Thinking through Srivijaya: Polycentric networks in traditional Southeast Asia
Date of this Version
The story of Srivijaya begins with a geopolitical preface. Just as all roads once led to Rome, so too maritime trade in Asia converged on the narrow sea route that became known as the Strait of Malacca. Unlike ancient Rome, however, the Malacca Strait has retained its geographical salience at different times in history. One such era was well conveyed by the sixteenth century Portuguese adventurer, Tomé Pires, who wrote shortly after his country’s acquisition of the port city of Malacca: “Whoever is lord of Malacca has his hands on the throat of Venice” (Courtesao 1944). Five centuries later, similar sentiments transpire; only the actors and their cargoes have changed. The lucrative spice trade that enabled the maritime republic of Venice to acquire wealth and power has been replaced by access to energy upon which modern economies depend, not least of which the world’s premier trading nation – the People’s Republic of China (PRC, China). With 80 percent of its imported oil passing through the Strait of Malacca, a chokepoint over which the PRC has no control, it is understandable that President Hu Jintao spoke in 2003 of the “Malacca dilemma” (US DoD 2005). In view of China’s vulnerability to having this maritime lifeline severed, Hu Jintao’s successor, Xi Jinping, has refocused on the “maritime silk road” and the importance of regional “connectivity” 1 (Wu and Zhao 2013; APEC 2014). This not only serves to promote regional prosperity but in light of the “Malacca dilemma” offers a strategic expedient in the vicinity of such a vital sea line of communication.
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