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The re-emergence of a prosperous and integrated Asia

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In Brief

Much has been written on the economic rise of China and India and the deepening of integration between these two Asian giants and the rest of Asia more generally. Asia’s emergence and integration is, no doubt, of contemporary interest. However, Asian integration is not without historical precedent and it would be more appropriate to refer to Asia’s 're-emergence' and 're-integration'.

During the first eighteen centuries after the birth of Christ, Asia (mainly China and India) accounted for the largest share of world output.

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A lesser known fact is that during this period, Asia was also regionally integrated and globally connected.

The first millennium of the Christian era was a period of rapid growth for India and China. Trade and commercial ties between these two countries also increased rapidly. The opening of the straits of Malacca in the fifth century, together with the emergence of the Chola Empire in South India and the Song Dynasty in China as large, unified, and prosperous regional powers in the tenth and the eleventh centuries, provided an additional fillip to regional economic trade and commerce. Together with land and sea borne commerce, traders, missionaries, priests, adventurers, and fortune seekers moved from South Asia to Southeast Asia. The Sanskrit language, Hinduism, and Buddhism were like old wine lacing East Asia’s culture.

Ronald Findlay and Kevin O’Rourke note that around 1000 CE, various sub-regions of Asia had extensive trade and cultural links with each other and with the Islamic world (now, the Middle East). They had little contact, however, with Eastern and Western Europe.

The late Andre Gunder Frank noted that from 1400-1800 CE, India’s trade with Southeast Asia was conducted using the sea route from the ports on the Malabar and Coromandel coasts and in Bengal. While ports in the Coromandel coast were used to trade with Burma, Thailand and Malacca onwards to Indonesia, those in Malabar coast and Bengal were used to trade with Malacca and Indonesia.

While India and the Central Asian countries were linked by the Silk Road, Frank mentions that there were no direct trade links between India and China. India exchanged cotton textiles for silk and porcelain, and other ceramics with China using the same trade routes that it used for its trade with Southeast through ports in the Malabar and Coromandel coasts, and Bengal. From ports in Coromandel and Malabar coasts, goods were transported by ships to Burma and Thailand and then they were taken overland to China. From Bengal, goods were taken to Malacca and then on to China by ships.

India also traded with China through Nepal. Bengal and Assam exported textiles, indigo, spices, sugar, hides, and other goods to Tibet for sale to merchants there, who sold them in other provinces of China. Payment was in Chinese products, tea, and often gold.

At that time, Malacca was peopled almost entirely by expatriate merchants. There were around 30,000 Chinese merchants in Manila to support transpacific-China trade.

Some economic historians, including Coedes, have come up with the concept of ‘Farther India’ or ‘Greater India’ to describe India’s influence in Southeast Asia in those days. ‘Farther India’ comprised Indonesia, insular Southeast Asia (except the Philippines) and the Indochinese and Malay Peninsula.

Soon after the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th century, the world’s center of gravity shifted away from Asia to Europe and eventually to America in the 20th century. During the 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries, the colonial masters divided up Asia into spheres of influence, took control of trade and customs, and restricted access to inland waterways. They fragmented Asia and damaged intra-Asian trading systems. Also soon after independence in the late 1940s, for over four decades, South Asia adopted an inward-looking Soviet type development strategy and continued its isolation from the rest of Asia and the world. The world’s focus was, therefore, on East Asia and the miracle economies in the region.

Since the 1990s, we have witnessed the ‘re-emergence’ of Asia led mainly by the economic dynamism of China and India. Asia’s integration within itself is also intensifying, driven by market-oriented production networks in East Asia and economic reforms including the implementation of ‘Look East’ policies in South Asia. Asia is starting to be ‘re-centered’ as trade between South Asia and East Asia surges. China recently became the largest trading partner of India. Increased linkage between South Asia and East Asia has led to economic prosperity all over the Asian region.

After a break of two centuries, Asia is once again trying to return to its glorious past. The pace of its ‘re-emergence’ and ‘re-integration’ will depend on many different factors including how well individual nations manage relations with each other. But there is now a confidence that Asia is headed on the right direction.

Pradumna Rana is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies in NUS, Singapore.

This essay is based on the author’s longer paper on ‘The Integration and Re-centering of Asia: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives’

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