Universality and specificity

Universality and specificity
30 September 2021

One of the aims with this blog is to encourage conversations about South East Asian diplomacy. Another aim of this blog, however, is to place such a thought exchange in relation to the general field of the history of diplomacyindeed, the global history of diplomacy. Such a global approach can trace cases of entangled developments, that for example a practice did develop through and as an effect of interregional contacts. The global context can also be used for a structured comparison, and thereby unravel differences and similarities of different regions. To do so does not only take us further into the world-wide history of diplomacy, but it can also let us consider the different ways in which diplomacy isand has beenunderstood. In short, to place our comparative conversations on South East Asia in a global context allows us to consider to what degree certain developments, practices and norms can be considered typical or perhaps even universal. Conversely, a birds-eye view can also reveal occasions of unique practices to a particular time period, region or group of actors. In this conversation, Hans Hägerdal and Peter Borschberg take a broad approach and consider which diplomatic practices and norms are likely to be found across distance and how to interpret that fact.

Hans Hägerdal initiates this conversation by using the example of early modern Maluku to show the universality of elliptic power relations—in particularly practices of ‘Western’ expansion recognisable also from Africa and South America, in which organisations and empires gradually extended their power through means of diplomacy. At the same time, he underlines how the political and geographical particularities of this maritime region not only made them vulnerable to such expansion, but that small island polities and remote village clusters could combine formal contracts with state avoidance for centuries.

Some of the characteristics of European-local treaty-making, as found also in early modern Maluku, are universal as they highlight the problem of elliptic power relations that lay at the bottom of colonialism and overseas expansion. Well-organized seaborne organizations presented minor island polities with diplomatic offers that they could not refuse, though the documents were couched in a language of mutual respect and benefits. Successive treaties increasingly drew the polities in a web of obligations, eventually implying a process of vassalization. At length, this ruined local shipping, commerce and industry, with consequences to this day.

In many ways the development of Maluku was a blueprint of what happened in the following centuries in the Americas, Africa, and parts of Asia where treaty-making had similar consequences. The forms that European diplomacy took in Malukan contexts was therefore symptomatic of Western expansion. Even so, one cannot deny that there was also a Malukan agency that gives negotiations and treaties a peculiar profile.

The relatively fragmented and unstable power configurations among the islands probably made the European connection the logical alternative in many cases. The tale of Hitu, the Hikayat Tanah Hitu, from the mid-seventeenth century portrays the Dutch contact with the island polity of Ambon as initially based on partnership rather than coercion, even though the course of events later deteriorated into fighting and ruthless subordination. In a way, the island world of eastern Indonesia constituted a maritime ‘Zoomia’ where geographical inaccessibility created possibilities for small polities and village clusters to combine formal contracts with state avoidance. Colonialism in these waters was a long and uneven process where far-reaching control was only achieved in the decades around 1900.

Peter Borschberg continues this conversation by initially noting how many diplomatic practices are indeed common across regional and temporal fault lines. Nevertheless, he suggests that the tributary relations of South East Asia were, if not unique, then different enough to make them difficult for outsiders to comprehend. As he points out, tributary protocols were not just political, but also created commercial and military synergies. The particularities of the alliances and tributary relations of South East Asia thus also show the broad spectrum of meanings and effects of early modern diplomacy.

Finding shared practices that might be deemed ‘universal’ is far more difficult than finding aspects that are different. Maritime Southeast Asia has a long tradition of appropriating from other cultures (Asian and European) as well as in ‘localizing’ foreign practices (adopting the form but not necessarily the spirit or the objective). If I were to single out a practice that historically stood out and was difficult for outsiders to grasp, then it would be the dynamics of tributary relations. What do they represent? Early European sources referenced these as ‘vassalage’ and call these tributaries ‘vassals’. Such an association of tributary relationship with vassalage is incorrect if the understood from a European vantage point of a feudal-legal relationship.

Tributary relationships in Southeast Asia were often voluntary and entered into because a given ruler could receive something in return (access to market goods, protection from enemies), or alternatively would help him (or her) rise up in the hierarchy of rulers. The Europeans were never quite sure what to make of these tributary relations—the Malay sultans with the king of Siam, for example—and when they made enquiries for clarification, they appear to have received a different answer each time. The different parties, moreover, had different takes on what these tributary relations represented. Staying with the Malay sultans and the king of Siam, the Malay rulers informed the Dutch, for example, that the offering of the bunga mas dan perak (literally meaning gold and silver flowers, this was a tree-shaped artefact) was a sign of honouring the king of Siam’s greatness, or that it was an appropriate gift for a young prince to play with. The Siamese, by contrast, demanded the offering as a way of securing loyalty and submission of these Malay rulers. Unsurprisingly the Dutch at the time had difficulties in decoding and making sense of these seemingly contradictory explanations.

A ruler’s survival depended on his ability not only to manage neighbours, but also to collect followers, secure loyalties, and form synergies with different groups both inside as well as outside the polity. A good example to this end is the way in which Malay rulers, starting with the Melaka Sultanate (and arguably before), entered into strategic partnerships with the Orang Laut (sea nomads) and retained their loyalty until the assassination of the last member of the direct Melaka royal line, Mahmud II of Johor, in 1699. As Leonard Andaya and others have emphasized, the Orang Laut played a crucial role in harvesting the fruits of the sea for first the Melakan and later for the Johor rulers. They also acted as the de-facto navy of these two polities by serving as rowers and fighters aboard the war galleys. Other synergies had been formed with nomadic tribes on land who helped collect the fruits of the jungle such as tree resins, bird’s nests, or beeswax for export and barter. Examining these synergies helps us to appreciate not just the dynamics of politics and commerce, but also how the rulers were engaged in consensus-building and carving out a societal space for these allied groups. That, too, is diplomacy.