Southeast Asia as a region
It is now nearly seventy years since “Southeast Asia” was first conceptualized as a geographic area worthy of academic study. During much of this time there has been an ongoing debate about the extent to which the modern states of Southeast Asia comprise a coherent region or are simply located in a residual area between China and India. Today Southeast Asia as it is generally defined includes eleven countries, categorized as “mainland” (Myanmar [Burma], Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) and “island” (the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Indonesia and most recently East Timor [Timor Leste/Timor Lorosae]). This contemporary configuration, however, has taken many years to evolve, and the occasional nineteenth-century mention of “Southeast Asia” even included “Hindustan” and China. Although the term appeared more frequently during the first half of the twentieth century, there was no effort to standardize what were still rather arbitrary geographic borders. During the Second World War the identification of “southeast” Asia as a theater of Allied military action incorporated places now considered part of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka and the Maldives, while excluding the Philippines and until 1945 even the Indonesian archipelago east of Sumatra.
By the 1950s, when Southeast Asian studies was developing as an academic field, there was therefore little agreement about regional boundaries. Some authorities argued that it was better to think in terms of a larger “Monsoon Asia” encompassing not only the countries of Southeast Asia, but southern China, eastern India and Sri Lanka. This entire area, they said, displayed significant ethnic and linguistic similarities as well as shared cultural features that arose as local societies responded to the seasonal changes in rainfall and temperature associated with the cycle of the monsoon winds. Other scholars, favoring different criteria, proposed their own regional boundaries. In 1944 George Coedès, regarded as the doyen of early Southeast Asian studies, wrote a history of the region before the fifteenth century without attempting to delineate its physical boundaries. Rather, he identified commonalities among what he termed “the Hinduized states of the Far East,” where elite cultures were shaped by contact with India. In the mainland this focus thus excluded northern Vietnam, which Coedès viewed as Sinicized, while the Philippines and the eastern Indonesian archipelago were considered too distant to have been affected by Hindu ideas.