisé par le Ministère de la culture et du tourisme de Malaisie, “Le monde indochinois et la péninsule malaise”, Kuala Lumpur, published with the support of the French Ambassy in Malaya, 1990.

10 See Antoine Cabaton (1901), Georges Maspero (1990).

11 See Information report n° 723 (2013-2014) from the French Senate, written by Messrs. Jean-Claude Peyronnet, Christian Cambon, André Dulait and Jean-Claude Réquier, in the name of the Commission of foreign affairs, defense and armed forces, submitted July 15th 2014.

12 Source : “Atlas 2015 des enjeux maritimes”, Le Marin, HS, 4 : 112.

13 Ibid.

14 See Pierre Gras’s essay (2010), Le temps des ports, déclin et renaissance des villes portuaires (1940-2010).

15 See working document:

16 See Eric Dénécé (2000) , Yann Roche (2013).

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Nguyễn Quốc-Thanh, « The Sea Beyond all Borders: The Link between Southeast Asian Countries », Moussons, 27 | 2016, 5-12.

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Nguyễn Quốc-Thanh, « The Sea Beyond all Borders: The Link between Southeast Asian Countries », Moussons [En ligne], 27 | 2016, mis en ligne le 09 juin 2016, consulté le 26 mars 2017. URL :

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Nguyễn Quốc-Thanh

Nguyễn Quốc-Thanh is Doctor in languages, literatures and societies, and is now an associate member of Aix Marseille Univ, CNRS, IrAsia, Marseille, France. His research is focused on sea communities in South China Sea.

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