vendredi 4 avril 2008

Short History of Asia Series china

Preface and acknowledgments
It has taken almost two centuries, but China is once again becoming a
great power—at a time when the United States stands alone as the
actual global hegemon. Some see the rising power of China as a threat,
to regional if not global stability. Others see it as a challenge: how can
Chinese ambitions be accommodated? But threat or challenge, Southeast Asia will be a principal arena for the exercise of growing Chinese
political influence and military power.
Relations between China and Southeast Asia will thus clearly be
crucial in the early years of the twenty-first century. These relations go
back over two millennia, during which they were mostly conducted in
accordance with a tributary system imposed by China and accepted
by Southeast Asian kingdoms. Over this long period, the peoples of
China and Southeast Asia came to understand and accommodate each
other, despite their very different cultural assumptions and expectations. This is a rich and varied story, which a book of this length can
only tell briefly and schematically.
I have approached this task with some trepidation, for relations
between China and Southeast Asia have been much studied over the
years, from a variety of perspectives. Moreover, I come to this study not
as a China scholar, but as someone whose research and teaching have
focused on continental Southeast Asia. But then, this is not a book
only about China’s relations with Southeast Asia, but about the
relationship from both sides. It could just as well be titled ‘Southeast
Asia and China’.
As an historian, my approach is historical, not just because I want
to tell a story, but because history continues profoundly to influence
relations between China and Southeast Asia. History is central to the
way both Chinese and Southeast Asians understand the world.
Western scholars may take history less seriously (and international
relations analysts are particularly prone to do so), but no-one disregards history in China or Southeast Asia.
The other important dimension of understanding that we must
bring to the study and interpretation of China–Southeast Asian relations is of their respective worldviews. ‘Worldview’ refers to the
structure of cognition that shapes both habitual behaviour and considered action in response to confronting situations, for national
leaders as for individuals in their everyday lives. Worldviews are built
up over time through upbringing (the learning of language, values,
etc.), formal education, socialisation and life experience. We all
perceive the world through the prism of our individual yet more or
less shared worldviews.
What I have tried to do in this book is to show how certain elements of the different ways both Chinese and Southeast Asians viewed
the world not only characterised their relationships until the middle of
the nineteenth century, but have persisted into the present. This is not
to argue that worldview is unchanging. Far from it. All Chinese know
that China no longer stands alone as the superior Middle Kingdom,
even though this is the name they still call their country. And the
peoples and governments of Southeast Asia will hardly accept a return
to an outmoded tributary system.
What I maintain is that a new pattern of power relations is
emerging, one that harks back in significant ways to earlier times. The
era of Western domination in Asia is drawing to a close. The United
States has withdrawn from mainland Southeast Asia and will not
return, leaving China the opportunity to regain its historic position of
regional dominance. Much will depend on how Beijing chooses to
exercise what will amount to its de facto hegemony; but in arriving at
ways of accommodating a much more powerful China, the countries of
Southeast Asia will not only naturally respond in terms of their own
views of the world, but also reach back into the long history of their relations with the Middle Kingdom. In fact, I would argue that this is
already evident: in the ‘ASEAN way’ of conducting diplomacy, for
instance, and in the steadfast refusal of Southeast Asian nations to
enter into any formal balance-of-power coalition to ‘contain’ China.
As an amateur in the field, I am happy to acknowledge my debt
to all those scholars whose research has revealed the varied dimensions
of China–Southeast Asia relations. A number of these are mentioned
in footnotes and suggestions for further reading, though I have referred
there to very little of the journal literature to which I am also indebted.
One scholar in particular requires special mention, and that is Wang
Gungwu. To Professor Wang, all who write on China–Southeast Asia
relations are indebted.
I am most grateful also to the many international relations scholars, political analysts, historians, and diplomats in Beijing, Hanoi,
Bangkok, Viang Chan, Manila, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta
who kindly gave me of their time. The opportunity to visit these capitals was provided by a University of Queensland Foundation Grant.
The International Institute of Asian Studies in Leiden kindly provided
me with a Visiting Fellowship to conduct part of the historical
research. My thanks, finally, to Robert Cribb, who drew the maps, to
Milton Osborne, general editor of this series, and to John Iremonger
and all the production team at Allen & Unwin.

This book sketches in broad outline the history of 2000 years of
contact between the peoples and governments of China and the
peoples and governments of Southeast Asia. This is an ambitious
undertaking that presents some obvious problems. China itself has not
always been unified and Southeast Asia is a wonderfully varied region
that historically has comprised many more independent kingdoms and
principalities than the ten modern states making up the Association
of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Moreover frontiers have
shifted over these two thousand years, and once powerful independent
kingdoms in what is now southern China have disappeared.
Historians do not just recount past events, however: they also
interpret them, often by pointing out patterns that impart meaning.
The early twenty-first century provides a convenient vantage point
from which to do this for China–Southeast Asia relations. European powers have withdrawn from Southeast Asia, and after a
period of weakness and humiliation lasting more than a century, the
People’s Republic of China (PRC) has restored much of China’s

former influence and status. The United States is the only power
outside Asia that still plays a significant role in shaping regional relations. The reduction of direct foreign interference leaves China and
the countries of Southeast Asia freer than at any time in their modern
histories to construct their own mutually acceptable relationships.
Until the nineteenth century, relations between China and
Southeast Asia were conducted in accordance with what has come to
be known as the ‘tribute system’. This was a world order that was both
sinocentric and orchestrated by China. The weakness of the late Qing
dynasty at the end of the nineteenth century was not unusual in the
context of Chinese history, as it conformed to the pattern of dynastic
rise and decline. The replacement of the Qing dynasty by the Republic of China could even be viewed as the start of a new ‘dynastic’ cycle.
But the move from empire to republic was in response not just to loss
by the Qing imperial line of their mandate to rule granted by Heaven,
but also to entirely new international pressures that forced China to
accept a radically different world order of contending empires and
nation-states. Even though these pressures for change had been building for over a century, the transition was a painful one. The collapse
of the Qing ushered in a period of turmoil and war that only ended
with the victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949, at
a time when the peoples of Southeast Asia were themselves gaining
Both the PRC and the newly independent countries of Southeast
Asia were born into a world divided by the Cold War. Their mutual
relations were buffeted by the winds of global competition, to which
China in particular reacted with sudden policy shifts. Not until the
leadership of Mao Zedong gave way to that of Deng Xiaoping did some
predictability come to characterise Chinese foreign policy. In the
meantime, the countries of Southeast Asia coped with China in their
different ways. Some, like the Philippines and Thailand, relied on
American protection. Some, like Burma and Cambodia, sought to win
Chinese approval through a policy of strict neutrality. Some, like
Vietnam and Laos after 1975, turned to the Soviet Union. And some,
like Indonesia after 1965, eschewed all contact with the PRC.
At the same time as the countries of Southeast Asia were
responding so differently to the exigencies of the Cold War, they
increasingly realised the need for concerted regional policies. In 1967
Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand formed
the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN). Thirty years
later, ASEAN grouped all ten Southeast Asian states. A new and
important multilateral dimension had been introduced into relations
between Southeast Asia and China.
Two events—American defeat in Vietnam and the disintegration
of the Soviet Union—had profound impacts on relations between
China and Southeast Asia. While the former threw into question
American willingness to guarantee the security of mainland Southeast
Asian states, the latter deprived Vietnam of Soviet support. Both
drove countries that had depended on outside powers (Thailand on
the United States; Vietnam on the Soviet Union) to seek accommodation with China.
The impact of both events on China itself was less immediate,
though in the longer term, just as significant. The aftermath of the
Vietnam War exacerbated China’s fear of the Soviet Union, and while
the collapse of the Soviet empire removed that fear, it also severely
undermined the ideological pretensions of Chinese communism. The
CCP regime survived, but only by introducing free market economic
reforms and by drawing increasingly on nationalism to legitimise its
monopoly of power. China’s continuing quest for status as a great
power owes nothing now to Marxism–Leninism, but a great deal to
China’s cultural pride and its reading of its own history.
This brings me to the second purpose of this book, which is to try
to interpret the recent history of China–Southeast Asia relations.
What I shall argue is that as the influence of extra-regional powers has
diminished, and as China’s own political, economic and military
power has grown, so traditional modes of interaction have come increasingly to reassert themselves in shaping relations between China
and the countries of Southeast Asia. The multilateral dimension of
ASEAN–China relations stands in the way of this development going
too far, but if it should continue, resulting tensions within ASEAN
will test regional solidarity to the limit. How these tensions are dealt
with will depend on how aggressively China pursues its strategic goals,
how the other two principal interested major powers (the US and
Japan) react, and how the ASEAN states singly and collectively move
to assure their own interests and security.
The present evolving relationship between China and the countries of Southeast Asia cannot be understood simply in terms familiar
to hard-headed realists among international relations analysts.1 It is
not enough to compare political institutions, economic strengths and
weaknesses and military force levels: while these considerations are
obviously important they do not of themselves determine how states
will relate to other states in crisis situations. Other, often emotive,
factors come into play, such as national pride or traditional enmity. A
good example of how such ‘irrational’ factors influence decisions on
interstate relations is provided by the events of 1978–79 that saw militarily weak Cambodia provoke war with Vietnam, which in turn
risked war with China by invading Cambodia. In both cases, cultural
presuppositions and the histories of relations between Cambodia and
Vietnam and Vietnam and China significantly influenced decisions by
political leaders that risked, and eventually led to war.2
Cultural and historical influences on international relations
decision-making often go unanalysed because their causal impact is
difficult to theorise and define. Yet they remain crucial for an understanding of relations between states, for history and cultural
presuppositions influence not just strategic and military considerations
(when and why force was considered a legitimate or necessary option
or response),3 but also how peaceful intercourse with other states
should be conducted (including diplomacy, trade, and the treatment of
foreign nationals).
The principal way in which cultural factors influence the way
states and nations relate to one another derives from how their
foreign policy elites understand the world. This worldview, which
a foreign policy elite shares for the most part with the broader political elite, includes both how the world is constituted (believed to be
in a descriptive sense) and how it should be constituted (in an ideal
and prescriptive sense.) They thus constitute systems of belief that are
centrally informed by religion. Worldview shapes and is shaped by
culture, while its temporal dimension defines how time and history
are understood. Both culture and history contribute significantly to
our sense of identity. How we think about ourselves as belonging to a
community or national group, and how we think about others, using
what metaphors and analogies, drawing upon what prejudices and
stereotypes, are important cultural influences on international relations. Culture also influences decision-making processes through the
education and socialisation of political elites, the politics of personal
power and ambition, and the functioning of national institutions
(parties, parliaments, ministries of foreign affairs, etc.).
Analysis of such influences on the behaviour of states and
nations towards each other reveals many of the presuppositions underlying foreign policy decisions and action. These presuppositions
include values, norms, and expectations with respect to the proper
conduct of international affairs. Together they constitute what I shall
call the international relations culture of a traditional polity or modern
nation-state. Historically international relations cultures have been
much more diverse (take the case of the European powers and China
in the nineteenth century) than they presently are in our globalised
modern world. Even so, differences in international relations cultures
still frequently act as irritants in relations between states. We need to
understand, therefore, how worldviews differ and how differences can
be reconciled. This can only be done by examining the cognitive
assumptions embedded in worldviews, systems of values, and strategic
goals. Where these coincide, the conduct of relations between two
states will often not require shared commitments to be spelled out;
they will be taken for granted—which may cause some amazement to
those who do not share them. An example would be the willingness
of certain Southeast Asian states (Thailand, Burma) to make use of
‘family’ metaphors in referring to their relations with China, a form
of words that would not come naturally even to fellow members of
ASEAN (Indonesia, the Philippines).
In order to understand the current state of relations between
China and Southeast Asia and where they are leading, we also need to
understand why historically relations took the form they did. Until the
nineteenth century, China, by virtue of its size, its economic and military power and the uncompromising nature of its worldview, imposed
what amounted to a hegemonic international order on all aspects of its
relations with other polities. The question is: why did Southeast Asian
kingdoms go along with this? Did they do so for purely pragmatic
reasons in order to promote profitable trade? Were there other reasons
that had to do with security, both internal and external? Or were
Chinese demands not resented because they could be accommodated
within Southeast Asian views of the world, and so were not considered
outrageous in the way they seemed to be to nineteenth century European envoys?
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, China was forced to
come to terms with an entirely different international order, based on
a completely different view of the world and of how relations between
states should be conducted. This was a world of competing empires, in
which the Chinese empire attempted to claim some status, until
humiliated by the West and Japan. Yet the Chinese empire remained
essentially intact. Even after the fall of the Qing dynasty, though it lost
its hegemonic influence in Southeast Asia, China continued to rule
over non-Chinese peoples beyond its core cultural area (Mongols,
Tibetans, Uighurs). This was a difficult transitional period, even after
China became a republic, for the world system of nation-states was
itself evolving. Only after the Second World War, when the countries
of Southeast Asia regained their independence, did the United
Nations—as a forum of nominally equal sovereign states—come to
embody the contemporary world order. It was in this context, in
which the Peoples’ Republic of China after 1949 was initially a pariah
state excluded from the UN, that relations between the new China
and the newly independent states of Southeast Asia had to be negotiated. The first stages of this process were complicated by the
continued presence of former colonial powers, by the intervention in
the region of the United States, by China’s revolutionary ambitions,
and by the internal politics of Southeast Asian nations. The later
stages are still in the process of being worked out. What their form
will be into the twenty-first century is unclear, though it is possible to
discern certain trends.
What this book will attempt to do, in summary, is to trace the
changing relations between China and Southeast Asia from the points
of view of both sides. How both sides, as regions—China as unified
empire (for most of the time) and Southeast Asia comprising a collection of kingdoms and states—related to each other evolved over time
and according to circumstances. The international relations cultures
of both China and Southeast Asian polities—comprising cognitive,
cultural, political, diplomatic, economic, and military factors—also
changed over time. Bilateral interaction between China and Southeast
Asian polities came to constitute a set of relationships that I have
called a bilateral relations regime.4 In the modern world, a bilateral relations regime between two states might be given formal expression in a
bilateral treaty, but more often regimes rest simply on some sharing of
principles, norms and expectations, which presuppose a sensitivity by
each party to the other’s interests. In large part the principles underlying early bilateral relations regimes between China and Southeast
Asian kingdoms were dictated by China, but they came to be accepted
by Southeast Asian ruling elites as defining expected behaviour on
both sides in matters of diplomacy, security and trade. These bilateral
relations regimes evolved not just out of a coincidence of interests;
they also necessarily rested on a degree of compatibility of worldviews
and shared historical experience, factors which still impact upon con-
temporary relations between China and the states of Southeast Asia.
To these worldviews and this shared historical experience we shall now turn.

The birthplace of Chinese civilisation was on the North China Plain,
watered by the Yellow River and its tributaries. It was inland and
inward-looking, far from any other centre of civilisation. It was also a
superior civilisation whose fine pottery, bronze metallurgy and invention of writing clearly differentiated the early Chinese from
surrounding peoples. From as early as the Shang dynasty (sixteenth to
eleventh century BCE), China’s isolation and its sense of superiority
shaped not only Chinese attitudes towards other peoples, but also their
conception of themselves. From this period date key characteristics of
the Chinese view of the world. Among these were a belief that the
Chinese stood at the centre of the universe, that theirs was the ‘Middle
Kingdom’, surrounded in all four directions by less culturally advanced,
‘barbarian’ peoples.
Belief in a powerful protective deity, Shang Di, probably the
original ancestor of the ruling house, encouraged a sense of community. Shang Di was never thought of as creator of the world. Rather,
Shang Di presided over organically connected divine and human
realms, whose mysterious processes could be discerned through the use
of oracles. Divination and the keeping of records together encouraged
a well-developed sense of precedent, and a belief that one could learn
from the past. Society was hierarchically structured, with political
power exercised by an authoritarian ruling elite, whose lavish lifestyle
and impressive tombs rested on the extraction of surplus production
from toiling peasants.
In overthrowing the last of the Shang kings, the Zhou dynasty
(eleventh to third century BCE) elaborated and reinforced this developing Chinese worldview. The Zhou came from the western fringes of
the Shang culture area, a people who had been influenced by and
adopted much of Shang civilisation. They brought with them their
own ancestral deity, whom they called tian, meaning Heaven, and
identified with Shang Di. The Zhou kings called themselves Son of
Heaven (tian-zi), thereby claiming both moral power and a divine
mandate to rule (tian-ming). In Zhou cosmology, the Son of Heaven,
representing humankind, stood as the crucial link between Heaven,
the human world and the Earth itself. It was the duty of the Zhou kings
to sustain that linkage on behalf of all humankind through ritual
worship at the temples of Heaven and Earth.
The Shang was a great literate and artistic culture, as demonstrated not least by its incomparable bronze metallurgy. For centuries
the dynasty had ruled the core Chinese cultural area. By what right,
then, could the Zhou claim the Shang mandate to rule? The Zhou
legitimised their seizure of power by means that were both ethical and
historical. The Zhou painted the last of the Shang kings as not just
weak and ineffective, but as morally corrupt, a man who had lost all
moral right to rule, and so who could no longer fulfil his assigned role
in the Heaven-ordained natural and political order. This established
two important principles: first, that Heaven was a moral force, which
meant that the Son of Heaven presided over what was a moral world
order; and second, that history provided crucial evidence for the
working out of those processes over which Heaven presided.
The acute Chinese consciousness of history had two further ramifications. One was that history had a pattern: each dynasty moved
inexorably from the heroic exploits of its founder to the miserable exit
of the last emperor in the dynastic line. The second was that the model
to be emulated by each new dynasty lay in the past. History provided
no record of progress for the Chinese. What it provided was moral
example, established in the ‘golden age’ of the early Zhou kings. Historians sat in judgment over the past, and on those judgments rested
future policy—in foreign relations, as in government.
The kingdom over which the early Zhou kings ruled was by
no means a centralised state. Rather, it was feudal in structure, made
up of dozens of principalities whose aristocratic rulers acknowledged
Zhou suzerainty. In 771 BCE, the power of the Zhou kings was
forever destroyed when their capital was overrun by an alliance of
barbarians and rebel vassals. Powerful feudal lords rescued the
dynasty and established a new capital further to the east, but
the Eastern Zhou kings were thereafter mere figureheads. The
Chinese cultural area fragmented politically into a number of
autonomous principalities which, by the fifth century BCE, were in
a state of almost constant conflict with each other. This was the time
of the ‘warring states’. It was also a time of innovation in technology,
in culture, and in philosophy.
The Confucian worldview
The greatest of China’s philosophers, judged by the influence he has
had on Chinese civilisation, was Kung Fu-zi, known to the West as
Confucius, who lived from 551 to 479 BCE. The importance of
Confucius lies in the direction he gave to Chinese thought, to its
rationalism, to its humanism, and to its social and political focus. Confucius had one overriding concern: to restore social order and moral propriety in an age of growing political anarchy and social chaos. For
a model he naturally looked to the past, to the foundation of the Zhou
dynasty by King Wu, and his faithful and principled brother, the Duke
of Zhou. Confucius believed that social and moral order rested on universal recognition and acceptance of social and political hierarchy. It
was essential that everyone should know their place in the world,
accept their duties and responsibilities, and recognise their superiors
and inferiors. Moral example should be provided by those at the apex
of the hierarchy, and emulated by their inferiors. Confucius believed
that social anarchy and political immorality happened because the
rulers of states refused to recognise that the powerless Zhou kings still
possessed the mandate of Heaven.
How was this state of affairs to be redressed? As an itinerant
philosopher, with only his tongue to protect him, Confucius was not in
a position to dictate to princes. What Confucius taught as the basis of
good government was ‘the rectification of names’, summed up in a
famous saying: ‘Let the lord be a lord; the subject a subject; the father
a father; the son a son’ (Analects 12.11). Elsewhere he spelled out
what he believed rested on the proper use of language:
If the names are not correct, language is without an
object. When language is without an object, no affair can
be effected. When no affair can be effected, rites and
music wither. When rites and music wither, punishments
and penalties miss their target. When punishments and
penalties miss their target, the people do not know where
they stand.
Both these sayings taught the same thing: people must be what they
say they are, and if they occupy some office they must act accordingly.
Unless language reflected reality, whatever principles and rules were
enunciated would fail to have the desired effect. So punishments and
penalties imposed for contravening those rules would not bring about
social order, and people would become bewildered, and not know what
was expected of them. This opened the way to anarchy and chaos. It
should be added that in the Chinese worldview there was no supreme
deity, no universal lawgiver, and no belief in punishment after death.
It was thus up to human beings to construct a human order.
An ordered society, Confucius believed and taught, required
three things: the inculcation of moral qualities; a defined social hierarchy; and the proper example of those who stood at the apex of
society. The moral qualities Confucius prized included first and
foremost ren, sometimes translated as ‘human-heartedness’ or
‘humaneness’, meaning something like philanthropic benevolence
towards others and concern for their well-being. It became recognised
as the essential quality of Chinese humanism. Other qualities included
filial piety (xiao) and the duties that went with it; loyalty (zhong) to a
principled superior; courage (yong) to act and speak out; righteousness
(yi) expressed particularly in commitment to a just order; reciprocity
(shu); and that combination of intellect and integrity (xian) that is the
essential quality a minister must possess in order to advise his lord as
he should. One who embodied and expressed these qualities was a junzi, a ‘gentleman’ in the ideal Confucian sense of one whose thought
and action reflected his true moral worth. It was the goal of Confucius
and the school of thought he founded to educate and produce such
men, who would provide the moral core of the Chinese social and
political order.
Confucius was no democrat. There is never the slightest
notion of social equality in his thinking. For him, the proper and
harmonious ordering of society required the recognition and active
reinforcement of social hierarchy. The jun-zi formed a cultured elite;
but not for a moment should they think of usurping the hereditary
right of rulers to rule. Their duty was to give advice to rulers, not to
become philosopher-kings of the Platonic kind. Such high-principled
men were formed through moral education, which all should under-
take. Candidates were not confined to sons of the aristocracy and
Confucius accepted disciples from all social levels, but the upward
social mobility this provided was designed to reinforce social hierarchy, not undermine it.
The means by which social order was given overt expression
and reinforced was through li, meaning literally ‘ritual’, but denoting a
much wider range of religious and secular ceremony down to what we
would call social etiquette. The term derived from the formal ritual
performed during the rites of divination, and was subsequently
extended to performance of all collective religious ceremonies. By
further extension, li came to refer to the polite behaviour expected of
individuals in everyday social intercourse. For Confucius there was a
prescribed way to behave towards both superiors and inferiors. Each
such behaviour, graciously performed, reinforced the social order.
The Chinese way of war
Confucius conspicuously failed to achieve what he had hoped to in his
lifetime. The warring states continued to war. From this period dates
an entirely different, but similarly practical, body of writings, not on
government, but on the conduct of war. Six of the texts traditionally
making up the seven military classics of ancient China date from the
time of the warring states. These texts advise rulers on the strategy and
tactics of warfare, with one end in mind—complete victory over the
enemy.3 To this end, all available means are justified, including espionage, sabotage and deception, in order to inflict defeat at the least
cost to one’s own forces. Morality is sacrificed to expediency. Indeed
the writers of these treatises on war stand closer to Machiavelli than
they do to Confucius.
Much has been made of these military classics as embodying a
Chinese way of war which all later Chinese commanders, down to
Mao Zedong, drew upon and applied. They have been extensively
commented upon by both Chinese and Western scholars, who have
pointed out how little reference they make to Confucian morality.
Three brief comments can be made in relation to these military texts.
The first is that they reflect the period in which they were written, just
as did Machiavelli’s advice to rulers in sixteenth-century Italy. We
should not expect them to be imbued with Confucian values, for they
were written centuries before these had become accepted as the basis
for government. The second point is that pursuit of victory, forcefully
and decisively, does not actually conflict with the Confucian ideal of
social order once the texts are applied not to civil conflict between
warring Chinese states, but between the Middle Kingdom and threat-
ening barbarian enemies. Preservation of social harmony as endorsed
by Heaven always extended beyond China’s frontiers, a moral mission
that justified the means used to achieve it. The third point, of importance for Southeast Asia, is that the Chinese way of war was much
more consistently applied along China’s northern and northwestern
borders, against powerful nomadic empires, than it was against neighbouring kingdoms in the south and southwest, where the security
threat was usually much less.
The Confucian ideal was taken up and elaborated more system-
atically by Master Kung’s followers. The most important of these,
Meng-zi (Mencius) and Xun-zi, both lived in the later Eastern Zhou
period in the fourth and third centuries BCE, and both grappled with
the problem of the proper use of force in a civilised society. In so doing
they elaborated an important distinction between bing meaning war in
an aggressive sense, which Confucianists condemned, and zheng refer-
ring to the use of violence in a punitive sense. The latter presupposed
a moral and social order that had regrettably been violated, whether by
rebels or barbarians, and thus needed to be restored. Punitive expedi-
tions were justified, as much in sorrow as in anger, as necessary for the
restoration of the social harmony that reflected Heaven’s way. Their
purpose should never, therefore, be to gain at the expense of others,
neither for conquest nor booty, but rather to re-establish universal
acceptance of the moral authority of the Son of Heaven. Time and
again throughout Chinese history, China’s use of military force has
been described as ‘punishment’, most recently when China ‘punished’
Vietnam in 1979.
While Confucius’s moral teachings may have fallen on deaf ears
during his lifetime, his belief in social order and hierarchy, and his
glorification of the early Zhou dynasty, when the Chinese cultural area
was unified under Heaven, struck a resonant chord in the hearts and
minds of later rulers and their ministers alike. When China was eventually united in a single empire by Qin Zi Huangdi in 221 BCE, however,
it was not by an emperor acting upon the advice of a Confucian educated elite. Rather, it was through the ruthless application of an
entirely different philosophy of governance, known as Legalism.
The Legalists were convinced that social order could only be
maintained through a totalitarian system of draconian laws administered by an impersonal bureaucracy. Human beings, they taught,
responded only to punishments and rewards. It was not necessary for
people to be educated to the need for social order; it was enough that
they obey the decrees of their emperor. Nor did the Legalists believe
that all wisdom lay in the past; situations should be examined on their
own terms, and sensible solutions found.
If Legalism was preferred during the Qin dynasty (221–207 BCE),
the succeeding Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) incorporated elements of Legalism into a dominant Confucian framework. Actually,
Legalists and Confucianists had much in common. Both sought social
order, and both affirmed a strict social hierarchy, with the emperor at
its apex. Both also believed that proper conduct (court ritual and
social etiquette) were essential to reinforce this hierarchical social
order. Where they differed was over whether people could be educated
to the need for such conduct, and so act appropriately out of conviction; or whether they had to be forced to do so through fear of
draconian punishment. The end they held in common; it was essentially the means over which they differed. Chinese government
applied both.
Empire and world order: Qin and Han
The Qin dynasty re-established two things crucial to the Chinese
worldview: the political unity of the Chinese culture area; and the
exalted role of the emperor as the Son of Heaven. The significance of
political unity lay in the concentration of power (de) it made possible.
But the concept of de also carried the ancient sense of ‘virtue’, and so
included a moral dimension. Internally de brought about good government; and it was this example, later thinkers agreed, that led barbarian
rulers freely to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty.5 The notion of de was
reinforced by the concept of dao. This term has complex meanings, but
as the core concept of the Taoists it denotes the ‘way’ of the natural
world, and so refers to the unitary natural order of things. Once differentiated, dao gives rise to the contending forces of yin and yang, the
universal principles of, respectively, female and male, dark and light,
cold and heat, and so on. Equilibrium between these forces produces
harmony (ho) within both the individual and society.
The synthesis of all the various elements contributing to the
Chinese worldview was achieved during the Han dynasty. The core
belief is that Heaven, humankind and Earth ideally constitute a
single, harmonious, natural order. This order is both balanced,
through the interaction of yin and yang, and moral, in that its ideal
harmony rests on an ethical basis. The central figure in this scheme
of things—the point, as it were, where Heaven and Earth converge—was the emperor.6 As the Son of Heaven, he was the point of
contact between the macrocosm and the microcosm. By the sacrifices
he performed at the temples of Heaven and Earth, he ensured cosmic
balance and harmony; by his personal behaviour he ensured, or failed
to ensure, Heaven’s blessing. Any moral failure on the part of the
emperor, any failure of de, would provoke Heaven’s displeasure,
made known by signs and portents, in the form of such remarkable
and unseasonable events as the appearance of shooting stars,
floods, and earthquakes, or by increasing human misery and social
The Emperor ruled ‘all under Heaven’ (tian-xia), the entire
human world as cosmically constituted. In a cosmic sense, the Son of
Heaven was a universal ruler; not just his capital, but he himself was
the centre of the world. The realm over which he ruled was the Middle
Kingdom, a term that acknowledged that other kingdoms lay beyond
it in the four directions. The Chinese worldview was sinocentric, but
this did not mean that it ignored the existence of other peoples.
Beyond the core area of Chinese civilisation lived barbarian peoples
(yi-ti), inferior in every way to the Chinese, yet still existing under
Heaven and so part of the great ‘family’ presided over by the Son of
Heaven. Though Chinese superiority was primarily cultural, this easily
slipped into attitudes that were essentially racial. Non-Chinese were
likened to animals and stood well below Chinese in the socio-cultural
hierarchy. Redemption was possible only for those who were culturally
assimilated. Until this happened, non-Chinese were to be treated with
paternal benevolence, as objects of the emperor’s protection.
The place of non-Chinese in this view of the world was arrived
at over the course of time. The Chinese had always been surrounded
by those they termed ‘barbarians’, for their lack of civilisation (wen).
In unifying the empire, Qin pushed back the barbarians in the north
and northwest, and protected the Chinese core cultural area by con-
struction of the Great Wall. It was in the southeast, however, that the
greatest gains were made. There new military/administrative commanderies were created, colonised by a motley collection of criminals,
fugitives from military service or forced labour, bonded servants, and
small traders and retailers who stood at the bottom of the social scale.
Continuing internal migration during the Han dynasty eventually
brought all the non-Chinese coastal peoples, known collectively as the
Yue, inhabiting the region from Fujian to Guangdong and south to the
Red River delta (in what is now northern Vietnam) under Chinese
political control and cultural influence.
The progress and significance of this southern expansion for
relations with Southeast Asia will be examined in the next chapter.
Here, what is important is how Qin and Han conquests reinforced
Chinese thinking about how non-Chinese peoples should be incor-
porated into the Chinese world order. The most powerful of these
non-Chinese peoples, the Xiongnu, precursors to the Huns, inhabited
the steppe lands to the northwest. As their mobility and fighting
prowess made Chinese conquest impossible, appeasement was the only
possible recourse. Rich annual payments of silk, alcohol and foodstuffs
and dispatch of Chinese ‘princesses’ were used to buy off Xiongnu
rulers. A treaty signed in 198 BCE not only established the Great Wall
as the frontier between Han China and the Xiongnu confederacy, but
also formally noted the equivalent status of the two ‘brother’ king-
doms. This was for the benefit of the Xiongnu. For the Chinese,
brothers were never of equal status: one was always the elder, the other
the younger. Even so, such a situation rankled for the Chinese, for it
threatened their own understanding of the world, and the respective
places of Chinese and barbarians in it. Moreover, as the treaty stipulated that the Han would provide a substantial annual ‘gift’ of silk and
other commodities in return for a Xiongnu commitment not to raid
Chinese settlements within the wall, it was a moot point who was
paying tribute to whom.7
Despite the treaty of 198 BCE, therefore, the Chinese never
for a moment accepted the Xiongnu as their equals. The Chinese view
of the world that had evolved by the later Han period (the first two
centuries CE) conceived it in the form of five concentric zones or
regions (wu-fu), whose relations to each other were strictly hierarchical. At the centre stood the royal domain, the area under the direct
rule of the emperor himself. Beyond lay the zone controlled by the
great feudatory lords of the kingdom, who were loyal to the emperor.
Then came those areas, known as the pacified zone, that were culturally Chinese, but had had to be conquered in order to be brought into
the empire. These three zones comprised the Middle Kingdom, beyond
which lay two further barbarian zones—an inner one or controlled
zone for those barbarian tribes who accepted Chinese suzerainty, and
an outer or wild zone for those who did not. The five zones combined
thus constituted ‘all under Heaven’.8
The hierarchical relationship between these zones was defined
by the frequency with which tribute was presented to the emperor. In
the central zone, this was on a daily basis in the form of produce and
services rendered to the court. The lords were required to present their
tribute once a month, while tribute from the pacified zone was
expected every three months. Controlled barbarians presented tribute
annually, while those beyond, in the wild zone, were expected to
appear only once at court, a symbolic appearance that signalled their
inclusion within the Chinese world order.
While this was clearly an idealised schema, during the Han
dynasty it did roughly reflect the division, within the Chinese cultural
area, into a well-guarded capital territory, commanderies under central
administration, and feudal kingdoms that had declared allegiance to
the Han emperor. Over time, most of these kingdoms reverted to the
direct control of the central administration, particularly after the con-
quests of Han Wudi, who finally brought the Yue coastal region into
the empire. Even after these conquests, the Yue counted as inner or
controlled barbarians, or ‘dependent countries’, from whom annual
tribute was expected. The Xiongnu, by contrast, were classified as
outer or wild barbarians beyond Chinese control, and so not expected
to pay regular tribute.
The tributary system was not fully institutionalised under the
Han, but it did evolve in response to particular circumstances. Because
it applied, as noted above, to Chinese as well as barbarians, the system
was in a sense inclusive rather than divisive. It included barbarians
within the Chinese world order, but created a clear distinction
between inner and outer barbarians, between those effectively
colonised through imperial expansion, and those allowed independent
status. Non-Chinese peoples within the empire were placed under
Chinese administration and progressively sinicised. Those beyond the
empire’s frontiers were under no such pressure, though the Chinese
could pretend that eventually these too would come to accept the
superiority of Chinese civilisation.
Han conquests brought new barbarian peoples within the empire.
These included the southern Yue, whom we now know as the Vietnamese. It did not include the peoples of Yunnan, where the later
kingdoms of Nanzhao then Dali retained their independence until
conquered by the Mongols in 1253 CE. While most of the peoples
incorporated into the Han empire became sinicised over the centuries,
some stubbornly maintained their own cultures, including the Viet-
namese, the Miao (Hmong) and other mountain tribes and minorities.
Some, including the Tai, migrated south, away from Chinese domination, to establish their own independent principalities. No kingdom
on China’s frontiers to the south, however, ever posed an equivalent
military threat to the steppe peoples of the north.
In summary, therefore, by the time of the later Han dynasty, when
expansion of the Chinese cultural area had brought Chinese peoples
increasingly into contact with those of Southeast Asia, a specifically
Chinese view of the world was already firmly established, though the
institutions by which foreign polities were ritually incorporated into
this worldview (the tribute system) were not yet fully in place. The key
elements of this worldview included the unity of Heaven, Earth and
humankind; the notion of Heaven as a moral force imposing a moral
order; social harmony as Heaven’s way; and the emperor as Son of
Heaven at the apex of, and presiding over, a hierarchical social world
in which all were assigned their status, including non-Chinese. The
Middle Kingdom comprised the Chinese cultural area whose superior
civilisation was available to less cultured peoples. Eventually, the
Chinese were convinced, barbarian peoples would be drawn by the
virtue of the emperor to recognise the superiority of Chinese civilisation and voluntarily to embrace it. In the meantime, they were
expected symbolically to recognise that superiority, and along with it
the cosmic status of the emperor, by deferentially offering their tribute
at court and gratefully receiving gifts in exchange. They were also
expected to keep the peace along China’s frontiers, for the notion
of social harmony necessarily extended beyond the Middle Kingdom
to embrace ‘all under Heaven’. In other words, China brought to
its earliest relations with Southeast Asia an already evolved foreign
relations culture.
Indirect trading contact between China and the Nanyang, or Southern
Ocean, the name by which the Chinese referred to Southeast Asia,
goes back as far as the Shang dynasty when cowrie shells were used as
currency. During the Zhou dynasty a variety of luxury products, including ivory, rhinoceros horn, tortoise-shell, pearls and birds’ feathers,
found their way to the Chinese capital. Little is known about early
trade routes, or the traders who plied them, but it would seem likely
that while most of these products reached China overland, some
arrived too on small coastal vessels crewed by ‘Malay’ or Yue seamen.
How far merchandise travelled by sea and in what early entrepôts it
was exchanged during the later Zhou period, we can only guess.
What we do know from Zhou period texts is that the Chinese
were acutely aware of the difference between themselves and non-Chinese ‘barbarians’, and of their own cultural superiority, no matter
what desirable products the barbarians might possess. It is clear,
however, that intercourse with non-Chinese peoples, while it might
reflect Chinese assumptions of superiority, had yet to become
formalised into what was later known as the ‘tributary system’. That in
its fully elaborated form was the outcome of centuries of development
from the Han to the Ming dynasties.
Trade was an important source of wealth for the Yue peoples of
coastal China south of the Yangze River. That wealth, and access to
luxury products from Southeast Asia, seems to have motivated the first
Qin emperor to send his victorious armies against the Yue kingdoms.
Chinese domination was brief, however, and in the chaos that followed the overthrow of the Qin dynasty, many of the Yue peoples
regained their independence. It was left to the emperor, Han Wudi, in
the early first century BCE, finally to extend Chinese power to the
southern coastal province of Guangdong, and to the Red River delta
of northern Vietnam.
In the meantime Chinese migration into the Yue coastal
regions had increased, as families fled unrest or persecution, or sought
new opportunities. These migrants brought with them Chinese culture
and the Chinese system of writing. Though extensive borrowing
occurred, northern Chinese (Mandarin) never succeeded in replacing
the Yue languages, which continue to this day in the form of Chinese
‘dialects’ (including Wu, Min, and Cantonese). The Yue languages of
coastal China became monosyllabic and tonal, like Mandarin
Chinese. In this form they could easily be written using Chinese characters. The capacity of the non-alphabetic Chinese writing system to
provide the crucial adhesive that held China together as a unitary,
centrally administered kingdom can hardly be overestimated. It provided access for the coastal peoples to Chinese classical literature and
the worldview it took for granted, and led them to identify themselves
eventually as Chinese. This process of sinicisation was long and drawn
out, seeping down over the centuries from the literate elite to shape
the thinking of the mass of the population. Only the Vietnamese in
the end were able to resist this process and retain their separate identity as the Lac people, or southern Yue (the character for which is
pronounced Viet in Vietnamese).
By the beginning of the first century BCE, conditions existed for
an expansion of Chinese contacts with Southeast Asia. Yet this was
slow to happen. Yue vessels do not seem to have ventured far beyond
their coastal waters. The few bold Chinese merchants, adventurers,
and eventually envoys, who sailed to Southeast Asia did so on ships
probably crewed by more accomplished Austronesian-speaking sailors
whom we can broadly designate as ‘Malay’. There are several reasons
why the Chinese failed to exploit trading possibilities with Southeast
Asia at this time. For one thing, after Han Wudi’s reign no official
encouragement was given to overseas trade, though if we are to believe
the historian Ban Gu writing almost two centuries later, tributary
(essentially trade) missions were received from as far away as south
India. Also, the products of Southeast Asia were relatively little
known. The luxury items most prized by the Chinese came from India
and further west, overland along the fabled Silk Road. Sea trade was
dangerous, and as foreign vessels continued to make port in northern
Vietnam and southern China, bringing pearls, coral, tortoise shell, precious stones and bird’s feathers to exchange for silks and gold, there
was little need for Chinese merchants to sail their own ships into the
Southern Ocean.
The few Chinese traders who voyaged by sea at this time would
first have come into contact with the Cham, a people speaking an
Austronesian language who had settled along the coast of central
Vietnam. Merchants who ventured further into the Gulf of Thailand
would then have encountered proto-Khmer and Mon speakers of
Austroasiatic languages who had established riverine or coastal settlements. Further to the south Malay peoples were already present along
the coasts of peninsula Malaya, and had populated much of maritime
Southeast Asia. All were poised to construct their own small and
localised kingdoms, and eager to borrow any ideas that would help.
The failure of the Chinese to take to the sea left the way open for Indian influence to dominate state formation in Southeast Asia.
Early Southeast Asia
Little is known about Indian trade and contact with Southeast Asia
during this early, but crucial period. What we do know is that important trade routes ran from the mouth of the Ganges down the coast of
Burma, and from south India across the Bay of Bengal. These converged on the Kra Isthmus where low-weight, high-value luxury goods
from as far away as the eastern Mediterranean were transported over-land to be reshipped in the Gulf of Thailand. From there small ships
hugged the coast all the way to Canton. Another trade route must at
least by the early centuries CE have led south through the Strait of
Melaka to southern Sumatra and northern Java, though at this stage
there seems to have been no corresponding link between Indonesia
and China.
It was along these maritime trade routes that Indian civilisation
reached Southeast Asia. From Burma to central Vietnam and from
Sumatra to Borneo, the peoples of Southeast Asia borrowed elements
of Indian religion and ritual, statecraft and social organisation,
language, literature and art. Most Indian traders were probably either
Tamils from south India or perhaps Sinhalese from Sri Lanka, whose
pearls were in high demand. For them, trade east to Suvarnabhumi,
the fabled ‘land of gold’, promised great profit. But these merchants
did not come alone. By the first century CE, they were accompanied
by Brahmin priests and Buddhist monks literate and learned in all
aspects of Indian culture and religion. Southeast Asian seamen mean-while reached India, and returned with their own accounts of Indian
The process by which local chieftains throughout Southeast Asia
adopted and adapted elements of Indian civilisation that would legitimise their rule and enhance their power is usually referred to as
Indianisation. It proceeded, especially over the first two centuries CE,
initially in coastal trading ports, but in time penetrated inland to
influence larger land-based kingdoms in Burma, Java, Cambodia and
Thailand. We cannot follow in detail the rise of various early South-east Asian kingdoms, but we will give some attention to the first of
these, known to the Chinese as ‘Funan’. By what name it was known
by its own people, we do not know.
Funan was the first kingdom in Southeast Asia to which Chinese
envoys were sent. Apart from a few references in inscriptions, the fragmentary reports of these envoys are the only records that remain of
Funan, apart from archaeological evidence. The Chinese mission
arrived probably around 228 CE, on behalf of the state of Wu, the
southernmost of the three kingdoms into which China was divided
after the collapse of the Han dynasty in 220 CE. Contact with the
Southern Ocean during the later Han had been intermittent at best, as
the principal trade route to Persia and India was still overland through
Central Asia. For the Wu rulers, however, cut off as they were from
northern China, only the maritime route was available.
It was probably to promote the potential benefits of increased
trade that Chinese envoys were dispatched to Funan, perhaps in
response to an earlier Funanese trade mission. From the accounts they
recorded, along with a few later inscriptions, we can gain some idea of
the economics and politics, the power and extent, of Funan. What
emerges is a polity owing its economic prosperity to a combination of
its agricultural base (a peasant population producing a surplus of rice)
and its geographic location about mid-way between southern China
and the Kra Isthmus.
Funan owed both its origins and most of its cultural borrowing to
Indian traders and the occasional Brahmin priest who had put into its
principal port of Oc-eo over the two centuries before the Chinese
envoys arrived. It was founded, the Chinese reported, as a result of a
marriage between an Indian Brahmin and a female ruler, a probably
mythical union symbolising the syncretism of Indian and local culture.
But we should beware of placing too much credence in Chinese
descriptions of Funan—or of other early Southeast Asia kingdoms.1
This is because the Chinese envoys described what they saw and
learned through Chinese eyes. Theirs was a centrally organised king-
dom, in which a powerful court appointed officials to administer
districts and provinces in the name of the emperor. But Southeast
Asian kingdoms were not so organised and administered, for they owed
their philosophy of government and political structure not to China,
but to India.
Powerful empires did arise in India—the Mauryan empire
under Ashoka in the third century BCE and the Gupta empire under
Chandragupta II in the second century CE are obvious examples. But
these empires were constructed through the incorporation of neighbouring kingdoms as functioning units. Often the ruling family would
remain in place, provided they acknowledged the suzerainty of their
new overlord. The empire was held together through formal oaths of
loyalty backed by regular payment of tribute, the provision of troops
when called upon, a well-developed network of spies and informers,
and the capacity of the centre to punish any ruler tempted to renounce
his allegiance. When the centre was weak, particularly during succession disputes, outlying territories tended to break away and declare
their independence. Often a new ruler, preoccupied with establishing
his own right to rule, could do nothing but let them go. Frontiers were
thus much less stable than in a centrally administered empire like
The Indian model was eminently suitable for Southeast Asia.
By the early centuries CE, centres of power had developed in several
areas where agricultural resources were more extensive and population
could expand. There ‘men of prowess’ arose who enforced their rule
over neighbouring territories.2 A powerful regional ruler might appoint
his sons to rule outlying areas. When he became frail or died, however,
these same sons would often contest the succession, backed by competing powerful families and court factions. Kings used every means to
concentrate power by demanding tribute from regional leaders and
requiring them to serve at court.
