Diplomatic influences from abroad

Diplomatic influences from abroad
01 November 2021

While it is crucial to trace and examine the different local and native traditions and practices that went into early modern diplomacy in South east Asia, we must also not neglect to show to what degree other practices stemmed from interaction with the surrounding regions, and from influences from abroad. Foreign influence could manifest in forced impact by intrusive empires, but also in the conscious adoption and adaptation of practices of local leaders. In some of these cases, it was European practices that influenced Southeast Asian polities, However, it might be particularly illuminating to consider other spheres exerting their influence. Indeed, one of the things that makes maritime Southeast Asia such an exciting area to focus on, is its position as an open space, which over centuries was not only exposed to European colonialism and connected to Europe through various trade ventures, but also a region subject to Indianization and Sinicization alike, not to mention the various cultural, political, and economic influences from the Arab world. To explain diplomatic practices in maritime Southeast Asia demonstrates the necessity to combine the development of local traditions with influences from abroad, and to keep in mind the multitude both of local and the foreign actors and norms. In this conversation, Ariel Lopez, Benjamin Khoo, and Hans Hägerdal discuss the various influences on Southeast Asian diplomatic practices from abroad, namely what signs there are of regional cultural influences from for example the China, India, Islam, or Malay world.

As Ariel Lopez shows, while the Malay influence was strong in polities in the southern Philippines during the early modern period, it was not the only foreign influence to affect the diplomatic practices. While the Malay language acted as a lingua franca, and the use of regnal symbols of authority can be traced to Islamic influence, other local practices might have drawn their inspiration from China, before developing its own distinct forms.

In the early modern period, the Islamized polities in the southern Philippines, namely Sulu and Maguindanao, shared common diplomatic and cultural practices with the various Malay–Indonesian coastal polities. This includes notably the adoption of bahasa melayu, that is, the Standard Malay language that became a lingua franca for the region, in formal correspondences with both the Europeans and neighboring indigenous polities. In recent years, these letters written in jawi (i.e. Arabic-based) script have increasingly become the subject of long-overdue scholarly interest. The influence of Islam in particular can be gleaned in the Sulu and Maguindanao sultans’ use of distinctive ornate regnal seals and the adoption of Islamic regnal titles. Both of these practices were part of the conscious effort among the rulers to style themselves as not only as being of an equivalent status to powerful rulers in the archipelago—indigenous or otherwise—but also as the primus inter pares in their own respective realms.

This did not mean however that either Sulu or Maguindanao diplomatic practices drew exclusively from a ‘Malay’ cultural model. Indigenous rulers, especially those of Sulu, were certainly familiar with the conduct of tribute to China, the ‘celestial empire’: the Sulu missions to the Ming court in the early 1400s are widely known. These practices might have then become adopted and part of the potential instruments of power used locally, and much later. For example, when Maguindanao rulers attempted to lure the Talaud islanders, one of the ethnic groups on the islands, to become tributaries in the late 1800s, the latter were gifted prestige goods such as parasols and flags. That poses the question whether the symbolic exchange value of such paraphernalia as flags and parasols pre-date the Islamization of the region.

Turning our focus eastwards, to today’s Southern Thailand, Benjamin Khoo uses the example of the autonomous polity of Singora to demonstrate not only the influence and adoption of Siamese and Malay diplomatic practices alike, for example in terms of gift-giving or the use of ceremonies of allegiance, but also how such practices from a foreign sphere could then be used also in contact with representatives of European trading companies.

Singora (today’s Songkhla) was one of many autonomous polities situated on the isthmus of Kra that gained prominence in the 17th century. Located between Siam and the Malay Peninsula, the Sultanate of Singora adapted its own foreign practices to both Siamese and Malay diplomatic norms as it attempted to carve out a space of its own in the early modern world. Thereby, many of Singora’s diplomatic strategies closely resemble other peninsular polities of the Malay world, such as the offering of the bunga mas (golden flower) alongside other presents to the Siamese court in Ayutthaya and attempting to build up its legitimacy and nama (name or reputation) by using its relationship with other powers and polities as a leverage. The use of some of these inter-polity practices was extended also to the European trading companies which operated in the region.

In terms of diplomatic correspondence, the content and style of Singora’s diplomatic letters also closely conforms to the typology of other Malay letters of this period. Similarly, encounters between Europeans acting on behalf on trade companies and the court of Singora bear a close resemblance to encounters with foreign polities at other Malay courts. The ties of Singora with the Malay world were very strong; in 1719, long after the Sultanate had been destroyed by the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, the locals of Singora even sent an embassy to the Malay Kingdom of Palembang, seeking to place themselves under that Sultan’s rule. However, Singora was also drawn closely into the orbit of the Siamese sphere of influence: for example, Singora gained much in terms of material assistance and trade from Siam. In terms of diplomatic practices, the Sultans of Singora also used Siamese titles, partook in the ‘water of allegiance’ ceremony at the Siamese court and gained investiture from the Siamese kings.

Finally, Hans Hägerdal brings us to the islands of Maluku, where he brings our attention both to the distinct geography and culture of the region, which included both organised state and autonomous village complexes alike. Neither the arrival and ambitions of the Europeans, nor the dissemination and use of Islam were all-encompassing processes. As he shows, while European and Malay foreign influence existed in parallel and in competition in some regions of Maluku, other parts retained their use of local political traditions and norms.

To analyse diplomacy in the context of early modern Maluku requires us to regard several levels of negotiations, alliance and treaty-making in parallel. The entities that engaged in conceiving long-term agreements with other players in this wide insular region ranged from resourceful segmentary states such as Ternate and Tidore to village complexes on basically stateless islands.

These actors existed in a space where Austronesian and Papuan languages and cultures had met and mixed since several thousand years. While access to Maluku was limited by the monsoon pattern and the distance from the main commercial centres of maritime Southeast Asia, the occurrence of unique spices and forest products made for early contacts with other Asian civilizations, contacts which at length and to a great degree influenced diplomatic relations.

The dissemination of Islam in some circles of northern and central Maluku in the second half of the fifteenth century led to the transformation of several polities into Malay-influenced Muslim sultanates and micro-states, a process that was still ongoing when European seafaring groups appeared in the region: the Portuguese arrived in 1512 and the Spanish in 1521.

Although the sultanates were subordinated to these foreign powers during long periods, Islam provided an increasingly vital instrument—especially after 1570—to withstand European influence and to create wide-reaching realms that stretched from Sulawesi to southern Philippines to New Guinea. This happened through a mixture of military force and diplomacy—extant historical traditions speak of wife-giving practices as well as solemn alliances, apart from conventional conquests. Nevertheless, wide areas of Maluku, especially in the south—including Wetar, Kisar, Leti, Kei, Aru, and Tanimbar—remained outside this process of adaptation of new political and diplomatic practices, and instead followed local traditions maintaining alliances between settlement units.