In contrast to implying empires exercised anything like total power in situ., one of the challenges of reimagining colonial histories in a global context is to balance the fact of imperial power in the face of local history, "native" practice, and indigenous forms of authority and culture. I also belief students of world history need a more nuanced understanding of how imperial mentalities, policies, and regimes have contributed to discourses of globalization. How and why this was so, as well as when it was not.
Southeast Asia is conventionally defined as consisting of eleven countries: the ten members of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar/Burma, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam), and Timor Lesté. The value of "Southeast Asia" as an organising device is clear enough: it provides a way of referring collectively to this set of countries lying south of China, east of India, north of Australia and west of the South Pacific islands. But why do these countries need to be named collectively? Do they have anything in common other than geographical contiguity?
Not mentioned in “The Emergence Of Modern Southeast Asia” (December 2004) for example, is that before the Pacific War “Southeast Asia” was economically interdependent with East and South Asia. Business activities involving Western, Chinese and Indian entrepreneurs straddled the different parts of Asia, tying them together into a larger more or less integrated currency area.
In fact the term “Southeast Asia” itself did not exist before the 20th century and was first established as a regional concept in pre- Japan. First the region was known to the Japanese as nanyô, or "South Seas". The origin of this term is not clear, although the word nanyo itself is simply the Japanese reading of the Chinese nanyang. In China the use of nanyang was relatively recent in comparison with such ancient terms as hainan zhuguo (literally, "countries south of the sea") and nanman (literally, "southern barbarians"), and is believed to date around the middle of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Application of the term to present-day Southeast Asia was a great deal more recent than that. Sources from the Qng dynasty (1644-1912) 12 contain some instances of beiyang (northern seas) for the area of the Pacific north of the mouth of the Yangtze and nanyang for the Pacific to the south of that boundary, but the latter term did not necessarily designate present-day Southeast Asia. From the Ming dynasty onward, the Chinese divided the sea route to southern Asia into two: the route east of Borneo, usually called dongyang (eastern seas), and that west of Borneo, usually called xzyang (western seas). Thus the Philippines belonged to the "eastern seas", whereas the "western seas" included the Indochinese Peninsula, Java and the other islands of the Indonesian archipelago, the Malay Peninsula, and the area stretching from India to Arabia and Africa.': One example of this usage is the description of Cheng Ho's voyage as xia xiyang (going to the western seas) in Ming histories.
Li Zhangzhuan stated in his 1938 Nanyangshi zheyao [Outline of the History of the South Seas], that "in the last twenty years the name `South Seas' has come into general use",'4 which suggests that this term may have been re-imported to China from Japan. The reason "South Seas" became popular in Japan shortly after World War I is of course that that was the period when Japan first became fully engaged with the South Seas and the regional concept of Southeast Asia was formed. It is also of interest that the same book refers to the Indochinese Peninsula, the Malay Peninsula, and the East Indies as the "rear South Seas" and to Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific islands as the "outer South Seas", using the Japanese coinages ura nanyô and soto nanyô, respectively, 1, a fact that strengthens the supposition that the South Seas as a regional concept in modern China was re-imported from Japan.
Then when in France George Ccedès, Histoire ancienne des états hindouisés d'Extrême-Orient, was published in 1944 it was translated into English as The Indianized States of Southeast Asia, with "Southeast Asia" replacing the "Far East" of the original. But such attempts at regional conceptualisations were exceptional, and before the Pacific War knowledge of Southeast Asia accumulated almost entirely within the framework of colonial geography. For example when in 1946, a department of Southeast Asian Studies was established at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, the Philippines where not included.
But even today, insurgent groups along the border between "Southeast Asia" and "South Asia" include Arakanese, Jumma, Chin, Meithei, Naga and several other groups fighting for regional autonomy or independence from India, Burma/ Myanmar and Bangladesh. And if the recent rapprochement between ASEAN and China is interrupted, and the and the Southeast Asian countries seek US, Japanese or Indian support to counter-balance China, then the sea again could become a contested zone based on rival Chinese and Southeast Asian conceptualisations.
Like Alain Forest convincingly argued (in "L'Asie du Sud-Est continentale vue de la mer", in Commerce et navigation en Asie du Sud-Est XIVe-XIXe siècle, ed. Nguyên Thê Anh and Yoshiaki Ishizawa, 1999, p7-30), much of continental Southeast Asia historically depended on coastal, land and river based trade, not on sailing routes across the South China Sea, and the two main shipping routes went from north to south.
The main function of the major east-west shipping route was not to link the Southeast Asian economies together, but to connect Europe, the Middle East, Africa and the Southeast Asian countries with the economies of Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Guangdong, and the region around Shanghai. For historical reasons, and because the Southeast Asian countries are now increasingly linking up economically with China and Taiwan, ASEAN is unlikely to conceptualise the South China Sea as a Southeast Asian sea in a way that excludes China.