Early Southeast Asian rulers and elites borrowed from India,
above all, the means to legitimise and consolidate their power. These
included a system of writing and the language (classical Sanskrit) and
literature that went with it, principles of statecraft, and a set of religious beliefs that rested on the identity of local deities with gods of the
Indian pantheon. Kings ruled as representatives of a high god, their
right to rule reinforced by the central role they played in religious
rituals designed to ensure the prosperity of the kingdom through
control over cosmic forces. This Indian system of power relations did
nothing, however, to overcome the inherent political instability of
early Southeast Asian kingdoms. Instead it reinforced the segmentary
structure of Southeast Asian polities in the form of what have become
known as mandalas, in order to differentiate them from modern territorial states.
To call a Southeast Asian kingdom a mandala is to draw
attention, metaphorically, to relations of power that connected the
periphery to the centre. The mandalas of Southeast Asia were constellations of power, whose extent varied in relation to the attraction
of the centre. They were not states whose administrative control
reached to defined frontiers. Power diminished with distance from the
centre, frontiers fluctuated, and relations with neighbouring mandalas
tended to be antagonistic, as each attempted to expand at the other’s
sexpense. As a key Sanskrit text, the Artha´ a stra explains, neighbouring kingdoms should be distrusted as potential enemies, while the
enemies of enemies should be treated as friends.3 A more different
world from that familiar to Chinese merchants and travellers would
be hard to imagine.
We should think of Funan, therefore, not as a centralised
kingdom extending from southern Vietnam all the way around to the
Kra Isthmus, but rather as a mandala, the power of whose capital in
southeastern Cambodia waxed and waned, and whose armed merchant
ships succeeded in enforcing its temporary suzerainty over small coastal
trading ports around the Gulf of Thailand. What gave Funan the edge
over other such centres of power was clearly its position astride the
India–China trade route. Its power, however, is unlikely to have spread
far inland. Further north, on the middle Mekong and on the lower
Chao Phraya River, other power centres were establishing themselves
that in time would challenge and replace Funan.
Six Funanese tributary missions to China are recorded as arriving
during the third century. Then comes a gap of seventy years, a single
embassy in 357 CE, then eighty years before a group of three embassies
arrived between 434 and 438 CE. After a further gap of some fifty
years, ten embassies arrived between 484 and 539, and three more
between 559 and the last embassy in 588, after which Funan gave way
to Zhenla, which itself was replaced by the Khmer kingdom of Angkor
in 802.
What are we to make of this patchy record? Why were embassies
sent so infrequently, and why by some kings and not others? And what
did they mean to both parties? Of course, it may be that embassies did
arrive more frequently and were not recorded, or that the records of
their arrival have been lost. But China was a bureaucratic state, and
records were important. Moreover, embassies from other countries
were just as intermittent. It seems likely, therefore, that the list of
Funanese embassies is relatively complete.
So what conclusions can we draw? The first is that these were not
tribute missions in the sense that applied between the segmentary parts
of Southeast Asian mandalas. Funan was not required to send large
amounts of produce to China, nor were Funanese kings required to
take loyalty oaths to the Son of Heaven. Embassies were sent not in
response to Chinese directives, but for the benefit of Funanese rulers.
For the Chinese, on the other hand, all official missions, even those
solely concerned with trade, were designated as ‘tributary’ in order to
conform to the Chinese sinocentric view of the world. Embassies from
barbarian kingdoms served to reinforce the way in which the Chinese
understood the world and their own place in it. Their purpose, in
Chinese eyes, was as much ideological as economic. The emperor
graciously accepted the ‘tribute’ offered, but gave more expensive
presents in return. Of course, foreign embassies also brought goods for
trade, and the Chinese well appreciated their commercial value.
A second conclusion is that the frequency of official embassies by
no means indicated the extent and volume of trade between China
and Funan. Private trade fluctuated, depending on political conditions
in both China and Southeast Asia, but it certainly did not dry up for
decades on end. ‘Smuggling’ continued even when official sanctions
against trade were enforced, for local officials could always be bribed.
So why did Southeast Asian rulers send official embassies to
China? Some went in response to the invitation of Chinese emperors
who sought exotic products or the gratification of barbarian submission. Some Southeast Asian rulers dispatched embassies in order to
reinforce or legitimise their own power. Presentation of fine clothing,
titles and regalia raised the status of rulers of small kingdoms like
Funan, giving them the edge over their rivals in the cutthroat politics
of Southeast Asian mandalas. Most embassies, however, were sent to
promote trade, particularly in Chinese luxury products, such as silk and
later fine porcelain, desired as status symbols by Southeast Asian elites.
There is still something odd about proud and independent
Southeast Asian rulers accepting even nominal vassal status in the
form of Chinese investiture, even if this was to their temporary political advantage. In order to understand why so many were prepared to do
so, we need to look more carefully at the worldview of Southeast Asia,
for this rested on entirely different cosmological as well as political,
institutional and economic foundations from the Chinese understand-
ing of the world outlined in the previous chapter.
Most early Southeast Asian rulers borrowed from Hinduism the
idea that the king was the representative on earth of the great god
Shiva (or more rarely Vishnu). Prosperity depended on the extent to
which an earthly kingdom reflected the heavenly realm of the gods.
The more nearly this was achieved, the closer the identity between
king and god, and the greater the power of the king. Kings thus set out
to recreate in microcosm the macrocosmic geography of the divine
realm, with the palace at the centre representing the abode of the gods
on Mount Meru, the world axis. The impressive rituals at which they
officiated only added to their aura of cosmic power.
Belief in karma and reincarnation provided further legitimisa-
tion. Karma as an inexorable natural law of moral cause and effect
provided an explanation for both individual fortune and social status.
The king ruled as king because through previous lifetimes he had accumulated the necessary karma to do so. In this way karma powerfully
reinforced social hierarchy, for everyone was born into the social situation they deserved.
Kings sought to maximise their sources of social power: military,
economic, political, and ideological. Ultimately the goal of a powerful
king was to become a universal ruler, or chakravartin. As no ruler could
know how far his karma might permit him to go in realising this ideal,
the potential was always there. A more powerful ruler would have
superior karma, but this was recognised only as a temporary phenomenon, for who knew what a ruler’s karma had in store, or that of his
successor? This was a worldview that accounted for and reinforced
hierarchies of power; and did so without discredit, for all such hierarchies were always open to change.
The temporary nature of political power is even more evident
in Buddhism than in Hinduism, for in Buddhism impermanence
(anicca) is one of the three ‘signs of being’, along with the inevitability of suffering (dukkha) and the non-existence of a permanent self or
soul (anatta). As all earthly phenomena are impermanent, so are all
configurations of power. One can therefore accept the greater power of
another kingdom, in the knowledge that this will change in time. The
mighty will be laid low, and new powers will arise. The fluidity of this
conception of the world as process contrasted markedly with the order
and stability of the Chinese worldview.
These very differences in worldview allowed Southeast Asian
rulers to accommodate the pretensions even of the emperor of China.
An important factor here was the different way in which tribute was
understood. Superior karma and thus status was recognised in the
mandala through a net transfer of power to the centre, both economic—through tribute paid in the form of goods and food
supplies—and military—through provision of a contingent of troops
when called upon. Tribute in Southeast Asian mandalas was thus the
principal means by which political elites extracted and concentrated
surplus resources. In an economic sense, tribute constituted a ‘mode of
production’. Instead of taxing people, land, or agricultural produce at
a fixed rate, tribute from a subordinate ruler required delivery of specified amounts of valuable local products, which might be gathered
(such as aromatic woods and resins, rare wildlife, or spices), mined
(gold, silver and other metals), grown (mainly rice), or manufactured
(including weapons and luxury handicrafts). Some of these would be
retained for use by the king and his court; others would be traded,
often as a royal monopoly. All that was offered in return was status as
a lord of the realm and protection against the depredations of neighbouring kingdoms.
Tribute in a Southeast Asian context was thus very different
from the tribute demanded by Chinese emperors from vassal kingdoms.
For the Chinese tribute denoted not the transfer of economic
resources, but symbolic submission. The presents the emperor gave
in return were consistently of higher value than the tribute offered, in
order to demonstrate imperial magnanimity and benevolence. China
pretended that it needed nothing material from barbarians. Tribute for
China was thus not a means of accumulating wealth (even through
accompanying trade), but symbolic recognition and reinforcement of China’s superior status in its own sinocentric world order.
For Southeast Asian kings, tribute ‘paid’ to China did not
carry the same connotation as tribute demanded from their own
vassals, just because more valuable gifts were given in exchange. What
was tribute for the Chinese was for Southeast Asian rulers the polite
exchange of gifts as a formality that went with mutually beneficial
trade. The accompanying ceremonial established status hierarchy, but
not vassalage in the Southeast Asian sense. It was acceptable
for envoys to show proper respect to the Chinese emperor, just as
Chinese envoys paid their respects to Southeast Asian kings; but with
the exception of Vietnam, no ruler of a major Southeast Asian
kingdom ever voyaged to Beijing to pay homage in person.
The differing understandings of what the tributary relationship
entailed are evident in an incident in October 1592 when King
Narasuan of Ayutthaya offered Siamese naval assistance to the Ming
court in its struggle to contain the depredations of Japanese pirates.
The offer was refused, for from the Chinese point of view it would
have been demeaning, and an admission of Chinese weakness, to have
accepted. In the mandala world of Southeast Asia, however, it was
usual for an ally to contribute military assistance in time of war. Narasuan may have hoped for some quid pro quo in his own conflict with
the Burmese, but his offer, and the Ming refusal, point to essential
differences in worldview.
Differing interpretations of the meaning of the ritual of diplomatic
intercourse enabled entirely different Chinese and Southeast Asian
cultures of international relations to find compromise in mutually
acceptable bilateral relations regimes. These necessarily built on certain
congruities. Both Chinese and Southeast Asian worldviews acknowledged hierarchy as the natural order, both in their own societies and
in relations between polities. Both sought to maximise power through
manipulation of ideologies of legitimation and world order. But what for
the Chinese was the permanent order of the relation between Heaven,
Earth and humankind represented by the emperor was, for Southeast
Asian rulers, the temporary configuration of the ever-changing play
of karma. And what for the Chinese was tribute offered in submission to
the Son of Heaven was, for Southeast Asian rulers, polite recognition
of superior status as a prerequisite for mutually beneficial trade.
Rulers of early Southeast Asian kingdoms were ready to recognise
the superior power and status of China, even though most had never
witnessed this for themselves. Chinese emissaries extolled the
emperor’s glory; merchants brought back stories of the extent and
wealth of China; and Southeast Asian envoys reported on the impressive pomp and ritual that accompanied their presentation at the
Chinese court. China did not have to send its armies into Southeast
Asia for regional rulers to accept China’s formal demand that visiting
officials prostrate themselves before the Son of Heaven. The exchange
of presents was for Southeast Asian rulers a matter of courtesy; but if
the Chinese insisted on the formalities of a ‘tributary’ relationship,
then this could be accommodated in the context of Southeast Asian
Hindu/Buddhist worldviews.
Little of this is explicitly stated in the records of Southeast Asian
kingdoms. In part this is because so much of what must have been a
considerable literature and extensive administrative records have disappeared. Climate, the fragility of the treated palm leaf principally
used as a writing medium in Southeast Asia, poor storage facilities that
allowed the ravages of mildew and insects, and the destruction of war,
all have contributed to the dearth of written sources in Southeast Asia
compared to China. All that remains, apart from all-important inscriptions on stone or metal, are those texts that were regularly recopied.
These were mainly religious texts, the copying of which generated
spiritual merit, various technical treatises on such subjects as agriculture, astrology and law, and court chronicles. In few of these, even
the last, can be found any references, however, to political or even
economic relations with China.
The reason why even the court chronicles of Southeast Asian
kingdoms say next to nothing about China does not, however, indicate
China’s unimportance for Southeast Asian rulers, though for most,
China probably did not loom large. More significant is the kind of text
we are dealing with. Court chronicles in the Theravada Buddhist kingdoms of mainland Southeast Asia were not composed as objective
historical records. On the contrary, they formed part of the royal
regalia of legitimation. They recorded the ruler’s genealogy, his
marriage alliances and his meritorious deeds, all of which were
intended to reinforce his right to rule in the eyes of his subjects.
Given this purpose, it is not surprising that there is little
mention of tributary missions to China. No mention was made of
China because to have done so would neither have enhanced a king’s
glory, nor reinforced the Southeast Asian (Hindu/Buddhist) worldview.
By contrast, the records kept by the Chinese of embassies received from
even the smallest and most remote Southeast Asian principalities did
reinforce the Chinese worldview by magnifying the virtue and might of
the emperor as ruling ‘all under Heaven’. It was for this reason that
tribute missions were minutely recorded and their importance consistently exaggerated by Chinese court officials (who even falsified
accounts and mistranslated documents to make their point).
Expansion of contacts: trade and religion
In 280 CE the northern Jin dynasty reunified China, though their
victory was short-lived. A number of Southeast Asian kingdoms,
including Funan and Champa (known to the Chinese as Lin-yi), took
the opportunity to establish official relations with the new regime. Over
the next disturbed century, however, very few embassies were recorded
from Southeast Asia, though it might have been expected that the loss
of central Asian trade routes would once again have stimulated Chinese
interest in the Nanyang. What did generate renewed interest and contacts in the fifth and sixth centuries was the growth of Buddhism as a
religion, both in China and in Southeast Asia, mainly in the Mon areas
of southern Burma and Thailand, in the Malay peninsula, and in
Indonesia (in both southern Sumatra and central Java).
Trade was often disrupted during this period by war and rebellion
in either China or Southeast Asia. Along the coast of central Vietnam,
the Cham attempted to extend their domains, while further south
Funan was already a declining power. Progress was steadily being made,however, in the technology of boat building and navigation. We know
that larger trading vessels based on Indian prototypes were being con-
structed by the Cham and Funanese at this time, if not yet along the
Chinese coast. It would appear, too, that Indian and Southeast Asian
seamen were learning more about the winds and currents of the South
China Sea, using the southwest and northeast monsoons to cross open
water rather than hugging the coast. We also know that these ships
carried a new group of travellers making the long voyage between
China and India. These were ardent Buddhist pilgrims, seeking or
bringing back knowledge of this new religion.
Buddhism came to China both by land through central Asia
(then from Afghanistan to Xinjiang almost entirely Buddhist) to
northern China and by sea from India, Sri Lanka and Buddhist parts of
Southeast Asia to southern Chinese ports. Buddhism appealed to the
Chinese both on an intellectual level through its metaphysical psychology and its pragmatic approach to spiritual fulfilment, and on a
popular level through its magical powers and its promise of reincarnation. The first few centuries CE were a period of great intellectual
excitement in the Buddhist world, as new schools of the Mahayana,
and later the Tantricism of the Vajrayana, contended with earlier
interpretations. Chinese Buddhists were eager to learn of these developments and to study the texts in which they were expounded. It was
in order to pursue their studies, and to collect both texts and relics,
that Chinese Buddhist pilgrims set out for India.
How many Chinese Buddhists made this long pilgrimage, and
how many failed in the attempt, we do not know. We do have important accounts left by a handful of those who returned to acclaim and
honour. The first of these Chinese pilgrims whom we know to have
sailed via Southeast Asia was Fa-xian in 413, on his return on a
Malay-crewed ship that crossed directly from Java to Canton.
Others followed, not just Chinese, but Indian and Southeast Asian
Buddhists as well. Increasingly embassies from Southeast Asian kingdoms included Buddhist items (texts, relics and the paraphernalia of worship) among their gifts. As Buddhism became widely established in
China, so demand grew for such products as aromatic resins and woods
used to make incense, dyes and medicinal substances.
Buddhism, in other words, provided both a new area of common
interest and a stimulus to trade between China and Southeast Asia.
Prior to this, Chinese and Southeast Asians had had little in common.
Their worldviews, as outlined above, were far apart. For a while,
however, until the Chinese evolved their own forms of Buddhism and
the religion declined in the land of its origin, Buddhist pilgrimage
added a significant cultural dimension to relations between China and
some, at least, of the countries of the Southern Ocean.
Trade, however, still remained the primary concern. For almost
three hundred years, until China was again unified under the Sui
dynasty in 589 CE, non-Chinese dynasties ruled north China. Though
these dynasties did much to promote Buddhism, tens of thousands of
Chinese families fled south to the Yangze region and beyond to escape
their reach. This permanently shifted the balance of population and
reinforced the Chinese character of the coastal provinces south to
Guangdong. Southern dynasties centred on Nanjing tried unsuccessfully to recapture lost territory in the north, often to the neglect of still
only lightly sinicised regions west of Canton. Jiao-zhi (northern
Vietnam) in particular remained a frontier area, a prey to the ambitions
of independent-minded governors and raids by Cham fleets sailing up
from the central coast of Vietnam. Disruption to trade was at times
serious, until in 446 a Sino–Vietnamese expedition decisively defeated
the Cham, ushering in more than a century of peaceful relations.
An analysis of fifth and sixth century diplomatic missions from
Southeast Asia reveals a clear correlation between tribute and trade on
the one hand, and conditions in China on the other.4 During times of
political unrest, central government control over the coastal provinces
was weak, and so was demand for luxury products. As lawlessness and
piracy increased, foreign vessels were reluctant to call at Chinese ports.
When central authority was reimposed, as it was under the Liang
dynasty from 502 to 557 CE, Southeast Asian kingdoms quickly
responded. Official missions arrived to establish the diplomatic conditions essential for trade promotion and protection.
From the seventh to the tenth centuries China was unified
under the Sui and Tang dynasties. Under the Sui, the demand for
luxury products from Southeast Asia was artificially stimulated by the
extravagance of the court. As supplies were limited, prices rose. The
Chinese response was twofold: to seek to control by aggressive use of
force those regions within striking range of Chinese fleets and armies;
and to use diplomacy to promote trade with kingdoms further afield. In
605, a Chinese army sacked and looted the Cham capital, while five
years later a Chinese fleet raided Liu-qiu (the Ryukyu islands).
In 607, the first official Chinese embassy for more than three
centuries departed in a substantial fleet for the Southern Ocean. Its
goal was to make contact with the new kingdom of Chitu that had
arisen on the Malay peninsula with the decline of Funan. The mission
was entirely successful, for the king of Chitu needed little urging to
promote trade with China. Two tribute missions were dispatched in
successive years to establish the necessary protocol, and missions from
smaller kingdoms in the region soon followed, including from as far
away as east Java (or Bali).
The Tang dynasty that seized power from the Sui in 618 was of
mixed Chinese and Turkish descent and created an empire that
extended deep into central Asia. It was remarkably open to external
cultural influences, particularly to Buddhism.5 Foreign merchants, missionaries and adventurers flocked to the Tang capital of Changan,
which became the most cosmopolitan and populous city in the world.
Most came overland along the Silk Road through central Asia, but two
other land routes were also travelled: one from India via Tibet and
Nepal; the other from Burma via Yunnan.
The confident and outward-looking Tang dynasty encouraged
official foreign relations as a means at first of managing foreign trade,
though in time limitations on private trade were relaxed. The early
Tang emperors were powerful enough to demand that relations even
with the empires of the Uighurs and the Turks should conform to the
tributary system. An elaborate ceremonial was developed for escorting
envoys to the capital, welcoming them, and preparing them for the
official audience and banquet in the imperial presence. Frequent
kowtowing was expected, consisting of three kneelings and nine pros-
trations touching the forehead to the ground, symbolising submission
to the Son of Heaven.
The early Tang could demand such submission, before the
dynasty was weakened by rebellion in the mid-eighth century. Even
thereafter the formalities were preserved, as was the status distinction
between Chinese and barbarians. Yet judged on the basis of civilisation
this distinction was becoming harder to maintain. Neighbouring kingdoms, including Korea and Japan, developed high cultures that
borrowed much from the Tang. In Southeast Asia new and powerful
kingdoms arose. In Cambodia the Khmer kingdom of Angkor replaced
Zhenla; in southern Sumatra the new power of Srivijaya extended its
control over the Melaka and Sunda Straits and adjacent coasts; while
in Java the Sailendras created a powerful inland kingdom. All provided examples of high culture (the temples of Angkor, the Borobudur
in Java) that were different from, but hardly inferior to that of China.
Tang policy with respect to official contact and trade with South-east Asia was benign. The two principal ports for the Nanyang trade
continued to be Canton and Long-bien near modern Hai-phong.
These were connected by inland routes north to the Tang capital, via
the Grand Canal that had been much improved to accommodate the
increased movement of goods and people. From these southern ports
Tang envoys voyaged abroad, and to them foreign missions came—
initially from Champa and Zhenla, then from further afield from
kingdoms on the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra and Java.
Diplomatic missions even arrived from India and Sri Lanka, indicating the importance of Indians, Persians, and Arabs in the expansion
of Indian Ocean trade. Their well constructed and seaworthy ships
sailed around the Malay Peninsula, and on to south China. This eliminated the land portage across the Kra Isthmus, and so diminished the
wealth and importance of the principalities dependent upon it. By
contrast, increasing use of this new sea route between India and China
provided the opportunity for Srivijaya, strategically situated as it was
astride the Melaka Strait, to wax wealthy. Srivijayan warships
patrolled the strait, forcing all shipping to put in to Srivijayan ports,
where they were taxed and allowed to proceed.
Despite records of ‘tribute’ missions from India, it is clear that
much of the Southern Ocean trade, particularly by Persians and Arabs,
was not covered by any formal recognition of the pre-eminence of the
Son of Heaven. For the pragmatic Chinese of the Tang period, it was
more important to stimulate trade than to insist on formalities, though
this did not in any way lessen Chinese conviction as to the centrality
and superiority of the Middle Kingdom.
The burgeoning trade with both Southeast Asia and the Indian
Ocean brought large numbers of foreign merchants to Canton and
Long-bien, where they were permitted to organise and administer their
own communities. This provided increased opportunities for unscrupulous officials to indulge in graft and corruption. In 684, a delegation of
foreign merchants was so mistreated by the governor of Canton that a
‘K’un-lun man’ (referring to someone from Southeast Asia) killed the
governor and several other officials, using a sword smuggled in the
sleeve of his robe.6
This dramatic event ushered in a period of improved administration and increased trade, until rebellion shook the Tang dynasty.
Demand for goods slumped and, in the absence of central administrative controls, corruption again grew apace. By 758 foreign merchants
at Canton had had enough. Persian and Arab traders (but apparently
not Southeast Asians) pillaged and burned the port, and sailed away.
Merchants who stayed were targets for extortion by local rebels, and
then had their goods and property confiscated for allegedly supporting
rebellion when imperial power was restored.
Malay trading vessel, bas-relief, Borobodur, Java, ninth century.
For the next century trade was intermittent, as reflected by the
greatly reduced number of missions from Southeast Asia. The final
blow came in 879 when Canton was sacked by Chinese rebels and
many foreign merchants were killed. By then the Tang was in terminal
decline. After 906 China was again divided with separate short-lived
‘dynasties’ in the north and south. Not until 960 was it reunited under
the Song.
The special case of Vietnam
Northern Vietnam in the form of the Chinese province of Jiao-zhi had
long been the interface between China and Southeast Asia. The
centre of Chinese power was at Long-bien. From there Chinese
officials, with the variable support of a Sino–Vietnamese landed elite,
administered a territory stretching south to the shifting frontier with
Champa, a distance over which Chinese cultural influence and admin-
istrative control gradually diminished. A Sino–Vietnamese elite might
hold power, but the peasants they ruled were Vietnamese, and the
province developed a tradition of strong local rule. In the words of
Keith Taylor:
Giao [Jiao-zhi] possessed a political momentum of its own,
independent of the empire. In fact, it was when the
empire was in the deepest trouble that the south prospered most. Whenever the imperial court was strong
enough to dominate the region . . . rebellion and political
instability ensued. When the court was weak, local forces
arose, and stability followed.7
These ‘local forces’ would eventually become sufficiently strong to gain
Vietnam its independence. In the meantime, however, Jiao-zhi,
despite its predominantly non-Chinese population, remained within
the empire. The cultural frontier was fixed along with the political
frontier between the Vietnamese and the Cham; or in Chinese terminology, between inner and outer barbarians. While the Vietnamese
were forced to live under imperial domination and were expected to
adopt Chinese culture, the Cham sent tribute missions as an in-
dependent polity and were under no such pressure.
For a brief period in the 540s, the rebellion of Ly Bi established
Vietnamese independence. Ly was of Chinese descent, but his principal support came from native Vietnamese. The rebellion was
suppressed by imperial forces, but for the rest of the sixth century,
until China was reunified in 589, Jiao-zhi retained a high degree of
autonomy under the rule of powerful Sino–Vietnamese families owing
only nominal allegiance to their Chinese overlords. Buddhism
became well established, and the economy flourished as Long-bien
temporarily eclipsed Canton as the principal terminus for the Nanyang trade.
The collapse of the Tang provided an opportunity for the
independent-minded Sino–Vietnamese elite in Jiao-zhi to break free of
imperial control. During the years of political and military turmoil that
marked the early tenth century, Jiao-zhi became, to all intents and
purposes, an autonomous province. Finally in 966, six years after the
founding of the Song dynasty, Dinh Bo Linh proclaimed his independence. Exhausted after years of warfare, and aware that Bo Linh
commanded a powerful army, the Song court accepted the de facto
independence of Vietnam. Bo Linh was astute enough to follow diplomatic protocol by requesting conferral of Chinese titles. His son, in
whose name official communications with the Song court were conducted, was confirmed as ‘Peaceful Sea Military Governor’ with the
additional title of ‘An-nam [Peaceful South] Protector General’. Bo
Linh himself was granted the curious title ‘King of Jiao-zhi Prefecture’.
These claims and titles tell us much about relations between
China and Vietnam, and the worldview both shared. By proclaiming
himself emperor, Bo Linh was asserting independence from China, but
not thereby equality with the Son of Heaven. He was well aware both
that this would be quite unacceptable to the Chinese, and that
Vietnam could not escape being part of the Chinese world order. This
was made evident in the edict conferring his title, where Bo Linh’s
relationship to the Song emperor was described as that of an obedient
son to a benevolent father.8 By describing Bo Linh as King of Jiaozhi Prefecture, the Song court was on the one hand accepting his
status as on a par with other rulers of independent kingdoms, while
on the other hand reminding him that his territory remained, in
some sense, part of the empire. In other words, it left open the possibility (or threat) of returning Jiao-zhi to imperial administration.
The titles conferred on Bo Linh’s son defined the role a Vietnamese
ruler was expected to perform within the Chinese world order. He was
to accept Chinese suzerainty and keep the peace on the empire’s
frontiers. (Subsequently the title conferred on the Vietnamese ruler
was King of An-nam, though for his own people he was always
emperor of Dai Viet.)
To reiterate: for the Chinese the ruler of Vietnam was a king, like
any other ruler of kingdoms that presented tribute to the Son of
Heaven. For the Vietnamese, in their dealings with China, this was
accepted. The emperor of Vietnam designated himself ‘king’ in his
official correspondence with the Chinese court. But because the Viet-
namese shared the Chinese worldview, the ruler of Vietnam laid claim
to the same cosmic relationship with Heaven and Earth as did the Son
of Heaven, and the same relationship of hierarchical superiority to surrounding, less cultured peoples. In his official dealings with the Khmer
and Cham and Lao, therefore, the Vietnamese ruler designated himself
as emperor.9 Only by such a device could Vietnam establish an acceptable bilateral relations regime with China, while at the same time
expressing its own international relations culture in its dealings with
its Southeast Asian neighbours.
The attitudes towards its neighbours that Vietnam adopted as
part of its culture of international relations carried with them implications for the extension of Vietnamese power that, not surprisingly,
were remarkably similar to Chinese views. Strategically, moreover,
Vietnamese expansion to the south (the Truong Son mountains effectively hemmed in the Vietnamese to the west) was undertaken—as
was China’s southwards expansion—with an eye always on its vulnerable northern frontier. What the steppe peoples were to China in
security terms, China was to Vietnam.
Throughout the Song period, Chinese attention was focused
on its northern frontier where the steppe peoples posed a constant
threat. This preoccupation, and the Song policy of avoiding unnecessary armed conflict, enabled the Vietnamese to consolidate their
independence. They did so by following a dual strategy in their relations with China, combining military strength with status recognition
of Chinese superiority. It was a pattern consistently applied over the
centuries that not only kept China at bay for most of the time, but also
allowed the Vietnamese to engage their traditional enemies, the
Cham, and to pursue their long ‘march to the south’ (nam tien) that
over the next seven centuries would leave them in control of all
coastal Vietnam, to the Mekong delta and beyond.
Southeast Asia and the Song
During the first millennium CE China was never a naval power. The
Chinese continued to be predominantly an inland people, intent on
guarding their frontiers against security threats that came from the
north and west. Apart from expeditions by sea to punish neighbouring
Korea and Champa, the only significant naval operations during the
Tang period were to control piracy. The Chinese were learning much
about the sea, however. Whereas early trade, as we have seen, was con-
ducted largely in foreign vessels, during the Tang Chinese began
building their own merchant ships and sailing them to the Southern
Ocean. Their models were the larger and more seaworthy vessels sailed
directly to Chinese ports by Malay, Persian, Indian and Arab merchants. The Song continued this tradition of boat building. When the
dynasty lost control of northern China, it needed to construct a substantial navy to defend its new capital on the Yangze River. The
impetus this gave to Chinese maritime trade particularly affected
Southeast Asia, not least through the growth of Chinese merchant
communities in the region.
Meanwhile the political face of Southeast Asia was changing
as new kingdoms arose. To the south of Dai Viet, the Cham were still
powerful. In Cambodia the kingdom of Angkor was in the ascendant.
In southern Thailand, the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati was in diplomatic contact with China, but not, apparently, the other two Mon
kingdoms of Thaton in southern Burma and Haripunjaya in northern
Thailand. In northern Burma, the Burmese had founded the kingdom
of Pagan. Srivijaya still controlled the Malay peninsula and Sumatra,
though its power declined after its capital was sacked in 1025 by the
Tamil Cholas of south India. Java was evolving from a land-based
polity into a kingdom with significant maritime interests that posed an
increasing challenge to the declining power of Srivijaya. All of these,
but for the more remote Mon kingdoms and with the addition of small
principalities in the Philippines and Borneo, continued to send tributary missions to Song China during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
Song China developed an efficient and extensive bureaucracy,
recruited by examination based on the new orthodoxy of neo-Confucianism, to administer its expanding economy. While overland
trade remained important (exchanging Chinese tea and silk for horses
and jade), maritime commerce developed rapidly. Larger ships were
able to carry bulk goods, particularly ceramics, along with tea, silks,
fine handicrafts and copper cash in return for pearls, pepper and other
spices, sugar, and aromatics such as benzoin and camphor. New ports
opened up on the Yangze River and the Fujian coast where communities of foreign, mainly Muslim merchants congregated. All trade was
still bureaucratically regulated, but Chinese merchants were freer to
conduct their commerce and accumulate wealth than they had previously been.
The Song further elaborated the tributary system, especially its
ceremonial aspects, as the weakened dynasty tried desperately to preserve the supremacy of the Son of Heaven. A precise ceremonial was
developed for the reception of northern barbarian envoys, some of
whom represented kingdoms as powerful as the Song itself. Chinese
superiority could only be demonstrated by insisting on strict rules of
conduct for foreign embassies (including the size of missions, and what
trade could be conducted), combined with grandiose ceremonial
receptions designed to impress. These formalities were then applied to
all envoys, including those from Southeast Asia.
The weakness of the northern Song permitted only rhetorical
assertion of Chinese superiority, through insistence that any country
wishing to enter into relations with China could only do so on China’s
terms, as a vassal of the Son of Heaven.10 For the court mandarins, all
means of reinforcing the Chinese worldview strengthened their own
influence. If lofty isolation was the price to pay, its ideological and
moral value nevertheless outweighed any material benefit to be gained
from trade over tribute. If the Tang had revelled in the opportunities
offered by more open intercourse with the rest of the world, the Song
were more wary.
With the defeat of Song armies in northern China, and the fall
in 1126 CE of the Song capital of Kaifeng to the Jurchen Jin empire,
the Song court fled south to Hangzhou. The new capital, however, was
vulnerable to attack from the sea and so for the first time a Chinese
dynasty had to build a permanent sea-going navy. Many warships at
first were converted and armed merchantmen, sailed by experienced
merchant seamen, but in time the Southern Song constructed its own
superior vessels with improved naval technology and weaponry.
The Southern Song navy was primarily a defensive force, pro-
tecting the mouth of the Yangze River and the capital from northern
attack, and coastal shipping from the depredations of Korean and
Japanese pirates. It was not used offensively to project Chinese power
into the Nanyang. That was left to the succeeding dynasty. Given the
cost of defence and its reduced land and salt tax base, the Southern
Song dynasty looked to overseas trade to provide an additional source
of revenue. Private trade seems initially to have diminished following
the loss of northern China, but soon picked up again as Muslim traders
returned to southern ports.
With China again divided, however, tribute missions to the
Southern Song fell away, especially from more far-flung regions.
Despite the importance of seaborne trade, the dynasty did little to
extend relations with Southeast Asia, though Suryavarman II,
builder of the great temple of Angkor Wat, did dispatch Cambodia’s
first diplomatic mission to China. Regular missions also arrived from
Dai Viet (Vietnam), Champa and Srivijaya, because it was in their
interests to maintain good relations with China. For Dai Viet, the
Southern Song still represented the threatening proximity of Chinese
power; for Champa, China was a powerful arbitrator to whom to
appeal in the face of Vietnamese or Cambodian aggression; while for
Srivijaya, Chinese markets were essential for the entrepôt trade that
was its lifeblood.
The Hindu–Buddhist worldviews of Southeast Asian polities that
evolved during the first millennium CE were very different from
that of Confucian China. Both, however, included elements that
were sufficiently compatible to form the basis for functional bilateral
relations regimes that tacitly accepted the Chinese world order.
Contact increased, especially during the Tang dynasty, through more
open trade and a common interest in Buddhism. But Buddhism in
China was never able to modify the Chinese world order centred on
the worship of Heaven and the cult of the emperor, which continued
to shape China’s culture of international relations.
Chinese power did not weigh heavily on Southeast Asia during
this time. The kingdom of Nanzhao in Yunnan remained an independent buffer, and Vietnam broke free of the empire after the collapse
of the Tang dynasty. China posed only a minimal strategic threat,
therefore, to Southeast Asia, except for Vietnam, whose independence
rested on acceptance of a tributary relationship that conformed more
closely to Chinese demands than did the bilateral relations regimes
other Southeast Asian kingdoms worked out with China.
Trade continued to be central to China–Southeast Asia relations.
During the Tang, much of the trade between China and Southeast Asia
was still in the hands of non-Chinese (including Southeast Asian) merchants and shipping, but by the time of the Song a significant shift was
underway. Chinese ship building came of age and more of the Nanyang
trade was carried in Chinese vessels. Just as communities of foreign
merchants congregated in Chinese ports, so Chinese merchants began
to form semi-permanent communities in Southeast Asian trading
ports. Over time, due principally to official Chinese attitudes towards
overseas Chinese, these communities grew in size, to the point where
they came to constitute a permanent, complicating factor in relations
between Southeast Asia and China.

Chinese attention during the Southern Song was always directed
north, and with good reason. The Song policy of using the Mongols to
oppose the Jurchen ended in disaster, however, when the Mongols
swept into northern China. By 1236 Mongol armies were ready to
thrust south of the Yangze, though it was not until the accession
to power of Khubilai Khan in 1260 that the Mongol conquest of
the Southern Song was pressed to its conclusion. Six years earlier, the
kingdom of Dali, successor to Nanzhao in the region of Yunnan, had
fallen to the Mongols and been incorporated within the Chinese
empire. Hangzhou was captured in 1276, and Canton, whence the
Song court had fled, succumbed the following year. Two years later,
destruction of what remained of the Song fleet gave the Mongols total
control over an expanded Chinese empire.
This was not the end of Mongol expansionism. The next target
was Southeast Asia. The incorporation of Yunnan into the empire
provided a base for operations against mainland Southeast Asian kingdoms. Burma and Vietnam both suffered invasions that were Mongol
led but comprised mainly Chinese troops. Elements of the Song navy
captured by the invading Mongols formed the core of the war fleets
that projected Mongol power into maritime Southeast Asia. In attack-
ing Southeast Asia, however, Mongol forces encountered determined
resistance. The lesson learned was that armies from China could be
defeated on home territory where local forces had the advantage, but
that the tributary relationship thereafter needed to be re-established
as a security measure.
Mongol conquests
The impact of the Mongol conquest of China on the face of it threat-
ened the very basis of the Chinese worldview. This was the first time
that the entire Chinese cultural area had fallen under barbarian rule.
Mongol military might had proved superior to Chinese virtue (de). The
Chinese response was to sinicise their conquerors. The Mongols were
incorporated into Chinese history as a Chinese dynasty, the Yuan. In
this capacity, Mongol rule for almost a century had a far-reaching
impact on China’s relations with Southeast Asia: it extended Chinese
control in the southwest over a region that topographically was more
part of Southeast Asia than of China, populated overwhelmingly by
non-Chinese peoples; it projected Mongol/Chinese sea power aggressively into Southeast Asia for the first time; and it demonstrated in
both these ways the potential implications for other countries of
China’s imperial view of the world.1 Let us look at each of these.
In terms of geography, environment, population and culture,
Yunnan was, and in many ways still is, a northern extension of mainland Southeast Asia. Much of the area is a high plateau, falling away
to the south and east. Much, too, is mountainous. Through high,
narrow valleys flow the tributaries of the great rivers that water southern China and mainland Southeast Asia, none navigable on their
upper reaches. But despite the difficult terrain, merchants and pilgrims
established regular access routes from China, through Yunnan, and
down into Burma. This was the so-called southern silk route, never a
fraction as important as the northern route through Central Asia, but
a conduit nevertheless for exchange between China and India.
Who the early inhabitants of Yunnan were, we do not know,
but they were unrelated to the northern Chinese. Very limited
Chinese settlement may go back to the late fourth century BCE in the
vicinity of Kunming, and parts of Yunnan were claimed by the Han
dynasty. These were officially listed as Chinese prefectures, but administered by local rulers who, as inner barbarians, sent tribute to the Han
court. The Chinese presence was thus minimal, and during the three
centuries of division before the Sui reunified the empire, the whole
region reverted to local rule.
Yunnan well illustrates the process of Chinese colonisation,
and the extension of Chinese imperial power. It also illustrates how
relations between Han Chinese and ‘southwestern barbarians’ were
conducted. Often adventurous individual Chinese traders were the
first to make contact with tribal peoples. Trade was mainly in forest
products, deer antlers, hides and skins, resins and aromatic woods, in
exchange for iron and salt. Once trade became established, or traders
regularly passed through tribal territory, protection would be the
excuse for administrative intervention. Tribal chiefs would be persuaded to acknowledge nominal (from their point of view) Chinese
suzerainty in exchange for official recognition, gifts and titles. They
thereby became part of the Chinese world, their territory incorporated
within the empire as a frontier commandery or prefecture. This provided tribal peoples with the priceless opportunity (from the Chinese
viewpoint) to become civilised; that is, to become culturally assimilated, a process encouraged both by Chinese migration and settlement,
and by intermarriage, for Chinese men were seldom reluctant to take
non-Chinese brides.
This extension of Chinese influence took place in the context of
population pressure and migration. From Chinese sources it is difficult
to trace population movements because the names assigned to tribal
groups change. Broadly speaking, however, population movements
into what is now southern China came from two directions: from the
east, as Chinese displaced Yue peoples inland from the south China
coastal provinces; and from Sichuan to the north. Tribal peoples, in
turn, were forced either to move into more marginal mountainous
country, or to migrate further west and south.
Ironically, it was the Tang policy of consolidating minor king-
doms by favouring specific tribal chiefs over their rivals that resulted
in formation of the first substantial indigenous kingdom in Yunnan. In
the early eighth century, the southernmost of six principalities or zhao
in the vicinity of the Er-hai lake gained ascendancy over the others
and established its capital at Dali. At first the kings of Nanzhao
accepted their status as inner barbarians within the Tang empire.
Tribute was offered and respects paid. But in 750, when king Ko-lo-feng failed to obtain imperial redress for the extortions of Chinese
officials, he took his own revenge. A Nanzhao army occupied Tang territory to the east, then convincingly defeated two Chinese armies sent
to punish him. Rebellion in China then intervened to distract Tang
attention, and Nanzhao was left to consolidate its independence. At
its greatest extent, Nanzhao comprised all of Yunnan, western
Guizhou, southern Sichuan and as far south as northern Laos and
Thailand and northeastern Burma.3
The independence of Nanzhao, and its successor kingdom of
Dali, lasted six centuries before being snuffed out with relatively little
resistance. At first Nanzhao was a powerful regional kingdom, invading Burma from 757 to 763 CE, Sichuan several times between 829
and 873, and Jiao-zhi (northern Vietnam, but then part of China)
between 861 and 866. None of these invasions succeeded in significantly increasing the territory of Nanzhao. Central Sichuan would
have been the most valuable prize, and control over the Red River
delta would have given Nanzhao access to the sea. Both were vital for
the Tang to defend, which they did. Nor was Nanzhao able to control
upper Burma where its victory over, and destruction of, the Pyu
kingdom only opened the way for the Burmans to become the dominant ethnic group, and to establish the kingdom of Pagan.
By the end of the tenth century, an independent Vietnam and
independent Nanzhao seemed to define the limits of Chinese expansion into Southeast Asia. Both had been subjected not only to
extensive sinicisation, but also to substantial Chinese settlement.
Many of these settlers had intermarried with the local population,
however, and owed little allegiance to their homeland. Both Vietnam
and Nanzhao accepted tributary status in their dealings with China, a
relationship that under the Song—when Nanzhao had contracted to
form the kingdom of Dali—settled into comfortable mutual non-aggression.
There were important differences between Dali and Vietnam,
however, that go some way towards explaining why only the latter
retained its independence in the face of Mongol expansionism. For
one thing, Vietnam was administered on the Chinese model, while
Dali was a looser, Southeast Asian mandala. Also in Vietnam the
Sino–Vietnamese ruling elite, with the backing of a relatively ethnically homogeneous Muong/Viet peasantry, were determined to defend
Vietnamese independence. In Dali, the ruling elite was non-Chinese
(probably belonging to a tribal people known as the Lolo) and ruled
over a highly ethnically diverse population with less clearly defined
loyalties. In such circumstances, Chinese settlers, especially locally
powerful families, retained their cultural allegiance to what for them
was their own superior civilisation. Another reason was that for three
hundred years before the Mongols invaded, Vietnam had faced a more
uncertain, more competitive, and more strategically sensitive political
and economic environment than had Dali. Trade, both tributary and
non-tributary with China and commercially with other parts of South-east Asia, was always more important than it was for landlocked Dali.
Moreover, while Vietnam faced a security threat from Champa to the
south as well as from China, Dali encountered no such southern threat
and tended, as a result, to become more complacent and inward-
looking. In short, Dali was much less prepared than was Vietnam to
counter Mongol invasion.
Once the Mongols had seized control of Yunnan, they set about
administering it as a Chinese province, under Mongol direction. As
many Mongols were then Muslim, Islam was propagated and widely
embraced, so that even today Yunnan has the second largest Muslim
population (after Xinjiang) of any province of China. Given both the
topography and ethnic diversity of Yunnan, it was relatively easy,
through a policy essentially of divide and rule imposed by military
garrisons, to maintain Chinese domination. Steady, if slow, migration
that has continued up to the present day swung the balance of population over time in favour of the Chinese, and assisted in the process
of sinicisation.
The conquest of Yunnan altered forever the relationship between
China and Southeast Asia. Strategically it projected Chinese power
to the south and west into direct contact with kingdoms and peoples
with whom they had previously had little or no intercourse at all.
These included the Burmese, the Tai of Sukhothai and Lan Na, and
the Lao of Luang Phrabang, then known as Meuang Sua. Under threat
of military invasion, all were brought within the Chinese tributary
system, thus initiating lasting diplomatic and political relations.
At the same time, new trade routes were opened up from Yunnan
into Burma and the Tai kingdoms along which Yunnanese merchants
led their hardy mountain ponies. The Venetian traveller, Marco Polo,
may also have passed this way. While overland trade never matched
sea trade in importance, it was significant for the countries involved
and for Yunnan itself, for alternative routes east were long and difficult. As the wealth of mainland Southeast Asian kingdoms grew, so
too did trading opportunities with Yunnan, though the full potential
for trade between the two regions still remains to be realised with the
improved communications envisaged for the twenty-first century.
