The Pulse

South Asia: Tethered to the Middle East; Southeast Asia: Tethered to China

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The Pulse

South Asia: Tethered to the Middle East; Southeast Asia: Tethered to China

Historically and culturally, the Middle East and Southeast Asia have been tethered to India and China respectively.

South Asia: Tethered to the Middle East; Southeast Asia: Tethered to China
Credit: Amnartk /

In a previous article, I make the case for why India is better off on its western neighbors rather than its eastern ones. However, the reasons why are not just a result of modern political calculations. The factors that make a westward focus for India reasonable are not just circumstances that derive from modern geopolitical or economic decisions made by actors in the past half-century. South Asia as a whole (especially, and obviously, Pakistan and Afghanistan) is oriented to its west rather than its east due to reasons deeply rooted in history, geography, and culture, no matter how trade patterns or security dynamics have evolved in recent years. Therefore, conditions will generally be more favorable for South Asian states to orient themselves toward West Asia rather than Southeast and East Asia.

As Robert Kaplan has pointed out, India is “both a subcontinent and a vital extremity of the Greater Middle East.” Almost all Indian empires (the one exception was the maritime Southeast Asian empire of the Cholas, based in Tamil Nadu) have expanded toward Central Asia and the Middle East and vice versa. India and Pakistan remain player in the geopolitics of those regions. Almost all overland invasions of the subcontinent have come from the west, instead of the east (one exception, again being the Ahoms, who founded the Assamese state). East Asia is essentially cut off from India by forests and swamps. Once you cross over the Hindu Kush mountains in Afghanistan, however, South Asia is open plains all the way to Bengal.

Even in antiquity, the main trading partners of the Indus Valley Civilization were in the Middle East and later Indian states mostly oriented themselves toward ports on the west coast of the subcontinent, with the most important ports being located in today’s Gujarat and Kerala. Empires fought to control these ports, which delivered luxury goods such as glass, wine, frankincense, and good horses from the Roman Empire, Persia, or Arabia. Through India’s ancient and medieval history, Persian influence was the largest foreign influence; little influence from Southeast Asia or China even seeped through.

When the Mauryan emperor Ashoka composed his edicts in the third century BCE, he mentions trade and relations with several rulers in the Middle East and the Mediterranean, but none to his east. Food, music, and other aspects of South Asian and Middle Eastern cultures continue to demonstrate close ties. Even in ancient times, the Hindu religion was more closely related to the religions of the Near East and Mediterranean than to the more animistic native religions of East and Southeast Asia.

On the other hand, other than the Buddhist religion, the influence of Indian culture in modern Southeast Asia is relatively small; the region moved from being a part of the “Indosphere” to the “Sinosphere,” culturally and geopolitically over a thousand years ago, when the Song Dynasty of China–oriented toward the south unlike previous Chinese dynasties–was at its height. N.J. Ryan notes that from this time onward, “It was to the Chinese emperors that embassies and gifts were sent… China was the overlord rather than India.” The influence from China was at first cultural, albeit built on a mixed native-Indian base, but then became political, and remains so to this day. While Bollywood is popular and influential throughout the Middle East, especially in the Gulf, and Central Asia, Indian cultural influence is mostly absent from modern Southeast Asia.

Indian influence entered Southeast Asia when merchants and then missionaries entered the region, mostly to acquire spices and goods to sell further west. This ultimately led to the spread of Hinduism and Buddhism, writing, and formation of the Indianized kingdoms of the region, but large scale political and military interaction between Southeast Asia and South Asia was minimal. Chinese civilization originated in the northern Yellow River valley, but by the Tang Dynasty, its center of gravity and demographics had shifted southward, much closer to Southeast Asia, in the Yangtze River valley. Vietnam itself began as a breakaway province of the Tang Dynasty and was based on Chinese governing principles.

From this point on, several migrations led to Chinese immigration and assimilation into Southeast Asian populations, which were in turn influenced by Chinese culture. Almost 40 percent of Thais are partially descended from Chinese, for example. By the time of the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), and in the subsequent Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, Chinese traders became a larger presence than the Indians in Southeast Asia. The Chinese state began to interact politically with the region in a way that Indian states did not previously: they integrated it into the Chinese tributary system, many of those states sought Chinese protection of their sovereignty and ceremonially invested its rulers with power.

The Malay states sought Chinese protection against Thai expansion southward, while, after the Burmese invasion of Thailand in 1767, the new Thai rulers sent a letter to the Qing Emperor in Chinese seeking formal investiture and a request from the Chinese court to tell the Burmese to desist. Meanwhile, while Southeast Asia was moving in this direction, India’s Muslim and Hindu rulers were both increasingly influenced by and integrated with the Middle East and Central Asia in the realms of governance, literature, cuisine, clothing, architecture, and international relations, reinforced by the political dominance of Muslim dynasties on the subcontinent. With the exception of Burma and Arakan (in today’s Myanmar), and a couple of embassies exchanged with Tibet and China, all regular South Asian diplomatic interaction with states to the west, as is evident through any look at Mughal diplomacy. Even during the British Raj, when India was linked to Burma and Malaya, the strategic and cultural orientation was westward to Afghanistan, Persia, Aden, and the Gulf emirates.

These patterns over the last millennium were not different than any in the past: South Asia, the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean have always been part of coherent, integrated world systems sharply distinguished and divided from eastern Asia by distance, mountains, jungles, and different cultural roots. The exception, historically speaking, seems to be the approximately six or seven centuries long period in the early first millennium when Southeast Asia adapted Indian cultural norms brought over by Indian merchants; before this and after this, most trade and migration patterns were linked to China.

Today, the cultural influence of India in Southeast Asia continues in the form of religion, but so does the mutual separation between their cultural spheres. There may be more trade and infrastructure between the two regions in the future, but it won’t change the fact that overall South Asia generally goes together better with the Middle East and Southeast Asia better with China, and that these linkages are stronger than the cultural and strategic linkages South and Southeast Asia may have with each other.