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Westphalia and the Many Lives of States in Asia

Vernacular Nations

Postcolonial Asia offers at least seven types of states and nations. In their somewhat uncritical pursuit of total nationalism, territorial Asian states compete with their archipelagic cousins. The sea gypsy nations--spread across the South China Sea and other East Asian states--reject the monopoly of land as the only inhabitable space, discounting territory as an essential constituent of a nation. Ironically, while history kept them outside the fold of the territorial states, the present attempts to co-opt them. Only by challenging, as the Asian sea gypsies do, land's claim to being the sole inhabitable territory within law, and rethinking the sea as a place of danger can we truly vernacularise our statist imaginations.

Could we conceptually displace territoriality as an essential element in the construction of sovereignty as understood within international law? Decolonisation’s prime irony is that postcolonial governments have set upon themselves, perhaps inadvertently, the task of constructing a colonial state. However, what is central to the continuities of colonialism in postcolonial times? Antony Anghie (2005: 243) argues that colonialism is germane to the formation of international legal doctrines. Matt Craven, however, charges Anghie with essentialising colonialism. He suggests that the regime of unequal treaties between the Western powers and the East Asian (China and Siam or Thailand, for instance) and not colonialism proper, is central to understanding the postcolonial continuities of informal empires (Craven 2005: 382). Be that as it may, while Anghie’s approach contributes to international legal theory, Craven’s is to international legal history.

Yet for a conceptual rethinking of colonialism, the indigenous, and the law in postcolonial Asia, both approaches leave serious issues unaddressed. To meet the ends of justice for the indigenous peoples, the above-mentioned debate, nevertheless, eggs on lawyers to think outside of law. Perhaps a composite lens of anthropology, history, linguistics and semantics could offer what I call the “vernacularisation” of Westphalia in Asia as a way forward.

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