The projection of Mongol power
The Mongols had conquered Yunnan as part of a grand strategy to out-flank the Southern Song, rather than to extend the Chinese empire
into Southeast Asia. The danger posed to the independent kingdoms
of Southeast Asia was soon apparent, however. Using Yunnan as a
base the Mongols intended to sweep south and east through northern
Vietnam to threaten Canton. When in 1257 permission for their
forces to pass through Vietnamese territory was refused, a Mongol army
mounted a swift invasion. The Vietnamese capital of Thang-long (modern Hanoi), was seized and sacked, but the Vietnamese
resorted to guerrilla warfare, and as climate and disease took their
toll, the Mongols were forced to withdraw. Southern Song resistance
continued for another twenty years. Vietnam’s punishment was to
come later.
On his succession to power in 1260 as both emperor of China and
Khan of Khans, Khubilai determined to bolster his legitimacy through
enforcing the submission of tributary states, by conquest if necessary.
Though still engaged in subduing the Southern Song, Khubilai
notified all kingdoms tributary (in theory) to China that a new
dynasty had received the mandate of Heaven, and called not just for
appropriate tribute to be offered, but for submission in person by the
ruler. Particular attention was paid to Vietnam. In 1267, Khubilai
demanded not only the Vietnamese king’s personal submission, and
that his sons should reside in Beijing as hostages, but also that a population census be carried out to serve as the basis for taxation and
military corvée (forced labour owed to a feudal lord), and that a
Mongol governor be appointed. For the Vietnamese these conditions
were quite unacceptable, for they amounted to de facto loss of Vietnamese independence. The Vietnamese parried these demands, while
continuing to send the usual tribute missions; but they were playing a
dangerous game. States that proved uncooperative, as did Japan,
could expect retaliation. Mongol fleets invaded Japan in 1274 and
again in 1281, both times with disastrous results, thanks to the ‘divine
wind’ (kamikaze) that sank so many Mongol ships.
The next Mongol invasion by land was directed not at Vietnam,
however, but at Burma. The first Yuan envoys despatched to King
Narathihapate of Pagan (reigned 1256–87) came from the Mongol
governor of Yunnan. They must have been received by the Burmese
with some surprise. Only twice before had the court of Pagan dispatched what were probably goodwill missions to China (to the Song
in 1004 and 1106). It is not recorded what either brought, so we have
no idea whether the Burmese intention was to stimulate trade or propagate Buddhism. The Song knew nothing of Pagan, except that it was
a large kingdom. Burmese gifts were nevertheless recorded as tribute,
and Pagan took its place as an outer barbarian state whose rulers had
given due recognition to the Son of Heaven. So when the Yuan
dynasty took power, Pagan was informed that tribute was due. This the
Burmese (no doubt interpreting ‘tribute’ in the Southeast Asian sense
of the word) refused to provide, though eventually a Burmese mission
did accompany the Mongol envoys back to Beijing, ostensibly to
worship a tooth of the Buddha, but more likely to gain time and information about this new and aggressive Chinese dynasty.
Khubilai personally received the Burmese mission, and sent his
personal emissary back with it to demand that the Burmese king
present himself in person to pay hommage to the Great Khan. King
Narathihapate was so incensed at the haughty attitude of the Chinese
envoys, who apparently were reluctant to remove their shoes in his
presence, that he ordered the execution of the entire Chinese
mission. Word was slow to reach Beijing of this atrocity, and Khubi-lai’s attention was directed elsewhere. But when the Burmese were
presumptuous enough to invade a former vassal principality that had
submitted to China, Khubilai ordered an invasion to punish this
further insolence. An army was amassed in Chongqing, then the
Mongol administrative centre for Yunnan, and in 1277 descended on
Burma. Narathihapate fled Pagan, earning himself the sobriquet in
the Burmese chronicles of ‘the king who fled the Chinese’. Chinese and
Burmese accounts differ on the outcome of the invasion. The Chinese
claimed a victory when the Mongol cavalry stampeded the Burmese
elephant corps in a great battle east of Bhamo, but the invaders were
forced to retire without achieving any of their aims: the Burmese were
not defeated, nor was their capital taken; King Narathihapate was not
punished, nor was tribute forthcoming.
For these reasons another invasion was ordered in 1287, led this
time by Khubilai’s grandson, Esen Temür. Once again the
Mongol/Chinese force met stiff resistance. Meanwhile Pagan was
plunged into political crisis. King Narathihapate was poisoned by one
of his sons, while another seized the throne and offered to pay tribute
to China. This was apparently enough to convince the invaders to
withdraw before reaching Pagan. The impact on Burma had been devastating, but since the Pagan dynasty continued for almost another
eighty years, the Mongol invasions alone can not be held responsible
for its collapse. Pagan was not destroyed, and while the Mongols were
not militarily defeated, climate and environment took their toll and
the two invasions were hardly worth their cost.
The next land invasions of mainland Southeast Asia took place in
1285, and between 1287 and 1289, both directed against Vietnam.
Both, however, were linked to Khubilai’s attempts to punish Champa as
well. King Jaya Indravarman VI had been reluctant to accede to Khubilai’s demands that Champa send a tributary mission to the Yuan court,
led by the king in person. Like the Vietnamese, the Cham played for
time. To punish Cham procrastination, and to avenge claimed ill treatment of his envoys, Khubilai ordered an attack on Champa by sea. In
1281 a fleet of one hundred ships bearing 5000 men under the
command of Sogetu, one of Khubilai’s leading generals, sailed from
Canton and landed in the vicinity of the Cham capital at Vijaya.
The Cham response was similar to the Vietnamese. The elderly
Cham king abandoned his capital and retreated into the mountains,
while the crown prince resorted to spirited guerrilla warfare. So fierce
was Cham resistance that the Mongols decided to send a relieving
force overland through Vietnam. But again the Vietnamese objected.
This was not out of solidarity with the Cham, but because Mongol
conquest and occupation of Champa would have left Vietnam exposed
to attack on two fronts. The furious Mongol response came in 1285
when a Mongol-led Chinese force from Yunnan invaded Vietnam and
took Thang-long. As before, the Vietnamese mounted a sustained
guerrilla resistance under the inspired leadership of Tran Hung Dao,
and again heat and disease took their toll on the invaders. A Viet-
namese counterattack was successful. Remnants of the invading force,
retreating towards Yunnan, were ambushed in the mountains. Mean-while an attempt by Sogetu to relieve the battered Mongol army ended
in his own death.
A second invasion was immediately ordered, this time from
Guangxi. A Mongol/Chinese army crossed into Vietnamese territory
in 1287 and, for the third time, seized the capital. But again the Vietnamese resorted to guerrilla warfare. The Mongol cavalry was useless
on the Red River flood plain, and the Chinese infantry were again
ravaged by heat and disease. The following year, as the invaders ran
short of supplies, the Vietnamese won a great naval victory. Four
hundred Chinese junks were destroyed as they tried to manoeuvre in
shallow and confined Vietnamese coastal waters. The Mongol army
was again forced to retreat, suffering heavy losses on the way. Prudently, both Champa and Vietnam thereupon dispatched lavish
tribute missions to the Yuan court to re-establish tributary relations,
though neither king attended in person.
So ended the Mongol attempt to extend their Chinese empire
into mainland Southeast Asia. Cambodia was never subject to the
same pressure. Having initially detained Khubilai’s envoys, the Cambodian king, Jayavarman VIII, also sent tribute for fear that the
Mongol army in Champa might cross to the valley of the Mekong and
march south. Further west, the Tai/Khmer principality of Lopburi,
which had declared its independence from Angkor, sent its first tribute
mission to the Yuan court in 1280. Others followed until 1299, though
Lopburi seems to have retained its independence into the 1340s before
being incorporated into the expanding Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya.
In return, Chinese envoys were sent to Southeast Asian capitals, a
famous example being Zhou Daguan’s visit to Angkor in 1296–97.
The final Mongol thrust into Southeast Asia by sea was even
more daring, but just as unproductive. In 1289 Khubilai sent personal
envoys to Java to demand that King Kertanegara of Singhasari, in the
east of the island, should acknowledge Chinese suzerainty. Java had
sent three missions to the Song, in 992, 1109 and 1131. What the last
two brought was not recorded, but it seems clear from the list of valuable goods presented by the first mission that its principal purpose was
trade. The Javanese asked for horses, saddles and weapons, which the
Chinese gave in return, along with ‘very rich’ gifts of gold and silk.6 It
was one thing to enter into diplomatic relations in order to trade,
however, but quite another to accept subject status. The Mongol
envoys returned home ‘with disfigured faces’, which probably meant
that their noses had been sliced off.
Such an insult cried for vengeance. In 1293 Khubilai dispatched
a war fleet to Java to punish Kertanegara. This was the first great projection of Chinese sea power into maritime Southeast Asia. In the
meantime, however, events in Java had moved on. Kertanegara and
several of his loyal followers were assassinated by a disgruntled vassal,
who promptly declared himself king. Soon after, the Mongol armada
reached Tuban, a port on the north central Javanese coast that had
once sent its own tribute/trade missions to China. The arrival of this
substantial force presented Prince Vijaya, Kertanegara’s son-in-law and
designated heir, with a golden opportunity. In return for accepting
Chinese suzerainty, he sought Mongol assistance in defeating the
usurper. The Mongol commander agreed and the usurper was duly
crushed. Vijaya then turned on his allies, picking off scattered contingents of the Mongol force until the Mongol position became untenable
and the fleet was forced to withdraw.
Prince Vijaya established a new dynasty and a new capital at
Majapahit, the name by which this Hindu kingdom became known.
Thus, the Mongol intervention again failed to achieve what it had set
out to do. It had, however, played a crucial enabling role in Javanese
history. Majapahit was a powerful kingdom, comprising as its core East
Java, Madura and Bali, but with important trading interests that
extended its influence, if not its political control, across much of the
Indonesian archipelago, including Brunei and the Borneo coast. Official relations between Majapahit and China remained sporadic, but
were resuscitated by the early Ming dynasty (between 1369 and 1382).
Trading relations were more important until Majapahit declined in the
early sixteenth century.
Although the Yuan dynasty drew a distinction between tributary
and private trade, and encouraged the former, private trade was relatively free. Chinese merchants sailed to Southeast Asia and returned
with lucrative cargoes. Substantial profit margins lured wealthy families into the Nanyang trade. New trade networks were established,
sailed by larger and more seaworthy ocean-going junks. These linked
Chinese coastal towns with ports in Southeast Asia where resident
Chinese communities developed new and sophisticated regional
trading networks and strategies.
Mongol intervention also had significant repercussions on
mainland Southeast Asia. Yuan relations with much of this region
(excluding Vietnam, Champa and Cambodia) were through the governor of Yunnan. It would seem at first glance that the founding of
the first Tai kingdoms was in some way related to the Mongol con-
quest of Yunnan in 1253. Yet there was no sudden massive migration
of population: the Tai peoples had been slowly on the move for centuries. Nor is it likely, as some have surmised, that the Mongol
example suddenly stimulated Tai energy and imagination: other
examples of organised kingdoms had long been available (not least in
Yunnan.) The rise of the Tai kingdoms is better explained by the
steady decline in Khmer power after the reign of Jayavarman VII
(reigned 1177–1215?), and the disunity of the Mon, than by such
tenuous linkages. A power vacuum existed in central mainland South-
east Asia, and the Tai filled it.
Several small Tai principalities (meuang) had come into existence
as early as the first half of the thirteenth century in what is now southern China (Chiang Hung), in northern Thailand (Chiang Saen) and
as far south as Sukhothai, in northeastern Burma on the Shan plateau,
and as far west as Assam. It seems likely that these principalities
accepted Mongol hegemony in return for a free hand in their struggle
against the Mon and Khmer. By the second half of the century, charismatic rulers were able to weld together larger kingdoms. King
Ramkhamhaeng (reigned 1279?–1298?) expanded Sukhothai to become
a powerful Tai kingdom comprising most of central Thailand and
stretching east as far as Viang Chan, south down the Kra Isthmus to
Ligor, and west to Pegu. To the north King Mangrai conquered the
former Mon kingdom of Haripunjaya (1281) to form the kingdom of
Lan Na. In 1292 he established his new capital at Chiang Mai.
The only threat to expanding Tai power came in 1287 when the
Mongols invaded Pagan for the second time. The three most powerful
northern Tai princes came together the same year to conclude a pact
to oppose any Mongol invasion of their territories. When Chiang
Hung fell to Yuan forces in 1292, Mangrai came to the aid of its ruler
and retook the city. Four years later the city again twice changed
hands. A major Mongol campaign in 1301 turned out to be a complete
disaster, and only emboldened the Tai to raid further north into
Chinese territory. At length diplomacy won the day. King
Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai had sent his first tribute mission to
Beijing in 1292, in response to the arrival of a Chinese mission ten
years earlier inviting Sukhothai to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty.
The delay may have reflected Siamese resistance to this, and the
mission, when it was despatched, may have been a shrewd insurance
measure, given events in Burma and Java, against possible Mongol
intervention (which, as we know, was requested by Lopburi). This first
Siamese embassy was followed by several more as the value of
Sino–Siamese trade became evident. One mission may even have been
led by the king himself. Among the valuable presents Ramkhamhaeng
is said to have received were a number of Chinese potters who established ceramic kilns at Sukhothai and Sawankhalok. Lan Na did not
send its first tribute mission to Beijing until 1312, followed by six more
to 1347, by which time the Yuan dynasty was already in decline.
Implications for Southeast Asia
The impact and significance of these momentous events, covering the
second half of the thirteenth century, for relations between China and
the countries of Southeast Asia were considerable. The importance of
the extension of Chinese power south from Sichuan into Yunnan has
already been noted. It opened up a whole new area for Chinese migration and settlement, not just in Yunnan, but also in the largely
non-Chinese populated provinces of Guangxi and Guizhou. This
placed intolerable pressure on minority groups who had either to
retreat deeper into the mountains or submit to Chinese administration, assimilation and exploitation. A trickle of minority peoples south
out of southern China into northern Laos, Burma and Thailand continues to this day.
Overland invasion of Burma and Vietnam taught the kingdoms
of mainland Southeast Asia the very real threat of Chinese armed
intervention. I say ‘Chinese’ and not ‘Mongol’ because although
these armies were Mongol-led and included contingents of Mongol
cavalry, they comprised mainly Chinese troops. Moreover, they
came from China in the name of a ruler who proclaimed himself
emperor of China. So though these invasions can be seen as a continuation of aggressive and expansionist policies pursued by Mongol
rulers, for the peoples of Southeast Asia they were projections of
Chinese power.
In turning their attention to Southeast Asia, the Mongols
enjoyed a strategic advantage not available to most Chinese dynasties:
they did not fear attack on the empire’s northern frontiers. This may
not have been evident, however, to Southeast Asian rulers and their
advisers. Moreover, the failure of invasions of Burma and Vietnam to
secure their military objectives suggests two things: one is that despite
their formidable military might, the Mongols overreached themselves;
and the second is that they were entirely ignorant of conditions of
warfare in these countries, both in terms of climate and environment,
and with respect to the sustained opposition they were likely to
Ruling elites in Southeast Asia probably drew other conclusions. They had, after all, fought Chinese armies to a standstill, but
only after suffering terrible devastation. Moreover, successful defence
of territory was no guarantee that another invasion would not follow,
as it did for the Vietnamese. The best way to avoid that was to
acknowledge Chinese suzerainty and the superiority of the Son of
Heaven. The way to ensure security, in short, was to send a tribute
mission, and thereby participate in the Chinese world order. Investiture might be as a vassal king of the Chinese emperor, but for
the royal courts of Southeast Asia this was recognition that also
reinforced political legitimacy.
One thing worth remarking on, in assessing the response of
Southeast Asian kingdoms to the Mongol threat, is the lack of concerted action. Apart from the brief alliance between the Tai kings of
Sukhothai, Lan Na and Phayao in response to the Mongol invasion
of Burma, the countries of mainland Southeast Asia did not conclude
any defensive pact or treaty. No attempt was made to form an anti-
Chinese coalition. A suggestion by Champa to conclude an alliance
with Dai Viet was rebuffed, and hatreds ran too deep between Champa
and Cambodia after a series of wars and the mutual sack of each others’
capitals. Ruling elites were indeed more likely to take advantage of the
predicament of other kingdoms than to come to their aid.
This response has more to do with mandala relations and the
workings of karma than with a failure of nerve or diplomacy. The
kingdoms of Southeast Asia, both mainland and maritime, were in
frequent communication with each other. Their trading contacts
provided useful sources of information about conditions elsewhere,
political as well as economic. Powerful kings sought queens from
distant kingdoms as evidence of their prestige and power. One of
Kertanegara’s principal queens, for example, was a Cham princess.8
There was apparently little, therefore, to prevent the formation of
some kind of coalition in order to present a unified opposition to
Chinese power. Yet this never happened. Balance-of-power thinking
is European, not Southeast Asian. For Southeast Asian rulers there
was another, surer way to ensure the security of their realms, and that
was by acquiescing in the Chinese world order, humiliating though
this might occasionally be.
The events of the second half of the thirteenth century proved,
however, that the Chinese world order also had its downside for those
on the receiving end. In dispatching envoys to all those states listed in
Chinese records as tributaries to the Middle Kingdom, Khubilai Khan
was responding as previous Chinese emperors had done when found-
ing new dynasties. He sought thereby to exalt himself as Son of
Heaven through reinforcing the Chinese world order. The ritual presentation of homage and tribute constituted public and formal
endorsement of the hierarchical relationships that comprised that
order. Failure to respond risked imperial vengeance. Thus for mainland
Southeast Asian kingdoms in particular, reunification of the Middle
Kingdom under a new dynasty ushered in a dangerous period of threatened intervention.
For the maritime kingdoms, the lessons were somewhat different. The projection of Chinese sea power was worrying, for China
evidently had the means to construct a powerful navy (as the Ming
were again to demonstrate). But the Yuan navy was a patchwork
force including elements of both the Song and Korean navies. For a

Mongol expansionism
land-based people, the Mongols had taken to the sea with remarkable
alacrity, but they had done so with insufficient preparation and plan-
ning, in a knee-jerk response to the treatment of their envoys. The
armada dispatched against Japan was substantial, but the fleet that
sailed for Java was insufficient to defeat a powerful kingdom. The
Javanese could take pride in the way they had, through tactical deception and martial ability, defeated the invaders. They had not had to
rely upon divine protection, as had the Japanese, but had simply used
their own guile and fighting skills. For the Javanese, therefore, a
danger lay in underestimating the Chinese threat.
Changing worldviews
The Yuan dynasty enjoyed only a century of power, the last few years
of which were a period of decline. This was a crucial time in the history
of Southeast Asia, for it saw the consolidation of new kingdoms that
would endure well into the sixteenth century, when they were first
visited by Europeans, and in most cases well beyond. More importantly, it saw the rise of new religions (Theravada Buddhism in
mainland Southeast Asia; Islam in the Malay world) that continue
both to characterise and divide the region. Theravada Buddhism was
already well established in Burma when, in the thirteenth and four-
teenth centuries, it was adopted by the Siamese and Lao, and replaced
both Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism in Cambodia. Its worldview
shared much with Hinduism, particularly belief in karma (though the
Buddhist notion focused more on intention than on action: what one
thinks is as important for Buddhists as what one does). Theravada
Buddhism placed more emphasis on impermanence and individual
effort. Like Confucianism, it endorsed social hierarchy, but for very
different reasons that allowed more scope for individual initiative in
the face of social conformity. Most importantly for China–Southeast
Asian relations, however, Theravada Buddhism endorsed the Indian
mandala relationship between polities, with its emphasis on contingency and flexibility.
Theravada Buddhist kings took particular pains to structure their
kingdoms as microcosmic replicas of the divine macrocosm. At the
centre stood the palace, earthly equivalent of the divine abode of
the gods on Mount Meru. A king’s right to rule derived both from his
superior personal karma, and from possession of the symbols of power
housed in the palace (including notably a potent Buddhist image that
served as the palladium of the dynasty or the kingdom). Kings thus
ruled over competing centres of power, each claiming superior divine
status, to be demonstrated, as circumstances permitted, through con-
quest leading to expansion of the mandala. This was a world of fluid
power, shifting relationships, and flexible responses, ready to adapt as
occasion demanded.
Islam, as it seeped through Indonesia, carried by Muslim
merchants and missionaries, brought with it an entirely different
worldview, one that was essentially incompatible with the earlier
Hinduism and Buddhism of maritime Southeast Asia. For most of the
Malay world, Islam was at first but a thin veneer acquired through the
statement of belief in Allah and Muhammad, his Prophet, that is
required of all Muslims (those who submit to God’s will). But Islam
brought with it some potentially subversive ideas. One was that all
Muslims are equal before God, as symbolised by the ummat (the people
of God) at prayer in the mosque.10 This was never enough to shake the
foundations of Malay social hierarchy, for Islam also taught obedience
and submission, which could without too much difficulty be transferred from God to man, but it did make it more difficult to accept
pretensions to superiority by non-Muslims.
As a revealed religion, Islam itself engendered a sense of superiority through the exclusivity that comes from possession of divine
truth. It was a characteristic of Christianity, too, that marked both
Europeans, and subsequently Filipinos. As revealed religions, both
Islam and Christianity tended to be less tolerant of other beliefs than
either Buddhism or Hinduism, less prepared to make room for them in
a comprehensive worldview. Beyond the ummat stood the unbelievers,
and they included most Chinese. The space this opened up between
Malays/Indonesians and overseas Chinese has hardly been bridged to
this day, for the only way to close it is through conversion.
The Islamic worldview influenced relations between China and
the Muslim Malay/Indonesian world in significant ways. Acceptance
of Islam drew the region into an alternative international order, one
that looked to sultan or caliph as primus inter pares among Muslim
rulers, designated by Allah to preside over the congregation of believers. Such a worldview allowed no cosmic dimension for the Son of
Heaven. Indeed, the very concept was blasphemous, as it was for
Christianity. Chinese power might be respected, to the point where
the rulers of minor Muslim states were prepared to perform the kowtow
before Chinese emperors, but the cosmic basis of the Chinese world
order could never be accommodated by Islam. With the conversion of
the Malay/Indonesian world to Islam, intellectual compromise with
the Chinese world order was rendered virtually impossible. While this
had little effect on trade relations, it did in time alter the context in
which official relations were conducted—not for the Chinese for
whom all official missions were taken as tributary recognition of the
exemplary virtue of the Son of Heaven, but for Malays and Indo-
nesians for whom diplomatic relations were undertaken for entirely
pragmatic reasons.
The Mongol invasions extended the frontiers of the Chinese empire to
include Yunnan, but their armies failed to incorporate either Burma or
Vietnam, and their war fleets failed to subdue either Japan or Java. The
lesson learned, once the aggressive phase of the dynasty subsided and it
became increasingly Chinese, was that nominal acceptance of China’s
hegemonic dominance within a sinocentric world order was as satisfying to Chinese pride as world empire, and was far less costly.
As for the kingdoms of Southeast Asia, they had proved them-
selves tough and resilient in defence of their territories. Symbolic
submission was one thing, subjugation was another. Trade with China
continued for—under whatever dynasty—it was too important to
Southeast Asian rulers for them to quibble over China’s terms. The
Chinese world order thus remained in place, even as important parts
of Southeast Asia were adopting new ways of understanding the world
that—particularly in the case of Islam—introduced potentially incompatible elements that threatened to complicate any future bilateral
relations regimes worked out between Muslim Southeast Asian powers and the Middle Kingdom.

In 1368 the Ming replaced the Yuan dynasty, thereby returning China
to Han Chinese rule. The new dynasty was very conscious of the need
to expunge all barbarian influence, which it undertook to do in time-honoured Chinese fashion by seeking precedents in the past. Texts
were combed, especially from the former great Chinese dynasties of the
Han and Tang, in order to determine the proper way of conduct, in
government and in foreign relations. What resulted was a systematic
restructuring of institutions based on traditions dating back to the
Zhou dynasty (and projected back even further to legendary times),
administered by a bureaucracy trained in neo-Confucian orthodoxy.
Scholar officials determined the elaborate formalities of state ceremonies whose purpose was to reassert the supremacy of the Son of
Heaven and the Chinese world order. All aspects of foreign relations—
exchange of envoys, the reception of diplomatic missions, regulation
of trade, even extradition procedures—were systematised.
In the year of his triumph, Hongwu (reigned 1368–1398), the
first Ming emperor, dispatched envoys to all tributary states informing
them of the change of dynasty and summoning their rulers to acknowledge the new Son of Heaven. In return they were offered formal
investiture and lavish gifts. Among the first to arrive was Emperor
Tran Du Tong of Vietnam (reigned 1341–1369), King of Annam to the
Chinese, who was received with due ceremony. He was followed by
ambassadors from several other Southeast Asian kingdoms: Champa,
Cambodia, Ayutthaya (which had replaced Sukhothai in central Thailand), Majapahit, and several coastal principalities in Java, Sumatra
and Borneo.
Hongwu modelled himself on the Confucian ideal of a benevolent ruler, while at the same time proclaiming Ming power and
superiority. This is made abundantly clear in edicts and letters he dispatched to subordinate rulers. As Hongwu reminded the Vietnamese
king: ‘In the highest place comes acceptance of the way of Heaven; in
the next, respect for China . . .’1 As Son of Heaven, the emperor
desired what Heaven desired, and that was ‘untroubled harmony.’ To
that end, vassal states were required to respect China’s superior status
and maintain peaceful relations with each other. In the event that
they did not, they could expect to be admonished by the emperor, or
even punished by a Chinese military force.
For his part, the emperor committed himself to treating all
peoples justly and impartially. Hongwu assured his tributaries that:
‘Every land on which the sun and moon shine I look on with the same
benevolence.’2 Nor would China abuse her superior power by taking
aggressive action. Neighbouring kingdoms need have no fear. Their
security was assured simply by accepting Heaven’s way and the
emperor’s commands. Hongwu even listed (in 1395) those countries,
by direction, that China pledged not to attack without provocation.
These included, to the south, all the countries of Southeast Asia,
beginning with Vietnam. The list specifically excluded the nomad
peoples to the north and northwest.
Despite these reassurances and their high moral tone, however,
the Chinese conception of tributary relations and how to enforce them
had changed.3 This was thanks to the Mongols. Whereas the Tang
and Song dynasties had, for the most part, relied upon the power of
virtue (de) to convince barbarians to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty
and superiority, the Yuan had relied much more on ‘majesty’ (wei), and
military force, to extend the empire and subdue foreign powers. As barbarians themselves, the Mongols could claim little virtue, in Chinese
eyes at least, and their loss of the mandate of Heaven only confirmed
this. The Ming, by contrast, claimed great virtue; but they did not
forget the lesson of the Yuan: where foreign relations were concerned,
they saw ‘no real contradiction’ between virtue and force, providing
the force was applied by a virtuous ruler.4
The tributary system
Under the Ming, imperial authority was extended to include all relations between Chinese and barbarians, including trade relations.
Private overseas trade by Chinese merchants was prohibited and
Chinese were forbidden to voyage abroad. The only officially sanctioned trade was by merchants from countries that acknowledged
Chinese suzerainty, and then only when they accompanied actual
tribute missions. Such trade attracted only a minimal 6 per cent tax, a
clear indication that the dynasty did not count on trade as a major
source of revenue. Three ports only were designated to receive tribute
missions, depending on where they came from. The port for missions
from Southeast Asia was Canton, though the envoys of some inland
kingdoms arrived via Kunming.
The whole tributary system was also placed on a more formal
footing. Regulations were issued specifying how tribute was to be
offered and how frequently. ‘Near countries’ on China’s borders, such
as Vietnam, were required to send tribute every three years. ‘Distant
countries’, which included all of Southeast Asia beyond Champa, were
required to send tribute only ‘infrequently’. Tribute did not need to be
lavish, Hongwu told Vietnam, and should not be a burden: the intention was what counted. The symbolism of ritual submission took
precedence over economic benefit.
An elaborate ceremonial was put in place, based on historical
precedent. Court officials greeted the envoys, and prepared them for the
emperor’s banquet at which a tributary memorial was presented, along
with ‘local produce’, the more exotic the better. Envoys were instructed
how to behave and when to kowtow. Less important banquets followed
until it was time to leave the capital, escorted by an appropriate official.
Even more revealing of the Chinese view of the world were the equally
detailed instructions on how Chinese envoys were to be received by
foreign courts, especially when bearing an imperial edict or seal of
office for the investiture of the ruler as a Chinese vassal.
More Chinese envoys travelled abroad during the early Ming
than at any other time in the history of relations between China and
Southeast Asia. Five were despatched to Ayutthaya by Hongwu, for
example, and nine by Yongle. They came to instruct as well as inform,
to let Southeast Asian courts know exactly what was expected of
them. Their demeanor was both superior and patronising, as was the
message they carried. The ritual for the reception of Chinese envoys
reflected in large part the ritual for the reception of tributary missions
in China. Some Southeast Asian kingdoms went to great lengths to
impress visiting Chinese envoys, for this was an opportunity for reciprocal demonstrations of royal power and wealth. Great reverence
would be shown to an imperial edict or letter, but in Siam, for example,
the envoy was led into the royal presence barefooted and was required
to prostrate himself three times before the king. Even during the early
Ming, however, more embassies were sent to China from Southeast
Asia than were received from China. In fact, more missions were dispatched from Cambodia in the first fifty years of the Ming than were
sent throughout the rest of the Angkor period (802–1431).
The new Ming restrictions applying to trade reduced both its
volume and value. In response, Southeast Asian principalities and
some larger kingdoms attempted to increase trade by dispatching
missions more frequently. Srivijaya, for example, sent six missions in
the space of seven years, while Siam and Cambodia also markedly
increased the number of tribute missions. Some private merchants
attempted to disguise trade in the form of bogus official missions, but
Ming officials applied strict criteria for verifying the authenticity of
embassies and issued warnings against such ventures.
Southeast Asian rulers were not averse to the official trade
regime imposed by the Ming, for it reduced competition from private
traders. Private Chinese merchants, by contrast, especially those from
coastal Fujian who had been engaged in free trade with the Nanyang
over the previous two centuries, were most unhappy, and immediately
set about circumventing the new restrictions. Many resorted to smug-
gling, which increased dramatically, encouraging piracy in its wake.
Others sought to cooperate closely with official tributary missions,
even going so far, as in Ayutthaya, as effectively to manage tributary
trade to the joint benefit of both court and merchants. In a few cases
ethnic Chinese actually led official missions (from Java in the 1430s
and 1440s, and from Siam in 1478 and 1481).
Despite the increase in smuggling and in the frequency of tribute
missions, the total volume of trade between Southeast Asia and China
declined in the last decades of the fourteenth century. This had a
serious impact, especially on smaller Malay trading settlements, and
indirectly provoked political disturbances. Thus attempts by south
Sumatran ports, such as Malayu, to gain Chinese recognition as in-
dependent polities, indirectly provoked their conquest by Javanese
Majapahit. Another effect was to increase the resident Chinese popu-
lation in Southeast Asia, as merchants feared reprisals if they returned
to China. Some merchant families in China fled abroad for fear of
prosecution or persecution. In order to maintain their commercial
buying networks, Chinese merchant communities in Southeast Asia
redirected trade towards the muslim West, while waiting for the situation in China to ameliorate.
Chinese foreign policy under the Ming, as reflected in the new
regulations on tribute and trade, obviously cannot be understood purely
in economic or commercial terms. The first Ming emperor was not in-
terested in generating wealth through tribute or trade. But he was
interested in reimposing a Chinese world order, in which China was uni-
versally accorded supreme status as the Middle Kingdom, and all
countries acknowledged the power of the emperor’s virtue. Limitations
on foreign travel and trade were designed to impose imperial control
over all Chinese, and to minimise contacts between Chinese and non-
Chinese that might cause friction. Stipulations on tribute were designed
to place foreign relations on a formal footing, regulated by prescribed
ritual (li).
It should be noted that because China stood at the centre of the
world, and because the emperor enjoyed the mandate of Heaven, any
friction that arose in foreign relations was necessarily due to the failure
of vassal kingdoms to act in accordance with Chinese expectations. In
such cases punishment might be necessary—always because China had
been provoked, and always to restore the peace that China desired—on
China’s terms. Given the Chinese conceptions of hierarchy and
harmony, it was always possible to justify aggressive policies in high
moral terms when it was in China’s interest to do so. An example of this
self-serving approach from Hongwu’s reign was the reimposition of
Chinese domination over the non-Chinese people of Yunnan, who in
the later Yuan period had regained much of their former independence.
Ming expansionism
There were good reasons for Ming concern that the southern frontier
should remain peaceful. Unlike the Yuan, the Ming again faced a
hostile coalition of Mongols and Turks on the grasslands to the north
and west. Hongwu did not want any unrest in the south, either in
Yunnan or in Vietnam. In 1380, the decision was taken to reincorporate
Yunnan into the empire, on the pretext that the presence in Kunming
of a Mongol prince posed a threat to the dynasty. A force of almost a
quarter of a million men took first Kunming, then Dali, but it was
another three years before the region was declared ‘pacified’, and then
only after considerable loss of life. Principalities ruled by non-Chinese
were overthrown in both Yunnan and Guizhou and either made to
acknowledge Chinese suzerainty through payment of an annual
tribute, or brought under direct Chinese administration. In 1388, the
first of three invasions was launched against the Tai principality of
Luchuan, southwest of Dali, an area never previously claimed by any
Chinese dynasty. The independence of Vietnam was not threatened
during Hongwu’s reign, though it was required, as a Chinese vassal
state, to supply rice to Ming forces in Guizhou.
The Chinese invasion and conquest of Dali extended the southern frontier of the empire, while Chinese migration into the region
reinforced Chinese control. Yet these actions were rationalised not in
strategic or security terms, but as punishment for refusing to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty and for ‘obstructing culture’.7 Emperor
Hongwu’s proclamation that he had no intention of attacking small
barbarian countries in Southeast Asia had proved hollow for the Tai
principalities on China’s southern frontier, for a pretext had easily
been found that they were ‘causing trouble’.
Hongwu and his Confucian court did not see themselves as
pursuing an aggressive foreign policy. Instead, they saw foreign relations
as flowing naturally from a reassertion of Chinese rule within the Middle Kingdom, which brought with it restoration of the cosmological basis of the Chinese world order. The barbarian Yuan had been
defeated because, lacking virtue (de), they had lost the mandate to rule.
The de of the new dynasty could not be taken for granted, however. Its
real and practical proof lay in acknowledgment of China’s superior
status at the summit of the hierarchy of powers through homage and
tribute, and in the universal extension of peace and harmony beyond
China’s frontiers—if necessary through the use of force.8
The second great Ming emperor, Yongle (reigned 1402–1424),
only succeeded in gaining the throne after three years of civil war, as
a usurper at the expense of his nephew. This may have been why he
was determined to enhance his own status as emperor by bringing all
the known world within the Chinese world order, with himself at
the centre. Modelling himself on the great conquering emperors of the
past, Han Wudi and Tang Taizong, Yongle embarked upon a series of
maritime expeditions and military campaigns to extend Chinese influence throughout the Nanyang and into Central Asia.
Yongle’s attention was attracted to the Nanyang in part because
the conquests of Timur (Tamerlane), the last of the great Mongol
conquerors, had severed trade routes to the west through Central
Asia. This forced the new emperor to reassess his predecessor’s policy
towards seaborne trade. But in 1405, Timur died and the empire
he had created split apart. The Mongols and Tartars were still both
powerful forces, but their disunity provided Yongle with an opportunity to play one off against the other, and so neutralise the Mongol
threat to north China. Between 1410 and 1424, Yongle personally
led five great, ultimately futile military campaigns deep into the
grasslands. To mount these campaigns he moved the Ming capital
from Nanjing to Beijing, a mere 60 kilometres from the Great Wall,
where it has remained ever since (but for brief interludes). Thus
within his own reign did Yongle’s attention shift from the sea
to the steppes; and there the attention of his successors remained
Yongle’s first priority, however, was to project Chinese power
south. The Chinese hold on Yunnan was reinforced and extended.
Beyond lay a ring of tributary kingdoms designated as ‘pacification
superintendencies’ whose responsibility was to keep the peace along
China’s frontiers. These included the the Tai principalities of
Luchuan and Cheli (Sipsong Phan Na), the Lao kingdom of Lan
Xang, the kingdom of Lan Na in northern Thailand, and the kingdom
of Ava in Burma, all of whose rulers were designated ‘pacification
superintendents’, with the status of Chinese ministers. All conducted
their official relations with China via Yunnan.
None of these ‘pacification superintendencies’ had ever been
administratively part of China. But there was one area that once had
been part of the empire, and that was, of course, Vietnam. The Ming
attempt to reimpose Chinese rule over Vietnam coincided with its projection of naval power into the Nanyang and beyond, and clearly
formed part of a concerted policy both to expand the empire and to
strengthen and extend Chinese influence.
In 1400 a powerful Vietnamese mandarin named Ho Quy Ly took
advantage of the political turmoil in China to replace the child
emperor of Vietnam, last of the Tran dynasty, with his own son and to
proclaim a new dynasty. Once the Yongle Emperor’s victory was
assured, tribute was sent to the new Son of Heaven, who graciously
recognised the new Vietnamese dynasty. However, in response to
appeals by supplicants claiming to be members of the Tran royal family,
Yongle saw an opportunity to reassert Chinese control over Vietnam,
and seized it.
The pretexts given for the Ming invasion of Vietnam in 1406
focused on the crimes committed by Ho Quy Ly and the need to
punish them in order to protect the Vietnamese people. Forgotten
were the reassurances of Hongwu that Vietnam need not fear Chinese
attack. As always, aggressive Chinese action was given moral justifi-
cation by placing all the blame on Vietnam. Twenty crimes were listed,
the most serious of which were that the Vietnamese had murdered the
legitimate Tran ruler and his family, and assassinated the Chinese-
backed Tran pretender; that they had deceived the Chinese about the
Ho usurpation; that they had insulted China by sending a criminal as
an envoy; that they had encroached on Chinese territory; and that
they had attacked Champa, a vassal of China, and annexed some of
its territory.9 In other words, Ho Quy Ly had disrupted the peace and
order that China desired to maintain on its southern frontier. All
Yongle intended in invading Vietnam, so he claimed, was to restore
the legitimate Tran dynasty and so restore harmony and well-being to
the country and the region. Despite assuring the Vietnamese that they
were all his children, the force that Yongle dispatched carried out a
massive slaughter. Vietnamese resistance was fierce and tens of thou-
sands were killed before the Vietnamese capital was taken and Ho Quy
Ly captured.10
The Ming hardly had the intention of restoring independent
Tran rule, for Vietnam was immediately incorporated into the Chinese
empire as a province under the old name of Jiao-zhi, with all the paraphernalia of Chinese administration soon in place. The justification
for this was that Vietnam had previously been a province of China.
During its four centuries of independence China had ‘been engaged
with many things’ and so had been prevented from reasserting
control.11 An annual tribute was imposed of silk, lacquerwork, aromatic
woods and kingfisher feathers, and taxes levied. Private overseas trade
was banned, as elsewhere in the empire, and the Vietnamese economy
was subordinated to that of China.
The annexation of Vietnam constituted the second major southern extension of Chinese power south, after Yunnan. Had it been
successful, the shape of relations between China and Southeast Asia
would today be very different. As it was, however, the ‘peaceful south’
(Annam) was never pacified. Vietnamese resistance continued,
waiting only for the right political circumstances to expel the invaders.
In the meantime, the Yongle Emperor turned from the land to the sea
as a means of projecting Chinese power.
The Ming voyages
Between 1405 and 1433, a remarkable series of seven great maritime
expeditions were mounted, all but the last on the orders of the Yongle
Emperor. Apart from materially contributing to the prestige and prosperity of the Middle Kingdom, the impact of these voyages was felt for years far beyond China’s shores. Just the bare outline of these seven
voyages is impressive enough.12 The first expedition of 1405–07 com-
prised 317 ships, 62 of them so-called ‘treasure ships’, great five-masted
ocean-going junks up to 120 metres (400 feet) in length and 50 metres
(160 feet) wide, with up to nine masts, four decks, and watertight bulk-heads. They were thus several times larger than the largest Portuguese
caravelles that sailed into the Indian Ocean a century later, and represented the pinnacle of fifteenth-century maritime technology. At its
height, Yongle’s navy counted 250 of these vessels of seven different
kinds, the largest capable of carrying 500 men, along with over 3000
warships provisioned by 400 armed supply vessels.
The first fleet carried 27 870 men, including officers, soldiers,
seamen, interpreters, medical orderlies, various artisans skilled in boat
repair and maintenance, and numerous officials in charge of everything from rationing stores and purchasing supplies, to valuing and
keeping meticulous accounts of the treasure, gifts and trade goods
exchanged. This expedition, like subsequent ones, was under the
overall command of the grand imperial eunuch, Admiral Zheng He, a
Muslim from Yunnan who had gained imperial favour for his military
prowess. The fleet visited at least ten countries, as far as Cochin and
Calicut on the Malibar coast of southern India, where it stayed for
about four months awaiting a change in the monsoon winds before the
return voyage.
The next two voyages took place in 1407–09 and 1409–11. Both
again went to Calicut, though the third also visited Sri Lanka. The
fourth voyage, from 1413 to 1415, went beyond India for the first time,
as far as Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. It comprised 63
ships carrying 28 560 men. The fifth expedition of 1417–19 sailed
even further, down the coast of Africa as far as Malindi, just north of
Mombasa. No record survives of the complement of ships and men on
this or the sixth expedition (1421–22), which reached Aden and the
Somali ports of Mogadishu and Brava. On all these voyages, elements
of the fleet were directed to other ports of call, including the Andaman
Image rights unavailable
Reconstruction of Ming ‘treasure ship’ compared to Columbus’s St Maria, fifteenth
century. (Jan Adkins from Louise E. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas,
Simon and Schuster, New York, 1994.)
and Nicobar Islands and Bengal. The furthest of these subsidiary
voyages was to Mecca, the most distant place to send an envoy to the
Ming court.
The sixth expedition was the last despatched by the Yongle
emperor. After it came a break of ten years, during which there was
steady retraction of Chinese sea power and presence overseas. Laden
with honours, Admiral Zheng He was named ‘Defender’ of Nanjing
and given responsibilities ashore. Then, in 1430, the Xuande
emperor, perhaps in emulation of Yongle, ordered Zheng He, at the
age of fifty-nine, to undertake one last voyage. This lasted from 1431
to 1433. More than 100 large ships transported 27 550 men to twenty
destinations, though not all were visited by the main fleet. Zheng He
died in 1435 at Nanjing, where his tomb can still be seen. In the
course of his seven voyages he had personally visited thirty-seven
countries as the foremost ambassador of his age.
These Ming voyages have attracted considerable scholarly
interest, as much for their unexploited potential as for their importance for the history of Chinese foreign relations and diplomacy.
Nowhere in the Ming records is the purpose of these great expeditions
explicitly stated. Scholars have debated the reasons why they were
dispatched, why they were on such a vast scale, why they ended so
abruptly, and why they were all but forgotten subsequently. That these
expeditions—or at least the first one or two—were dispatched to seek
out Yongle’s young nephew (and pretender to the throne) can probably be dismissed. Personal aggrandisement and Yongle’s need to bolster
his political legitimacy by ensuring that a steady stream of foreign
ambassadors came to pay him homage in his new capital at Beijing
almost certainly played a part. Another possible reason may have been
that closure of overland trade routes convinced Yongle of the need to
compensate by controlling maritime routes. There is evidence that
imports of goods from both Southeast and South Asia fell short of
demand during the Hongwu period, and Yongle required a steady
supply of luxuries. Moreover, as the emperor was personally interested
in fostering diplomatic relations with Southeast Asia and the Western
Ocean, he may have wanted more information about them.
These reasons, even combined, are still not entirely convincing.
Even though Chinese demand for overseas products had grown substantially since the days of the Tang and Song, this could presumably
have been met by encouraging more private traders to come to
Chinese ports. For the Ming, however, maritime trade had to accompany tribute, not just to ensure official control over greedy merchants,
but to enforce acceptance of the Chinese world order.
The size of the Ming fleets was designed to overawe and bring
submission through recognition of the superiority of Chinese civilisation and power. Ideally, power was not to be used in an aggressive
way. Ritualised submission was sufficient to satisfy the Ming court that
surrounding kingdoms accepted the Chinese world order and its status
hierarchy. To explain how this worked, Zheng He carried with him
thousands of copies of Chinese texts to be distributed to local rulers for
their edification.
