The Asian Mediterranean: Port Cities and Trading Networks in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, 13th-21st Century

The Asian Mediterranean

Author(s): Francois Gipouloux (ed)

ISBN: 978-0-85793-426-0

Publisher: Edward Elgar

Year: 2011

Price: $160

Dr Debojyoti Das, Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London

This engaging monograph presents a fascinating understanding of port cities in Asia that compete with one another for financial dominance and often undermine state power. Francois Gipouloux uses his long-term research experience in Asia to present an intriguing political, economic and financial history of Far East and South East Asian port cities. He carefully deploys cross-disciplinary approaches from geography, political economy, and international relations to present his arguments within a broad historical sketch covering nine centuries. The book also demonstrates how port cities of Far East Asia have played crucial role in maritime trade and in opening up the region to world market that is increasing becoming the global epicentre of outsourcing and sub contracting.

The book is divided in five parts. The first part sets the historic context of trade in the Mediterranean region and the Baltic Sea and emphasizes the importance of stateless borders and independent port cities. Gipouloux writes that ‘the Mediterranean may be viewed simultaneously as a maritime space, a trading crossroad and a link between different civilizations’ (p. 9). He uses maritime trade records to describe how port cities created several autonomies of contract that often undermined state jurisprudence. In the Baltic Sea this became more vibrant with the Hanseatic League, a comity of free port towns that worked together for their self-interest to promote trade and economic supremacy. The Hanseatic League unlike national states worked as guilds with no standing army and defined political territory but was powerful enough to maintain their commercial interest in the Baltic Sea.

Part two begins with the description of the “Asian Mediterranean” unfolding nine centuries of history from the seventh to the seventeenth. Here Gipouloux discusses seafaring powers in Asia that worked on the similar lines of the Hanseatic and Mediterranean guild towns. Srivijaya a maritime kingdom emerged as a major trading power during the tenth and eleventh century and had one point of time established control over trade in the Mallaca straight, South China Sea and Indian Ocean thus becoming the maritime capital of South and South East Asia. The decline of the Srivijaya kingdom came in the twelfth century as environmental calamities and wars with vassal states brought its collapse. The Srivijaya were followed by Parameswara in 1402, a prince from Palembang, present day Sumatra. They established Malacca as their port capital from where it competed with Siam for control over the Malayan peninsula. Its central position in the Indian Ocean rim made it the rim land power corridor in trade of textiles from India, rice from Java and spices from Indonesia. Up in the north the Japanese port city of Sakai was to become the centre of attraction during this period up until the mid-sixteenth century. The city owned its prosperity to its lively and independent trade with China, Korea and the Ryukyu islands of Southeast Asia. Similarly, political disturbance brought by the Mongols in the fourteenth and fifteenth century made the port of Naha an important entrepôt-trading centre settled by Japanese, Chinese and Southeast Asian tradesman. The Asian maritime seen was dominated by Chinese and Japanese traders who were brilliant seafarers. The trade was flourishing officially, unofficially and privately. The excessive control of the Chinese empire over trade led to smuggling and unofficial trade in the region.

Part three examines the overlapping of westerns and Asian trading networks with the coming in of the Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and later the British competitors in the scene. These trading powers focussed on port cities as the entry point to mainland Asia from where they exported spices and fabric. The Portuguese dominance was broken by the Spanish; followed by the Dutch and later the East India Company. Both the Dutch and the English monopolised trade through dissolving existing guild and private trade dependence that were based on vassal networks and informal trade. The European traders used interlopers, missionaries like Jesuits priests, explorers and seafarers as trading agents. The intense competition to gain monopoly over trade in Asia left few winners in the form of Dutch VOC and the English East India Company as the major players in Asia’s maritime trade by the beginning of the eighteenth century. However, European powers only played a small role as intermediaries in trade between 1500-1800, as they were not in a position to sell their good and acted as go-between in silver trade and imported spices and textiles from Asia with no significant export of commodities from Europe.

In the areas surrounding the South China Sea major open port networks emerged in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore that became profitable economic magnets for inter-Asia traffic in goods and services. These port cities were mostly cut out from the hinterland and were dominated by immigrant Chinese labourers except Shanghai. Here Chinese merchant ships dominated the scene. As Gipouloux describes, ‘although cotton from Manchester arrived in Shanghai on British ships it was sent on to Nagasaki, Incheon and Pusan by Chinese traders’ (pp.148-149). The Shanghai network presented the characteristics of a borderless economy and defined ‘Asia’s cosmopolitism’ (p. 156). The Chinese seafarers were working as ‘merchants without an empire’ (p. 158). The trade pattern consequently changed from spices and timber to a wide range of agricultural produce and export of minerals.

In section five the author moves on to describe the contemporary context in the post-1949 period when the Communist party took over China. The colonial powers retreated and China quickly closed its borders to the outside world. This was a new challenge to Chinese port cities and Asia’s maritime future. The Chinese model of urbanization within the closed economic system of Communist rule was based on central places and networks of cities. The Communist state was keen to make Chinese port cities self-sufficient manufacturing centres and as global entities. However in the late 1980s port cities like Shanghai failed to keep up with the competition between manufacturing and services sectors, giving comparative advantage to historically lesser important port cities in the South China Sea away from the mainland. Comparably manufacturing has completely disappeared in Hong Kong in the last decade.

In this new globalised context the book argues that China’s reinsertion into world trade needs to be understood under very different kind of port city development that is increasingly participating in global business through sub contracting. The chain of the manufacturing port metropolis is interconnected by container freight, airfreight and international sub-contracting creating a network between cities rather than countries. Also their profitability, as Gipouloux observes, does not arise from control over sea routes alone, ‘It is…derived from the command of research and innovation, the creation of new technical and legal norms and the coordination of international subcontracting’ (p.195). Both Shanghai and Hong Kong are in this sense in competition to outplay one another in financial and service markets. The regional dynamics are influenced by supply chain and export dynamics established in the Red River and Yangtze Delta.

In the final section of the book the discussion revolves around emerging port cities in the South China Sea and its challenge to state sovereignty. Economic reforms in China since the 1980s have not lead to a smooth transition to capitalized market system. Instead bottlenecks persist in trade liberalization in the mainland. Here Gipouloux argues that the success of the Red River delta commercial belt poses a challenge to Chinas national sovereignty. This port megalopolis shares the benefits of maritime trade, an outlet to the sea and global commodity chain that favours international trade and business in services and commodity market. The author proposes that the rising power of the coastal cities is inexorable and will soon surpass the land power in China and the Asia Pacific region rechristened metaphorically as the “Asian Mediterranean”.

The book covers a long historical time frame over several centuries. However, the focus in the last two parts pins down to Chinese port cities and hinterland. The discussion moves on to financial markets, trading partners, logistical hubs and service sector economic transactions. At times the author discusses in sketchy description the emerging economic scene and the competition between Hong Kong, Shanghai and Peking that is at best its limitation. None the less the book maintains a thick interconnected description that enriches readers’ knowledge of the shifting political and economic scene in the region.

As the author infers, coastal and inland China are once again separated by an invisible frontier. The book reveals the historical thread connecting the globalization of the sixteenth century and that of today and leads us to see sovereignty in new light. The author presents evidence from cross disciplinary sources and brings up issues that transcend the boundaries of history and geography into political economy, financial market and international relation that present in a new light the process of globalization and how it shapes a world of interconnected port cities. Lastly the book demonstrates historically that rim land port cities were and are responsible for globalizing trade and often they have developed independent trade networks away from centralised state control and sometimes in conflict with the state.

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