In his essay “Asia Redux: Conceptualizing a Region for Our Times,” Prasenjit Duara has aptly underscored the importance of comprehending the patterns of interactions and connectivities among Asian societies during the precolonial period. The following comments will reaffirm most of his contentions, but also will problematise the issue, especially in regard to some of the neglected topics and the conceptualization of the premodern interactions.
I will address three issues. First, Duara's paper emphasizes Asian interactions, mostly through the maritime channels, starting sometime in the thirteenth or fourteenth century. He also mentions, albeit briefly, that these contacts extend further back in history. The first section of my comments will elaborate on these pre-thirteenth-century linkages in order to demonstrate that they contributed significantly to the formation of later networks of exchange. I will highlight the role played by the intermediary states and peoples in linking various parts of Asia during the first millennium of the common era. The current emphasis on premodern India and China often obscures the important contributions made by these intermediary states and people.
Second, I will argue that conflicts and warfare were also important elements of cross-cultural interactions in precolonial Asia. These often involved military confrontations and political aspirations to control strategic passes, straits, and territories. Thus, looking back into the past does not necessarily provide us with a model for peace and harmony that can be replicated in contemporary political discourse, as politicians from some Asian countries have tried to do.
The final section of my comments will attempt to conceptualize the intricacies of premodern intra-Asian interactions. I will suggest that these interactions must be conceived within the larger context of Afro-Eurasian networks, as well as through a focus on subregional linkages. The use of the word “Asia,” in my opinion, does not reflect the breadth of premodern interactions or the intricate exchanges that took place within the subregions of the Asian continent.