There was, in other words, a powerful ideological purpose behind
the Ming voyages. They were designed to convince the known world
to accept their designated place within the Chinese world order. At
the centre stood the Son of Heaven, whose cosmic role was to ensure
through the power of his virtue (de) the universal peace and harmony
essential to human welfare. This universal ambition had to include all
those countries whose merchants traded at Chinese ports—Arabs, Persians and Indians, as well as Malays, Thai and Cham. By continuing
on from India to Hormuz and Mecca, Zheng He, good Muslim that he
was, brought the world known to China within the Chinese world
Early Ming rhetoric makes abundantly clear the intention of the
dynasty to reestablish the Chinese ‘imperial order’. The lofty tolerance, the benevolence and impartiality, masked a reality with regard to
power that the Ming were determined should be well understood.
Power had always formed a crucial dimension of the hierarchical
Chinese world order. China stood at the centre of the world, not just
because of its superior civilisation and the virtue of the emperor, but
because of its imperial power—to command, enforce, and punish if
necessary. Zheng He’s kid gloves of diplomacy only partially masked his
capacity to enforce the order he represented. The very size of his fleet
and the soldiers at his command were designed to amaze and over-
whelm, to coerce through fear.
Although the voyages were designed to bring even far countries
in the Western Ocean, including India itself, within the Chinese world
order, their impact on Southeast Asia was especially great. Each fleet
had to wait for up to four months in a port on the north Javanese or
east Sumatran coast, or at Melaka, in order to catch the east–west
monsoon, more than enough time to become well informed about
local politics and economic opportunities and, in particular, the activities of overseas Chinese.
The ambiguity of official Chinese relations with overseas
Chinese is well illustrated by the case of Srivijaya, centred on Palembang in southern Sumatra. Srivijaya was by then a declining power,
recently reduced to the status of a dependency of the Javanese
kingdom of Majapahit. But Palembang remained a major Chinese
trading centre with a large resident Chinese population. As strong
local government collapsed, Chinese traders elected their own leader
who obtained the blessing of the Ming court. Peaceful transit for merchant shipping through the vital Melaka Strait was thereby assured.
When in 1405 a Chinese pirate, Chen Zuyi, seized control of Palembang, Zheng He attacked and defeated him. Seventeen ships were sunk
or seized, and more than 5000 of Chen’s men killed in a series of
engagements over three months. Chen was sent in chains to China,
where he was beheaded. One message from these events was clear:
force would be used to ensure peaceful conditions for legitimate trade.
Another was less evident: the interests of China took precedence over
those of Chinese overseas.
Force was also used to ensure respect for China’s imperial order.
In 1411 Zheng He returned from his third voyage via Beruwala, on the
west coast of Sri Lanka. There the local Sinhalese ruler rashly refused
to acknowledge Chinese suzerainty. Conflict arose and several battles
were fought, resulting in a decisive Chinese victory. The king, his
family, and several leading officials were carried off as captives to
Beijing. There Yongle demonstrated his benevolence by releasing
them and permitting them to return to Sri Lanka, once they had rendered him homage.
On his fourth voyage, Zheng He executed an imperial
command to depose a usurper who had seized control of Samudra on
the northeast coast of Sumatra, and restore the rightful ruler to his
throne. The usurper’s forces were defeated, and he himself was taken
as a prisoner to China, along with his wife and child. This time the
sentence was death, for the Chinese-sanctioned order had been disturbed. The message was again clear. China reserved the right to intervene in local affairs, and Chinese power would be used where
Chinese interests were at stake. China’s readiness to use force thus
stood as a warning to any ruler in Southeast Asia who might disturb
the existing order.
Later Ming–Southeast Asia relations
The reign of the Yongle Emperor was by any account a remarkable one.
By the time he died in 1424, the dynasty was at the height of its power,
the empire was prosperous and at peace (though the Mongol threat
remained), and China enjoyed diplomatic relations with sixty-seven
overseas kingdoms and principalities. Indeed, Chinese sea power
reached further beyond her frontiers than ever before or since, to dominate not only the Nanyang, but also much of the Indian Ocean as far
west as the African coast. Under Chinese naval protection, seaborne
trade flourished, bringing wealth not only to the tribute ports of south-
ern China, but throughout the empire wherever goods for export were
produced or imports traded.
Yet as we have seen, even during the Yongle Emperor’s reign,
Chinese attention had again shifted north. This was due to both external and internal factors. Externally, Turks and Mongols continued to
pose a threat to the security of the empire. Internally, scholar officials
succeeded in contesting the power of the court eunuchs. The great
voyages were criticised for their cost and extravagance, and those associated with them lost influence. Finances were required for the army
and for building the new capital with its imposing Forbidden City.
Zheng He’s voyages were not the only cost involved in Yongle’s
southern strategy. Vietnamese resistance had continued since 1406,
and substantial Chinese reinforcements had had to be dispatched. The
most effective resistance centred on the mountains west of Thanhhoa, where a member of the local landed gentry named Le Loi led a
motley band, with the support of the Muong, a non-sinicised people
close to the ancestral Vietnamese. Other loyalists joined him, and in
1418 Le Loi launched his campaign to drive out the Chinese. At first
he had little success. An attempt to gain Lao support was subverted by
the Chinese and Le Loi was almost captured. His opportunity came in
1424 with the death of Yongle.
Over the next year Le Loi seized all the region from the frontier
of Champa to north of Nghe-an, but for isolated Chinese garrisons in
district centres. By the end of 1426, much of the Red River delta was
in his hands. Massive Chinese reinforcements were not enough to
stem the Vietnamese advance, and in early in 1428, after yet another
significant Vietnamese victory, a face-saving peace was concluded.
Remaining Chinese forces were permitted to withdraw without further
attack. Le Loi was left to found the Le dynasty, grudgingly recognised
by the Ming court in 1431 after appropriate tributary submission. The
Xuande emperor loftily proclaimed: ‘I am specially sending envoys
with a seal and am ordering that [Le Loi] temporarily take charge of
the affairs of the country (guo) of Annam and govern the people of the
country.’13 No longer was Vietnam a Chinese province.
The Ming invasion of Vietnam had given the Vietnamese
another national hero. Once again the lesson was learned: Chinese
occupation could be defeated by refusing to surrender, mounting a
guerrilla resistance, and fighting a protracted war relying on popular
support. It was a recipe that served the Vietnamese well into the
twentieth century. But a further step was necessary. After defeating
Chinese armies on Vietnamese soil, peace had to concluded in the
only face-saving way that was acceptable to the Chinese—that is, by
restoring the hierarchical tributary relationship. At this the Vietnamese were adept. Vietnamese officials, good Confucian mandarins
that they were, knew exactly the right form of address to use in
humbly requesting imperial favour. And the Chinese, pragmatic
about a lost cause, graciously responded by permitting Le Loi to rule
his country as a nominal Chinese vassal. Thus was the security of
Vietnam ensured.
China’s relations with other kingdoms in Southeast Asia were
much more friendly. Numerous embassies were exchanged following
the Zheng He voyages as even minor principalities sought to benefit
from trading relations with China. One was Melaka whose independence was expressly underwritten by Yongle. Melaka was founded
around 1400 by a truant prince from south Sumatra, named Parameshvara. The port was strategically situated to control the Melaka
Strait, but sat on the fringes of the empires of both Majapahit and
Ayutthaya, and was claimed by both. When Melaka was visited in
1403 by a Chinese envoy, Parameshvara appealed for Chinese recognition and protection. A tributary mission was dispatched; Zheng He
visited Melaka in 1409; and Parameshvara went in person to make his
submission to Yongle in 1411.
China took a particular interest in Melaka, both because of its
importance as a trading emporium, and because of its strategic location. In 1405 Melaka was accorded the significant honour of being the
recipient of the first of four inscriptions Yongle personally addressed to
foreign rulers. In it the emperor graciously acknowledged Parameshvara’s desire to be part of the Chinese world order, and to benefit from
its cosmically ordained harmony.
The king of Brunei was another minor potentate who personally
led a tribute mission to China. His reward was Chinese endorsement
for Brunei’s independence. Yongle magnanimously freed Brunei of any
obligation to pay tribute to the declining power of Majapahit. A royal
inscription presented to the Brunei sultan demonstrated, however, the
essentially condescending Chinese view of its vassal status. In all,
seven kings made the long trip to the Chinese capital, all from minor
principalities (including three from Melaka and two from Brunei).
For the Melakan ruler, the benefits of Chinese protection were
immediate and tangible. Ayutthaya had attempted to impose its own
suzerainty over Melaka by confiscating the imperial seal Yongle had
bestowed on Parameshvara. Zheng He’s voyage of 1407, and again that
of 1419, visited Ayutthaya to warn the Siamese king not to infringe
China’s suzerainty over Melaka. The example of Ho Quy Ly was
explicitly cited, and the warning was enough to thwart Siamese
attempts to control the straits. An even stronger warning to the
Javanese to settle their civil war, and to pay compensation in gold for
executing Chinese envoys, also made reference to the fate of Annam.
For Southeast Asia, China had previously been as a great but
distant power, one that might take upon itself to offer admonition or
arbitration, but which seldom aggressively interfered in regional
affairs. The voyages of Zheng He brought Chinese power much closer.
Small kingdoms like Melaka and Brunei, that feared being absorbed by
powerful neighbouring mandalas, eagerly sought protection. Medium
polities such as Champa and Cambodia, worried about pressures from
neighbours, looked to China to maintain the status quo. Larger kingdoms such as Vietnam or Ayutthaya, expansionist themselves, resisted
intervention, while promoting trade with China.
The effectiveness of China as arbitrator and protector depended
on its capacity to respond to an appeal from a tributary. After the Vietnamese invaded Lan Xang in 1479, Lao envoys requested Chinese
assistance. The matter was investigated, and blame placed squarely on
the Vietnamese. China admonished Vietnam, and demanded withdrawal of its forces on pain of punishment, though by then the
Vietnamese had already retreated. Two years later, reports that
Vietnam was again planning to invade Lan Xang elicited a strongly
worded warning. Meanwhile a Lao request for Chinese forces from
Yunnan to assist them in avenging the Vietnamese invasion was
turned down. The Lao were told that the Chinese emperor regarded
both Lao and Vietnamese as his ‘children’, and that he desired only to
end their enmity, for ‘this is China’s way’. Instead of troops, Chinese
envoys were dispatched to both sides in order to ‘instruct’ them how to
maintain good relations and to care for their people.
Eighty years later, when Burmese armies marched east into the
Tai world, Ming power was on the wane and Chinese admonitions
carried less weight. Even so, the possibility of calling upon China as
arbitrator remained and was resorted to on occasions, just as small
powers might call upon the United Nations, with similarly nugatory effect.
We cannot be certain how the countries of Southeast Asia responded
to this early fifteenth-century projection of Chinese power into the
region, for as usual we have no Southeast Asian source materials. All
we have to go on are the Ming records, written as they were from a
markedly sinocentric point of view. One thing is obvious, however,
just from the frequency of missions sent to China, and that is that trade
was the primary motive. If trade was important for China, despite official restrictions, it was the lifeblood of small Southeast Asian
kingdoms. Where it was a royal semi-monopoly, as in Ayutthaya, profit
from trade contributed a substantial proportion of court revenue. After
Yongle abolished restrictions on the frequency of missions, Champa
sent envoys almost every year, while Ayutthaya on several occasions
dispatched two missions in a year, in an effort to maintain the level of
trade in the absence of private commerce. For the smaller port principalities, trade was their major source of revenue. After 1435, when embassies from Siam and Champa were again limited to one every
three years (a rule subsequently also applied to Java), only illegal channels were available, which had the effect of concentrating trade in the
hands of Chinese smuggling networks.
A second point to note is that only the rulers of small and vulnerable principalities led missions to the Ming court in person. No
king of Champa or Cambodia, let alone Ayutthaya or Majapahit, ever
paid homage to the Son of Heaven. That Chinese emperors preferred
to accept the homage of kings in person is evident from the lavish way
the minor rulers of Melaka and Brunei were received in Beijing, for the
submission of a king enhanced the status of the emperor. Rulers of
more powerful Southeast Asian kingdoms must have been aware of
this, but rejected all inducements to pay homage in person. Moreover,
apart from Vietnam, the kingdoms even of mainland Southeast Asia
did not place China alone at the apex of the international hierarchy.
In the seventeenth century, for example, Siam accorded similar recognition to ambassadors from Mughal India and Persia as they did to
envoys from China.16 India was always an alternative pole of attraction
(and status) for Buddhist kingdoms, for the same reason that Mecca
was for Muslim polities. Thus for all their acceptance of the Chinese
world order, Southeast Asian kingdoms never saw themselves as committed to that order alone. Their foreign relations cultures, while
hierarchical, recognised several potentially competing centres of
power, and made allowance for shifting power relationships.
The Ming voyages confirmed that China was indeed the regional
hegemon, with a capacity to project its naval power well beyond its
maritime frontiers. But the voyages themselves were more about
affirming the status of an ambitious emperor and reinforcing the
Chinese world order than about imposing political or military domination. When Ming armies did invade Vietnam, they were driven
back, and the tributary relationship was re-established. Security rested,
as always, on determined defence plus acceptance of the moral obligations implicit in the Chinese world order, for both vassal and

From the mid-fifteenth to the mid-seventeenth centuries has been
called the ‘age of commerce’ in Southeast Asia.1 Part of the initial
impetus for this period of increased trade and prosperity came from
Admiral Zheng He’s voyages, which established conditions for regular
maritime trade. The seizure of Melaka by the Portuguese in 1511
marked the violent arrival of Europeans in Southeast Asia, though
their activities at first had little effect on trading relations between
China and the Nanyang. More important from the point of view of
both China and Southeast Asia was the lifting, in 1567, of the Ming
ban on private overseas trade. Even the arrival of the Dutch did not
at first disrupt trade patterns. As the Dutch grip strengthened, how-
ever, they were able to impose a monopoly over most of the spice
trade, notably from the Maluku islands, with critical effects on indigenous commerce. The so-called junk trade between the Nanyang and
China continued, however, until it was progressively eclipsed by
European shipping between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth
More importantly for this study, throughout the period from the
heyday of the Ming through the resurgence of Chinese power during
the early Qing, official relations between China and foreigners,
whether Southeast Asian or European, continued to be conducted in
accordance with the ‘tributary system’—that is, in terms of the
Chinese world order. Envoys from European powers—the Portuguese
in Melaka and Macau, the Spanish in Manila, the Dutch in Batavia
(Jakarta)—were required to meet the same formalities as envoys from
‘tributary’ kingdoms in Southeast Asia. As the Europeans were in no
position to challenge Chinese power until the nineteenth century,
they had no alternative but to acquiesce. Not until the famous British
embassy of Lord Macartney in 1793 did a European envoy refuse to
perform the kowtow of ‘three kneelings and nine prostrations’ that in
Chinese eyes signified submission to the emperor, and so served to
reinforce the Chinese view of the world and their own place in it.
Tribute and trade
After the voyages of Zheng He, Ming foreign relations settled into
what one scholar has characterised as a ‘defensive, passive, and bureaucratic mode’.2 Official justification for the retreat from Yongle’s
expansionist attempt to assert Chinese superiority and power was
couched in the rhetoric of the traditional Chinese worldview, combined with pragmatic economic and political considerations. Court
mandarins argued that the exemplary moral virtue of the emperor and
the superiority of Chinese culture were sufficient to ensure barbarian
submission without the costly use of force. If this did not work, barbarians could always be played off against each other. In any case, as
trade was believed to be more important for barbarians than for self-sufficient China, they would continue to behave as required.
During this period policies towards Southeast Asia reflected those
developed to deal with Central Asia, where instead of welcoming trade,
as the Tang had done, the Ming tried to circumscribe it. After the
expeditions of Zheng He, the dynasty no longer looked upon the
distant world beyond China’s frontiers as a source of tribute and
knowledge. Some of the records of Zheng He’s voyages were actually
destroyed; others were filed away and forgotten. From the mid-fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries, official China became
progressively more isolationist and inward-looking.
No attempt was made to maintain even a reduced naval presence
in Southeast Asian waters, let alone in the Indian Ocean. As a result,
the number of tribute embassies rapidly declined. The last mission
from Bengal arrived in 1438 and from Sri Lanka in 1459. Embassies
from Southeast Asia, including Champa, Cambodia, and Melaka, continued with reduced frequency. No mission arrived from Sulu after
1421, from Brunei after 1426, or from Samudra-Pasai in Sumatra after
1435. In their place an extensive Southeast Asian shipping network
supplied the China trade.
This regional trade network comprised two parts: a western
route linking Champa to ports on the Malay peninsula and northern
Java (Surabaya, Gresik and Tuban); and an eastern route linking the
Ryukyu islands (Liu-qiu), the Philippines (Luzon), Sulu and Borneo
(Brunei).3 Most of the inter-island trade was in Indonesian vessels,
but the China connection from Champa or Siam and the Ryukyus
was sailed by Chinese. The earlier Java network was coordinated by
long-established Chinese communities on the north Java coast,
while the later Ryukyu network was controlled by merchants from
Fujian. Trade goods came from as far away as the Sunda islands and
Timor, including sandalwood, tortoise-shell, shark fins, pepper, and
spices. They reached China either illegally or as tribute trade accompanying official missions from those countries that continued to
dispatch embassies on a regular basis: every year from Vietnam, every
two years from the Ryukyus, and every three years from some more
distant kingdoms, such as Ayutthaya, though some sent missions
more frequently.
The tribute trade from Southeast Asia entered China through
Canton (Guangzhou), while embassies from the Ryukyus arrived at
Quanzhou in Fujian province. (A third port of entry at Ningbo was
used by Japan.) Despite the greater frequency of Ryukyu embassies,
almost one a year from 1435 to 1475, Canton was able more or less to
monopolise the Nanyang trade. Fujian merchants who had previously
been successful in developing new trade routes were thus particularly
disadvantaged by the ban on private trade. Some took to smuggling,
with the connivance of local gentry and officials. Some moved to
Canton, or to the Ryukyus in order to profit from the tributary trade.
Others, as we have seen, migrated to one of the Chinese settlements
already established in Southeast Asia.
Two things should be noted about Chinese trade and settlement
in Southeast Asia at this time. The first is that the number of Chinese
involved in the trading networks supplying the Java and Ryukyu tributary trade, and the actual number of settlements, both increased,
though most Chinese communities numbered in the hundreds, rather
than the thousands. Though Melaka dominated peninsula Malaya,
there were substantial Chinese settlements at Pattani and smaller ones
at places like Pahang and Kelantan, and on the north Java coast at
Semarang and Cirebon. The Chinese presence in Cambodia and Siam
also increased, and there is evidence of Chinese in the Philippines. In
every community intermarriage occurred and many resident Chinese
adopted elements of local culture. Others, however, retained a more
traditional Chinese lifestyle, particularly where family ties with home
villages remained strong. Many Chinese in coastal Java, Sumatra and
Malaya, it should be recalled, were already Muslims and may actually
have assisted in the Islamisation of Indonesia.
The second point is that these Chinese communities played no
part at all in the foreign policy of the Ming dynasty, even though
Chinese merchants often accompanied official Southeast Asian
embassies. From the point of view of the Ming court, Chinese living
outside the frontiers of China were living beyond the pale of Chinese
civilisation, and by so doing were failing to fulfil their duty to the
emperor. At no time were these communities used as a means of
exerting Chinese influence on Southeast Asian rulers, even though in
places they performed politically sensitive tasks, such as tax collection.
From the point of view of local rulers, Chinese were tolerated along
with other semi-permanent merchant communities, and were not seen
as a threat to the political order. Indeed they were encouraged, for it
was above all the China trade and how this was organised that determined the prosperity of Southeast Asian port cities.
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, illegal Chinese trade
increased, especially along the Fujian coast, to which officials, eager
for exotic goods, turned a blind eye. Chinese ships sailed to Luzon,
Brunei, Ayutthaya, the north Java coast and Melaka, while coastal
trade continued with Vietnam and Champa. Ming attempts to suppress this illegal trade led merchants to band together and arm their
vessels. Smugglers thus became pirates in official eyes, no better than,
and often confused with, the Japanese pirates (wako) who plagued the
China coast. In retaliation, China first restricted, then in 1560
banned, all direct trade with Japan. Sophisticated trade networks
developed in response to official suppression, in which Chinese,
Southeast Asian, and by then early European traders were involved.
The ‘pirate’ problem persisted, however, until the Ming legalised
private trade in 1567, after which it quickly disappeared.
China, Southeast Asia, the Portuguese, and the Dutch The Portuguese capture of Melaka in 1511 did little to change trading patterns, though Chinese as well as Malay vessels at first tended to
avoid a port where Muslims were unwelcome. In time, however, the
Portuguese presence, particularly the activities of private Portuguese
merchants, began to stimulate a competitive demand for Southeast
Asian products, most importantly spices. The Portuguese were not
slow to realise that enticing profits were to be made from trading
directly with China. The first Portuguese vessel to reach the coast of
China arrived in 1517 and was allowed to proceed to Canton, while a
second soon after sailed north to Fujian. The meeting of Ming bureaucracy and Iberian arrogance led almost inevitably to misunderstanding
and conflict, however. For the Ming, the newcomers were as difficult
to deal with as the Japanese, for like the Japanese they indulged in
both insolent behaviour and piracy. From 1521 to 1554, by imperial
order, trade with the Portuguese was banned.
After the ban was lifted, the Portuguese were permitted, in 1557,
to establish a trading outpost at Macau, for which they paid an annual
rent. Attempts to send an official embassy to Beijing were, however,
unsuccessful and not until a new dynasty was in power was a European
mission received at the Chinese court. Under the Ming, all official
contacts with merchants and envoys from the Nanyang, among whom
Europeans were numbered, were dealt with at Canton. After the Portuguese, Spanish envoys arrived from Manila in 1575, followed by the
Dutch in 1604, though neither obtained permission to trade, thanks in
large part to Portuguese machinations. The profitable trade that sprang
up between China and the Philippines thus remained entirely in the
hands of Chinese merchants from Fujian.
The Portuguese seizure of Melaka posed something of a challenge
to the Ming in their official dealings with Southeast Asia, for the
deposed ruler immediately appealed to China for assistance in driving
out the invaders and re-establishing the ruling dynasty. But if the
sultan was expecting China to dispatch another powerful fleet, he was
disappointed. Late Ming China had neither the means nor the will to
enforce its own world order, even for the sake of a loyal tributary.
Melaka was far from Beijing, and Ming attention was focused on the
northern grasslands.
In their relations with tributaries in Southeast Asia, the
later Ming relied more on words of high principle than on deeds of
intervention. Aggression by one tributary against another was frowned
upon, for that destroyed the peace and harmony the Chinese world
order was supposed to uphold. By the time a tributary kingdom
appealed for protection in the face of invasion, however, it was usually
too late to prevent it. Faced with a fait accompli, the Chinese bureaucracy could do little more than investigate the situation, a process that
might take so long that the crisis resolved itself. It was, of course, in
China’s interest to prevent the rise of an expansionist power that
might pose a security threat to the Middle Kingdom, but it was immaterial whether some Tai principality, such as Chiang Mai, was tributary
to Ayutthaya or Burma—so long as the victor maintained properly
respectful relations with China.
As for Southeast Asian rulers, they seem to have seen appeal to
China as a last resort. The second half of the sixteenth century was a
period of conflict and struggle throughout much of mainland South-east Asia. By 1547, King Tabinshwehti, founder of the Toungu dynasty,
succeeded in unifying Burma after two centuries of division. Buoyed by
his success, Tabinshwehti proclaimed himself a chakravartin or world
conqueror, one whose karma predestined him to be a universal ruler, at
least of the Buddhist Theravada world. His pretensions were challenged, however, by both King Chakkraphat of Ayutthaya and by King
Xetthathirat of Lan Xang, both of whom made similar claims. When
the Siamese became embroiled in a succession dispute, Tabinshwehti
took the opportunity to invade southern Thailand, while a Cambodian
force pillaged and plundered further east. Yet none of the four Siamese
tribute missions sent between 1554 and 1560 appealed for Chinese
assistance or arbitration.
Conflict continued throughout the turbulent second half of the
sixteenth century, but the Ming took no initiative to arbitrate an end
to the fighting. No envoys were dispatched to Pegu to demand
restraint on the part of the Burmese. Nor did the Tai kingdoms, mostly
on the receiving end of Burmese aggression, appeal to China to inter-
vene. Even reports reaching Beijing from Yunnan that Burma had
‘annexed’ a number of small Tai principalities formerly tributary to
China failed to provoke a response.
Succession disputes were another source of civil conflict and
social disorder. These particularly interested the Chinese, for it was
Chinese policy to endorse only legitimate lines of succession. Usurpers
were not tolerated, for their actions went against the moral law of
Heaven. Yet it was often easier to endorse a properly submissive
usurper who appeared to have a good hold on power than to restore a
discredited legitimate line. When, in 1541, the Vietnamese usurper,
Mac Dang Dung, offered not only his abject submission, but also five
mountainous frontier districts in response to a threatened Chinese
invasion in support of the deposed—but in Chinese eyes still legitimate—Le dynasty, the deal was graciously accepted.
The period from the 1580s to the fall of Beijing to the Manchus
in 1644 was one of decadence, rebellion and final collapse of the Ming
dynasty. The court fell under the control of powerful eunuchs who
took no interest in relations with Southeast Asia. Apart from regular
embassies from Vietnam and Champa, tribute missions from other
polities (Cambodia, Siam, Java) were irregular. The last embassy from
Burma arrived in 1567 and from the Philippines (Luzon) in 1576. Yet
this was a crucial period in Southeast Asia, for it saw the arrival
and consolidation of power of the Dutch East India Company (VOC),
followed later by the English and French.
The first Dutch vessels to reach Southeast Asia arrived on the
Java coast in 1596. In 1602 the Dutch East India Company obtained a
monopoly on all Dutch trade with Asia, and set about excluding its
European rivals. First the Portuguese were driven out of the Maluku
islands (1605), then the English were excluded from the Banda islands
(1623). This left the principal spice (cloves, nutmeg and mace) producing region of Indonesia entirely in Dutch hands. In 1640 the Dutch
drove the Portuguese from Sri Lanka and, the following year, they took
Melaka, leaving East Timor as the only Portuguese toehold in the
As in the case of the Portuguese, early Dutch contacts with
China moved rapidly from mutual incomprehension, to frustration, to
armed conflict. After Dutch requests to trade were refused (1604,
1607), force was used. A Dutch flotilla first unsuccessfully attacked
Macau in 1622, then was driven from the Pescadores islands, and
finally established a fort on Taiwan. From there the Dutch opened
regular trading relations with Japan, though the China trade contin-
ued to elude them.
If China took little interest in these developments, wracked as it
was by internal rebellion, Southeast Asian rulers and their courts certainly did. It did not take regional political elites long to realise that
Europeans were greedy and ruthless in their pursuit of trade; that they
were prepared to intervene in local politics; and that their superior
military technology was a two-edged benefit—it could be used by
Southeast Asian rulers, and it could be used against them. With the
arrival of the Dutch, something else was evident: there were different
kinds of Europeans, and they did not like each other. One kind could
therefore be played off against another.
In both Burma and Cambodia in the first half of the seventeenth
century, Portuguese and Spanish freebooters attempted unsuccessfully
to seize political power. With its capital at Batavia, the VOC established a maritime commercial empire capable of bringing political
pressure to bear throughout the Indonesian archipelago. European mercenaries served in both the Burmese and Siamese armies, while
European arms merchants plied their trade to anyone who would buy.
When civil war broke out in 1627 between the Trinh in the north and
the Nguyen in the south of Vietnam, the Dutch supported and sold
arms to the north, while the Portuguese did the same for the south.
Arms and precious metals were about the only European goods of
value in regional trade. European manufactured goods, including
woollen cloth and linen, were not in demand. Arms were mostly purchased by ruling elites, while silver and gold were in high demand from
Asian merchants. Silver, in particular, fuelled European trade with
China, almost all of it from the Americas. As the price for silver in
China was substantially higher than in Europe, vast amounts flowed
around the world to meet the insatiable demand for Chinese silk,
porcelain, and tea. The famous Acapulco galleon that arrived twice
yearly in Manila directly from Mexico brought silver to exchange for
Chinese products transported there by Chinese merchants.
As the lucrative galleon trade attracted more and more Chinese,
their numbers at Manila rose rapidly. Even though the Chinese presence depended entirely on the continued flow of Spanish silver, the
outnumbered Spanish saw the Chinese as a threat. In 1603, fearing
an uprising, the Spanish turned on the Chinese community and in an
appalling massacre killed as many as 23 000. In the aftermath of this
tragic event, two things became apparent. The first was that the
Ming government would, or could, do nothing to protect Chinese
settlers in Southeast Asia. The second was that Europeans had
become dependent on the Chinese, not just as middlemen importing
food and other consumer goods, but also artisans and labourers,
whose industry was essential for the economic life of European-administered ports. The Spanish authorities were forced to re-admit
Chinese settlers, though they no longer permitted Chinese to live
within the walls of the Spanish town. Within a few years the Chinese
population of Manila again numbered several thousand. Five more
pogroms occurred in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and
yet each time the Chinese returned, lured by the prospects of profit
and a more comfortable life.
The Qing
In 1644 Beijing fell to the Manchus, a sinicised confederation of
warrior tribes from the northeastern steppes of Manchuria, who had
already proclaimed their Qing (‘pure’) dynasty eight years before. The
turmoil that accompanied the change of dynasty spilled over into
Image rights unavailable
Chinese ocean-going junk, eighteenth century.
Burma. Following the defeat in 1659 of the last Ming armies, the
young Ming pretender and a few hundred retainers sought asylum in
the Burmese capital of Ava. In the meantime, thousands of leaderless
Chinese soldiers and ‘bandits’ ravaged much of upper Burma, at a time
when Burma was also at war with Siam in the south. As the Burmese
king seemed incapable of dealing with the crisis, his brother deposed
him in a palace coup. The Ming prince was handed over to an invading Manchu army, to be put to death. No tribute at this time was either
demanded or offered, and in fact the first Burmese tribute mission to
the Qing was not dispatched until 1750, in a hopeless bid for Chinese
support to prevent the collapse of the Toungu dynasty.
The Qing conquest of Taiwan had an indirect impact on South-
east Asia. For centuries there had been limited Chinese settlement on
the island, mainly by pirates and criminals fleeing justice. Japanese
pirates and some Spanish merchants also used the island, but most of
the inhabitants were Austronesian-speaking tribal peoples. In 1624,
after being driven from the Pescadores, the Dutch expelled the
Spanish and established a number of trading posts. When the Ming
loyalist, Zheng Chenggong (known to Europeans as Koxinga), lost
control of the Fujian coast to the Manchu, he seized Taiwan from the
Dutch, and established it as a powerful base for anti-Manchu naval
The Qing response was slow in coming. When in 1673 anti-Manchu forces on Taiwan joined in support of a revolt by three
Chinese generals, the Qing forcibly removed the entire coastal population of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong provinces 10 kilometres
inland, and laid waste the deserted towns and villages. Already in 1661
a ban had been placed on all foreign trade, reminiscent of the one
enforced by the Ming. Depopulation of the Chinese coast destroyed
what little Nanyang trade remained. In 1683, with the support of a
Dutch fleet, Qing forces finally occupied Taiwan and placed it under
the provincial administration of Fujian.
The defeat of Koxinga had unforeseen repercussions in Vietnam.
In 1679 3000 Ming loyalist soldiers aboard a fleet of fifty junks sought
asylum in central Vietnam. Fearing Qing displeasure, the Nguyen ruler
sent them south to settle the borderlands in the Mekong delta contested by the Vietnamese and the Khmer. Half settled at Bien-hoa,
the rest at My-tho. Within twenty years both were incorporated as
provinces in the Nguyen domains. Ten years later the Chinese community at Ha-tien also gave its allegiance to the Nguyen. Thus was
Chinese settlement instrumental in extending Vietnamese control
over what is now southern Vietnam.
The catalogue of Qing conquests in Mongolia, Xinjiang and
Tibet is enough to establish that, like several earlier dynasties (Tang,
Yuan, Ming), it was expansionist in its determination to bring non-Chinese peoples under Chinese rule. Outer barbarians were thereby
converted to inner barbarians and given the opportunity to adopt elements of superior Chinese culture, be subject to the benevolence of
the Son of Heaven, and be part of and benefit from the Chinese
moral/political order. In other words, the justification for Qing imperialism was, like that of previous dynasties, couched in terms of the
Chinese worldview. This did not differ radically from the ‘white man’s
burden’ justification given for nineteenth century European imperial-
ism—and the outcome for subject peoples turned out to be very
Later invasions to ‘punish’ Burma and Vietnam were repulsed
(see below), leaving China’s southern frontiers much as they were. The
Qing conquest of Taiwan, however, extended the empire some 300
kilometres west to within 400 kilometres of the principal Philippines
island of Luzon. Taiwan thus provided China with both a trading base
and an offshore bastion whose value in terms both of defence and
offence would not become fully evident until three centuries later.
In the meantime, Taiwan provided new opportunities for Chinese
The early Qing emperors followed the precedent of the Ming,
whose ceremonial diplomacy they adopted. Tributary countries were
informed that a new dynasty ruled under Heaven and were invited to
return the imperial seals given them by the Ming. The Qing published
their own Collected Statutes, stipulating how tribute should be presented and how accompanying trade should be conducted. Tributary
missions were not to number more than 100 persons, only twenty of
whom were permitted to proceed to Beijing from the place of entry.
No more than three ships were permitted to enter port, each with a
maximum of 100 men. No additional accompanying ships were
allowed to dock, nor was any vessel not accompanying an official
tributary mission. All foreign communications had to be forwarded to
the appropriate authorities in Beijing.6
Tribute, as opposed to trade items, was to consist only of the local
products of the country. Detailed instructions were issued on how
emissaries were to be received and conducted to and from the capital.
Trade accompanying tribute was strictly regulated. Goods could be
exchanged only in a specially organised market close to the govern-
ment Residence for Tributary Envoys, under official surveillance.
Members of the mission not proceeding to the capital were permitted
to trade locally, but not to purchase implements of war or, curiously,
books on history. Departing ships were forbidden to transport ship-building materials, food over and above what was needed for the
voyage, or any Chinese passengers.
The elaborate ceremonial for the formal presentation of tribute
took place in the imposing surroundings of the Forbidden City in
Beijing. We can gain some idea of how impressive these ceremonies
were from the accounts of European envoys allowed to present tribute
in the seventeenth century (Portuguese, Dutch, and from the
Vatican). No such accounts record the impressions of Southeast Asian
envoys, but one has only to walk the way they must have taken into
the outer courtyards of the Forbidden City to imagine the scene they
The foreign delegation would be assembled before dawn by attentive Chinese officials, who conducted them to the Tiananmen (Gate
of Heavenly Peace). From there they approached the Forbidden City
proper, guarded by the soaring Wumen (Gate of the Meridian) with its
imperial yellow roof tiles. By the time the envoys passed through into
the first courtyard, over marble bridges, and through a side gate beside
the Taihemen (Gate of Supreme Harmony), they would see before
them the serried ranks of officials drawn up in the vast 200 metre
square courtyard before the Hall of Supreme Harmony.
There they waited, awed by the magnificence of silken banners
and embroidered robes, until the booming of a great bell and the
cracking of whips announced the arrival of the emperor. Officials in
order of precedence made their triple obeisance before the envoys in
turn were called upon to perform the ‘three kneelings and nine pros-
trations’, foreheads to the ground, before the Son of Heaven, all in
time to instructions shouted by the Master of Ceremonies. If they were
lucky they might be conducted close enough actually to see the
emperor on his throne, even to exchange a word of ceremonial greet-
ing as he terminated the audience.
One can imagine the impact of such a ceremony on royal envoys
from even the most powerful Southeast Asian kingdoms, who had
travelled for days from city to city just to reach the Chinese capital.
And one can imagine what stories they would have told on their
return of the population and wealth of the Middle Kingdom. Little
wonder, therefore, that the countries of Southeast Asia within easy
reach of China quickly resumed their tributary relationship with the
new dynasty. Yet the response was uneven. Vietnam and Siam sent
embassies every three years, but none arrived from Laos (Luang Phra-bang) until 1730 or from Burma until 1750. The Sultan of Sulu sent
his first mission in 1726. No missions arrived from port cities previously listed as tributaries in Java, Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula
that had fallen under European control. Even so, in some Qing texts
these former tributaries continued to be listed (along with Champa, by
then all but absorbed by Vietnam, and Brunei, which had declined to
the point of insignificance.)
Private trade continued, however, with many parts of Southeast
Asia outside the tributary system, especially after restrictions were
lifted in 1684. By this time, the great majority of trade between China
and Southeast Asia was in Chinese hands, organised by networks of
Chinese merchants resident throughout the region and shipped in
Chinese junks. The principal ports involved in this trade came to be
categorised as ‘non-tributary trading countries’. They included notably
Java (Dutch Batavia), Luzon (Spanish Manila), Aceh in Sumatra, and
several ports on the Malay Peninsula, including Johore and Siamese
Pattani. Cambodia fell into the same category, once its status had been
reduced to a vassal jointly of Siam and Vietnam.
Much of the information available to the Chinese court on
European activities in Southeast Asia came from Chinese merchants.
The repeal of the Qing prohibition on overseas trade stimulated a new
wave of Chinese migration into the region. Many went to peninsula
Siam and the Malay sultanates to mine tin and grow pepper, but
increasing numbers were attracted to territories under European
administration. There they met with a mixed reception. We have seen
the fate of the Chinese in the Philippines. In Java, Chinese settlement
increased substantially, so that by 1739 there were as many as 15 000
Chinese living in and around Batavia alone.8 Such were their numbers
that the Dutch grew fearful, and planned to ship some off to Sri Lanka.
Believing they were to be drowned at sea, many Chinese rose in rebellion. Thousands were massacred, as the rebellion spilled over into the
territory of Mataram and the VOC intervened.
The Qing entered into direct contact with countries of the
‘Western Ocean’ through agreeing to receive official missions from
Portugal (1670, 1678) and Holland (1656, 1667, 1686). All sought
increased trading rights, for which they were prepared to perform the
full kowtow as prescribed by Chinese ceremonial, and even to accept
nominal tributary status. All, however, were unsuccessful. The only
European power with which the Qing deigned to enter into negotiations leading to a treaty was Russia (in 1689). The Treaty of
Nerchinsk was designed, however, at least as far as the Chinese were
concerned, to keep yet another Central Asian foe at arm’s length, and
to control trade. The treaty was concluded, in other words, in the
context of Qing policy towards Central Asia.
The rise of Dutch power in Southeast Asia in the eighteenth
century was at first of little consequence to China. The Qing court felt
no need to accommodate the demands of Dutch envoys because
Holland, despite its monopoly of trade to Europe, did not threaten
Chinese trading interests. Throughout the eighteenth century, the
China trade remained firmly in the hands of Chinese merchants,
whose extensive trading networks and busy fleets supplied all the
imports China needed, in return for what seemed to be an insatiable
regional demand for Chinese silk, porcelain and tea. And given the
availability of these products, the Dutch did not feel the need to press
the issue of direct trade with China.
The Qing were unclear as to the whereabouts of Holland, but
they knew that though the Dutch ruled Java, they ‘governed at a distance.’9 These ‘red-haired barbarians’ were nonetheless treated as a
Southeast Asian power, whose relations with the Middle Kingdom
fitted into the existing tributary pattern for Nanyang countries. This
was never understood by European envoys, who saw only the bureaucratic restrictions that stood in the way of profitable trade. Thus while
the relations between China and Southeast Asia that had developed
in the course of a millennium came to constitute a set of bilateral relations regimes compatible with the worldviews of both parties, no such
regimes evolved between European powers and China.
The preparedness of early European envoys to the Qing court to
perform all the ceremonial required of them only reinforced Chinese
belief that they had accepted the same tributary relationship as other
countries of the Nanyang. Embassies that for the Europeans had been
manifest failures were highly satisfactory for the Chinese, for they
confirmed that even the most distant peoples were prepared to
acknowledge the overlordship of the Son of Heaven. Thus were the
universal pretensions of Chinese worldview reinforced. In particular,
the proper hierarchy constituting the Chinese world order was main-
tained, and harmony preserved, for no conflict resulted. The envoys
were cared for, laden with presents, and left. It did not matter what
they really wanted or thought. The ritual they performed signified
submission, and that was the only reality that mattered for the
By the end of the eighteenth century, however, Qing power
had already begun to wane. Two attempts to ‘punish’ obstreperous
tributaries, Burma from 1766 to 1769 and Vietnam in 1789, both
ended in bruising defeat. Both attempts can be seen, therefore, as por-
tents of Qing weakness, though this is hardly how they were
interpreted in Beijing.
In 1752, Alaungp’aya, the third great unifier in Burmese history,
had founded the Shwebo dynasty. It was his second son, Hsinbyushin,
however, who consolidated and extended his father’s conquests. In
1767, the Siamese capital of Ayutthaya was taken and sacked. It was
not this aggression against a loyal tributary that provoked Chinese
intervention, however, but simultaneous Burmese attempts to re-
inforce their control over the Shan principalities along the vaguely
defined frontier with Yunnan, plus a dispute over trade. An attempt by
a Burmese embassy to negotiate a settlement was unsuccessful as the
Chinese decided to punish Hsinbyushin for disrupting peace in the
No fewer than four Chinese armies invaded Burmese territory
to attack Ava, but they were unfamiliar with the terrain, poorly coordinated, and constantly harassed by the Burmese. Burmese
stockades held out against Chinese attack, and at length hunger and
the climate took their toll. The Chinese generals sued for peace, to
which the Burmese agreed. An agreement was signed that permitted
remaining Chinese forces to withdraw, reopened trade, and committed Burma to sending missions once every decade to Beijing.
Hsinbyushin was furious that the invaders had been allowed to
escape. Not until after his death in 1776 did a Burmese mission eventually leave for Beijing to obtain investiture for his more pacific
successor. A properly submissive relationship was thus restored, at
least in Chinese eyes.
In 1789 it was the turn of the Vietnamese. Between 1773 and
1787, the great Tayson rebellion finally brought an end to the moribund
Le dynasty by destroying the regimes of both the Nguyen in the south,
and the Trinh in the north. These events were closely followed in
southern China, and when jealousy divided the three Tayson brothers,
the opportunity presented itself to reassert Chinese hegemony on the
pretext of restoring peace and order. A large Chinese army easily occupied Thang-long (Hanoi), nominally to protect the last Le emperor.
The youngest of the Tayson brothers, the brilliant military commander Nguyen Hue, thereupon gathered his forces and marched
rapidly north. During the new year celebrations of 1789, having
proclaimed himself emperor of a new dynasty, Nguyen Hue routed the
Chinese army of occupation. Immediately he did what victorious Vietnamese generals before him had done—humbly requested Chinese
recognition, thereby restoring Chinese status and superiority. The
request was graciously acceded to, and insignia bestowed. Whereas
Vietnamese tribute missions had averaged less than one every four
years over the previous 120 years, embassies arrived every year from
1789 to 1793. Once again the Vietnamese had defended their independence through force of arms, and ensured their security through
re-inscribing in the Chinese world order.10
For the countries of Southeast Asia, Qing weakness was not
apparent. China remained the dominant economic power, and the
Chinese world order still prevailed. Kings continued to seek investiture in order to obtain trading rights, goods and markets only China
could provide. Where succession was in the male line, investiture was
a formality; but Beijing remained cautious about recognising anyone
suspected of being a usurper, and reluctant to provide any material
assistance. It took King Taksin of Siam six years and three diplomatic
missions to convince the Qing court that, although Chinese on his
father’s side, he had a right to his throne, during which time the
Chinese brushed aside his requests for iron and weapons. Only after he
had decisively defeated the Burmese, and his claim to the throne was
secure, did the Qianlong emperor deign to recognise Taksin as king of
Siam, and again receive Siamese tribute missions.
Challenges to the Chinese world order
Apart from the Russians, only two eighteenth-century European missions were received at the Qing court before the famous embassy of
Lord Macartney arrived in 1793. Both were from Portugal—one in
1727, the other in 1753. Neither dented the tributary system, even
though each established a small precedent. On the first, the ambassador succeeded in presenting his credentials in person, rather than
through the intermediary of Chinese officials. On the second, protests
that this was not a tributary mission were apparently acknowledged,
but not recorded. This was not an accidental omission. Chinese
bureaucrats regularly wrote reports that envoys had performed exactly
as Chinese protocol demanded, even when they had not. They even
redrafted correspondence from foreign rulers that did not sound sufficiently submissive. This preserved Chinese convictions about their
place in the world, but at the expense of distorting what the world was
really like.
The Macartney embassy provided the first official contact
between a British king and a Chinese emperor. By the second half of
the eighteenth century, Dutch power had declined and Britain was the
rising hegemonic European power. Of these developments the Qing
court seems to have been largely unaware. In the meantime, however,
European knowledge of China had improved, mainly through the writ-
ings of Jesuits serving at the Qing court. At any rate, the Macartney
mission was the first to attempt to impress upon the Chinese that it
represented not a tributary barbarian kingdom, but an empire of equivalent standing and status as that of the Qing. Lord Macartney insisted
in handing over his letter from George III to the emperor in person,
and refused to perform the kowtow as demeaning both to himself and
to his king and country.
Even so, the Qing court managed to preserve the Chinese world
order. Lord Macartney was allowed to present his letter on one knee,
in the rather informal setting of a great tent in the grounds of the
summer palace at Chengde. Ceremonial protocol had been breached,
but not at the centre of the Chinese world in Beijing. Despite the
breach, the Macartney embassy was described as a tributary mission,
both on the banners accompanying it and in the official Qing records.
All attempts by Macartney to enter into meaningful negotiations were
blocked. In his first edict addressed to George III, the Qianlong
emperor commended the ‘respectful humility’ of the British monarch,
but rejected as ‘utterly unreasonable’ the request for a British repre-
sentative to be resident in Beijing. Qianlong continued:
Our dynasty’s majestic virtue has penetrated into every
country under Heaven, and Kings of nations have offered
their costly tribute by land and sea. As your Ambassador
can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on
objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your
country’s manufactures . . .11
Qianlong’s second edict, rejecting any liberalisation of trade, made
the point that the Chinese capital was ‘the hub and centre about
which all quarters of the globe revolve’, and so was hardly the place
for the conduct of trade. All private trade would continue to be conducted at Canton; no new ports would be opened; and no ‘British
barbarian merchants’ would be permitted to establish a ‘factory’ on
Chinese soil.
Here the matter rested. The Chinese world order remained
intact, at least as far as the court was concerned. A Dutch mission following hard on the heels of Macartney was the last time a European
envoy kowtowed before a Chinese emperor. In 1816, a second British
embassy was summarily dismissed when it became clear that the envoy,
Lord Amherst, would refuse to conform to Chinese ceremonial—at a
time when Britain, following victory in the Napoleonic wars, was the
most powerful imperial power in the world.
In the following years, European nations strengthened their grip
on the Nanyang. Singapore was founded as a British settlement in
1819, after the return of Batavia to the Dutch. Five years later, the First
Anglo–Burmese war gave Britain control of the Arakan and
Tenasserim coasts of Burma, in addition to the Straits Settlements in
Malaya. At the same time, direct Dutch rule in Java was extended and
reinforced, interrupted only by the Java War of 1825–1830, the last
great paroxysm of traditional Javanese resistance. Elsewhere in the
archipelago, the Dutch increasingly made their presence felt. South-east Asian and Chinese maritime trading networks continued to
operate, but increasingly the region was drawn into an expanding
global economy dominated by European powers, from which China
still remained largely insulated.
The First Opium War of 1839–42 should have shaken Chinese
complacency to the core. Ostensibly a response to Chinese attempts to
curtail the lucrative British opium trade, it was also the outcome of
mounting misunderstanding, anger and frustration on both sides. The
lesson drawn by the Qing court, however, had more to do with the disgraceful behaviour of Western barbarians than with what the impunity
with which British warships could bombard Chinese ports revealed
about the weakness of Chinese naval defences.
Other countries saw the implications more clearly. European
nations benefited from the opening up of four more port cities for international trade (in addition to Canton) along the China coast, but were
jealous of the concession in 1842 of the island of Hong Kong to Britain.
These ‘treaty ports’ extended rather than replaced the ‘Canton system’.
France and America quickly signed similar treaties, followed by other
Western powers. To each China magnanimously and impartially
extended the same privileges as she had to Britain (the most-favoured-nation provision). Not until territorial concessions were later sought
were China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity seriously threatened.
In the early 1850s, a series of anti-dynastic rebellions broke
out in China that were only put down with great difficulty and with
some Western assistance. The Taiping rebellion was finally crushed
in 1864, but the devastation led thousands to seek new opportunities abroad. Suppression of a Muslim rebellion in Yunnan, and the
last great Miao (Hmong) uprising sent rebels fleeing south to pillage
the northern border regions of Vietnam, Laos and Burma. In the
1880s, Siam sent several military expeditions into northern Laos to
clear the area of marauding Chinese, who penetrated as far south as
Viang Chan. Hmong refugees, meanwhile, settled quietly in the
secluded mountains and began to grow the only cash crop they
Peasant rebellion shook Qing complacency much more deeply
than had Western pressure and incursions, because it threw into question the dynasty’s right to the mandate of Heaven. In the middle of it
all, Britain and France contrived a Second Opium War (1856–58) to
obtain further trade concessions. China promptly agreed to open ten
more treaty ports, four on the Yangze River upstream to Wuhan; but
not until an Anglo–French force had marched on Beijing and sacked
and burned the summer palace did the court at last agree to accept permanent Western embassies in Beijing.
A significant outcome of the Second Opium War for Southeast
Asia was that the Qing court rescinded its ban on the movement of
Chinese overseas. The first shipment of Chinese contract labourers
had departed Xiamen (Amoy) on a French vessel as early as 1845.
Thereafter, this ‘coolie trade’ developed rapidly. Large numbers of
Chinese were transported as far afield as Cuba and Chile, but most
went to Southeast Asia to work the mines and plantations, or to take
up commercial farming of crops such as pepper, gambier and sugar. In
Siam, they built canals to drain new rice land in the Chao Phraya
delta. Many fled the aftermath of rebellion; others were lured by hopes
for a better life. Most were transported in European ships, though
Chinese junks were also engaged in the trade.
In Southeast Asia the wars and rebellions that shook the Qing
dynasty were followed closely by political elites. Vietnam (so-called
after China recognised the Nguyen dynasty that came to power after
the Tayson were defeated in 1802), Siam, Luang Phrabang, and Burma
all responded to news of the death of the Taokuang emperor in 1850
by dispatching embassies to China. Despite some delay, missions from
all four were recorded as arriving in 1853, though the Lao delegation
never actually reached Beijing. These were the last tribute missions
sent by Siam and Luang Phrabang. Burma sent one more in 1875,
while Vietnam sent its last mission in 1883 in a desperate appeal for
Chinese assistance against the French.13 All were received in the traditional way, as if nothing had changed since the accession of the Qing
dynasty more than two centuries before.
After Burma was annexed by Britain, and Vietnam by France,
only Siam retained its independence as a buffer state between the
expanding British Indian and French Indochinese empires. It is
instructive, therefore, to follow the course of Chinese–Siamese relations during the declining years of the Qing dynasty to gauge the only
independent Southeast Asian reaction to Chinese weakness and European dominance.
In 1862, Chinese envoys to Siam chided King Mongkut for
neglecting to send regular tribute missions. The Siamese, however,
were well aware of the outcome of the opium wars and why they had
been fought. More specifically, they were aware of the shift in the
balance of power in the region. The junk trade between Siam and
China, so valuable still in the early nineteenth century, had all but collapsed and Britain had become Siam’s principal trading partner.
Mongkut understood better than any of his fellow monarchs in mainland Southeast Asia how Europeans viewed the world. It would not
help Siam to be seen as a tributary of China.
What the court wanted was continued friendship with China
(especially in view of the large numbers of Chinese in Bangkok), but
on the same basis as the Western powers. Since how to obtain this
seemed impossibly difficult, Mongkut made excuses and played for
time. Not so his son. As soon as Chulalongkorn came to the throne,
he sent a mission to China offering to resume diplomatic relations, but
only on a basis of formal equality. This was rejected by Beijing, which
in 1875 and again in 1878 demanded dispatch of a Siamese tribute
mission. The Siamese again procrastinated, but in 1882 Chula-
longkorn finally notified the Qing court that Siam repudiated any
tributary obligation to China.14
The Siamese decision was taken for a variety of reasons that
principally had to do with Siam’s evolving national identity, and the
regional power configuration. One issue was security. The seizure by
France of southern Vietnam (Cochinchina), and imposition of a protectorate over Cambodia (until then tributary to Bangkok) in 1863,
had convinced Mongkut that only Britain, as the most powerful nation
in the region, could protect Siam from further French incursions. From
then on, until the rise of Japan in the late 1930s, friendship with
Britain remained a keystone of Siamese foreign policy, despite British
seizure of territory in Burma and Malaya formerly tributary to
This security dimension becomes more evident when Chula-
longkorn’s break with China in 1882 is compared with the response of
Emperor Tu Duc of Vietnam to French encroachments. Despite
signing a treaty with France in 1874 accepting French protection, five
years later the Vietnamese emperor requested China to fulfil her obligations as suzerain power by suppressing Chinese bandits—known as
the Black Flags—in the border area. The real threat, however, came
from France, and as the Siamese well understood, any appeal to China
to protect Vietnam from France would be useless. For this reason
Bangkok had already turned elsewhere for powerful friends. But the
Siamese could more easily do this because they conceived the world as
in perpetual flux, with new centres of power arising from time to time.
The Vietnamese, ambivalent though their relationship was with
China, found it more difficult to free themselves from their commitment to the Chinese world order, for that order also constituted their
own view of the world.
Security was also a Chinese concern. When a small French mili-
tary force seized Hanoi in April 1882, China reacted with vigour.
Chinese troops entered Vietnam while a Chinese naval force moved
into Vietnamese waters even before Vietnam sent a last desperate
appeal for assistance. In May 1883, the Black Flags ambushed and
killed the French commander of the Hanoi garrison, and France went
on the offensive. Meanwhile, the old Vietnamese emperor, Tu Duc,
had died and the court was in turmoil. The French occupied Hue and
advanced into Tonking where they were opposed by combined Viet-
namese and Black Flag forces. Negotiations proved fruitless as France
was determined to take control of Vietnam while the Qing court con-
tinued to insist that Vietnam remained tributary to China.
August 1884 saw the outbreak of the undeclared Sino–French
war. French naval vessels bombarded Fuzhou and attacked Taiwan. In
Vietnam, however, Chinese forces drove the French out of Lang-son,
and France agreed to negotiations. These resulted in the Treaty of
Tianjin signed in June 1885, which recognised Vietnam as a protectorate of France. Vietnam’s relations with foreign powers, including
China, would henceforth be conducted through the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Thus was this closest of all tributary relationships in Southeast
Asia brought to a close, a decade before Japanese invasion did the same
for Korea. In 1886 Britain annexed Upper Burma, and in 1893 Siam
ceded the Lao territories to France. China had lost all her protective
ring of tributary states, and instead faced European imperial powers on
her northern (Russia) and southern (Britain and France) borders, not
to mention an aggressive Japan to the east. Not only was the Chinese
world order at an end, but by being forced to define national boundaries within which it would exist as a nation-state and beyond which
it would have no further claim, China was drawn inexorably into the
Western world order.
Much of the impetus for the French conquest of northern
Vietnam and the British occupation of Upper Burma came from a
belief that their possession would open up opportunities for trade with
the interior of China. At first it was hoped to use the Salween,
Mekong and Red Rivers as access routes, and when these proved
unnavigable, railways were planned. Only the line from Hanoi to
Kunming was built, however, and the volume and value of trade never
lived up to expectations.
The arrival of European powers on China’s southern frontiers
worried Beijing. For the first time a serious security threat existed
along previously peaceful, if poorly defined frontiers with cooperative
tributary states. European intentions were unclear and European
demands unreasonable. Clearly defined borders had to be marked out
in areas inhabited by non-Chinese over whom Chinese jurisdiction
was questionable. Negotiations over just where the frontier should lie
were longer and more involved in the case of Burma than for Vietnam,
where an agreed division of administrative responsibility already
existed. Laos proved more contentious for the French, but an agree-
ment was signed in 1895. An initial Anglo–Chinese agreement on
Burma actually recognised a degree of continuing Chinese suzerainty,
but this was eliminated in the 1894 and 1897 treaties defining the
Burma–China border. These agreements still left some issues unresolved, however, and as late as 1947 Nationalist China laid claim to a
portion of Burmese territory. The communists, of course, viewed all
such treaties with imperialist powers as unequal, and thus needing to
be renegotiated.
The late Qing and overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia
The lifting of restrictions on travel did not just legalise the coolie
trade, it changed the whole relationship between the Nanyang
Chinese and Qing officialdom. For as long as overseas Chinese were
considered as truant subjects, and so little better than criminals, any
Image rights unavailable
Chinese coastal trading junk.
who returned to China were at the mercy of local officials. Even mer-
chants who had stayed away longer than their permits allowed were
forced to bribe officials on their return. The new policy not only
encouraged more overseas Chinese to visit China, it opened up
avenues of communication that provided higher Qing officials with a
much better knowledge of the activities and achievements of Chinese
settlers in Southeast Asia. Just as the traditional relationship between
China and the countries of Southeast Asia was collapsing, therefore,
China discovered new interests in the Nanyang.
Chinese resident in, or migrating to, Southeast Asia were quick
to take advantage of the commercial opportunities made available
by the growing European presence. Reformers in China hoped to tap
into the expertise of overseas Chinese entrepreneurs who had learned
how to operate in the world of international capitalism, invite them
back to China, and so use their knowledge to assist China’s modernisation. As the extent of the wealth of overseas Chinese capitalists
became evident, Qing officials began to see them also as a source of
investment in China. In 1893, an imperial edict gave overseas Chinese
and their families the right to return to and leave China at any time,
in pursuit of their business. In 1909, the Qing proclaimed the principle of jus sanguinis as the basis for Chinese nationality: anyone whose
father was Chinese, no matter where born, was a Chinese citizen. Thus
were the Chinese of Southeast Asia reclaimed for China.
It was abuses in the coolie trade that first alerted Qing officials to
the need to protect Chinese going abroad, and led to the establishment of permanent overseas Chinese missions. In 1877, sixteen years
after China was forced to accept foreign embassies in Beijing, the first
Chinese legation was established in London. The first consul-general
for the Nanyang Chinese was appointed the following year, based in
Singapore. In 1886, a Qing Commission of Inquiry visited the Philippines, the Straits Settlements, Burma, Java, and even Australia to gain
information about Chinese communities overseas. As a result, viceconsulates were opened in Penang and later in Manila (1899).
Disagreement over the status of Chinese in Indonesia (for the Dutch
all were Dutch subjects, not Chinese citizens) delayed establishment of
a consulate in Batavia until 1910. No Chinese consulate was established in French Indochina until well after the fall of the dynasty.
Singapore was the strategic base for China’s new ‘forward policy’
to open up relations with the Nanyang Chinese. It was from there that
Qing representatives travelled throughout the region, raising funds
through the sale of imperial honours, seeking talented Chinese to
assist in China’s modernisation, and urging wealthy Chinese to invest
in China. Nanyang Chinese wealth poured into railways in particular,
but also into shipping, commerce, industry and agriculture. Very large
investors were rewarded with mandarin rank.
Image rights unavailable
The City of Fouzhou in 1884.
The colonial powers, Britain, France and Holland, were not
entirely at ease over the rapid development of Qing relations with
the Nanyang Chinese. The consulates in Singapore and Penang, in
particular, were effective in developing networks of contacts with
overseas Chinese throughout the region. As Nanyang communities
increasingly accepted direction from Qing representatives in areas
such as education and cultural norms, colonial powers feared they
were losing the loyalty of ‘their’ Chinese.
The rapidly increasing numbers of Chinese in Southeast Asia
also caused concern. In Indonesia the number of Chinese more than
doubled between 1860 and 1905, from an estimated 221 000 to
563 000.15 The increase was particularly marked in Sumatra, where
thousands of coolies were brought in to work the tobacco and rubber
plantations. It was in Malaya, however, that the increase in the number of Chinese immigrants was greatest, and where they came to
constitute the highest percentage of the total population. In the Straits
Settlements of Penang, Malacca (Melaka) and Singapore, the Chinese
population increased from just over 96 000 in 1860 to over 370 000 in
1911. By then 550 000 more lived in the Malay states, mainly in the
tin mining areas of Perak and Selangor.
In Burma no accurate figures were available prior to the 1911
census, when Chinese numbered 122 000. Most were concentrated in
Rangoon and Upper Burma, where several thousand Chinese were
engaged in the flourishing overland trade with Yunnan. Migration of
Chinese to northern and central Vietnam (Tongking and Annam) was
strictly controlled by the Nguyen emperors until the 1880s, but
encouraged by the French in Cochinchina and Cambodia, where they
made up over 3 per cent of the population. The 1921 census registered
156 000 Chinese in Cochinchina, 39 000 in the rest of Vietnam, and
91 000 in Cambodia. In Siam the estimated 300 000 Chinese and
Sino–Thai in 1850 had increased to nearly 800 000 by 1910,
approaching 10 per cent of the population. Increased Chinese migration in the 1920s and 1930s pushed all these figures considerably
At first the European presence in Southeast Asia only minimally disrupted trading patterns between China and the Nanyang, and the
Qing could treat European diplomatic missions arriving in Canton in
the same way as they did seaborne tributary missions from Southeast
Asia. Even as Qing power waned and European, especially British,
power grew, the Qing court clung desperately to the crumbling façade
of the Chinese world order. When finally it collapsed, the only alternative was for China to adapt to the Western world system. By that
time all of Southeast Asia, with the exception of Siam, had been
colonised—and Siam had long since repudiated its tributary relation-ship with China.
Just as China’s relations with Southeast Asia atrophied at the
official level, however, Chinese migration increased dramatically. The
economic success of the overseas Chinese attracted both the Qing
court and its political opponents, and both used them as avenues of
influence in the Nanyang. The Qing Nationality Law and the swelling
tide of Chinese nationalism caused considerable disquiet among colonial administrators and indigenous elites alike in Southeast Asia. But
China remained far too weak to challenge European power in its own
treaty ports, let alone beyond its shores. The late nineteenth century
thus marked the nadir in two millennia of relations between China
and Southeast Asia.
The tenacity with which the Qing regime, even in terminal decline,
clung to the façade of its tributary system of foreign relations was a
matter for wonder at the time. For China, however, adopting a new
international relations culture as demanded by the Western powers
was not a matter simply of conducting diplomacy in a different way.
What was at stake was the whole cosmic, hierarchical and moral
underpinning of the Chinese world order, with the emperor as its
pivot. The Qing regime could not relinquish its conception of how
foreign relations should be conducted without placing its own legitimacy in question, for the two were facets of a single worldview.
It is well to be clear about the nature of the alternative world
order that China was being forced to join. Inter-state relations in
an age of strident nationalism and imperial competition existed in an
essentially anarchic environment in which power was the real determinant of status. States might, in principle, be equally sovereign, but
they were not equally powerful and might assured right, despite international law. With arrogance and insensitivity, European nations had
carved up the world into competing empires, and seemed intent on
carving up China too. No wonder the regime struggled desperately to
avoid such a fate by clinging for as long as possible to its own world
order, and to the strategic protection afforded by the ring of tributary
states along its borders.
It is ironic to think that had the Qing regime been stronger, it
might more easily have become a player in this world of competing
empires. Its own phase of (Manchu) imperial expansion had drawn to
a close over a century earlier, however, and Japan rather than China
learned the lesson that the Western world order was in reality an arena
of aggressively competitive empires. In the 1890s, when Britain,
France and Holland were ruthlessly bringing the last autonomous parts
of Burma, Indochina and Indonesia under their control, Japan set out
to create its own empire, at the expense of its nearest neighbours,
Korea and China.
Even after China’s humiliating defeat by Japan in the
Sino–Japanese War of 1895, however, the Meiji restoration in Japan
and the success of Japanese modernisation still provided an attractive
model for Chinese reformers. But the ruling elite was divided in China,
and the reform movement of 1898 was nipped in the bud. Suppression
of the Boxer uprising (1898–1901) by a combined Western and Japan-
ese force again demonstrated Qing weakness. Only the support of
Western powers that profited from China’s infirmity prevented the collapse of the dynasty. In 1905 the core of the old order was fatally
undermined by the abolition of the Confucian examination system.
Even so, a new flurry of reform was too little too late.
In the end, the Qing dynasty was blown away by the revolution
of 1911–12. But the transition to a modern nation-state was not easy.
Deep-seated traditional beliefs persisted about how Chinese society
should be governed, and about China’s relations with the rest of the
world. Where China stood at the time, vis-à-vis the major powers—its
own powerlessness, its humiliation—was implicitly contrasted with
where it should stand—given its size, its culture and its history, and the
respect all Chinese felt that these deserved. All subsequent Chinese
foreign policy has had the overriding goal of restoring China to its
‘rightful’ place in the world.
For Republican China two immediate challenges stood out: to
create a new political order, and to preserve the empire’s unity and territorial integrity. But new political institutions were weak and
unstable, and China fragmented into warlord fiefdoms. Not until 1923
was a Nationalist government proclaimed in Canton, with Sun Yatsen
as president and Chiang Kaishek (Jiang Jieshi) as military commander.
Given lukewarm support from the West, Sun had turned to the Soviet
Union for both political and military assistance. Soviet agents had
assisted in organising Sun’s Nationalist Party, the Guomindang
(GMD). On instructions from the Comintern (Communist International), the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), founded in 1921,
supported the new government while simultaneously strengthening its
own position. When Sun died in March 1925, Chiang proclaimed
himself president of the Republic of China. The following year,
Chiang embarked upon his ‘northern expedition’, which finally succeeded in reuniting the country.
Foreign intervention continued, however, particularly on the
part of Japan. So too did the foreign concessions flaunting their extra-territorial disdain for Chinese jurisdiction. The West threw its support
behind Chiang after he broke with the communists in 1927, and set
out to destroy them. But Chiang’s action divided Nationalists and
communists who engaged in an implacable struggle that took two
decades of conflict and war to resolve.
Nationalism and politics among the overseas Chinese
Throughout these tumultuous years, relations between China and
Southeast Asia were practically non-existent on a nation-to-nation
basis. Only Siam was in a position to accord recognition to the new
Nationalist government, yet it failed to do so. As for European colonial administrations, any interests they might have had in opening up
a dialogue with China or in expanding trade were subordinated to
those of their metropolitan governments. All matters that concerned
China and Southeast Asia were referred to European capitals. Paradoxically, however, as official relations atrophied, unofficial
relations—primarily between political movements in China and over-seas Chinese—blossomed as never before (or since the establishment
of the People’s Republic of China in 1949).
Just as Southeast Asian elites saw their voices silenced by colonial domination (nowhere more cruelly than in the Philippines, whose
revolution against Spain led only to annexation by the United States),
overseas Chinese in these countries began to be stirred by Chinese
nationalism. This was actively encouraged by Guomindang agents dispatched to Southeast Asia to raise money for the party, and to remind
overseas Chinese that their primary loyalty was still to China. In 1926,
the newly established Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission of the
GMD spelled out its objectives. These were essentially to ensure that
overseas Chinese enjoyed equal rights and treatment in their countries
of residence; to assist overseas Chinese to give their children a Chinese
education; and to encourage overseas Chinese to set up industries and
invest in China. All overseas Chinese, after all, remained citizens
of China.
In 1929, the Nationalist government passed a Nationality Law
that reiterated Qing policy with respect to overseas Chinese: that is,
that all children born of a Chinese father, wherever they lived, were of
Chinese nationality. The law encouraged Chinese in the colonial
context of Southeast Asia, where they fell into a separate national and
racial category, to think of themselves as Chinese, but it created difficulties with respect to dual nationality and exacerbated social tensions
with indigenous peoples by encouraging ethnic and cultural exclusivism. The success of Nationalist policy, however, was reflected in the
remittances by overseas Chinese. These averaged from $80 to $100
million from the early 1930s, a figure that doubled in 1938 following
the outbreak of the Sino–Japanese war.1
The GMD was overtly anti-colonial. As its political activity
increased, colonial authorities began to be alarmed and to take measures to contain it. Chinese language schools were monitored and
Chinese organisations registered and kept under surveillance. Concern
was also expressed at the continuing high level of Chinese migration,
though little was done to limit it. Chinese political activity in South-east Asia also alarmed indigenous elites, who looked with suspicion on
moves by families of mixed Chinese–indigenous ancestry to reassert
their Chineseness. Had indigenous leaders been in a position to
respond, their responses might well have been similar to that of Siam,
which showed its disapproval of GMD policies by refusing to establish
diplomatic relations with Nationalist China (see below). As it was,
Chinese nationalism served to stimulate indigenous nationalisms that
ominously allowed little room for alien communities.
Nowhere was political organisation more advanced among
overseas Chinese than in the British colonies of Malaya and Singapore. As early as 1906, branches of Sun Yatsen’s Revolutionary
Alliance were formed in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur. With the
formation of the GMD in August 1912, sympathisers in Malaya
enthusiastically formed their own branches. When local authorities—concerned over anti-imperialist propaganda—demanded
membership lists, the organisation went underground. Supporters
continued to meet and collect funds for the party, however, and
in 1925 British authorities responded by banning the GMD as a
subversive organisation.
The British had several concerns. They were worried about anticolonial, and especially anti-British propaganda associated with the
GMD’s determination to avenge China’s past humiliation; they were
worried about GMD control over Chinese education (dozens of
Chinese school texts were banned); and they were worried about
methods that might be used to force Chinese to donate to the party.
But, most of all, they were worried that the Chinese in Malaya would
fall under the control of the Chinese government, and so come to constitute ‘a state within a state’.
Negotiations between the British and Chinese governments
eventually led to a lifting of the ban on the GMD. What was never
legal was membership of the predominantly Chinese Malayan Communist Party (MCP). Its appeal and its activities were limited,
however, and it took the outbreak of the Sino–Japanese war in 1937 to
stimulate recruitment of more Chinese into the MCP. The war gal-
vanised the whole Chinese community in Malaya, as elsewhere in
Southeast Asia, and feelings ran high. Large sums of money were collected by the China Relief Fund to assist the Chinese war effort, and
boycotts of Japanese goods were organised.
These Chinese political activities, so evidently an expression of
Chinese nationalism, may have caused little concern among the rural
Malay population, but the Malay political elite was well aware of their
implications—particularly in relation to political representation and
the vexed question of citizenship for Chinese born in China. But these
issues only became pressing in 1946, after the defeat of Japan.
In Burma, the Chinese community was much smaller than the
Indian community and attracted less suspicion and hostility than in
Malaya. Moreover, it was divided between those Chinese who had
arrived by sea and settled in Lower Burma, mainly in Rangoon, and
those who had come overland from Yunnan and were concentrated in
northern Burma and the Shan states. Among the Yunnanese, political
activity was limited, and most support for the GMD came from
Chinese in Rangoon.
With the outbreak of the Sino–Japanese war, the need for an
alternative supply route for Chinese Nationalist forces became
evident. Late in 1937, work began on the Burma Road running from
the Burmese frontier to Kunming along an ancient trade route. The
road was officially opened just over a year later, to the apprehension of
some Burmese who feared it might attract Japanese reprisals, or
encourage an accelerated influx of Chinese into northern Burma.
It was along the Burma Road that Chinese forces were to enter
Burma in March 1942, three months after the Japanese invasion. By
then British troops were in full retreat, and the Chinese, after initial
resistance, could do little but retreat as well. When a Japanese flanking movement into Shan state threatened to close the Burma Road,
the Chinese withdrawal became a rout. Rather than pursuing the
retreating Chinese, however, the Japanese turned their attention to
India. Not until 1945 was the Burma Road reopened, too late to make
any difference to the war effort in China.
In Indonesia, Dutch policy deliberately created a divide between
Chinese and Indonesians. Until 1900, Chinese could only live in the
Chinese quarter of a city, and were not allowed to own land. They did,
however, enjoy certain economic advantages that they made the most
of. Most Chinese in Indonesia were very much aware of their identity
as Chinese, and eagerly welcomed the Revolution of 1911. When the
Dutch took exception to the hoisting of the Republican flag, riots
ensued which were forcibly suppressed, for although political activity
was less restricted than in Indochina, the Dutch were determined not
to permit China to gain undue influence over the Indonesian Chinese
Dutch attempts to win the loyalty of Indonesian Chinese by
giving them separate representation on the advisory Volksraad, or
parliament, set up in 1918, failed, however, to weaken Chinese
nationalist sentiment. Guomindang representatives paid frequent
visits to Indonesia, while Chinese consuls arrived to register all
Chinese born in China. (At the time, annual Chinese immigration
into Indonesia rose as high as 43 000 in 1921 for an interwar average
of over 28 000.)3 Chinese in Indonesia were incensed by the aggression of Japan after 1931. Boycotts against Japanese goods were
organised, as in Malaya, and large amounts were contributed to
Chinese relief funds and through purchase of Government of China
bonds. As elsewhere, such activities tended to stimulate indigenous
nationalism, though there was minimal cooperation between Indonesians and Chinese.
In no colony in Southeast Asia had relations between European
authorities and Chinese settlers been worse than in the Philippines
under Spanish rule. The history of those relations in the seventeenth
and eighteenth centuries is a sad litany of prejudice, discrimination,
oppression, and recurrent pogroms. Large numbers of Chinese were periodically massacred and expelled, and migration was strictly controlled.
Even so, Chinese and Filipinos freely intermarried and a large, well-integrated Sino–Filipino mestizo community grew up. Perhaps not
surprisingly, members of this community took the lead in the revolution
against Spain, which was also supported by many Chinese.
Chinese were better treated by the American administration,
though exclusion laws limiting migration remained in place. A
Chinese consul-general was appointed to Manila, and branches of the
Guomindang established. Political events in China were followed with
interest, the split between the GMD and the CCP giving rise to a left-
wing group in Manila. Funds were raised for relief in China and
boycotts organised of Japanese goods.
In Indochina the situation was rather different from that in
other Southeast Asian colonies. The Chinese communities in
Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were divided for administrative purposes into five congrégations (Cantonese, Teochiu, Hokkien, Hakka
and Hainanese) responsible for managing their own social and cultural affairs (schools, temples, etc.). Chinese were taxed at different
rates from indigenous Vietnamese, Cambodians, Lao and hilltribe
minorities. While some Chinese took up agriculture and fishing (in
northern Vietnam), most were employed in industry and commerce,
especially the rice trade. Over the two decades prior to 1935, roughly
a third of all Indochinese trade was with China, virtually all of it in
the hands of Chinese. In 1935, the French finally permitted Nationalist Chinese consulates to be established in Saigon and Hanoi, in
the hope of stimulating greater French participation in trade with
The importance of Chinese nationalism for Vietnam lay not so
much in the effect it had on Chinese living there (as in Malaya and
Indonesia), but on the revolutionary model it provided for Vietnamese
nationalism—revolutionary because the French authorities banned all
political activity outside Cochinchina. At first, after the failure of the
1898 Reform Movement in China, Vietnamese nationalists looked to
Japan for inspiration. The secret ‘Eastern Travel’ society smuggled young
Vietnamese through China to study in Japan, until they were expelled
in 1909 under the terms of a financial agreement with France. With the
success of the 1911 Revolution, China became the preferred model and
the principal refuge for Vietnamese nationalists, and several young Vietnamese gained entry to Nationalist Chinese military academies.
The success of the GMD in unifying China stimulated the founding, in 1927, of the Vietnamese Nationalist Party, known from its
Vietnamese name as the VNQDD. As an illegal political party, the
VNQDD was forced to operate clandestinely. Like the GMD, it was
organised on Leninist democratic centralist lines in small cells, but
was soon infiltrated by the French secret police. In February 1930,
the VNQDD instigated an abortive uprising by Vietnamese troops
stationed at a French military garrison in northern Vietnam. In the
repression that followed, many of its young leaders were arrested and
guillotined; others fled to China. This left the way open for the better
organised Indochina Communist Party (ICP).
The ICP had its roots in the cooperation that existed prior to
1927 between Chinese Nationalists and communists. Among the
Comintern agents sent to Canton at this time was Nguyen Ai Quoc,
better known under his later alias as Ho Chi Minh. For two years, from
mid-1925 to mid-1927, Ho worked closely with members of the
Chinese Communist Party. He then left China, only to return to Hong
Kong in 1930 with the task of unifying disparate Vietnamese communist organisations to form the ICP.
Relations between the revolutionary movements in China and
Vietnam were practically nonexistent for much of the 1930s, until the
CCP completed its ‘Long March’ to its remote northern base at
Yan’an. Communication thereafter was still a problem, but Ho
managed to pay a visit in 1938. With the outbreak of war with Japan,
communications became even more difficult. Vietnamese and Chinese
revolutionaries remained in contact in southern China, however, and
it was there Ho Chi Minh returned early in 1941. By that time
Chinese Nationalists and communists had agreed to form a united
front against the Japanese. Ho and other members of the ICP worked
closely with GMD forces in the China–Vietnam border area. In May
1941 Ho and his circle, including Pham Van Dong and Vo Nguyen
Giap, formed the Vietnam League for Independence (Viet Nam Doc
Lap Dong Minh), commonly known as the Vietminh, to act as a broad
front for their independence struggle against French colonialism.
During the war years, Vietminh activists were protected in their
bases on the Chinese side of the border by local left-leaning GMD officers. There they built up their organisation and studied communist
ideology and guerrilla warfare. Meanwhile in Vietnam the French
administration remained in place, under an agreement between Japan
and the Vichy government in France. As French military operations
made it difficult to establish secure bases in Vietnam, Ho turned to
China for help. His intention to seek a closer working relationship
with the CCP was thwarted, however, by his arrest and imprisonment
for more than a year by GMD authorities.4
The Chinese Nationalists, in the meantime, attempted to bring
together a number of non-communist revolutionary organisations to
form the Vietnam Liberation League (Dong Minh Hoi). This was
part of a deliberate attempt ‘to resuscitate China’s leadership in
Asian affairs’, and more especially its ‘special position’ with respect
to Vietnam.5 The Dong Minh Hoi, like the Vietminh, was dedicated
to liberating Vietnam from French colonialism, but under Chinese
Nationalist, rather than communist, tutelage. Ho Chi Minh was
nevertheless released to take part. Evidently he felt it prudent to cooperate with the GMD at this juncture. In the longer term the Dong
Minh Hoi would prove to be no match for the Vietminh.
Communist agents were active elsewhere in Southeast Asia
during the interwar years, but as agents of the Comintern, not the
Chinese Communist Party. The best known and most active (including M. N. Roy, Tan Malaka and Ho Chi Minh) were not Chinese.
Many of those drawn to communism in the region were, however, local
Chinese attracted by clandestinely circulating propaganda of the CCP.
At first, as in Thailand, Chinese activists formed overseas cells of the
CCP, but Comintern policy was to promote national communist
parties. In Malaya, for example, Chinese constituted most of the
membership of the Malayan Communist Party. Its goal was to expel
the British and bring about a communist revolution on behalf of the
peoples of Malaya, but Malays feared it would reduce Malaya to an
overseas dependency of China. In this way, communist Chinese policy
towards overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia often tended to exacer-
bate racial and social tensions.
Sino–Thai relations
Assimilation of the Chinese community in Siam in the nineteenth
century encountered fewer of the social or religious constraints and
distortions due to colonialism in the rest of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, as the Chinese population expanded, tensions developed.
Several localised Chinese protests were brutally suppressed by
Siamese troops, and there was resentment over the economic success
of Chinese employed as ‘tax farmers’ to collect revenue for the
government. In the second half of the century, migration of Chinese
increased. Still by far the majority were male and most married
Siamese wives. The basis was thereby laid for an assimilable
Sino–Siamese community.
It was the simultaneous rise of Siamese and Chinese nationalism in the early twentieth century that exacerbated dissension
between the two communities. Two developments in particular
engendered distrust. One was the 1909 Qing Nationality Law, which
continued in force under the Republic and laid the basis for China’s
claim to the loyalty of Chinese abroad—to the extent that seats were
reserved for them in the National Assembly. In 1913 the Siamese
passed their own Nationality Act which added nationality through
birth in the country (jus soli) to nationality through descent in the
male line (jus sanguinis). ‘Chinese’ born in Siam were therefore
Siamese, and the only Chinese were those born in China. From 1919
to 1937, the latter more than doubled to over 700 000, though the
number who could claim Chinese nationality under Chinese law was
at least twice that.
The second development was the higher proportion of women
among the increasing number of Chinese immigrants, especially after
1920. As a result, Chinese–Siamese intermarriage decreased, and
Chinese cultural identity was given greater emphasis, even by assimilated Sino–Siamese. This was similar to what was happening elsewhere
in Southeast Asia, especially in Malaya and Indonesia where assimilated, locally born peranakan Chinese became more culturally aware of
their Chinese roots under the influence of totok (China-born) immigrants. Siamese concern over migration levels, however, never
translated into effective control measures.
Attempts by the GMD to gain political support among overseas
Chinese were resented by the Siamese government, which saw it as
interference in Siamese affairs. GMD political activists came to Siam
to establish branches of the party and raise funds for its struggle against
the warlords. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, reunification of China
became a popular political cause among Siamese Chinese. By 1928,
active GMD membership stood at around 20 0007 and delegates from
Siam attended GMD congresses in China. As much as anything, it was
fear that the Chinese community would become an extension of the
GMD that led the Siamese authorities to reject attempts by no fewer
than three Chinese missions to establish diplomatic relations. Another
concern was that conflict between Nationalist and Communist
Chinese would be fought out in Siam. All overtures were therefore
Siamese nationalist discourse had been encouraged by King
Rama VI Vajiravudh, who dubbed the Chinese ‘the Jews of the
East’,8 and was further stimulated by the military coup of 1932. One
of the first acts of the military regime was to make communism
illegal. Later, the government of General Phibul Songkram enacted
a number of measures that, though they applied to all foreign
nationals, were deliberately designed to reduce Chinese influence in
Thailand. Education in Siamese was made mandatory. Most Chinese
schools and newspapers were closed, Chinese were excluded from
certain economic pursuits that were reserved for Siamese, new taxes
on foreigners were introduced, and remittance of money made
illegal. At the same time, naturalisation requirements were tight-
ened, so fewer Chinese could claim Siamese citizenship. In June
1939, the nationalist aspirations of the government were symbolically demonstrated by changing the name of the country to Thailand, and by embracing a pan-Tai ideology to include all Taispeaking peoples, notably the Lao of Laos and the Shan of Burma, and even potentially the Leu of the Xishuangbanna in southern China.
This anti-Chinese turn greatly agitated the Chinese community in Thailand, but as China and Thailand had no diplomatic
relations, there was little the Nationalist government could do.
Chiang Kaishek expressed the hope to General Phibul that Chinese
citizens in Thailand would be permitted to continue to contribute
to the Thai economy. It was an ineffectual intervention, for by this
time Thai attitudes to China had become complicated by the rise
of Japan as a major Asian power, and by the outbreak of the
Sino–Japanese war.
Thai military leaders, particularly General Phibul, were
impressed by Japan’s success in modernising its economy and building
its military power. Japan, they believed, provided the best model for
Thailand to follow. Perceptions of the Chinese in Thailand as a disloyal fifth column only tended to reinforce Thai preference for Japan
over China. In the League of Nations, Thailand refused to condemn
Japan’s aggression in Manchuria. The Thai could recognise a rising
regional hegemon when they saw one. They were disappointed, therefore, when the 1941 Treaty of Tokyo, concluded under Japanese
auspices, awarded Thailand relatively little additional territory after its
brief war against French forces in Indochina.
This did not prevent Thailand from concluding an agreement
with Japan, after twenty-four hours of symbolic resistance, that permitted the movement of Japanese troops through Thai territory,
followed in December 1941 by a formal Thai–Japanese Alliance. Both
moves made good sense to a Thai government seeking to protect Thai
independence and security. That the best way to do this was through
alliance with the dominant power in the region was central to Thai
international relations culture. For the Thai, ‘the bamboo bends with
the wind’. Declarations of war on Britain and the US followed, but not
on Nationalist China. Instead Siam recognised, at Japanese urging,
the Japanese-sponsored puppet government in Nanjing. Meanwhile
the anti-fascist Free Thai movement made contact with the Allies
through Chongqing, Chiang Kaishek’s wartime capital.
The defeat of Japan left Thailand to face the victorious Allies.
Bangkok feared that northern Thailand would be subjected to Chinese
occupation, as in Indochina. That this was avoided was a relief to the
Thai government and a disappointment to many Thai Chinese. Chinese
riots in Bangkok were quelled by the Thai military, to the protestations
of Chongqing, which again demanded opening of diplomatic relations.
This led finally to a Treaty of Amity in 1946, establishing a Chinese
embassy for the first time in Bangkok. It had been almost a century since
the last Siamese tributary mission was dispatched to Beijing.
In order to avoid a Soviet veto to its application for United
Nations membership, Thailand was also forced to rescind its anti-
communist legislation and allow Moscow to establish a legation in
Bangkok, its first in Southeast Asia. Briefly thereafter Bangkok became
the hub of communist activity in the region for Chinese and Vietnamese agents.9 Subsequent military governments outlawed
communism and transferred diplomatic relations to the Republic of
China on Taiwan. Not until 1975, when the US was withdrawing from
mainland Southeast Asia and China had become the rising regional
hegemon, did Thailand transfer its recognition to Beijing.
The Second World War and its aftermath
Relations between the Nationalist Chinese government in its remote
inland wartime capital of Chongqing and the countries of Southeast
Asia all but ceased during the years of the Second World War, except,
as we have seen, in different ways with Burma and Vietnam. China was
far too engaged in its own life and death struggle against Japan to
follow closely the dramatic impact of the war in Southeast Asia.
Authorities in Chongqing were as unaware of the momentous political
changes that had occurred in the region as were officials in London
and Washington, let alone in occupied Paris and The Hague.
Though Nationalist forces were relatively ineffective against the
Japanese, at least compared to the communists, Nationalist China
came out of the war with enhanced international status. This was
partly due to effective Chinese diplomacy, and partly to strong support
from the United States: Britain and France were less eager to accord
China status as a great power with a permanent seat on the newly
created United Nations Security Council.
Enhanced Chinese status coincided with the reduced political
leverage available to former colonial powers. Throughout British
Southeast Asia, independence movements had taken advantage first
of the defeat of colonial regimes by the Japanese, then of the power
vacuum left by the Japanese surrender, to seize the political initiative
and mobilise popular support. Throughout the region, the struggle for
independence was underway, a struggle that would absorb all the
energies of political elites. Not until independence was achieved
would they face the task of forging new relations with what by then
would be a very different China.
Nationalist China had little time to enjoy its new international
prominence. The defeat of Japan had been in the Pacific, not in
China. Though Nationalist armies and communist guerrillas had tied
down large numbers of Japanese troops, Japanese forces in China still
remained largely intact. Japan’s surrender and withdrawal set the stage
for China to plunge back into civil war. As Nationalist and communist
forces fought for supremacy over the next four years, there was little
time to devote to, and little interest in, building relations with emerging independence movements in Southeast Asia. Contacts were
primarily with overseas Chinese communities among whom the propaganda war between Nationalists and communists was intense.
Communism was not just a force in China. Throughout Southeast Asia communists had been among the most resolute and
courageous opponents of the Japanese. Where nationalist elites had
opportunistically taken advantage of the demise of colonial regimes to
further their goal of independence, even if this meant cooperating
with the Japanese (as in Burma and Indonesia), communists (at least
after Germany invaded the Soviet Union) had done all they could to
assist the anti-fascist cause. At war’s end nowhere—even in
Vietnam—could communists claim majority support, but they did
wield considerable political, and even military, power. The challenge
they posed to social democratic national independence movements
was considerable.
In both the Philippines and Burma, the first two former colonies
to gain independence, communist movements took up arms against
governments to which independence had been ceded without armed
struggle. In the Philippines, the Huk rebellion continued into the mid-
1950s before being crushed with substantial American assistance. In
Burma, despite wartime collaboration with socialists within the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), the Burmese Communist
Party took the path of armed insurgency aimed at overthrowing the
socialist government of Prime Minister U Nu. Though both these
insurgencies owed much of their guerrilla strategy to the Chinese
Communist Party and the writings of Mao Zedong, neither was
beholden in any direct way to the CCP. Their timing may have been
due to a Comintern decision, but both arose mainly as a result of
wartime disruption and post-war tension, political disappointment,
and a naked struggle for power.
In Indonesia, Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta proclaimed independence immediately following the Japanese surrender. Dutch
determination to reassert colonial control, however, precipitated a
three-year war for independence in which nationalists and communists at first fought side by side. In 1948, a communist attempt to seize
control of the independence struggle (the Madiun rebellion) was put
down by forces loyal to the nationalist leadership. This had the unforeseen result of gaining American support for Indonesian independence,
which came on 27 December 1949, less than three months after the
proclamation of the People’s Republic of China. In a move designed to
establish its neutralist credentials, the new government in Jakarta took
the lead in requesting the GMD to terminate all activities in Indonesia, thus clearing the way for diplomatic relations to be established
between Jakarta and Beijing in August 1950.10
In none of these revolutionary movements did overseas Chinese
take leadership roles. In Malaya, by contrast, overseas Chinese inspired
and led the insurgency, and membership of the Malayan Communist
Party (MCP) remained overwhelmingly Chinese. During the war,
the Chinese community had been most oppressed by, and most
opposed to, the Japanese occupation, and recruitment into the
communist-controlled Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army was
also predominantly Chinese. After the war, the MCP fomented opposition to the British Military Administration through strikes and
propaganda aimed mainly at the Chinese community. By mid-1948 the
decision had been taken for an armed uprising. In response to growing
terrorism, the British authorities announced a state of emergency.
Vocal support (if little else), from Beijing after 1949 for liberation of
the ‘Malayan races’ only served to exacerbate Malay distrust, despite
being denounced by prominent Chinese leaders in Malaya.
The Malayan Emergency was to last beyond the declaration of
Malayan independence. Though by far the majority of Chinese in Malaya
gave no support to the MCP, the fact that the insurgency was predominantly a Chinese affair did nothing to improve relations between
Chinese and Malays in the lead up to independence. Two key issues
were citizenship and political representation, about which the Chinese
community as a whole was unhappy. While under Malay law citizen-ship was automatic for Malays (even if immigrants from Indonesia),
Chinese and Indians had to apply for registration and naturalisation.
This left political control in the hands of the Malays, represented
principally by the United Malays Nationalist Organization (UMNO).
All attempts to form a multiracial party failed. By the time the independence of the Federation of Malaya was proclaimed in August
1957, an alliance had been struck between UMNO and the Malayan
Chinese Association (with the Malayan Indian Congress a minor
partner) that effectively traded off Malay political dominance against
Chinese economic supremacy. It was hardly surprising that the new
Malayan government refused to establish diplomatic relations with
In Indochina the situation was different again, with much more
direct Chinese intervention in political developments. During the war
years, Japanese troops were stationed throughout Indochina, though
the French administration remained in place. Relations with the
French became fraught only after the liberation of France, when the
Japanese feared an American amphibious attack on coastal Vietnam to
link up with Chinese Nationalist forces in southern China. In March
1945, all French personnel were interned in a lightning Japanese coup
de force, but for a few who staged a fighting retreat into China, and
small pockets in Laos.
Under Japanese inducement, the kings of Cambodia and Laos
and Emperor Bao Dai of Vietnam all declared the independence of
their countries. When Japan surrendered six months later, these royal
declarations of independence were rescinded, but the genie was
already out of the bottle, even where nationalism had been slow to
develop. In Laos and Cambodia, Free Lao and Free Khmer movements
fought the reimposition of French rule over the next several years.
Indochina was the one part of Southeast Asia where Chinese
forces directly intervened after the war. Under the terms of the
Potsdam Agreement, the surrender of Japanese troops north of the sixteenth parallel of latitude was taken by Nationalist Chinese forces and
south of it by the British Southeast Asia Command. This did not apply
to Burma, which the British had already reoccupied (a Chinese force
briefly crossed the border near Myitkyina, but was prevailed upon to
withdraw); or to Thailand, which had no common border with China.
It did apply to Vietnam and Laos. Cambodia lay south of the sixteenth
It took time, however, for Chinese Nationalist forces to arrive.
In the meantime the Free Lao established a government in Viang
Chan that survived until the French reconquest of the country in
1946. In Vietnam, in an even more significant development, the
Vietminh took advantage of the temporary power vacuum to force
the abdication of Bao Dai and proclaim the independence of the
Democratic Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of Ho Chi
By the time Chinese Nationalist forces arrived, remaining Japan-
ese troops had retreated south to surrender to the British and French.
In Laos, the Chinese favoured the Free Lao, but in Vietnam they brought
with them the Dong Minh Hoi, members of which Ho prudently
included in his provisional coalition government. No sooner had the
Chinese arrived than the French began negotiations for them to leave.
In the meantime, occupying Chinese forces systematically looted
northern Vietnam. They were convinced, with the help of substantial
bribes, to withdraw by 31 March 1946. (Withdrawal was delayed in
Laos so the Chinese could buy up the opium crop.)
The way was at last open for the French reoccupation of Vietnam
that led directly, in December 1946, to the outbreak of the First
Indochina War. Had the French been in a position to return in force
to northern Vietnam immediately following the Japanese surrender,
the subsequent course of events might have been very different. (The
French force that had retreated into China in March 1945 was prevented from returning by Chinese authorities.) The Chinese
occupation, if only for a few months, had been crucial for the support
given to Vietnamese nationalists of all political persuasions, but it left
a nasty taste in Vietnamese mouths. Even the Vietminh were prepared
to tolerate the temporary return of French forces to northern Vietnam
if this would get rid of the Chinese.11 Chinese withdrawal brought back
the French, but it also deprived nationalist parties like the Dong Minh
Hoi of their political patronage, and so left the Vietminh free to
dispose of their political enemies.
For three years, from the outbreak of fighting until the arrival of
communist Chinese forces on the Sino–Vietnamese border towards
the end of 1949, neither the French nor the Vietminh was able to gain
a decisive advantage. The Vietminh, borrowing extensively from
Maoist theory of revolutionary warfare, established their Viet Bac base
area in the northern mountains close to the border with China, and
built up their political organisation in the countryside. But they
obtained minimal Chinese support, for the GMD was by then well
aware of the communist complexion of the Vietminh and its ties with
the CCP. The French held the major towns and cities, and benefited
from a degree of Chinese cooperation (despite the GMD’s proclaimed
sympathy for Vietnamese independence).
As Nationalist Chinese influence on and interest in the Vietminh-led independence struggle in Vietnam dwindled, so communist
Chinese interest and influence increased. The Nationalists retained
consulates in Saigon and Hanoi, but communist Chinese agents
increasingly contested Nationalist influence in the Chinese community. Meanwhile in southern China, small locally recruited communist
units worked closely with the Vietminh, seeking sanctuary in Vietnam
when necessary, and offering sanctuary in China in return when Vietminh units were hard pressed. But this was a local initiative. The CCP
was far too preoccupied with the civil war to formulate a considered
policy towards the Vietminh, or to provide them with substantial assistance.
By December 1949, Chinese communist forces were approaching
the Vietnamese frontier, pushing before them the remnants of the
defeated Nationalist First Army Corps. Under an agreement with the
French, 30 000 Nationalist troops and dependents were permitted to
enter Vietnam, where they were disarmed and interned. Most were
eventually repatriated to Taiwan, though not until 1953.12 To the west,
in Yunnan, remnants of the GMD Eighth Army retreated into north-eastern Shan state, without Burmese permission and against the
government’s wishes. Their presence would be a source of instability
and diplomatic friction for years to come.
Like the late Qing, Nationalist China was intent on rebuilding
Chinese prestige and status, and from an equally weak position.
Attempts to expand Chinese influence in Southeast Asia were
blocked, however, by the presence of European colonial powers. The
only avenue remained the overseas Chinese. Whereas the Qing saw
the overseas Chinese primarily in Middle Kingdom terms (that is, as
subjects expected to assist China), the Nationalists saw them as a
means of expanding Chinese influence in the region. Close contacts
were developed between authorities in China and Chinese communities in Southeast Asia, while migration of unprecedented numbers of
Chinese continued with little concern for indigenous sensitivities.
The interwar years were a period of competing nationalisms that
gave both European authorities and local elites cause for concern.
Chinese were urged to return to their roots by adopting Chinese values
and education for their children. They were also encouraged to take an
interest in Chinese politics. The struggle between communists and
Nationalists was in this way transferred to Southeast Asia, where it
interacted with local nationalist debate. The politicisation of the overseas Chinese had the untoward effect, however, of making them a
political issue in the lands where they resided.
As a victor in the Second World War, China gained in international status. Thanks largely to the United States, Nationalist
China was given a permanent seat on the United Nations Security
Council. Beset, however, by civil war, the Chinese government was
unable to exploit the country’s international prominence, even among
newly independent countries in Southeast Asia. How Nationalist
determination to restore China’s international prestige would have
impacted on relations with Southeast Asia had communism in China
been defeated must remain a matter of speculation. As it was, it was
left to the communists to develop these relations, with the disadvantage that their contacts were predominantly with revolutionary
movements intent on overthrowing Southeast Asian ruling elites.
Little wonder that the process was fraught with tension and misunderstanding, and took over thirty years to work out.

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of
China (PRC) and informed the world that: ‘Ours will no longer be a
nation subject to insult and humiliation. We have stood up.’1 Victory
over the Nationalist forces of the Guomindang was all but complete.
Chiang Kaishek and his Nationalist government had fled to Taiwan. A
new and mighty communist state had been born, just days after the
Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear weapon, into a world already
deeply divided by the Cold War.
In Southeast Asia, Thailand had already reverted to military rule
and sought alliance with the new hegemonic power in the region, the
United States. Taking its lead from Washington, Bangkok continued
to recognise the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan. So too did the
newly independent Philippines, also closely aligned with the US and
fighting its own communist insurgency. Independent Burma recognised Beijing in December 1949, the first Asian state to do so despite
then combating both communist and ethnic Karen insurgencies. A
few months later, independent Indonesia also hesitantly recognised the PRC. In Indochina and Malaya, communist forces were pitted against colonial regimes in wars that would delay independence—and thus formal relations with China—for years.
In both China and the four independent nations of Southeast
Asia, new ruling elites faced the delicate task of forging new relations
with each other. The Chinese Communist Party had long maintained
clandestine contacts with communist parties in Southeast Asia, but
these had almost entirely been through their overseas Chinese
members. CCP contacts with indigenous communists had been few
and insignificant, apart from the special case of Vietnam. One problem
that confronted the PRC, therefore, was how to relate to non-
communist ruling elites. It did so at first from the ideological perspective
of Marxism–Leninism.
The Chinese Marxist–Leninist worldview
Like their Nationalist opponents, Chinese communists had looked to
Europe for new ideas to replace discredited Confucianism. But whereas
the GMD was eclectic in its borrowing (including even Marxist–Leninist
‘democratic centralism’ for its political organisation), the CCP was
single-minded in its commitment to communism. Both parties, however,
grafted sometimes ill-assimilated Western notions onto a Chinese base.
From the late 1930s Marxism–Leninism in China carried with it a strong
component of what came to be called ‘Mao Zedong thought’, and Mao
was deeply Chinese. Unlike Ho Chi Minh (or Zhou Enlai), who had
travelled the world and spoke European languages, Mao knew only
China and Chinese. His education took in the Chinese classics on war
and statecraft, and he was well versed in Chinese history and literature.
Moreover, Mao was not only Chairman of the CCP, but also its leading
theoretician. Thus, although the adoption of Marxism–Leninism
entailed acceptance of a radically new view of the world, by 1949 that
view was deeply imbued with ‘Chinese characteristics’.
What the Chinese took from Marxism–Leninism was what also
appealed to many political activists and intellectuals in Southeast
Asia. First and foremost was a theory of history that explained their
humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism, assured them of their
inevitable triumph over it, and provided them with the revolutionary
model by which this would be achieved. It gave them, in other words,
both an intellectually satisfying worldview and a blueprint for political
action. Imperialism, Lenin had argued, was the last internationalist
phase of monopoly capitalism, seeking control over resources for its
industries and markets for its products. It would be defeated at its
weakest point, where its contradictions were most glaring, and that
was in its colonies. Revolution would be achieved through mass action
by peasants and workers led by the dedicated cadres of communist
parties. What was taken on faith was Marx’s belief that communism,
as a mode of economic production, would prove superior to capitalism,
so that the sooner a society adopted communism, the more rapidly it
would catch up and overtake imperialist capitalist states. Proof lay in
the rapid industrialisation of the Soviet Union, which had enabled it
to defeat Nazi Germany. Such a view led to disastrous attempts to
speed up economic development by ‘by-passing’ the capitalist mode of
production entirely—a notion Marx would have found bizarre. Examples include the Great Leap Forward in China and Khmer Rouge
agrarian communism in Cambodia.
In terms of international relations, the Marxist–Leninist world-view was global in conception, and class- rather than nation-based.
The revolutionary leap from capitalism to communism was believed to
be universal and inevitable, even though it would take place separately
in each society (nation-state). The historical significance of each revolution lay in its contribution to this global historical process. This
internationalist cause united workers across the world. By their revolutionary efforts the proletariat would seize state power (exercised by
the communist party through dictatorship on the workers’ behalf)
leading ultimately to the communist utopia, to which all would
contribute according to their abilities and from which all would
benefit according to their needs. This heady brothers-in-arms vision
went by the name of ‘proletarian internationalism’, and presupposed
the equality of both fraternal parties and those states in which they
had succeeded in seizing power.
The reality was rather different. Under Stalin, the Soviet
Union arrogated to itself the right to guide and direct world communism. Just as previously Moscow had proclaimed itself the ‘third Rome’
of Orthodox Christianity (after Rome itself and Constantinople),
under communism the Soviet Union was the fount of orthodoxy. Its
model of urban proletarian revolution when applied in China,
however, led only to disaster when the Shanghai uprising of 1927 was
ruthlessly suppressed. The significance of the ultimate success of
Mao’s rural, peasant-based revolution lay in two things: it drew upon
Chinese, not Soviet, historical experience; and it was shaped within
the context of Chinese circumstances, including cultural beliefs and
values. It thereby provided a new and different model of revolution,
one that the Chinese believed, with some justification, was much
more applicable in Asia than was the Soviet model.2 One of the first
demands made by China in its alliance with the Soviet Union was to
be given primary responsibility for promoting communist revolution
in Asia.
The countries of Southeast Asia, so the Chinese leadership
believed, were ripe for revolution. In their analysis, imperialism was
attempting to consolidate its hold either by handing power to compliant client elites (as in the Philippines and Burma) or by reasserting
direct rule (as in Malaya, Indonesia and Indochina). Progressive forces
in these countries, led by Marxist parties, were fighting to prevent this
and to bring about genuine revolution. It was China’s internationalist
duty to support such forces. This meant backing both liberation movements fighting to expel colonial powers (the nationalist bourgeois–
democratic phase) and revolutionary movements seeking to overthrow
conservative indigenous ruling elites (to bring about the subsequent
transition to socialism). The global struggle would be both relentless
and prolonged, as imperialism (led by the United States) was bent on
destroying the socialist commonwealth. And the primary arena would
be the Third World.
This was the Chinese Marxist–Leninist view of the balance of
global forces, one that was largely shared by leaders of revolutionary
movements in Southeast Asia. The translation of this view of the
world into foreign policy was another matter, however. Realistic analy-
sis of the balance of military and economic power, and the pragmatic
assessment of national interest were never absent from Chinese foreign
policy, even if this was at times ideologically driven. As in other states,
domestic politics also had a significant impact on international relations, especially at times of internal conflict. So, too, had the way in
which foreign policy decisions were arrived at. In the case of the PRC,
the highly centralised and hierarchical power structure limited input
into foreign policy decision making. In fact, Mao Zedong and Zhou
Enlai were personally responsible for all major foreign policy initiatives
during their lifetimes.
It has frequently been pointed out how structurally similar
communist government, as an authoritarian dictatorship exercised by
the CCP, was at its upper levels to government as exercised by the
equally authoritarian Confucian mandarinate. A similar power structure, it should be noted, also characterised the Nationalist government
under the GMD. The ideological justification might have changed,
but not belief about how power should be concentrated and exercised,
and by whom. ‘Democratic centralism’ preserved the hierarchy of
political power and the patriarchal exclusion (of all but a token few
women) that had been characteristic of Confucianism. The CCP, like
the mandarinate, retained a monopoly on both orthodoxy and the
path to political power. A new orthodoxy had to be learned and
recited, but it functioned in a structurally similar way to Confucianism
to exclude not only all alternative views, but also all those not
inducted into it. Lucian Pye has called the resulting system ‘Confucian
Leninism’. We should note in passing that neither equality nor individual rights were principles that figured significantly in this curious hybrid.
In the field of international relations a similar fusion occurred,
merging Marxist–Leninist and deep-seated historically Chinese beliefs
and values. One such belief related to the relative status of polities.
Despite nominal membership of the Western system of formally equal
sovereign nations, and of the communist commonwealth of fraternal
socialist states, China has always had difficulty in seeing itself as just
another nation-state. This is because China, in reality, remains both
the last great empire, and a civilisation whose historical pretensions to
superiority are deeply embedded in the national psyche. In the current
world order, moreover, it is as obvious to the Chinese as to anyone
else that nation-states are not equal, though Beijing has always been
punctilious in treating all equally in a formal sense—just as under the
tribute system all vassal kingdoms were treated equally and impartially by a benevolent emperor. The world of nation-states that
China entered in reality consisted of a hierarchy of powers, which
for China was a hierarchy of international status. If China was truly
to stand up and erase the humiliation of the ‘century of shame’, then
it was imperative to regain international standing and respect. This
was the unquestioned national goal for all Chinese leaders, and it was
a goal that had important implications for the region. For if China
was to become a global great power, it would have to be recognised
as such within its own immediate ‘sphere of influence’. In other words,
a regional political order would have to evolve in which China was the
dominant power, which of course meant that the presence of outside
imperialist powers would have to be reduced to a minimum.
A second element of the traditional Chinese view of international relations that carried through to the People’s Republic was
belief in the influence and superiority of Chinese example. In the
past, the virtue of the emperor provided the supreme model for others
to follow. The revolutionary leadership of the PRC believed their
revolutionary praxis also provided a superior model for others to
emulate. What carried over from Confucian to communist China was
the assumption that China was in an important sense an example
for other polities, and thus had a didactic leadership role to play. The
patronising superiority with which Chinese envoys lectured vassal
kings and their courts as to the proper behaviour expected of them,
found its parallel in the way senior communist officials lectured visiting delegations from regional communist movements.
A third element of traditional belief that carried over into the
Chinese communist worldview was its moralism. The traditional
worldview that the Chinese sought to impose on surrounding kingdoms was a moral order, suffused by the virtue of the emperor. Chinese
moral superiority derived from acting in accordance with the will of
Heaven, and found expression in the universal beneficence and
concern of the emperor for the well-being of ‘all under Heaven’. Vassal
kingdoms failing to live up to Chinese expectations were rebuked in
moral terms. Similar convictions of moral superiority and tendencies
to make moral judgments were soon evident in the PRC’s approach to
international relations.5 Chinese policies tended to be proclaimed as
moral principles, whether the Bandung policy of coexistence and non-interference in the affairs of other countries, or the later policy of
anti-hegemonism (outlined below). In each case, China claimed its
view provided the sole moral basis for the fairer and more just international order that it sought to create. The tributary system and the
trade that accompanied it had rested on a strong sense of moral commitment: tributary missions were generously recompensed and
measures were taken to ensure that trade was fair. Similarly the
concept of ‘equal benefit’ in PRC trade policy emphasised its moral
basis in a way that reflected Chinese values more than socialist
practice (at least if judged by Soviet example).
Other important elements of the Marxist–Leninist worldview
replaced traditional notions entirely, with significant implications for
foreign relations. One was the idea of history. The Confucian view of
history, as elaborated by the great historians of the Han dynasty (Sima
Qian and Ban Gu), conceived of it as a cyclical process. Each new
dynasty, in gaining the mandate of Heaven, reinstated the moral order
that the last emperor of the previous dynasty had neglected. Marx, by
contrast, was a European progressivist, a true son of the Enlightenment, for whom time moved inexorably into the future. So it did for
Chinese Marxists, who accepted that history was not just linear, but
progressive in that it favoured progressive forces, notably the CCP.
The victory of communism in China, Chinese Marxists believed, was
the first surge in a new tide of revolution that would sweep across Asia
and the world and free all subject peoples from imperial domination and exploitation.
Another major change was to Chinese beliefs about the significance of economic forces. Whereas in Confucian China interest in
economic development focused principally on collection of taxation
necessary to meet the costs of administration and the imperial court,
for Marxists, economic production was the driving force of history and
the primary source of social power. It was the role of the state actively
to stimulate production and facilitate distribution. International trade
was thus no longer a matter of little concern to government, to be
left in the hands of merchants of lowly status. Rather, it became a key
consideration in relations between states.
Finally, certain characteristics of communist parties, including
the CCP, spilled over from domestic politics into state behaviour to
influence international relations. Among these we shall note two: the
role of ideology, and a tendency to paranoia. Because intra-party politics tended to be fought out in terms of ideological orthodoxy, foreign
relations could never be immune to ideological criticism. The influence of ideology on foreign policy has been particularly marked in the
case of China, at no time more so than during the Cultural Revolution. As for paranoia, since one-party states by definition allow no
overt political opposition, any opposition that arises must remain
clandestine. It must be conspiratorial. This is exactly what ruling
communist parties were when they were still illegal, so historical
experience adds to the paranoia. Enemies are all around, operating in
secret, and this extends to the international arena. The Chinese
regime has always believed that other governments were plotting its
downfall. It was Mao himself who warned about the dangers of ‘peace-ful evolution’ as an imperialist strategy to undermine and destroy the
Chinese revolution. Such suspicion has been a hallmark of the PRC’s
international relations culture, as it has been of Southeast Asian communist states (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia under the Khmer
Early PRC–Southeast Asia relations
The CCP came to power in the bipolar international environment of
the Cold War, after years of civil conflict and in desperate need of
foreign assistance. It saw no alternative, therefore, but to ‘lean to one
side’ and enter into formal alliance with the Soviet Union, which it
did in February 1950. It was always going to be a difficult relationship,
for reasons outlined above, and one that in retrospect could not last,
though this was not immediately apparent. For political elites in
Southeast Asia, some already struggling against homegrown communist insurgencies, world communism not only had moved frighteningly
closer, but also had new and powerful means at its disposal to support revolution.
Within a year, the PRC conclusively demonstrated its preparedness to use those means. In September 1950, a Vietminh offensive was
launched with substantial Chinese assistance against French garrisons
in northern Vietnam close to the border—with China. A month later,
Chinese ‘volunteers’ poured into Korea, driving United Nations forces
back below the 38th parallel. Together these two events caused considerable anxiety and hardened attitudes among non-communist
Southeast Asian political elites already subject to blistering criticism
over Radio Beijing as ‘running dogs of imperialism’. It seemed that
Beijing was ready to back its strong words of support for revolutionary
movements by decisive deeds.
Nowhere did the spectre of Chinese intervention loom larger
than in Burma with its long and porous land border with the PRC, and
in Vietnam (see below). The government of Burmese Prime Minister
U Nu feared direct Chinese support, including military ‘volunteers’, for
the Burmese Communist Party’s insurrection; or even invasion by
Chinese communist forces on the pretext of pursuing GMD remnants
that had crossed the Burmese border. In an effort to prevent such intervention, Burma adopted a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs,
and dispatched units of its own hard-pressed army to harass the
unwanted GMD troops. The Burmese severed all connections with
Britain, gave no support to the UN in Korea (unlike Thailand), and
refrained from commenting on China’s brutal ‘liberation’ of Buddhist Tibet.
Burmese neutralism did not derive solely from a realistic assessment of immediate circumstances. That was obviously one factor, but
the Burmese response also drew upon a bilateral relations regime with
China that had deep historical and cultural roots. Geography made
Burma and China neighbours, but frontiers were always ill defined—
and still were in the 1950s. Between the Han Chinese and Burman
heartlands lived a bewildering number of ethnic minorities, which
each in the past had attempted to draw into its political orbit. Con-
tacts had mostly been peaceful and commercial, but trade routes could
always become routes of invasion. Even powerful Burmese dynasties
had recognised the threat that China posed. Any Chinese incursion
was vigorously resisted, though China was afterwards placated through
the dispatch of a Burmese embassy. And while Burmese conquerors frequently marched their armies against the Tai world, they mostly
refrained from provoking China.
Another important historical lesson for Burma has been that
strength comes from unity enforced by strong centralised power. Power
struggles at the centre, particularly succession disputes, weakened the
Burmese mandala and left it open to intervention by its neighbours.
Experience of the British colonial policy of divide and rule only re-
inforced this lesson. To a certain extent, the threat of intervention was
reduced through isolation and reliance on geography to protect the
core heartland of the Irrawaddy valley. But this needed to be backed by
diplomacy. Neutrality was designed to minimise possible external
interference while the government attempted to strengthen the power
of the centre and unify the country.
Resistance and placation were the two poles of the traditional
Burmese response to China. The Burmese accepted what they
described as a paukphaw (sibling) relationship that accorded China
seniority within the same family. Beijing was remote and un-
predictable, so it was always wise to maintain formally friendly
relations at comfortably extended intervals. In the meantime the
Burmese were free to shape their own world, by the perennial means
in a fluctuating mandala of conquest of Mon, Shan, and other minor
principalities. A similar approach in 1950 seemed entirely logical to
Rangoon. China would be placated, leaving the Burman ruling elite
free to recreate an independent Burmese state through internal
conquest (of the BCP, the Karen, and any other minority that might
challenge Burman domination). Thus was the external security
environment stabilised in order to focus on the internal environment.
The Burmese approach worked. During the Korean conflict,
China wanted no second front in the south. Support for the Vietminh
kept the French busy in Indochina; Thailand, allied with the US
though it was, had no common border across which to threaten
Yunnan. But an independent Burma allied with the West could have
posed a danger, not least to the Chinese position in Tibet. Better to
encourage Burmese neutrality (leaning to China), than to back the
BCP. In its dealing with Burma, Beijing showed that vocal encouragement for revolutionary movements did not necessarily translate into
material support. A gap opened up between words and deeds because
Chinese leaders were prepared to make a distinction between state-to-state and party-to-party relations in their pursuit of China’s national
interests. This provided a space which worried some Southeast Asian
leaders, but in which others learned to move.
Indonesia, the other newly independent state in Southeast Asia to
recognise the PRC, did so with some reluctance, and with very different
motives. Like Burma, Indonesia was preoccupied with its own internal
affairs. Like Burma, it sought to create a strong and unified state out of
the wreckage of war and division. Both countries were multi-ethnic and
both were vulnerable to regional and ethnic separatism. There similarities ended, however. Indonesia might be spread across more than 16 000
islands, but its frontiers were not in question (except with respect to
West Irian), and did not abut China. Nor did Indonesia have to contend
with a communist insurgency, though it did still have a small but active
communist party. From an Indonesian point of view, therefore, China
did not pose an immediate security threat.
From its inception, Indonesian security concerns were internal
rather than external. The first priority was to build a nation. President
Sukarno worked tirelessly to promote an ‘archipelagic outlook’, incorporating islands and waters in a single political whole that subsumed
all ethnic and cultural differences. But differences remained. ‘Unity in
Diversity’ was an appropriate national motto, but the unity had continuously to be constructed. Nationalist historiography harked back to
the great Javanese kingdom of Majapahit to provide historical legitimisation for the modern Indonesian state. But though Javanese
kingdoms had dominated parts of the archipelago, Majapahit had
never extended its sway across all of Indonesia’s islands, many of which
resented Javanese domination. Territorial integrity was thus threatened more by the prospect of internal secession than by external
‘Unity in Diversity’ applied not only to ethnic and cultural
divisions, but religious divisions as well. Though Indonesia was overwhelmingly Muslim, like India its nationalism was largely secular.
Only one of the ‘five principles’ (PANCASILA) to which all Indonesians were expected to give assent referred to belief in God. The other
four covered humanitarianism, national unity, democracy and social
justice. Even so, if Indonesians looked abroad, most looked to Mecca
rather than Beijing. For centuries the islands had traded with China,
but Indonesians had never considered themselves part of the Chinese
world order. During this time Indonesia had become home to a large
overseas Chinese community that had proved reluctant to support the
Indonesian nationalist cause, and whose links with China were viewed
with suspicion by the Muslim majority. In the early years of independence, it was the PRC’s attitude towards overseas Chinese that was of
most concern to the government in Jakarta.
The overseas Chinese were a problem, too, for the PRC. Beijing
had inherited a legacy of suspicion throughout Southeast Asia, thanks
mainly to the activities of the GMD and the policies of the Nationalist government, which had set back assimilation virtually everywhere.
Chinese had been encouraged to see themselves as Chinese first and
Southeast Asians second, and to direct their primary loyalties to
China. The GMD had viewed overseas Chinese communities as a
means of extending Chinese influence in the region, and as a resource
for the government of China. Indeed, it had viewed them as citizens of
China and thus under its own jurisdiction, a policy that had caused
irritation, as we have seen, not only to colonial authorities, but also to
the Thai government.
The PRC inherited this position, but tended to be more circumspect than the GMD. It accepted responsibility for protecting overseas
Chinese, just as would any government, but was limited in doing so by
lack of representation. In both Thailand and the Philippines, anti-Chinese discrimination continued. Schools were closed and
newspapers censored. Several thousand Chinese were deported from
Malaya for involvement with the Malayan Communist Party. Even in
Indonesia, with which Beijing did have diplomatic relations, little
could be done to prevent discrimination.
Part of the problem lay in the fact that the PRC had inherited
the late Qing and Nationalist definition of nationality based on jus
sanguinis; that is, that nationality was determined by paternal line, not
country of birth. As a rough estimate, this put the overseas Chinese
population at around twelve million, but made no allowance for
choice of nationality, where this existed, let alone intermarriage.
In the period to 1954, the PRC was cautious about using the
overseas Chinese as its own long arm into Southeast Asia to destabilise
governments it denounced as ‘tools of imperialism’. The reason was
two-fold: the PRC was feeling its way with respect to the overseas
Chinese; and it was not prepared in the meantime to jeopardise its own
interests. In particular, Beijing was not prepared to allow the precipitate actions of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, over which it had
limited control, to shape its policy towards the region. At the same
time, the PRC did want its influence to prevail over that of Taiwan,
and for overseas Chinese to support the PRC, both ideologically and
financially. It therefore granted overseas Chinese the right to elect representatives to PRC political bodies, including the National People’s
Nowhere was the need to tread a fine line with respect to over-seas Chinese more evident than in Malaya, where not only was the
insurgency inspired by Maoist revolutionary practice, but was actually
led by overseas Chinese. China gave verbal support to the insurgents,
and revolutionary literature was smuggled in; but only minimal material assistance was forthcoming. At the same time, Beijing protested
the effect harsh control measures, taken during the emergency, had on
ethnic Chinese. By 1951, however, the Chinese government was
becoming concerned over both the terrorist tactics adopted by the
MCP and the ethnic polarisation the insurgency was producing. In
October Beijing obliquely criticised overseas Chinese dominance of
the MCP by calling for formation of a broad united front of all the
Malayan peoples. By the end of the year, the MCP had reduced its
terrorist activities.
Over the next three years, the MCP gradually shifted emphasis
from military to political struggle. By then it had been confined to
jungle bases in northern Malaya along the Thai border, and it was clear
that the insurgency could not succeed. The Korean War was at an end,
the Geneva conference had brought temporary peace to Indochina,
and Beijing had signalled a more amenable policy with respect to over-seas Chinese. It was under these circumstances that the MCP called
for a political resolution of the emergency that would legalise the party.
Talks were held in December 1955, but as the MCP was reluctant to
surrender its weapons, nothing came of them. A complicating factor
from the point of view of the Malay political elite was what to do about
Singapore. The fear was that an independent Singapore, with its over-whelmingly Chinese population and active left-wing unions, would
succumb to communism. The favoured solution was to merge Malaya,
Singapore and the British Borneo territories into a new political entity.
But when the Federation of Malaya obtained independence in August
1957, Singapore remained under British rule. Not surprisingly, the new
Malayan government made no move to enter into diplomatic relations
with Beijing.
The First Indochina War
The first significant move made by the PRC in its relations with
Southeast Asia came in January 1950, when China became the first
nation to recognise the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV).
The Soviet Union followed suit, but the Chinese action was highly
significant for it served notice that, under appropriate circumstances,
the PRC would throw its support behind revolutionary independence
movements in Asia. In the case of Vietnam, there were good strategic reasons for China to intervene. The Chinese leadership believed
their fledgling regime faced threats to its very existence from
Western imperialism poised to strike from Korea, Taiwan, and
Indochina. The French presence on China’s southern border had,
therefore, to be eliminated.
Chinese recognition of the DRV effectively internationalised the
war in Indochina. France nominally transferred sovereignty to royal
governments in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, which were promptly
recognised by Washington and London. United States military assistance immediately began flowing to all three countries. From being a
colonial war for independence, the war in Indochina became part of
the global struggle against communism. By the time it ended in 1954,
the United States was meeting three-quarters of the military cost, as
well as providing economic assistance.
Apart from security, however, more complex motives lay
behind the Chinese decision to back the Vietminh. Ideological
support for revolution, and Beijing’s ‘international obligation’ to
assist the Vietnamese people were two factors, but so too was a
desire to test the Chinese ‘model’ of revolution. The success of the
CCP in coming to power in China had convinced its leadership that
the Chinese model constituted a major theoretical advance for
Marxism–Leninism. In November 1949, in his opening address
to the Conference of Asian and Australasian Trade Unions, PRC
President Liu Shaoqi had stated: ‘The path of the Chinese people’s
victory . . . is the path which should be taken by the people of many
colonial and semi-colonial nations who struggle for national in-
dependence and people’s democracy.’6 The means, Liu told delegates,
should be through formation of a united front of classes, groups and
individuals devoted to national liberation, led by a dedicated and
disciplined communist party that would establish and lead a
‘national army’. The first test of this model, the Chinese decided,
was to be in Vietnam. Success there would powerfully strengthen
China’s revolutionary status.
There was yet another reason, however, why China was prepared
to provide assistance to the Vietminh that harked back to historical
precedent, one that both Chinese and Vietnamese were well aware of
and viewed very differently: to re-establish the traditional status relationship that had previously existed between the two countries.
Successive Vietnamese dynasties had over the centuries borrowed
much of Chinese culture, from cosmography to Confucianism as a
philosophy of government. So if the Vietminh took from the PRC an
appropriate model of political organisation and revolutionary warfare,
this would reinstate, in Chinese eyes, the former relationship between
China as the source of orthodoxy and Vietnam as the grateful recipient; China as the teacher, Vietnam as the pupil; in a word, China as
superior in status, Vietnam as inferior. Through generous assistance,
Beijing would once again draw Vietnam into its status-structured
political orbit.
As Vietnamese revolutionary leaders were enthusiastic about the
Maoist model and needed international support, Chinese assistance
was welcomed. A senior official was appointed to head the Chinese
liaison mission in Vietnam; a Chinese Military Advisory Group was
established, not just to oversee the training and equipping of Viet-
namese units, but also to assist in military planning; and a senior
Chinese general was sent to Vietnam to plan the first major Vietminh
offensive. Vietminh military forces were renamed the People’s Army of
Vietnam (PAVN) and readied for battle, thanks to Chinese aid, on a
scale not previously possible.
Beginning in mid-September, the Vietminh launched its offensive against French garrisons close the Chinese border. Victory was
crushing. A series of attacks, ambushes and precipitous withdrawals
resulted in heavy French losses of men and equipment and left all the
mountainous northern China–Vietnam frontier area in Vietminh
hands. The PAVN was led by General Vo Nguyen Giap, but the plan,
as we now know from recently released Chinese documents, was drawn
up by his Chinese advisers.
Vietnamese historians have consistently minimised China’s role
in the First Indochina War, but bare statistics reveal how extensive
this was: tens of thousands of small arms, hundreds of artillery pieces
and heavy mortars, thousands of tons of ammunition, not to mention
food, medical supplies, military uniforms, vehicles and other equipment. What was even more significant was the involvement of
Chinese advisers in military planning for every major offensive campaign, including the Vietminh invasions of Laos in 1953 and 1954
(agreed upon as part of a grand strategic plan during a secret visit to
Beijing by Ho Chi Minh in September 1952), and the battle of Dien
Bien Phu that effectively brought the war to an end.
The extent to which Chinese advice was accepted and acted
upon is still hotly disputed. The Vietnamese maintain that Chinese
advice was often inappropriate, especially ‘human wave’ offensives
modelled on Chinese tactics used in Korea. Friction occurred at times
between Chinese advisers and Vietnamese commanders. Most Vietnamese venom, however, has been reserved for China’s role not in
prosecuting the war, but in the peace agreement that concluded it. The
Vietnamese argue that it was Chinese machinations at Geneva in 1954
that deprived them of total victory against the French, and so con-
demned the Vietnamese people to twenty more years of conflict and
The scene was set for the Geneva Conference on Indochina by
conclusion of an armistice in Korea and victory at Dien Bien Phu.
The DRV delegation went to Geneva hoping not only to secure the
independence of Vietnam under communist rule, but also for a share
in government for the Vietminh-backed revolutionary movements
in Laos and Cambodia, formed after the Indochina Communist
Party was disbanded in 1951. China attended with very different
priorities in mind. The PRC still feared direct American military
intervention in Indochina. But China needed a breathing space in
which to concentrate on internal political matters and economic
development. Beijing was prepared, therefore, to back the Soviet
Union’s policy of ‘peaceful coexistence’ (foreshadowed as early
as October 1952)—provided that ensured security along China’s
southern border.
At Geneva, China’s own security needs took precedence over
Vietnamese interests. In the global context of the Cold War, however,
Chinese security depended primarily on the attitude of the United
States. Beijing sought a settlement in Indochina that would reduce the
threat to China from American imperialism. The armistice in Korea
had established North Korea as a protective shield along China’s
northeastern frontier. Beijing wanted a similar protective zone in Indochina. Support for the division of Vietnam, and for neutral, non-communist governments in Laos and Cambodia, was designed to head
off a major American commitment to Indochina.
Chinese leaders had two additional goals, however, that reveal
much about Chinese grand strategy. One was China’s desire to be
taken seriously as a major power; the other was to exert greater political influence in Southeast Asia. For the first five years of the regime’s
existence, during the Korean War, Beijing had been internationally
isolated. China had no representation in the United Nations, and
Britain alone among the great powers had recognised the PRC.
Geneva provided a world stage, on which China could demonstrate
that it was a major diplomatic player. Zhou Enlai, consummate diplomat that he was, set out to convince the more amenable Western
powers (Britain and France) that China was both reasonable and
responsible, and so divide them from the hard-line Americans. His
success at Geneva greatly enhanced China’s international standing,
much to Beijing’s satisfaction.9
China’s success, however, came at the expense of the Vietnamese. First, under Chinese urging, the DRV was convinced to
abandon its pretense that it had no forces in Laos or Cambodia and to
agree to their withdrawal. This led to recognition of non-communist
governments in both countries that were beholden to China for
removing, if only temporarily, the threat of Vietnamese domination.
Then, under intense pressure from both the Soviets and Chinese, the
DRV delegation was forced to accept the interim partition of Vietnam
at the seventeenth parallel. This was supposedly to allow the French
to withdraw, and to allow a nationwide plebiscite to be held within
two years. Five years of struggle had given the Vietminh half the
country, and left revolutionaries in the south in limbo. It was a first
bitter warning to Vietnam that China not only would put its own
interests first, but that it would not endorse Vietnam’s ambition to
reduce Laos and Cambodia to satellite status.
The ‘Bandung spirit’
If Geneva provided a stage for China to negotiate on equal terms with
the great powers, Bandung was the forum at which Beijing attempted
to increase its political influence in Southeast Asia. China’s more
moderate stance at Geneva had been welcomed in Southeast Asian
capitals, even though suspicion remained of longer term Chinese
intentions. The stage was also set for China at Bandung by the rela-
tively lukewarm response of Southeast Asian nations to the South-East
Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).
SEATO was established under American auspices in September
1954, on the conclusion of the First Indochina War, to counter com-
munist insurrection. The Philippines and Thailand, however, both
close American allies, were the only two Southeast Asian nations to
join. While the Philippines still feared communist insurgency, Thailand had been alarmed by the formation in 1953 of a ‘Thai
Autonomous Area’ in southern Yunnan which, along with communist
activity in Laos, Bangkok took to be part of a concerted Chinese
strategy of subversion. A series of anti-government broadcasts by
former Thai prime minister, Pridi Phanomyong, who had been granted
political asylum in China, only added to Thai fears.
Laos and Cambodia were precluded from joining SEATO under
the terms of the Geneva agreements, but were designated ‘protocol
states’, invasion of which would trigger a SEATO response. Burma
refused to join, preferring her policy of strict neutrality. For Rangoon, diplomacy had proved more effective than military alliance. The problem of the presence of Chinese Nationalist troops in Shan state had at last been resolved by taking the matter to the United Nations.
The United States and Taiwan agreed to evacuate these forces, though
in the end only about half (some 6000) actually left for Taiwan. The
rest settled in the Burma–Thailand border area, where they turned to drug running.
Indonesia, too, refused to join SEATO. After three years of lowkey relations, Jakarta dispatched its first ambassador to Beijing in
October 1953, and began to promote trade. Indonesia was important
for China as a principal member of the non-aligned group of nations,
especially when, in April 1955, President Sukarno hosted the Bandung
Asian–African Conference. The venue provided an opportunity for
China to make friends and influence regional neighbours. Despite continuing support for revolutionary movements on a party-to-party basis,
Beijing was eager to establish friendly state-to-state relations with
neutral countries. The foundation for such relations were the ‘Five
Principles of Peaceful Coexistence’ agreed upon the year before
between Zhou Enlai and Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru of India.
These were: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity,
non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs of other countries,
equality of status, and mutual benefit.
For Indonesia, the Bandung conference marked a partial break-through on the vexed problem of the overseas Chinese. China agreed
to a treaty that went some way towards eliminating dual nationality for Indonesian Chinese. Those who could claim dual nationality
would be given the choice of either Indonesian or Chinese citizenship. Anyone not making an active choice would revert to Chinese
nationality, and lose their Indonesian citizenship. Even so, tension
continued over Indonesian anti-Chinese discrimination, particularly a 1959 ban by Jakarta on retail trade by aliens in rural areas
that was directed mainly against Chinese. Attempts by Beijing to
intervene on behalf of Chinese nationals were counterproductive,
and China was forced to accept the return of almost 100 000 displaced
The Sino–Indonesian treaty on dual nationality was the only one
signed. Discussions on a similar treaty with Burma lapsed. From the
Chinese point of view, however, the Sino–Indonesian agreement had
served its purpose. It had taken Beijing some time to become aware of
how sensitive the overseas Chinese issue was in Southeast Asia. At
first the PRC saw the Chinese overseas as citizens to be won over to
the communist cause in its struggle with the Nationalists on Taiwan,
and as representatives of China abroad. It was just this, however, that
worried Southeast Asian governments and complicated relations with
Beijing. Only later did Beijing come to see overseas Chinese as something of a liability, rather than an asset. Even their hard currency
remittances (running at around $30 million a year during the PRC’s
first decade in power)11 were insufficient to offset the cost of frayed
relations with Southeast Asian nations.
The final elimination of dual nationality had to await enactment
of the PRC Nationality Law of 1980. The treaty with Indonesia was
significant, however, because it showed that China was prepared to
abrogate the principle of citizenship by paternal descent that had been
in force since 1909. Effectively therefore, Beijing was signalling that
China’s national interest took precedence over ties of descent and
culture. Chinese in Southeast Asia could no longer look for redress to
Beijing, even when, as in Indonesia, they were actively discriminated
against. In other words, the PRC reverted to what essentially had been
the traditional Chinese position on all those who chose to depart the
Middle Kingdom: they were on their own.
The Bandung Conference had other positive benefits for China.
Relations with Indonesia warmed, the more so after Sukarno introduced his ‘guided democracy’. Trade, in particular, expanded rapidly.
Personal relations between U Nu of Burma and Zhou Enlai blossomed,
leading to negotiations on a principal issue of concern to the Burmese:
demarcation of the frontier. Eventually, in January 1960, a boundary
agreement was signed, along with a ten-year Treaty of Friendship and
Mutual Non-Aggression. The agreement was generous in that Burma
received most of the area under dispute. It was also the first such treaty
China signed, and served as an example of Beijing’s magnanimity. It
was also proof that China’s insistence that new treaties be signed to
replace those forced upon it by imperialist powers was not an excuse to
pursue irredentist claims.
Another positive outcome of the Bandung Conference, from
China’s point of view, came from Zhou Enlai’s meeting with Prince
Sihanouk of Cambodia. This led, in 1956, to trade and aid agreements
and a visit from Zhou. It was friction with South Vietnam, however,
that finally led Phnom Penh to establish diplomatic relations with
Beijing in July 1958. Cambodia thus became the fourth country in
Southeast Asia to recognise the PRC. It did so despite security concerns over communist influence among its Chinese community.
Nothing marked Cambodia’s international relations culture so
deeply as its own history. Modern Cambodia drew upon the heritage of
the Khmer empire, which had spread from southern Vietnam to the
Malay peninsula. After the thirteenth century, the empire contracted
under pressure, first from the Thai to the west, and then from the Vietnamese to the east. In the 1830s Vietnam attempted to annex and
assimilate Cambodia. Thai intervention forced Vietnam to accept
joint suzerainty exercised by Bangkok and Hue. Only protection by
France preserved Cambodia’s territorial integrity, a point the French
never tired of making. After independence, Cambodians still saw their
country, even their race, as still under threat of extinction at the hands
of their traditional enemies. Like the Thai, therefore, they sought a
powerful protector. And since Thailand and Vietnam were both allies
of the United States, where else was there to turn but to China?
Beijing responded sympathetically. Zhou Enlai assured
Sihanouk on his second visit in May 1960 that China would come to
Cambodia’s assistance if it were externally threatened. A Treaty of
Friendship and Mutual Non-Aggression was signed with Cambodia
similar to the one concluded earlier with Burma. When Sihanouk
terminated the American aid program three years later, China
increased its assistance. Throughout the 1960s, Sihanouk maintained
close relations with the PRC. When he was deposed in 1970, he took
up residence in Beijing, from where he presided over a government-in-exile. What is interesting about Sihanouk’s relations with the PRC is
that he saw China, communist though it was, as the long-term guarantor of Cambodian independence, not just from threats from
American-backed Thailand or South Vietnam, but also from a future,
reunited communist Vietnam. Sihanouk was convinced that Hanoi
would ultimately win the Second Indochina War. It was a powerful,
aggressive, united Vietnam that he feared, and he understood long
before most other leaders in the region that only China, with its determination to reassert its influence in Southeast Asia, would be prepared
to rein in Vietnamese ambitions to dominate Cambodia (and Laos). In
other words, Sihanouk foresaw a return to a traditional pattern in relations between China and Southeast Asia, and was prepared to accept
this as the basis for a China–Cambodia bilateral relations regime.
What he did not foresee was the Khmer Rouge, though in the end
even they served merely as a catalyst in precipitating the very outcome
Sihanouk took out his Chinese insurance against.
One other Southeast Asian leader shared something of
Sihanouk’s historical understanding of the importance of China for
regional relations, and that was Prince Suvanna Phuma of Laos. The
1954 Geneva agreements had left Laos, like Vietnam, divided. Two
northeastern provinces had been set aside for regroupment of pro-communist Pathet Lao forces. For three years Suvanna strove, in the
face of American opposition, to reunify his country. In August 1956,
Suvanna visited both Hanoi and Beijing to obtain North Vietnamese
and Chinese agreement to the establishment of a neutral coalition
government in Laos. Diplomatic relations were not on the agenda. All
Suvanna promised was strict neutrality and adherence to the provisions of the Geneva agreements, which precluded foreign bases on Lao
territory. This was enough for Beijing, since it would eliminate any
American military threat from Laos. Hanoi, too, made no objection.
The First Lao Coalition government (including two Pathet Lao ministers) took office in November 1957, with the blessing of the Chinese
and to the fury of the United States.
Suvanna was of the royal clan of Luang Phrabang, a kingdom
that had preserved a degree of autonomy by paying tribute simultaneously to Siam, Vietnam and China. He understood far better than most
that Lao independence could only be preserved by taking account of
China’s security concerns, and by relying on China to bring pressure to
bear on Vietnam. Suvanna’s government lasted just eight months
before the United States engineered his overthrow. His successor not
only excluded Pathet Lao ministers from his government, but with
American blessing established diplomatic relations with both South
Vietnam and Taiwan. Within a year Laos had returned to civil war. It
took a neutralist coup d’état in Viang Chan and substantial gains by
communist forces to convince the incoming American administration
of President John F. Kennedy to back the neutralist option for Laos. A
new conference was convened in Geneva in 1962, attended by Beijing,
which threw its support behind a Second Coalition government. That
government established diplomatic relations with both the PRC and
North Vietnam. But for Laos it was too late for neutrality, for the
country’s strategic location ensured it would be drawn inexorably into
the Second Indochina War.
This series of Chinese foreign policy initiatives towards South-east Asia in the ‘Bandung spirit’ should be seen, not apart from, but in
conjunction with China’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’. This is not
to suggest, given the turmoil and famine in China between 1958 and
1962, that the PRC was acting from a position of weakness. The link,
rather, is that through both its economic development policy and its
foreign policy, China was seeking rapidly to augment both its economic power and its standing in the world. The two went together. In
the end, neither achieved what had been hoped for: the former
because the Great Leap Forward was ideologically driven and an economic disaster; the latter because leaders in Southeast Asia were still
fearful of Chinese intentions, given Beijing’s continuing support for
revolutionary movements.
Complications and setbacks
The Great Leap Forward can only be understood in the context of
Marxism–Leninist ideology, flavoured with a powerful dash of Mao
Zedong thought. Ideologically driven, it sought to telescope the transition to a socialist mode of production in order to move directly to
communism with the least possible delay. This, it was believed, would
catapult the Chinese economy ahead of capitalist economies by
releasing communism’s greater productive potential. Not only was
this theoretically naïve, but it relied to an impossible extent upon
Maoist voluntarism. Agricultural communes were formed at a time
when decentralised industry was absorbing an inordinate amount of
labour. The result was plummeting production and an appalling
famine in which tens of millions died. The Great Leap Forward set
the Chinese economy back a decade and, with it, Chinese dreams of
building influence in Asia, though it would take time for this lesson
to sink in.
Nowhere did the Great Leap Forward encounter more doubt and
hostility than in Moscow. An ideological gulf had been growing
between China and the Soviet Union ever since Nikita Khrushchev’s
denunciation of Stalin in 1956. Thereafter, while the Soviet Union
sought détente with the West, Chinese rhetoric became more radical.
By 1960, the Russians were becoming increasingly annoyed at continuing Chinese criticism, and the decision was taken to terminate Soviet
economic aid, including vital assistance for China’s nuclear program.
This was a devastating blow for Beijing, and one the Chinese never
forgave. Not only did the Soviet action set back Chinese recovery after
the Great Leap Forward, but China was denied the status it so desired
of belonging to the nuclear club. Beijing immediately mounted a war
of words against Khrushchev, culminating in a definitive break in July
1963 after Moscow signed the first nuclear test ban treaty with the
United States. In foreign affairs Beijing thereupon adopted a policy of
self-reliance that verged on isolationism.
The Sino–Soviet split had repercussions for China’s relations
with Southeast Asia. In an era of détente between the Soviet Union
and the United States, China saw itself as leader of revolutionary
forces throughout the Third World, including anti-colonial movements in Africa and Marxist revolutionary movements in Latin
America. China pledged its support for all such rebel groups, in the
form of finance, weapons and training. In practice, however, assistance
went mainly to movements ideologically close to the CCP seeking to
overthrow governments allied to the United States. In Southeast Asia,
competition with Moscow for allegiance from communist parties was
never in doubt. Most sided with Beijing, though some pro-Soviet
splinter groups were formed. Only the Lao Dong (Workers’ Party) in
Vietnam and the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) attempted to
balance relations with both Moscow and Beijing, though the PKI soon
came down on China’s side.
Being ideologically close to the CCP did not guarantee substantial assistance, however. In Southeast Asia, China’s increasingly
radical foreign policy of ‘exporting revolution’ was selectively applied.
As state-to-state relations with neutral Burma under the military
regime of General Ne Win continued to be friendly, little assistance
found its way to the Burmese Communist Party. Communist insurgencies in Malaya and the Philippines had been reduced to a security
nuisance, so most assistance was directed to communist parties in
Indochina and Thailand. The most interesting case, however, was
China’s relations with Indonesia, where Beijing established close ties
both with the government of President Sukarno on the one hand, and
with the PKI on the other.
The political discontent of the late 1950s in Indonesia culmi-
nated in Sukarno’s decision, in July 1959, to replace parliamentary
democracy with what he called ‘guided democracy’. This allowed
Sukarno to seize the political initiative by playing the PKI off against
the army, but it meant that his ascendancy rested on a ‘fragile balance’
between antagonistic political forces. Only foreign policy offered an
opportunity to unite these forces behind him. Sukarno enlisted both
the PKI and the army in support of his revolutionary aims, first to ‘liberate’ West Irian from Dutch rule, and then to ‘confront’ the new state
of Malaysia, formed in September 1963, comprising Malaya, Singapore
and the British Borneo territories of Sabah and Sarawak. (Brunei was
not included, and Singapore was expelled in August 1965.)
Indonesia’s shift to an overtly anti-imperialist foreign policy was
welcomed by Beijing, not least because it directed attention away from
the internal problem of the Indonesian overseas Chinese. As the area
of agreement expanded, a so-called ‘Jakarta–Beijing axis’ developed.
Indonesia withdrew from the United Nations to become self-styled
leader of the ‘new emerging forces’ challenging the ‘old established
forces’ (principally the West), whose influence Sukarno believed was
on the wane. When Sukarno challenged the creation of Malaysia,
Beijing lent its support. Chinese aid was increased, though not enough
to compensate for reductions not just in American aid, but in Soviet
assistance as well. Confrontation, therefore, left Indonesia increasingly
dependent on, and allied with, Beijing.
At the same time, party-to-party relations warmed between the
CCP and the PKI. The PKI had attempted to tread a middle path in
the Sino–Soviet dispute, while developing its own non-revolutionary
strategy of seeking power through its political alliance with
Sukarno. Though the Chinese had reservations about this non-Maoist strategy, they allowed that it might suit Indonesian
conditions. Close relations between the PKI and the CCP were a
poison chalice, however. Not only did they place the PKI in a difficult position with respect to the overseas Chinese, they also stirred
army and orthodox Muslim fears of Chinese subversion and commu-
nist revolution.
Both external and internal factors contributed to the dramatic
events following the murky and badly botched attempted coup of September 1965. Growing military doubts over confrontation had
undermined the earlier foreign policy consensus. The Indonesian army
was uncomfortable over the country’s international isolation and
dependency on Beijing. Meanwhile, as Sukarno came to rely increasingly on China externally, so he tended to rely more on the PKI
internally. This undermined his ability to maintain the internal
balance of power, which had in any case ignored political Islam. The
coup provided the catalyst for the army to join forces with orthodox
Muslims to destroy the PKI. China was accused of involvement in the
coup attempt, a charge vehemently denied by Beijing. Relations
between the PRC and the new government of General Suharto soured
rapidly, however, until in October 1967 they were suspended unilaterally by Jakarta, along with all direct trade.
With the collapse of the Jakarta–Beijing axis, China’s Southeast Asia policy suffered a severe setback. The PRC had targeted
Indonesia as the largest, most populous, and most strategically situated country in the region. But in doing so it had made serious
mistakes. It had depended far too much on the political skills of
Sukarno, while failing to appreciate how fragile were the foundations
of his power. It had underestimated the grim anti-communism of the
army, ignored political Islam, and overestimated the organisational
strength of the PKI.
China had been playing for high stakes. The Jakarta–Beijing
Axis had been forged when the Second Indochina War was already
underway, and Chinese–Vietnamese relations still close. A united
communist Vietnam and the PKI in power in Indonesia, both
beholden to China, might have brought all Southeast Asia (with the
possible exception of the Philippines where there were still American
bases) into Beijing’s political orbit. In September 1963 Zhou Enlai had
presided over a secret meeting in southern China, bringing together
the leaders of the DRV, the Pathet Lao, and the PKI (represented by
its secretary-general, D. N. Aidit), to develop a coordinated revolutionary strategy for Southeast Asia, based on communist movements
in Indochina and Indonesia. Had this strategy been successful, China’s
influence in the region and the world would have taken a quantum
leap forward. With the collapse of its Indonesia policy, China drew
back, just as it had after the Ming voyages, to busy itself with the threat
from the north (the Soviet Union) and with its own internal politics
(during the Cultural Revolution). The impact of both reverberated,
not in Indonesia, but in Indochina.
The Second Indochina War
Despite the disappointment of the Geneva agreements of 1954, relations between China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam
remained close and friendly. The nagging question of boundaries and
possession of the Paracel and Spratly islands were put to one side. The
Vietnamese were learning, however, that Chinese revolutionary precedent could not simply be applied in Vietnam. Nor did Chinese advice,
despite the authoritative way in which it was given, always provide the
best solution. A case in point was the land reform program in North
Vietnam, whose excesses led to the first mass demonstrations against
the regime. Vietnam declined to introduce communes, and was not
tempted to emulate China’s Great Leap Forward. As for southern
Vietnam, Chinese advice, in the name of peaceful coexistence, was to
pursue political struggle and avoid armed uprising. When the decision
was taken in 1959 by a much more mature and experienced Vietnamese communist leadership to resume insurgency in the south, it
was without seeking Chinese approval.
Once the decision was taken, Beijing offered full support, even
while coping with the aftermath of the Great Leap Forward. The
Chinese had been supplying the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN)
since 1956 when the government of South Vietnam, with American
backing, refused to hold the plebiscite on reunification. More Chinese
military assistance was promised in support of a protracted but limited
insurgency in the south designed to minimise the likelihood of
increased US intervention. The American decision to accept the neutrality of Laos, formally agreed upon in Geneva in 1962, indicated that
if Washington intended to hold the line in Indochina, South Vietnam
would be the principal theatre of anticommunist operations. By then
the worry for Hanoi, and for Beijing too, was that the US might extend
the war into North Vietnam.
As Chinese scholars have pointed out, China’s more aggressive
support for the escalating conflict in Vietnam after 1962 reflected
Mao’s determination to regain the revolutionary initiative, both internally after the Great Leap Forward, and internationally in his
increasingly bitter opposition to the Soviet Union.13 Internally Mao, in
early 1963, launched his ‘socialist education’ campaign, forerunner of
the Cultural Revolution. Externally, Moscow’s decision to lean
towards India in its border war with China exacerbated the
Sino–Soviet conflict. China proclaimed that the centre of world revo-
lution had moved from Moscow to Beijing, for the Soviet Union could
no longer be relied upon to support armed insurgency. The proof that
China, by contrast, could be relied upon lay in the backing Beijing
gave to the war in Vietnam.
The Sino–Soviet split placed Hanoi in an awkward situation, for
Vietnam needed all the help it could get in its escalating war in the
south. Offers of greatly increased military assistance, if the DRV would
join the Chinese camp, were politely turned down. Hanoi did begin,
however, to lean towards Beijing; for example, by criticising ‘revisionism’. As a result, relations between the DRV and the Soviet Union
cooled appreciably in the mid-1960s.
The events spanning the period from the assassination of South
Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon (just three weeks
before US President John F. Kennedy, too, was assassinated), to the
aftermath of the fall of Nikita Khrushchev in October 1964, changed
both the face of the war in South Vietnam and its international
context. In the political turmoil that followed the overthrow of Diem,
the Viet Cong insurgency gained swift momentum, aided for the first
time by PAVN units infiltrated down the Ho Chi Minh trail. The US
response was to increase American aid and the American military
presence in South Vietnam. In August 1964, in response to an incident in the Gulf of Tonkin in which American warships were
reportedly attacked by DRV patrol boats, American aircraft bombed
DRV military installations. Incremental escalation followed until, in
1965, the United States began systematically bombing North Vietnam
and sent combat forces to South Vietnam.
The Second Indochina War soon spilled over the borders of
Vietnam. In Laos the Second Coalition government had effectively
collapsed following the assassination in April 1963 of the neutralist
foreign minister. The neutralists themselves were divided, and neutrality was no longer a political option. PAVN forces assisted the
Pathet Lao to seize control of the eastern third of the country, including most of the Plain of Jars and the Ho Chi Minh trail. In response,
the US recruited its own ‘secret army’ in northern Laos and began
bombing communist targets. In Thailand, the Communist Party of
Thailand laid the organisational groundwork for its own Chinese
backed and directed insurgency. Only Cambodia managed at this stage
to insulate itself from the gathering storm.
Beijing closely monitored the growing American presence in
Indochina. The Chinese response was to provide strong support for
Hanoi, while reassuring the US that Chinese forces would only
become involved if China itself were directly threatened. What
would trigger Chinese intervention would be an American land
invasion of North Vietnam. Short of that, Beijing would avoid confrontation with the US. This was not quite what Vietnamese leaders
had in mind. Hanoi wanted China to deploy anti-aircraft batteries
and send ‘volunteer’ pilots to engage US warplanes. No pilots arrived,
and China stipulated that its anti-aircraft units were to defend only the
northern part of the country. Tens of thousands of Chinese engineering troops built roads, railways and defence installations, and the level
of military assistance was increased, but for Hanoi China’s commitment was less than total, as it did little to prevent continued American
The overthrow of Khrushchev did nothing to heal the
Sino–Soviet rift, but it did lead to a rethinking of the Soviet Union’s
cautious policy towards revolutionary movements. Moscow called for a
united effort by socialist countries to oppose American imperialism in
Vietnam, and stepped up its aid to the DRV. This was welcomed by
Hanoi, much to the annoyance of Beijing. The two countries differed
in their approach to the war. For the Vietnamese it was a life-and-death struggle for national reunification, which they were determined
to achieve as quickly as possible, even if that meant risking a widening
war. Beijing favoured a protracted war that would wear away American
staying power without risking an invasion of North Vietnam that
might draw China into the conflict. Rejection of Chinese advice deepened these differences.
The Cultural Revolution launched in mid-1966 radicalised the
CCP in order to destroy Mao’s political enemies. Its success ensured
not only that Mao regained his political eminence, but also that his
personal view of global power relations and security threats would
decide the direction of Chinese foreign policy. Despite the build-up of
American forces in South Vietnam, Mao was convinced that an
increasingly hegemonistic Soviet Union posed the principal threat
to China’s security. This acted as a self-fulfilling prophecy, for the
irrationality of the Cultural Revolution convinced Moscow that
Maoist China presented a security threat to the Soviet Union, and so
led to a build-up of Soviet forces along the Chinese border.
By 1968, China’s domestic turmoil had all but isolated it internationally and its standing in the world had plummeted. In Vietnam the Tet offensive, about which the Chinese were ambivalent, failed in its military objectives but succeeded in undermining whatever consensus existed on the war in the United States. US President Lyndon
Johnson announced he would not seek re-election, limited bombing of
North Vietnam, and called for substantive peace negotiations with
Hanoi. Such negotiations made good sense to the DRV, which
responded positively. The Vietnamese knew the United States could
not be defeated militarily, so the only option was a political settlement
that allowed for a face-saving American withdrawal. A strategy of ‘talk
and fight’ was adopted, to be pursued until the Americans had had
enough. This drew support from the Soviet Union, which continued
to supply the DRV with heavy weapons, but angered Beijing, which
had not been consulted and had consistently opposed peace negoti-
ations.15 The balance of influence in Vietnam was already shifting
perceptibly from China to the Soviet Union.
The 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia—justified by the
Brezhnev doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’ allowing Soviet interven-
tion in socialist states in defence of socialism—and the outbreak of
fighting along the Sino–Soviet border the following year, served to
confirm China’s perception of the Soviet Union as aggressively seeking
global hegemony, at a time when the US was signalling its desire to
withdraw from Vietnam. For its part, Washington saw China as aggressive and intransigent, and turned increasingly to Moscow to bring
pressure to bear on Vietnam. It seemed increasingly likely to Beijing,
therefore, that what happened in Indochina would be decided by the
US and the Soviet Union with minimal consideration for Chinese
Not only was the PRC being ignored by the great powers, but
its standing in its own region was in decline. The repercussions of
the Cultural Revolution had been felt throughout Southeast Asia.
The radical turn in Chinese policy, leading to renewed support for
pro-Beijing, anti-imperialist, and anti-hegemonist revolutionary movements alienated governments in the region. Thailand, in particular, was
concerned as insurgency broke out in the north and northeast of the
country, backed by the strident Voice of the People of Thailand broad-
casting out of southern China. On the Thai–Malaya border, the
Malayan Communist Party was again active, while in Burma, Beijing
gave new encouragement to the Burmese Communist Party. The sight
of radical overseas Chinese students chanting Maoist slogans in South-east Asian capitals fanned fears of Chinese communist subversion.
Even relations between Beijing and Rangoon became severely strained
and ambassadors were withdrawn, while Cambodia, too, threatened to
break diplomatic relations.
Chinese relations with Southeast Asia had reached their nadir.
Dwindling Chinese influence in Indochina followed the fiasco in
Indonesia. Suspicion of China and fear of communist subversion were
factors in bringing together five anti-communist Southeast Asian
countries—Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand—to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Burma chose not to join in order to preserve its neutral status. ASEAN
was immediately denounced by Beijing as an instrument of US policy,
and subjected to vituperative abuse. Though the organisation was rel-
atively ineffective in presenting a unified regional response to what
was perceived as the growing communist threat, it did create some
sense of regional solidarity.
As so often before in Chinese history, it was fear over the secu-
rity threat along China’s vulnerable northern frontier that led to a
rethinking of the direction of Chinese foreign policy, rather than the
failure of its Southeast Asian strategy. After the border clashes of 1969,
Beijing decided it had no alternative but to ‘play the American card’
as protection against a hostile Soviet Union. A secret visit to Beijing
by Henry Kissinger, then President Richard Nixon’s national security
adviser, laid the groundwork for Nixon’s own visit to China in February 1972. The two sides agreed to work towards normalisation of
relations, and to oppose hegemony in the Asia–Pacific region, a clause
that made clear the anti-Soviet thrust of Sino–US reconciliation. As
at Geneva in 1954, the immediate effect was that China gained international standing. Over the next decade, more than forty countries
recognised the PRC, and China regained its seat as a permanent
member of the United Nations Security Council from Taiwan.
China went out of its way to try to reassure Hanoi that the new
strategic balance would not reduce Chinese support for Vietnam’s war
effort, yet it was clear that Beijing was less determined to expel the US
from the region. For the DRV, the Chinese move proved once again
that the PRC would place its own national interests before international communist solidarity, even if this meant betraying Vietnam.
Subsequent Chinese advice over how to handle the peace negotiations
in order to allow the US an honourable exit from the war only confirmed Vietnamese distrust; as did the suggestion that Hanoi should
permit neutral regimes to be established not only in Cambodia and
Laos, but also in South Vietnam, which would have delayed reunification for years.
Another event that had long-term repercussions for Sino–
Vietnamese relations was the 1970 overthrow of Sihanouk in
Cambodia. The right-wing government of General Lon Nol severed
diplomatic relations with the DRV and China, and abandoned
Sihanouk’s left-leaning neutrality. More importantly, the coup
unleashed the Khmer Rouge. Over the next five years, while Beijing
managed to retain some influence over Cambodian affairs through
hosting Sihanouk’s government-in-exile, Hanoi saw its forces expelled
from the country and the cadres it had trained purged by the rabidly
anti-Vietnamese Khmer Rouge.
Developing bilateral relations regimes
In just over two decades from its inception, the foreign policy of the
People’s Republic of China swung from formal alliance with the Soviet
Union against the United States to de facto alliance with the United
States against the Soviet Union. In between, in the 1960s, Beijing
attempted to go its own self-reliant way. The lesson from this period
was that in a bipolar world, China made a difference when allied to
one superpower or the other, but carried much less weight on its own,
even (after 1964) as a nuclear power. To enhance its international
standing, Beijing had to play the triangular game. It did so with two
immediate concerns: regime survival and protection of national secu-
rity; and one longer term goal: enhancement of international status.
After the ‘century of shame’, the PRC was determined to take its
place as a major world power, not as the centre of its own world order,
but definitely as a leader of other nations. In succession, Beijing proclaimed itself leader of revolutionary movements throughout Asia, by
virtue of the superior model provided by its own revolution; of newly
independent neutral Third World states; of armed insurgency
throughout the world (in the radical 1960s); and of all opponents of
Soviet hegemonism. Such leadership claims were difficult to sustain,
however, in the face of reluctance by most nations to be led. Nowhere
was this more evident than in the one region above all others that
China wanted to exercise significant influence, and that was Southeast Asia.
Throughout this period Chinese foreign policy was weighed
down by Marxist ideology. The small foreign policy decision-making
elite was both communist and Chinese. Their worldview was an
amalgam of ideology and their own historical experience, infused by
traditional Chinese sinocentrism.17 On the one hand, they wanted to
enhance China’s national standing; on the other, they believed they
had a duty to promote world revolution. Given their Marxist belief in
the progressivism of history and the superiority of the socialist economic mode of production, the Chinese leadership believed both goals
could be achieved in tandem. As the leading force behind the global
revolution that would inevitably sweep the world, China stood to
regain her leadership among nations. It was a heady vision, but one
that soon ran into the realities of global power relations.
Not only were the two superpowers reluctant to make way for
China, in Southeast Asia nationalist elites were unimpressed by
Chinese-backed attempts to overthrow them. With Western assistance, revolutionary movements were crushed in the Philippines and
Malaya and, in different circumstances, brought under control in
Burma and Indonesia. Largely as a result of its own policies, by 1970
China had been able to establish diplomatic relations with only five
countries in Southeast Asia. These were, in order of recognition of
the PRC, Burma, Indonesia (until 1967), the Democratic Republic
of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Let us look briefly at the development of bilateral relations regimes with the PRC by each of these states.
One point to note, first, is that of the five, four are continental
states. Only Indonesia represented maritime Southeast Asia (including
Malaysia). Only Thailand—among continental Southeast Asian
states—did not recognise Beijing. This was in accordance with Thailand’s historical international relations culture that has consistently
sought to maintain Thai independence and security through alliance
with the current hegemonic power in the region. From the end of the
Second World War until the mid-1970s, this was the United States.
With US backing, Thailand challenged Vietnamese influence in Laos,
and to a lesser extent in Cambodia, but was itself vulnerable to periph-
eral insurgencies directed from outside the country.
Burma was most consistent in developing a bilateral relations
regime with China, based on a clear set of mutual understandings.
These had to do, above all, with mutual security. While China represented the principal threat to the Burmese government and state,
Beijing feared imperialist encirclement. To this, both democratic and
military regimes in Burma were sensitive. In return for strict Burmese
neutrality, China limited its support for the Burmese Communist
Party to a level that prevented the BCP from seriously challenging
the government in Rangoon. Burma’s Buddhist-impregnated international relations culture, which accepts impermanence as a universal
Mao Zedong welcoming Burmese president, General Ne Win, 13 November 1975.
(Hsinhua News Agency) characteristic, predisposed Rangoon to accommodate all but the most abrupt changes in the direction of Chinese foreign policy. Relations were at all times lubricated by understanding and deference on the part of the Burmese in regular, high-level exchanges. Even the provocations of the Cultural Revolution did not fatally disrupt the developing bilateral relations regime between the two countries.
Cambodia, too, developed a durable bilateral relations regime
with China. Unlike Burma’s, this was not based on mutual recognition
of security concerns, but rather on Cambodia’s need for a guarantor to
ensure its continuing independence and survival in the face of threats
and pressures from both Vietnam and Thailand, and China’s readiness
to perform this role. Cambodia turned to China when both its powerful neighbours were allies of the US. In providing some guarantee
of Cambodian security, China was able to encourage Cambodian
neutrality, project its influence into Southeast Asia and, at the same
time, limit Vietnamese ambitions.
Had the Geneva agreements of 1962 been adhered to by all
parties, Laos would probably have developed a bilateral relations
regime with China similar to that of Cambodia. There was, after all,
the historical precedent of Luang Phrabang’s tributary relations simultaneously with Vietnam, Siam and China, in which China provided
the ultimate court of appeal. Lao neutralism was unable, however, to
withstand the political pressures of the Second Indochina War. Laos
was divided into de facto areas of control with Vietnam and the Pathet
Lao to the east, and the US and Thailand holding the Mekong valley.
China, finding Vietnamese influence over the Pathet Lao impregnable, proceeded to carve out its own area of control in northern Laos
as security for its southern frontier. Under these circumstances, no
comprehensive Sino–Lao bilateral relations regime could evolve.
For a brief while, the Jakarta–Beijing axis defined a revolutionary bilateral relations regime between Indonesia and China that
excited Beijing’s hopes and ambitions. But this regime was highly
ideosyncratic, and lacked any historical depth. It rested, in fact, not
on shared security concerns or common interests, but on the political needs and ambitions of one man. Sukarno needed China and the
PKI to balance the power of the army. His ambition was to lead the
world’s ‘new emerging forces’. But in this he was effectively competing with China. What shattered the illusion was not the army alone,
but the army in league with political Islam, whose horizons took little
account of China. The New Order of President Suharto, once its
political power was secure, sought leadership within Southeast Asia
through ASEAN, and thus stood in the way of an extension of
Chinese influence in the region. Just as historically strong Javanese
regimes had resisted inclusion in the Chinese world order, so no
bilateral relations regime developed between New Order Indonesia
and the PRC.
Finally we come to Vietnam. Here elements of the traditional
bilateral relationship resurfaced repeatedly—in the teacher-to-pupil
relationship between revolutionary parties (Ho translated a number of
Mao’s works into Vietnamese); in Chinese generosity in support of the
Vietnamese revolution in expectation that China’s superior revolutionary status would be acknowledged; in Vietnamese deference and
resentment. Between these two states, Marxism never succeeded in
eliminating the burden of history. Even to proclaim that Chinese and
Vietnamese were ‘comrades and brothers’ carried ancient allusions, for
while comrades may be equal, brothers never are in either China or
Vietnam. Brothers are older and younger, and respect is due from
junior to senior.
Relations between China and Vietnam were deeply imbued with
moral expectations. Chinese assistance was given in order to create an
obligation on the part of Vietnam to recognise China’s moral superiority in providing it.18 It was this moral dimension, and the deep
emotional hurt when principles were believed to have been violated,
that made (and continues to make) the Sino–Vietnamese bilateral
relations regime so fraught. The very language of criticism, once relations broke down entirely in 1979, carried a moral burden—of
generosity unacknowledged, of trust betrayed. Revolutionary Vietnam
looked for a new relationship with revolutionary China, but was
unable to free itself of expectations of how China should behave that
had deep historical roots. China tried to free itself of old attitudes of
superiority, but the very effort revealed how firmly they remained in place.
The Vietnamese understood China better than anyone else in
Southeast Asia, but because they shared so many of the assumptions
underlying China’s international relations culture, they tended to be
uncritical of their own position. What the Vietnamese resented in
their relationship with the Chinese they in turn assumed in their
relations with the Cambodians and Lao. In the end, when China’s turn
to the US rekindled Vietnamese fears of Beijing’s real intentions, there
seemed no option but alliance with the Soviet Union, just as for Cam-
bodia there was no option but to look to China. In the mandala world
of Southeast Asia, the enemy of one’s neighbour was one’s friend, and
the enmity of Cambodia’s neighbour was unquestioned. By 1972, enmity and suspicion had replaced the revolutionary friendship between China and Vietnam, and the Marxist-coloured bilateral relations regime between the two states had all but broken down.

The visit of President Nixon to Beijing in 1972 opened the way for
several of America’s Asian allies to follow suit. By the time full diplomatic relations were established between Washington and Beijing,
Japan had signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China, and
three more Southeast Asian states (Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines) had recognised the PRC. This left Indonesia and Singapore
(and Brunei, which only gained full independence in 1984) as the only
states in Southeast Asia that did not have diplomatic relations with Beijing.
The 1970s were thus a crucial decade for China–Southeast Asia
relations. When the decade opened, the PRC—with an aging Mao still
at the helm—was recovering from the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, still actively supporting revolutionary movements in the region,
and was regarded with deep suspicion by Southeast Asian governments. China’s only ally was North Vietnam, though even there
appearances were misleading. Ten years later, Mao was dead, the
radical ‘Gang of Four’ had been overthrown, and Deng Xiaoping had
returned to power. China was pointed in a new direction in which
economic development took precedence over revolution. And in
Southeast Asia, the PRC was effectively allied with ASEAN against
the reunited Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV).
Following America’s defeat in the Second Indochina War, the
late 1970s not only saw Cambodia and Laos become communist, but
also witnessed a marked shift in superpower influence in Southeast
Asia. As the United States withdrew from continental Southeast Asia
to its sole remaining bases in the Philippines, its place was temporarily
taken by the Soviet Union, which established a strong military presence in Vietnam. This change in the strategic balance was exacerbated
by Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in December 1979, a move viewed
with considerable alarm, especially by Thailand.
Throughout the 1980s Southeast Asia was deeply divided, with
the ‘Indochina Bloc’ of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia on one side,
backed by the Soviet Union, and the ASEAN countries on the other,
supported by China and the United States. The issue was resolved
through Moscow’s change of direction towards reconciliation with
China, reduction in its global commitments, and internal reform
(leading in 1991–92 to the collapse of communism and dismemberment of the Soviet Union). Vietnam’s withdrawal of its forces from
Cambodia and Laos in 1989 was followed by normalisation of relations
with China. In these events, insofar as they pertained to Southeast
Asia, Beijing played a key role, which saw its political influence in the
region increase dramatically.
In the 1990s, as globalisation gained momentum, economics
replaced politics as the principal focus of attention. China’s ‘four modernisations’ (in agriculture, industry, science and technology, and the
military), inaugurated in the early 1980s, bore fruit in the form of
double-digit economic growth. Projections even suggested that China
would pass the United States as the world’s largest economy early in
the twenty-first century. This rapid economic development was fuelled
by massive foreign investment, much of it coming from Taiwan and
the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. At the same time as China’s
economic power increased, so too did its military potential, provoking
regional unease and stimulating increased military spending by the
wealthier Southeast Asian states. Of the various matters of contention
between Southeast Asia and China, none was more crucial than the
conflicting claims to sovereignty over the islands of the South China
Sea. At the end of the century, despite China’s oft-repeated desire for
peaceful regional relations, and the determination of Southeast Asian
states to engage rather than confront Beijing, the future of
China–Southeast Asia relations remained a primary concern in all ten
capitals of the expanded Association of Southeast Asia Nations.
Shifting relations in continental Southeast Asia
After Nixon’s visit to China, the countdown to American withdrawal
not just from Vietnam, but from continental Southeast Asia, was just
a matter of time. In Vietnam, the Spring Offensive and Christmas
bombing of 1972 were, in retrospect, not much more than sparring for
advantage prior to the ceasefire of January 1973 that cleared the way
for release of American prisoners of war, and withdrawal of US ground
forces. At that point no-one could foresee the collapse of the South
Vietnamese regime and ignominious US exit two years later, but what
was clear was that the balance of power in the region was about to
change irrevocably. Superpower rivalry would continue, but China
potentially stood to gain from any partial power vacuum.
In the early 1970s Beijing was already working to improve its
image in Southeast Asia that had been so tarnished by the Cultural
Revolution. Informal contacts were established with Southeast Asian
governments, and criticism of them toned down in the Chinese media;
trade was encouraged; and less was said about discrimination against
overseas Chinese (a matter for criticism again during the Cultural
Revolution). Support for revolutionary movements continued, but
more and more these were encouraged to regard China as a source of
inspiration rather than actual assistance.
An early target for improved relations was Malaysia, a state uninvolved in the Indochina conflict. China first dropped opposition to
Malaysia itself, which Beijing had previously denounced as a ‘neocolonialist, imperialist plot’, then embraced Malaysia’s proposal for a
Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in Southeast Asia.
Both moves made sense. Malaysia was a fait accompli and, if implemented, ZOPFAN would reduce the presence of both superpowers and
so increase Chinese influence. Beijing also attempted to woo Indonesia, but with little response from Jakarta.
In the early 1970s China had no diplomatic relations with any of
the five members of ASEAN. The breakthrough came in mid-1974,
when Malaysia and China formally recognised each other. A joint
communiqué reiterated the principles of peaceful coexistence, including non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, a clause Malaysia
took to apply specifically to the Communist Party of Malaya, even
though no reference was made in the negotiations to party-to-party
relations. As it was, the CCP continued to publish its communications
with the CPM, much to Malaysian annoyance, until the latter finally
gave up its armed struggle in 1989. Another clause (this one discussed
at length) eliminated dual nationality, an undertaking given legal substance in China’s 1980 Nationality Law. Even then China continued
to reserve a welcome for Southeast Asians of Chinese ancestry that
treated them more as kin than foreigners.
In 1975 the Philippines became the second ASEAN state to
recognise Beijing when President Ferdinand Marcos signed a similar
joint communiqué. As for Malaysia, recognition of the PRC meant
accepting that there was only ‘one China’. For Manila with its close
ties to Taibei, this was a painful but necessary move, even though trade
relations continued to flourish with Taiwan. Trade was also a factor in
relations with the PRC. China sold oil to the Philippines at ‘friendship
prices’ during the world oil crisis, and continued to do so. Even so, the
value of Philippines trade with China remained substantially less than with Taiwan.
Thailand was the third ASEAN state to establish diplomatic
relations with the PRC. This was a significant move because Thailand,
even more than the Philippines, had been deeply involved in the
Second Indochina War. Thai troops served in South Vietnam, while
Thai bases were used by American aircraft to bomb communist positions. What facilitated establishment of diplomatic relations was the
overthrow of the Thai military regime in 1973, which ushered in a
brief spell of democracy. When Thai Prime Minister, Kukrit Pramoj,
visited Beijing in July 1975, he met with a surprisingly friendly reception. Asked why he thought things had gone so well, Kukrit told
reporters it was because he had ‘used the Thai manner of approaching
[Mao]—the idea that you are older and better’.1 In other words, Kukrit
accorded China the status Beijing desired. What Kukrit described as
Thai politeness, the Chinese accepted as due deference. In return, they
were gracious and accommodating.
The form of words Kukrit used is revealing, for it re-established a
status hierarchy that the Thai often refer to as older brother–younger
brother. This is a family relationship, but in Thai, as in Chinese, there
is no word for ‘brother’ and the relationship not only is hierarchical,
but also carries with it well understood obligations on both sides. What
was just as significant about the Thai move was its timing, following so
soon after the precipitous US withdrawal from Vietnam barely three
months before. Thailand had turned from enjoying close relations with
one regional hegemon to seeking a similar relationship with the state
the Thai clearly believed would be the next. This was entirely in
keeping with Thai international relations culture. When the Thai military retook power in a bloody coup a little over a year later, nothing
was done to jeopardise blossoming relations with Beijing.
China’s readiness to enter into diplomatic relations with countries in Southeast Asia in which it had previously supported revolution
was justified by Mao’s theory of the ‘Three Worlds’. The First World
comprised the two hegemonistic superpowers; their industrialised allies
made up the Second; while all undeveloped countries were relegated
to the Third World. The only way to prevent domination by the
superpowers, Mao argued, was for the Second and Third worlds to
combine to oppose and eventually replace the existing dual global
political and economic system. This provided a new opportunity for
China to play a leadership role, as champion of the Third World, in
creating a more just international order—yet another example of
China’s use of a self-serving morality to pursue its quest for status
The theory of the Three Worlds was designed to focus attention
on the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Nowhere did Beijing resent
and fear growing Soviet influence more than in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, because of the perceived ‘two front’ security threat
this posed. Chinese advice to follow a strategy of ‘people’s war’ in
South Vietnam was disregarded in Hanoi. Instead, the DRV relied on
heavy weapons supplied by Moscow to bring the Second Indochina
War to an abrupt end. This rejection of the Chinese model, the rapidity with which Hanoi forced through the reunification of Vietnam,
and discrimination against ethnic Chinese all soured relations further.
So, too, did China’s opportunistic seizure in 1974 of the Paracel
(Xisha) Islands from South Vietnam. The following year Hanoi moved
quickly to seize control of islands in the Spratly (Nansha) group, formerly garrisoned by South Vietnam.
The four years between the end of the Second Indochina War in
1975, and the outbreak of the Third in 1979, initiated by Vietnam’s
invasion of Cambodia, was a period of intense political manoeuvring
in China. With the deaths in 1976 of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, an
era in Chinese history came to an end. Under Mao’s compromise successor, Hua Guofeng, the radical ‘Gang of Four’ was overthrown before
Hua himself was eased aside to make way for the return to power of
former CCP Secretary-General, Deng Xiaoping. Deng was a pragmatist, famous for his quip that it did not matter what colour a cat was,
just so long as it caught mice. He had been rehabilitated in 1973, in
the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, and had witnessed the shift
in direction of Chinese foreign policy. Not until five years later,
however, was Deng in a position to place his own stamp on China’s
relations with the world. By that time relations with Vietnam overshadowed all else in China’s relations with Southeast Asia.
At first the depth of antagonism between China and Vietnam
was hidden from public view. Relations had begun deteriorating,
however, immediately upon the fall of Phnom Penh and Saigon in
April 1975. The root of the problem lay in differing perceptions of
the changing strategic balance in the region resulting from American
withdrawal and closer Soviet–Vietnamese ties. What the Chinese
saw as threatened encirclement by the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese saw as an opportunity both to reduce their dependency on
China and to extend their influence in Southeast Asia. The key for
both countries was Cambodia, and there China enjoyed an advantage, for the Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, was already virulently
anti-Vietnamese and closely allied to China.
The strategic security situations facing both China and Vietnam
were, in fact, remarkably similar, as were their perceptions of them,
resting as these did on similar international relations cultures. Just as
China perceived a security threat from the Soviet Union on two
fronts, so too did Vietnam perceive a security threat on two fronts from
China. And just as the Soviet presence in Vietnam stood in the way of
China’s strategic goal of increasing its influence in Southeast Asia, so
too did China’s de facto alliance with the Khmer Rouge stand in the
way of Vietnam’s ambitions to extend its own influence in the region.
These parallel situations did not develop overnight, for the
Soviet Union did not move immediately to take advantage of the US
withdrawal. Chinese warnings to Vietnam about Moscow’s hegemonic
intentions seemed at first to have some effect. Pressured by Beijing to
choose between the USSR and China, however, the Vietnamese chose
Moscow, for two reasons: they resented Chinese attempts to reinstate
the traditional superior–inferior relationship between the two countries; and more practically they knew that only the Soviet Union could
provide the quantities of aid necessary to reconstruct their war-damaged
country. Soviet aid was already propping up Laos, whose economy had
virtually collapsed. In mid-1977 Vietnam cemented its position in Laos
by signing a twenty-five-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. For
Hanoi, its ‘special relationship’ with Laos served as a model for relations
with Cambodia, but it was not one the Khmer Rouge were prepared to
accept.2 Faced with increasing Cambodian truculence, Hanoi held
Beijing responsible and strengthened ties with Moscow.
From mid-1977, relations between Cambodia and Vietnam
rapidly unravelled. Fighting escalated along their common border
until, in December, Vietnam retaliated in force. Phnom Penh
promptly broke diplomatic relations with Hanoi. Beijing made some
attempt to moderate the provocations of the Khmer Rouge, but to
little effect. Meanwhile relations between China and Vietnam also
deteriorated over Vietnamese treatment of ethnic Chinese. In southern Vietnam, Chinese were targeted as class enemies and sent to farm
the New Economic Zones. In the north, Hanoi began expelling
Chinese from provinces bordering the PRC. In the end as many as
200 000 were forced to leave, many evacuated on Chinese vessels.3 By
mid-1978 China had concluded that Vietnam was no longer open to
reason and was determined to use the Soviet Union in order to pursue
its ‘regional hegemonist’ ambitions, to the detriment of the PRC. In
fact, Vietnam had decided that it was in an impossible situation. With
border provocations escalating both north and south, Hanoi believed
its only recourse was to overthrow the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. In November 1978, Vietnam signed a Treaty of Friendship and
Cooperation with the Soviet Union, a clause of which called for
immediate consultations in the event that either was ‘attacked or
threatened with attack . . . with a view to eliminating that threat’.
The following month, the PRC and the United States agreed to normalise relations. Ten days later Vietnam invaded Cambodia.
The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia and establishment of a
pro-Vietnamese regime in Phnom Penh upset the strategic balance in
Southeast Asia, to the anger of China and alarm of Thailand and other
ASEAN states. The PRC did not respond immediately, however, as its
military forces were not yet in place. Not until mid-February was China
ready ‘to teach the Vietnamese a lesson’, by which time Chinese leaders
had notified Washington that the invasion was imminent, and Moscow
that it would be of short duration for limited objectives. This greatly
reduced the risk of Soviet retaliation. The invasion itself was described
as a ‘self-defensive counter attack’ in response to violations of the
Sino–Vietnamese border by Vietnamese forces, though this was obviously not its real aim. The invasion had a strategic purpose to warn
Moscow not to go too far in its support of Vietnam; a political purpose
to reassure the Thai in particular that China was a reliable ally; and a
military purpose to force Vietnam to commit troops on a second front
and so relieve the pressure on the Cambodian resistance. There may
also have been an internal political dimension. But the principal
reason, as the Chinese themselves repeatedly stated, was to ‘punish’
Vietnam, and this needs further explanation.
The form of language is itself revealing. ‘Punishment’, to ‘teach
a lesson’, is what parents do to obstreperous children, and carries with
it strong moral overtones. A child who has erred needs correction;
it needs to be taught the proper way to behave. Historically, China arro-
gated to itself the right to dictate how vassal kingdoms should behave.
It did so from a position of assumed moral superiority that was never
subjected to criticism, and still is not even in modern Chinese historiography.Punishment was regretfully necessary, but there was never any
doubt that China was morally justified in meting it out, as superior to
inferior. These attitudes were palpably present in the Chinese decision
to ‘punish’ Vietnam, and the Vietnamese were well aware of it. The
irony was, that although they did not use the same language, similar
attitudes were present in Vietnam’s relations with Cambodia, where
they were equally resented.
The Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia changed China’s relations with the rest of Southeast Asia. As Sino–Vietnamese relations
had deteriorated, both sides had attempted to explain their respective
positions in Southeast Asian capitals. Only Jakarta had much sympathy for Hanoi. Other states were more receptive to Chinese warnings
about Soviet support for Vietnamese ambitions to create an ‘Indochina
federation’. When the Vietnamese showed they were prepared to
achieve this through military means, Beijing seemed to have been
proved right, and the PRC was suddenly in a position to act as cham-
pion, not of radical social change, but of the status quo.
The Chinese invasion of Vietnam proved that China was pre-
pared to use military force not just in defence of its own frontiers, but
also in support of its broader interests, at least in continental South-east Asia. This may have been reassuring to the Thai in the short term,
but it carried with it worrying implications for future China–Southeast
Asia relations. As for Vietnam, the Chinese invasion confirmed its historical experience that the price of independence has always to be paid
in blood, and thereby reinforced core elements of its strategic and
international relations culture.6
The Third Indochina War came at a time when Deng Xiaoping
was already opening China’s door to the West. This was designed to
encourage foreign investment, technology transfer and tourism in
order to bring in the foreign exchange that China needed to carry
through its ‘four modernisations’. The first modernisation was in agriculture. Collective farming was phased out in favour of families
producing for a free market in agricultural produce. Private industry
(the second modernisation) was allowed to compete with state-owned
enterprises, with the watchword being improved technology (the third
modernisation along with science).
Military modernisation, the fourth priority, proceeded more
slowly. The invasion of Vietnam, effectively stopped in its tracks by
the Vietnamese, showed up the deficiencies in the large but poorly
equipped and led Chinese armed forces. Reforms followed, but twelve
years later the Gulf War shocked Beijing by demonstrating just how
high-tech modern warfare had become. In the face of American
weapons superiority, the PRC had very little capacity for force projection beyond its shores. It did not even have the capability of
taking Taiwan, unless through nuclear blackmail if the United States
withdrew. Even if China remained militarily weak, however, the
steady upgrading of its military capacity worried its Southeast Asian
neighbours. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, the wealthier
countries in Southeast Asia considerably increased their own
defence spending, most of it on the latest weapons systems.
The Cambodian problem
What to do about the Vietnamese fait accompli in Cambodia dominated relations between China and Southeast Asia throughout the
1980s. In Beijing there was no doubt about what needed to be done:
the Vietnamese had to be forced to withdraw and their ‘puppet’ Cambodian government replaced. Only thus could Chinese influence in
Cambodia be restored and Vietnamese regional ambitions contained.
The means chosen to bring this about were military, through support
for the Khmer Rouge resistance; economic, to starve Vietnam of multilateral development aid; and diplomatic, to maintain a ‘global united
front’ linking ASEAN, China and the West in opposition to Hanoi’s
‘regional hegemonism’.
Throughout the 1980s China was single-minded in its determination to bend Vietnam to its will. Chinese feelings towards
Vietnam, as expressed by Chinese leaders, were remarkably bitter.
Chinese estimates of their aid to Vietnam—military and economic—
since 1949, ran into several billion dollars, for the most part
non-repayable. Vietnam’s lack of gratitude or any sense of obligation
angered China. To turn around and side with the Soviet Union,
China’s principal enemy, was to Beijing an unforgivable act of betrayal
that was all the more hurtful in that it repudiated a thousand years of
close relations, during which Vietnam had always learned from China,
and taken Chinese interests to heart.
History also figured largely in Vietnam’s equally emotional view
of China. China’s actions and its advice over the years were interpreted as hypocritical. For while China pretended to support the
Vietnamese revolution, what Beijing had really always wanted, according to Hanoi, was to weaken Vietnam in order to reimpose its
traditional hegemony, not just over Vietnam, but over all Southeast
Asia. Vietnamese leaders concluded that China would always be
prepared to sacrifice Vietnam’s interests for its own, and for this reason
Beijing could never be trusted. As in the past, the only guarantee of
Vietnam’s independence lay in Vietnamese determination to preserve
it—with some help from the Soviet Union.
The Chinese border invasion of 1979 did not deliver a significant
military defeat to Vietnam. China withdrew voluntarily, leaving some
300 000 Chinese troops poised along Vietnam’s northern border. Soon
thereafter, Beijing came to an agreement with Bangkok to supply
Cambodian resistance forces fighting the Vietnamese, notably the
Khmer Rouge. But the Thais extracted a price. In return for the transit
of Chinese arms through Thailand, China agreed to end its support for
the Thai insurgency and close down its clandestine radio station
in Yunnan. Vietnam thus found itself forced to mobilise armies on
two fronts, at great economic and military cost. And because the
Cambodian insurgents could always retreat to Thai territory, even
the presence of 150 000 Vietnamese troops in Cambodia failed to
guarantee the security of the Vietnamese-backed People’s Republic
of Kampuchea (PRK).
For Bangkok, the presence of Vietnamese forces in Cambodia
posed a direct threat to Thai national security. Thai fears were exacerbated in June 1980 when Vietnamese troops crossed into Thailand in
an attempt to close off Khmer Rouge resupply routes. Beijing immediately offered strong diplomatic support, and warned that China would
come to the aid of Thailand in the event of a Vietnamese attack. This
was exactly the response the Thais wanted. In the mid-1980s, the military relationship between China and Thailand was strengthened by
the Thai purchase of Chinese heavy weapons, including surface-to-air
missiles and naval vessels, at minimal ‘friendship’ prices. This burgeoning military relationship with China caused mounting concern
among Thailand’s ASEAN partners, especially Indonesia. There was
recognition, however, that Thailand as the frontline state facing
battle-hardened Vietnamese forces on its border had genuine security
concerns, so despite some qualms, ASEAN solidarity held firm. In fact
the security front forged during the Cambodian crisis significantly
strengthened the sense of common purpose among ASEAN member
states enshrined in the 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation.
China and the United States also brought economic and political pressure to bear on Vietnam, through trade embargoes and vetoes
on multinational financial lending. The Chinese strategy was to
‘bleed’ Vietnam into submission. The Vietnamese, good Marxists as
they were, held to their belief that history was on their side and that
‘contradictions’ between members of the de facto coalition arrayed
against them would lead to its disintegration. In the event, it was the
Soviet Union that proved the weak reed, and the contradictions that
developed were between an overextended Soviet Union bogged down
in Afghanistan, and an overextended Vietnam approaching economic
By 1988 the shape of a solution to the Cambodian problem had
begun to emerge. As of 1982, China had begun to distance itself from
the United States and adopt a more even-handed policy towards the
two superpowers. This opened up the possibility of normalisation of
relations with the Soviet Union. From Beijing’s point of view,
however, ‘three obstacles’ stood in the way. The first two were the presence of Soviet forces in Afghanistan and along China’s northern
frontier. The third was Soviet support for the Vietnamese occupation
of Cambodia. In the end the Soviets gave way: it was more important
for Moscow to improve relations with Beijing than to go on backing a
situation in Cambodia that drained Soviet resources and limited
Soviet influence elsewhere in the region.
The Vietnamese, under severe pressure, promised to withdraw
their forces from Cambodia and Laos by the end of 1989. This opened
the way for Sino–Soviet rapprochment, all the more important for
China as its relations with the West cooled after the Tiananmen massacre of pro-democracy student demonstrators. At the same time,
Soviet economic and military assistance to Vietnam was reduced. This
left Hanoi with no option but to mend its fences with ASEAN and
China, even if that meant agreeing to a compromise political solution
in Cambodia. Negotiations were complex and extended, with the
crucial question being the role of the Khmer Rouge in whatever
government in Cambodia replaced the PRK. A partial breakthrough
came in 1990 when the UN Security Council took up the question of
Cambodia and the United States withdrew recognition from the
anti-Vietnamese Cambodian coalition. This created the conditions for
negotiations in which several countries, including Indonesia, played a
facilitating role. The shape of the final Comprehensive Political
Settlement, however, was hammered out in discussions between the
Cambodia parties, Vietnam, and China.
The details of the Cambodian Settlement need not detain us.
What was significant was, first, the key role the PRC played in the
political process; and second, that despite some compromise, the
outcome was essentially what China wanted.7 Vietnam was forced to
make most of the concessions, its only reward being the normalisation
of relations with China. As for Cambodia, the process provided a
lesson for all political factions. The Khmer Rouge was forced under
Chinese pressure to enter into coalition government with the hated
Vietnamese-backed PRK regime, while the PRK learned that China,
not Vietnam, was the real arbiter of Cambodia’s destiny.
The restoration of relations between Vietnam and China provided a classic example of Chinese coercive diplomacy. Low level talks
(between deputy foreign ministers) began early in 1989 and continued
into 1990. Little progress was made, however, until at Chinese insistence Vietnam replaced its foreign minister. A secret summit followed
between party secretary-generals and premiers of the two countries at
Chengdu, at which Vietnam committed itself to resolve the Cambodian problem along the lines China wanted. This was a major
concession on the part of Hanoi, for it marked the end of Vietnam’s
attempt to dominate Cambodia to the exclusion of Beijing. In the face
of the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese
Communist Party had no option but to rebuild relations with China:
the few remaining socialist regimes clearly needed to stand together.
Finally, in November 1991, relations between both states and parties
were formally restored when Vietnamese leaders went to Beijing. More
than a decade of conflict was finally resolved in the Chinese way, on
Chinese terms, even if face-saving language was used. All Vietnam
could do by way of a countermeasure was to improve its relations with ASEAN.
What was remarkable about this whole sequence of events was
the way in which it echoed historical precedents, of which all sides
were acutely aware, both in Vietnam’s relations with Cambodia and in
China’s relations with Vietnam. For Cambodians, Vietnamese occu-
pation recalled the 1830s when Vietnam not only occupied Cambodia,
but forcibly tried to suppress Cambodian culture. Then it was Thailand
that intervened to restore a degree of Cambodian autonomy. The
lesson of the 1980s for Cambodians was that even after the interlude
of French colonialism, Vietnam still sought to dominate their country.
The Vietnamese drew similar conclusions with respect to China: no
matter what the regime in Beijing, China was still determined to assert
both its superiority and its own security priorities.
For Vietnam, the Chinese border incursion of 1979, though brief
and limited in extent, conjured up all the previous occasions when
Chinese forces had invaded Vietnam. In blunting the Chinese advance,
Vietnam claimed once again to have defeated a Chinese army on
Image rights unavailable
Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng greets Vietnamese foreign minister Nguyen Manh Cam,
11 September 1991. (Hsinhua News Agency)
Vietnamese soil. The lesson China sought to teach Vietnam was that
Hanoi could never afford to disregard Chinese advice and warnings.
These went unheeded for just so long as Vietnam could rely on the
Soviet Union. But once that prop collapsed, there was nothing for it
but to mend fences with Beijing. As so often in the past, protection of
Vietnamese security required Vietnam to subscribe to China’s view of
how regional relations should be conducted. This in turn required
Vietnamese leaders to make their submission symbolically and defer-
entially in Beijing. The formula of ‘comrade plus brother’, used by
Beijing to characterise the restored relationship, made reference to
shared ideology, linking what was by then a diminished Chinese-led
‘Asian socialist community’8 consisting of only four states: China,
Vietnam, Laos, and North Korea. In this community, Vietnam once
again found itself looking to China, this time for its model of political
control and economic liberalisation. The formula also made reference
to a family relationship that, in the understanding of both China and
Vietnam, restored the historical hierarchy between the two countries.
China was the superior power, Vietnam the inferior, distasteful though
this might be to Hanoi.
For China, resolution of the Cambodian problem and normalisation of relations with Vietnam restored a relationship that
Vietnamese arrogance and ingratitude had temporarily disrupted. For
Vietnam events going back to the founding of the PRC confirmed that
even a radical change of ideology had not altered China’s historic
determination to dominate Southeast Asia. For a brief period of less
than a century, Chinese weakness and Western imperialism had combined to alter the regional balance of power. Then the Soviet Union
had taken advantage of America’s withdrawal of Vietnam. By the
1990s, however, European imperialism and Soviet communism had
both departed. The European age in Asia was at an end. Only
America, as the sole remaining superpower, maintained a countervailing presence in Northeast and Southeast Asia to oppose an
economically and militarily stronger, politically more influential, and
ominously more nationalistic China.
The economic imperative
For China the 1990s were a decade of economic development. The
Chinese economy grew for much of that time at rates averaging around
10 per cent per annum. This compared with substantially lower growth
rates in most of Southeast Asia, especially towards the end of the
decade due to the impact of the Asian economic crisis. China weathered the crisis remarkably well, earning gratitude in the process by not
devaluing its currency.
A Short History of
The growth of the Chinese economy in the 1990s built upon the
Open Door policy. This encouraged private foreign investment in the
form of joint ventures centred initially on four Special Economic
Zones in southern China. At the same time, the PRC began accepting
multilateral and bilateral foreign aid. Trade not only expanded rapidly,
but was diversified as well. By 1989 the Soviet Union was China’s
fourth largest trading partner (not counting Hong Kong), behind
Japan, the US and West Germany. In the second half of the 1980s,
trade rose to average over a quarter of Gross National Product for the
first time in the history of the PRC.9
One thing of note about this rapid increase in trade was that a
substantial proportion of it was in the hands of overseas Chinese in
Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Trade was indirect in the case of Taiwan,
so figures were impossible to pin down, but the total value of trade
between the PRC and Hong Kong was, by 1989, running at close to
double that for Japan, China’s next most important trading partner. Of
the countries in Southeast Asia, only Singapore ranked (at number
six) among China’s top dozen trading partners, though trade was
rapidly increasing with other Southeast Asian states.
By the end of the 1980s, a rising proportion of foreign direct
investment (FDI) was also coming from overseas Chinese, including
Taiwan. In the 1990s, both overseas Chinese investment and investment from Southeast Asia rose absolutely and proportionally with the
fall-off of Western and Japanese investment following the Tiananmen
massacre. The principal jump occurred between 1991 and 1994, but
the increase continued steadily through 1998.10 Again, actual figures
for overseas Chinese investment were difficult to determine because
most capital came via Hong Kong. It was equally difficult to decide
who was investing how much from where in Southeast Asia, as more
than three-quarters of all investment from the region came from, or via, Singapore.
What is notable about the 1990s is, first, that both overall wealth
and the ownership of liquid assets by overseas Chinese expanded
greatly as Chinese business groups took advantage of globalisation.
In fact, Chinese capital within ASEAN countries became more important than combined foreign investment in driving the economic
development of Southeast Asia. While the share of foreign ownership in
Southeast Asian economies fell, overseas Chinese ownership increased
in absolute terms, even in countries like Malaysia where economic
policy favoured Malays over Chinese and Indians.
A second point is that the PRC deliberately set out to attract
overseas Chinese capital for the benefit of China, just as the Qing and
the Nationalists had done. Paradoxically, it was able to do this because
nationality was no longer an issue. Ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia
were citizens of the countries in which they resided, with no longer any
call on China. Yet ethnic Chinese were encouraged to invest in China
because they were Chinese, so possessing such advantages as language
and business networks. They were prepared to invest in China in part
because, as relations warmed between China and the countries of
Southeast Asia, overseas Chinese felt less insecure about their ethnicity (except in Indonesia).
Together these developments caused some concern to governments in Southeast Asia. At the same time as ethnic Chinese were
accumulating a disproportionate amount of the national wealth in
their countries of citizenship, primary loyalties came once again to be
questioned.11 Even though Southeast Asian Chinese capital accounted
for less than 8 per cent of total, foreign direct investment in China in
1997, over the decade the proportion of total investment in China, as
compared with Southeast Asia, swung heavily in China’s favour. From
1985 to 1990, FDI in Southeast Asia ran at approximately double that
in China. By 1997, FDI in China was attracting almost double the
figure for Southeast Asia.12 The implications for increasing Chinese
economic dominance of the region were obvious.
From ASEAN six to ASEAN ten
The burgeoning economic relationship between China and the
wealthier Southeast Asian nations, with its dual components of
increased trade and investment, may come to be seen as the most significant development of the 1990s, but the decade also saw a substantial
increase in Chinese political influence in the region. Diplomatic relations were restored between China and Indonesia in 1990, followed
immediately by Singapore’s recognition of the PRC. Brunei was the
last ASEAN state to establish relations with Beijing in the following
year. It was in Burma, however, that Chinese political influence was
most evident, with all that that implied for China’s strategic relationship with the region.
As noted above, the strictly neutral, isolationist military regime
in Burma successfully weathered the disruptions to relations with
China resulting from the Cultural Revolution. Over the period from
1970 to 1985, China was particularly pleased by the way Burma kept
both superpowers at bay, to the point in 1979 of withdrawing from the
non-aligned movement when it began to tilt towards the Soviet
Union, and by Burma’s deferential consideration for China’s national
interests. From the Burmese point of view, this was sensible insurance
against the ever-present threat of increased Chinese support for the
Burmese Communist Party (BCP). With the return to power of Deng
Xiaoping, even rhetorical Chinese support for the BCP decreased. In
April 1989 an uprising by ethnic Wa cadres effectively destroyed the
BCP, which accompanied the Thai and Malayan communist parties
into oblivion.
In the late 1980s, two events conspired to bring China and
Burma even closer together. These were the bloody seizure of power by
the Burmese military in September 1988, followed by suppression of
student demonstrators in Beijing the following year. Both were brutal
attacks on popular movements calling for greater democracy; both
caused considerable loss of life; and both were strongly condemned by
the international community. Neither joined the chorus of condemnation of the other, however. On the contrary, each lent the other
support in its hour of ostracism. In the early 1990s, Beijing began supplying large quantities of heavy weapons and other military equipment
to the Burmese regime. In the wake of the collapse of the BCP insurgency a border trade agreement was signed that led within five years to
annual two-way trade estimated at as much as $1.0 billion.13 Chinese-manufactured goods flooded the Burmese market in exchange for illicit
drugs, timber, pearls, and precious stones. Chinese engineers built new
roads and bridges to facilitate this trade, while thousands of Chinese
entrepreneurs, small traders and labourers migrated into northern
Burma in search of economic opportunities.
As in the earlier relationship developed by Ne Win and Zhou
Enlai, interstate relations were reinforced through the frequent
exchange of high-level delegations. It was the developing military and
strategic dimension of the relationship, however, that most worried
Burma’s neighbours. Not only did the Western arms embargo make
Burma entirely dependent on China for its weapons purchases, but
China also provided assistance in the construction of sensitive military
and naval bases on the Bay of Bengal. At the same time, China constructed a transportation network linking the Chinese province of
Yunnan with the Burmese river port of Bhamo, from where Chinese
goods passed down the Irrawaddy River to Rangoon. This ‘Irrawaddy
corridor’ gave China not just trade access to the Indian Ocean, but the
means to support a naval presence as well. China’s de facto alliance
with Burma thus threatened greatly to extend Beijing’s strategic reach.
India, in particular, worried over a potential Chinese naval presence in the Bay of Bengal, and became much more amenable towards
Rangoon. ASEAN, too, was concerned. While Singaporean, Thai and
Malaysian businessmen took advantage of new opportunities for investment in Burma, political leaders took note of the growing Chinese
presence and influence. This was a principal reason for sounding out
Rangoon about membership of ASEAN, despite the military regime’s
unsavoury human rights record.
The inclusion of Brunei in 1984 had brought ASEAN member-ship to six. The next state to join, however, was not Burma but
Vietnam. Vietnam (and Laos) signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, the core document of ASEAN, in July 1992 and, three years
later to the month, Vietnam joined the Association. This was a highly
significant and symbolic addition, coming as it did so soon after
Vietnam’s loss of Soviet support. Vietnamese membership effectively
healed the division that had existed between ASEAN and the
‘Indochina bloc’ during the Cold War. At the same time it signalled to
China that Vietnam would henceforth consider itself a part of South-east Asia, and so placed a little more distance between Hanoi and
Beijing. The ASEAN seven went out of their way to reassure Beijing
that they did not intend to act as a bloc to ‘balance’ China, but it was
clear, nevertheless, that the addition of Vietnam did strengthen both
ASEAN and Vietnam in their dealings with Beijing, especially with
respect to overlapping claims in the South China Sea (see below).
In December 1995, the ASEAN summit in Bangkok was also
attended by heads of government from Burma, Laos and Cambodia,
the first time all Southeast Asian states had met at this level. Leaders
marked the occasion by signing a treaty establishing a nuclear
weapons-free zone in Southeast Asia. Laos indicated its intention to
join the Association when it was better prepared to participate in the
full range of ASEAN affairs. Member states, particularly Indonesia,
were also eager to include Burma, specifically to reduce Rangoon’s
dependence on Beijing. The new coalition government in Cambodia
also elected to join, but was delayed from doing so by internal political
conflict. Laos and Burma both joined in 1997, with Cambodia finally
becoming ASEAN’s tenth member in April 1999.
Though ASEAN—as it entered the twenty-first century—was a
much looser association than the European Union, the fact that it
grouped all Southeast Asian states, and that it had already evolved a
number of instruments to deal with international relations, trade and
security, meant that it became a significant player in China’s relations
with the region. China’s attitude towards ASEAN had been changing
since the early 1980s, from ideological condemnation to pragmatic
acceptance to ‘friendship and cooperation’. At its own request, the
PRC became one of ASEAN’s ‘dialogue partners’ and a member of
the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) for the discussion of security
issues. In doing so, China went some way towards committing itself
to dealing with Southeast Asia in the ‘ASEAN way’.
The ‘ASEAN way’ refers to the form and principles of interaction between states developed by members of ASEAN since the
founding of the organisation. As the preferred way of conducting
relations between states, it is characterised by informality, the nonconfrontational search for consensus through consultation, sensitivity
to the views of others, and flexibility. This has produced what one
commentator has called a ‘regional security culture’14 that both rests on
widely held traditional Southeast Asian cultural values (including a
sense of belonging together and respect for seniority), and reflects the
‘process of interaction’ that has grown up in ASEAN. That the
‘ASEAN way’ became generally accepted owed much to Indonesian
leadership and to President Suharto’s Javanese values and style. The
‘five principles of peaceful coexistence’ were enshrined as the basis for
consensus (which does not necessarily mean unanimity), between par-
ticipants in a region confronted far more than Europe by the need to
manage diversity.
ASEAN has been reluctant to move towards formulating a
common position on either international relations or regional security,
however. There are various reasons for this. One is that this would
seem to be too limiting and inflexible. Several states within ASEAN
still face bilateral tensions, which must be bilaterally resolved. A more
important reason is ASEAN’s reluctance to antagonise Beijing by
presenting a common front that could be construed as an alliance to
contain or ‘constrain’ China.15 ASEAN policy is to ‘engage’ China by
involving it in as many international and regional ‘dialogues’ as pos-
sible. In a number of these (the Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation
[APEC] forum and ARF are examples), ASEAN speaks with a single
voice. Even in bilateral discussions involving ASEAN member states,
there is now a multilateral element present. How China conducts its
bilateral relations with each Southeast Asian state, therefore, influ-
ences, to a much greater degree than previously, its relations with
others. There is no better example of the implications of this than the
way in which conflicting claims to the islands of the South China Sea
impact on China–Southeast Asia relations.
The South China Sea
China claims two principal groups of islands in the South China Sea,
the Paracel (Xisha) islands and the Spratly (Nansha) islands. While
the former are entirely in Chinese hands, though also claimed by
Vietnam, the latter are only partially occupied by the PRC. Vietnam,
Malaysia, the Philippines and even Taiwan occupy one or more of the
Spratlys. In fact, claims by ASEAN member states overlap each other
as well as the comprehensive PRC claim.
The Paracel islands lie south of Hainan, an equal distance off the
Vietnamese coast. Some were seized by the PRC from the Republic of
(South) Vietnam in 1956, and the rest in 1974 when China apparently
feared a unified Vietnam might allow a Soviet presence there. On
neither occasion did Hanoi protest, though China’s actions amounted
to the forcible annexation of territory occupied by Vietnam. In fact,
until 1974, Vietnam apparently recognised China’s claim to both
archipelagos. Only when relations broke down over Cambodia did
Hanoi formally claim both island groups. For China, however, possession of the Paracels is a fait accompli and there is nothing to discuss.
The boundary agreement signed between China and Vietnam in 2000
covered only the land frontier and territorial waters in the Gulf of
Hainan. Sovereignty over the Paracels remains an issue, but between
China and Vietnam only: it does not impinge on China–ASEAN relations in the way the Spratlys do.
The Spratly Islands present an altogether different and far more
complex situation. The group lies 1000 kilometers from Hainan
(though closer to the Paracels), but reach to within a 100 kilometres
of Palawan Island in the Philippines. Geographically they form part of
Southeast Asia. All the islands are small and barren, and the many
reefs are submerged at high tide. Their significance lies in their natural
resources (oil and fishing), and their strategic location. As China’s
economy grew in the 1990s, and it became a net importer of energy,
exploitation of the oil reserves believed to exist under the South
China Sea became increasingly attractive. Control of the Spratlys
would also give China strategic control over major shipping lanes,
though Beijing has stated it would never interfere with these. It would
also project Chinese power very much closer to Southeast Asia.
Both China and Vietnam claim the entire group on grounds of
‘historic use’, primarily by fishermen over the centuries. The PRC laid
formal claim to the Spratly islands in 1951, but did not move to occupy
any. Then only the largest island in the group was occupied, by a
Nationalist Chinese garrison. Philippines interest in the islands also
dates back to the 1950s. In 1970–71 Filipino troops occupied five
islands and even tried unsuccessfully to dislodge the Taiwanese garrison. Manila did not lay formal claim to any part of the group until
1978, however, after Hanoi, in 1975, occupied several islands in
response to Chinese seizure of the Paracels. In 1979 Malaysia claimed
a number of southern Spratly islands as part of its continental shelf,
and later occupied three of these. Finally, in 1988, Brunei claimed one
island lying within its Exclusive Economic Zone. Throughout this
period, Vietnam was allied to the Soviet Union and so was an enemy
of Beijing, while the ASEAN states were treated as allies. This led
China vigorously to denounce Vietnamese occupation, but to offer
only mild protests in response to the ASEAN claims.
China moved cautiously in backing its own claim to the Spratlys,
first consolidating the Paracels as a strong naval and air base. In the
early 1980s, China began a program of aerial surveys and naval patrols
of the Spratlys. Not until 1987 did China establish its first permanent
presence, on an artificial island constructed on a reef normally submerged at high tide. Vietnam protested and sent more troops to occupy
other reefs and shoals. So too did the Philippines. In March 1988, an
armed clash occurred when a Vietnamese naval force attempted to
prevent Chinese troops from establishing a presence on Johnson Reef.
By the early 1990s China was in possession of nine islands, compared
to twenty-one for Vietnam. In February 1992, the PRC National
People’s Congress passed a law officially incorporating the entire archipelago as Chinese territory. At the same time China accepted the
ASEAN position that force should not be used to resolve the sovereignty issue. There the matter rested until, in 1995, Filipino fishermen
discovered that China had erected structures on Mischief Reef in the
area claimed by Manila. The following year two shooting incidents
occurred between Chinese and Philippines vessels. Beijing also
alarmed Jakarta in 1995 by publishing a map showing Indonesia’s
Natuna gas field lying partly within China’s claimed South China Sea
territory. Indonesia was later reassured on this point, and in 1996
China ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (whose provisions it agreed to accept as a basis for further negotiations).
China has been reluctant to pursue a multilateral solution to the
Spratlys problem, but the ASEAN countries have also failed to resolve
their own overlapping claims. Though China has taken part in a series
of multilateral workshops on the Spratlys, hosted by Indonesia, these
have made little progress. Beijing is clearly more comfortable dealing
with claimants bilaterally, and has proposed resource-sharing projects
on this basis. Joint scientific research has also been suggested.
ASEAN, by contrast, has preferred the security of numbers, and
has attempted to internationalise the issue by raising it at ASEAN
Ministerial Meetings and with Dialogue Partners.
In China’s view, occupations of Spratly islands by other countries
constitute provocative attempts to encroach on Chinese territory.
Given the humiliation of previous loss of territory to European powers
and Japan, not to mention Taiwan, this is a highly sensitive issue with
domestic political implications. Arguably, therefore, China’s response
has been measured and restrained. It has asserted its rights by establishing a presence only on unoccupied reefs, and has not attempted to
seize any island or reef from another claimant by force. This restraint
has been designed to preserve a peaceful regional environment for economic development, but only by shelving the sovereignty question.
With respect to sovereignty, Beijing’s restraint can be interpreted in
two ways: either as establishing a basis of trust on which to negotiate a
settlement of rival claims; or as a temporary strategem to buy time for
China to pursue its military modernisation program, with a view to
seizing the remaining islands from a position of strength once it is in a
position to do so.
As China has shown no inclination to pursue the former path,
ASEAN countries fear the latter. How likely is this? Here several
factors must be considered. The first set is internal and political,
including inter-service rivalry in the People’s Liberation Armed Forces
(the Navy would have a stronger voice if it were responsible for
capturing and defending the Spratlys), and inter-factional differences
within the CCP (which might lead one to play the nationalist card).
China is increasingly turning to nationalism to fill the ideological
vacuum left as communism becomes irrelevant, and that is a worry for
the region. Increasing population and environmental degradation may
also impact on China’s Spratly policy. Beijing needs new energy
resources if it is to raise living standards and expand the economy.
Then there are external factors. These include unilateral moves by
claimant states to exploit resources that the Chinese believe are right-
fully theirs, or direct interference by a major power (the US, or
possibly Japan). In the meantime, the major factor preserving the
status quo remains the American military presence.
If nothing is done to resolve the sovereignty issue, time will
favour China. The Spratlys obviously fit into China’s long-term plans
to exert if not regional hegemony (which Beijing vigorously denies),
then at least preponderant political influence, which amounts to much
the same thing. South China Sea resources can contribute signifi-
cantly to China’s economic development; their distance from the
Chinese mainland will stimulate China’s naval capability to defend its
territory; and this naval power projection plus the islands’ strategic
position will translate into strategic advantage vis-à-vis Southeast Asia.
In all three ways the Spratlys would contribute to China’s national
goal of great power status. In the longer term, the US or Japan might
prefer to settle for freedom of the seas rather than risk confrontation
over the Spratlys, especially if China had already peacefully reabsorbed
Taiwan. Under these circumstances, the chances of ASEAN countries
holding onto their Spratlys claims would seem slim.
Patterns of interaction
From an historical perspective, certain patterns recur in relations
between China and the countries of Southeast Asia. To begin with, in
this longer perspective, despite the abrupt swings in Chinese foreign
policy since the founding of the PRC, China has never lost sight of key
strategic goals. While means have been influenced by ideology, inter-
nal politics (particularly during the Cultural Revolution), and the
global balance of power as viewed from Beijing, ends have remained
remarkably steady, not just for the life of the PRC, but reaching back
to the Qing dynasty.
These ends are simply stated: China is determined to regain its
‘rightful’ place as a global great power, and to be recognised, respected
and deferred to as such in the affairs of the world. To gain great power
status, China sees it as essential to reunify its national territory,
modernise and develop its economy, and build a powerful military.
Moreover, world standing necessarily entails exerting regional influence. In addition, China seeks to shape a world order that would better
promote its national interests and standing. Such an order, in Beijing’s
view, would be more fair and just than the capitalist world order dominated by the United States, since it would promote peace, harmony
and mutual respect in place of the contradictions the Chinese detect
in global capitalism. China would not stand alone at the apex of this
new world order, but it would, at the very least, be one of a handful of
great powers responsible for maintaining it.
The means of achieving these ends have been difficult to decide
upon. Like all revolutionary regimes, the PRC was in a hurry. Buoyed
by ideological belief in the superiority of a socialist mode of production, it attempted first to ‘bypass’ capitalism in the disastrous Great
Leap Forward. When this did not work, Maoist voluntaristic politics
took the place of economics as the basis for an expansion of Chinese
power through revolutionary means. At each stage, China sought
status as the leader of one group of nations (or revolutionary movements) or another, while at the same time seeking to play in the
superpower league of the US and USSR. What Beijing lacked,
however, was power commensurate with its ambitions.
The newly independent countries of Southeast Asia were faced
with the unenviable task of dealing with an erratic China. While some
(Thailand, Burma) drew upon historically grounded international relations cultures to respond to China, if in different ways, for others
(Indonesia, Malaysia) relations with China contributed to shaping
newly evolving strategic and international relations cultures. For all,
China was a threatening and disruptive presence, to be placated or
kept at arm’s length.
In the 1980s consensus developed among China’s political elite
on the need to lay a firmer foundation for Chinese claims to great
power status. This realisation was forced on China both by the failure
of Maoist policies and by the spiralling pace of scientific and technological change. China needed to modernise, through the application of
science and technology to its economy, both industry and agriculture,
and to its military capability. Of the sources of social power, China
came to prioritise economic over ideological power. Political power
still remained important, however, in Beijing’s dealings with neighbouring states, backed as it increasingly was by a modernising military.
For China to develop economically required foreign investment,
transfer of technology, and open markets for trade. In other words,
China needed a peaceful and stable international environment,
particularly in its own region, as a prerequisite for modernisation.
Chinese foreign policy in the 1990s sought to create such an environment, by reassuring Southeast Asian countries that Beijing would no
longer support armed insurgencies and would not pursue its claims to
the Spratlys by force. Prioritising economics, however, reinforced links
between the PRC and overseas Chinese. It was overwhelmingly over-seas Chinese capital that found its way from Southeast Asia to China,
while much of burgeoning regional trade was also in overseas Chinese
hands. For some Southeast Asians the readiness of overseas Chinese to
invest in China renewed doubts about their loyalty to their countries
of residence.
More worrying, however, were the implications of China’s long-term intention to achieve great power status. Southeast Asian
countries went out of their way not to criticise or antagonise China.
Engagement in the ASEAN way replaced balance-of-power thinking
as the public face, at least, of the Southeast Asian relationship with
China. Countries such as Vietnam, for all its distrust of China, swallowed their pride and reverted to traditional methods of dealing with
Beijing. Deference to status replaced confrontation. At the same time,
a new counterweight was provided through ASEAN solidarity. This
placed China in something of a dilemma, as Beijing’s preference for
bilateral diplomacy came up against its increasing participation in
multilateral forums also deemed necessary for world leadership.
Whether such participation would ‘socialise’ China into becoming a
good international citizen remained, however, an open question.

The rise of China and how to accommodate this will be one of the
major international relations challenges of the twenty-first century.
Whether or not this can be achieved peacefully is of particular
importance for China’s neighbours, and none more so than for the
countries of Southeast Asia. Any attempt to foresee events is fraught
with uncertainty. All we can do is sketch possible alternative scenarios, and suggest how these might play out given strategic interests,
culturally embedded values and historical precedent. Of course,
foreign policy decisions are made in response to contingent situations, both external due to the actions of other powers and internal
in relation to the play of political forces. They are, in this sense, tactical. But behind these tactical responses lie broad strategic goals
conceived in the context of the international relations and strategic
cultures of the states in question. Not all tactical decisions will
advance long-term strategic goals. But the two are connected,
nonetheless, especially in the case of China, given its determination
to regain great power status.
The China–Southeast Asia relationship is crucially important for
both sides. For the nations of Southeast Asia, relations with China
outweigh those with any other power, with the present exception of
the United States. Relations with Southeast Asia would appear to be
less significant for China, given Beijing’s global great power ambitions,
but in view of China’s present economic and military weakness, its
international standing will rest, to a large extent, on its regional influence. For the geopolitical reality is that China’s influence beyond its
frontiers is limited by large powers in three directions: to the east by
Japan, to the north by Russia, and to the west by India. All historically
have resisted any form of Chinese political influence. Traditionally,
Chinese influence was greatest along the Silk Road into Central Asia
and in Southeast Asia. But any influence Beijing hopes to exert among
the Central Asian republics, formed from the breakup of the Soviet
Union, will face strong competition from both Russia and political
Islam. Moreover, Xinjiang hardly provides an ideal base from which to
project Chinese influence, any more than Tibet does for the South
Asian sub-continent.
The historic shift in economic importance from the Silk Road to
maritime trade took place from the Tang through the Song dynasties.
Thereafter Central Asia was usually more significant in terms of security than trade. The arrival of the West both intensified this economic
shift, which today is overwhelming, and redirected the focus of China’s
security concerns. For now and into the future, the coastal provinces
of central and southern China are where the country’s economic
development is, and will be, focused, not Xinjiang. Even given com-
petition from the US and Japan, Southeast Asia offers far more
inviting opportunities for Chinese political and economic ambitions
than does Central Asia. The point I am making is simply that if China
seeks to project political power beyond its borders, Southeast Asia is
the prime target. For centuries the region has been seen by China as its
‘natural’ sphere of influence, and it still is, however unpalatable this
might be to regional powers.
China: strategic goals and international
relations culture
China has learned much from its history, and the rest of the world
should too. Despite the pressures placed on China in the nineteenth
century, the PRC remains the last great empire, in that it rules over
subject non-Chinese peoples with ancient cultures of their own. In
some areas these subject peoples still constitute a majority (in Tibet
and Xinjiang); in others they are now a minority (Inner Mongolia and
Yunnan). As in the past, it is state policy to increase Han Chinese settlement in all these nominally autonomous areas to ensure they remain
forever Chinese. China’s policy in the present-day context should be
seen for what it is: a continuation of the means traditionally used to
extend Chinese imperial rule through migration and administrative
controls. In this sense Chinese policy carries with it expansionist
The corollary to China’s historical expansionism is that China
has been remarkably reluctant to surrender any territory gained. Successive Chinese dynasties tried to reconquer Vietnam, the only
formerly directly administered territory in Southeast Asia ‘lost’ to the
Chinese empire. Chinese of all political persuasions are quite unsympathetic to Tibetan aspirations for independence, while the more
recent ‘loss’ of (Outer) Mongolia and the Russian Far East still rankles.
These two areas are probably now irretrievable, but two others are not:
Taiwan and the islands of the South China Sea.
This brings us to a second historical lesson that Chinese strategic
thinkers have taken very much to heart: the Chinese empire has been
strongest (and thus most strategically invulnerable) when it has been
united. A divided China, whether into competing empires (usually
north and south), or when riven by internal disunity (as during the
great rebellions of the mid-nineteenth century), was a weak China
that invited humiliation and dismemberment. The importance of
maintaining the territorial and political unity of China is today
unquestioned by either communist or nationalist Chinese, despite
often strong pressures for regional autonomy. The balance between
central power and regional aspirations is something that has constantly
to be negotiated, but it is negotiated within the context of the survival
of the empire-state.
This historical lesson has a deep and emotional influence on the
formulation of China’s strategic goals and international relations
culture. For China, after the return of Hong Kong and Macau, still
remains divided: it is weaker than it would be if Taiwan, too, were to
return to the empire-state. The importance of Taiwan in China’s international relations culture bulks so large not only for historical, but also
for strategic and political reasons, because of the quantum increase
reunification would provide to Chinese power. The return of Taiwan
would greatly benefit China’s ‘four modernisations’. A peaceful return
would also bring with it Taiwan’s considerable weapons stockpile.
Geostrategically the gains would be just as great, and of greater long-term significance, for inclusion of Taiwan would advance Chinese
power hundreds of kilometers east into the Pacific between Japan and
Southeast Asia.
The return of Taiwan, by whatever means, would almost certainly
strengthen China’s determination to gain control of the islands of the
South China Sea, for it would reinforce their geostrategic significance.
Here the implications for Southeast Asia would be even more significant. Should Beijing refuse to compromise on its claim to sovereignty
over the whole area and use its navy to seize the Spratlys, its reach into
Southeast Asia would be greatly extended (always provided the US did
not intervene). Vietnam would be outflanked and the island states
threatened. The strains placed on ASEAN would be immense, and
China’s relations with the region would be changed forever. Not surprisingly, therefore, China’s Spratly claims are seen in the region both as the latest example of Chinese expansionism, and as the litmus test of China’s long-term intentions towards Southeast Asia.
China’s intentions, of course, reflect its strategic goals. Two goals
closely linked to that of reunification are the preservation of national
security across all frontiers, and international status enhancement.
Traditionally, China adopted a dual policy to protect the Chinese
heartland combining the carrot of economic opportunity with the
stick of forward defence. Central Asian kingdoms were alternatively
bribed by gifts and access to trade under cover of the tribute system,
and subjected to punishing raids and military occupation. Southeast
Asian rulers were coopted into acting as ‘pacification commissioners’
to keep the peace along ill-defined frontiers. Mao’s defence policy
combined the protection of friendly (North Korea, North Vietnam)
or neutral (Burma, Laos) buffer states to keep imperialist powers at a
distance, combined with forward defence when necessary (as in
Korea). More recently, the PRC has adopted a defence strategy aimed
at maintaining China’s security through a combination of frontier
defence and limited force projection by smaller, more professional
armed forces. Though Beijing works hard to ensure a ring of friendly
powers along its frontiers through diplomatic overtures and economic
incentives, forward defence still remains an option. The Yongle emperor reminded certain vassals of the fate of the Vietnamese emperor,
Ho Quy Ly, but Beijing hardly needs to remind the Lao or Burmese
of the ‘punishment’ meted out to Vietnam in 1979. As yet China
does not have the means to project military power into those countries
in Southeast Asia with which it does not share a common border, but
both air and naval forces are developing force projection capabilities.
In the future, therefore, China will have these means, if it wants to
use them.
A constant in China’s foreign policy, from the Qing to the PRC,
has been the determination to enhance the country’s international
standing in order to wipe out the shame of the ‘century of humiliation’,
and so restore China to its ‘rightful’ place in the world. The drive for
status enhancement, fuelled, in the words of one Chinese political
analyst, by a ‘strong sense of status discrepancy’, has motivated much of
Chinese foreign policy. Sheng Lijun argues that Chinese perceptions
of status discrepancy have comprised four elements: between China’s
glorious past and less distinguished present; between China’s sense of
its own importance and the recognition accorded it by the world community; between China’s desire to exercise political influence and its
limited means of doing so; and between China’s current power and
influence and how it believes these will be enhanced in the future.
The Chinese believe they should stand at the apex of the status hierarchy of peoples (and states) that they have always taken to be the
natural order of things. Status enhancement has been pursued, as we
have seen, in several ways: through military means to demonstrate that
China cannot be trifled with; through developing nuclear weapons;
through manipulating relations with powerful states; through claiming
leadership of one or another movement or group of nations (revolu-
tionary forces, Third World countries, and so on); and through steady
enhancement of Chinese power (political and economic, as well
as military). Reunification (the definitive inclusion of Taiwan and
the Spratlys in the empire-state) would powerfully contribute to
the same goal.
In summary, China’s strategic goals are to reunify the empire-state, prevent its disintegration (as happened to the Soviet Union),
secure its frontiers, and enhance its international standing to the status
of an undisputed ‘great power’. Of course, status cannot simply be
claimed; it has to be recognised by others, and that recognition must
be expressed for the Chinese in appropriately deferential ways. Just as
superiors are treated deferentially by inferiors in personal relationships,
so, through the subtle rituals of diplomacy, can status be recognised
among states.
How China’s strategic goals are likely to impact on her relations
with Southeast Asia depends on the great power strategic balance, and
how this may change. The PRC, from its inception, encountered
a bipolar world in which it first leaned to the Soviet Union, then to
isolationism, then to the United States, and eventually tried to play a
more independent role. The collapse of the Soviet Union, followed
by the decline of Russian power, has now left the United States as
the sole superpower. This is a situation that Beijing dislikes
intensely, both because it places China in a subordinate position,
and because the United States stands in the way of China’s
achievement of her strategic goals. What China would prefer is a
multipolar world in which power is shared by six roughly equal great
powers (the US, China, Europe, Russia, India, and Japan). Beijing
believes that this is the way the world is moving, and that Ameri-
can power must inevitably decline in relative terms as that of other
major states, or groupings of states, grows. In this scenario, the US
might still remain primus inter pares, but it would no longer act as
global hegemon.
China seeks not to replace the US as the new world leader, for
this is not a practical possibility. What it does want is to be accepted
as one of a handful of great powers, none inferior to another, which
together would be responsible for shaping the world order. This is not
a vision the US shares, or wants to move towards. Not only is US military power overwhelming, but, as it proved in the Gulf War and again
in Kosovo, Washington also has the political means to bring together
and lead a coalition of nations in support of its global strategy, thereby
sharing the cost and avoiding imperial overstretch.2 Added to this is the
fact that the American economy monopolises the new post-industrial
technology, and that the US acts as the global champion of democracy,
and the array of American power—military, political, economic and
ideological—is complete. Moreover, it is an array China cannot begin
to match. It will take time for the ‘four modernisations’ to have their
desired effect of increasing Chinese economic and military power. In
the meantime, China is left to rely on political influence. What China
now lacks, paradoxically, is any ideological claim to global leadership,
for the ‘restoration nationalism’3 that has largely replaced communism
as the driving inspiration behind Chinese foreign policy evokes no
appeal outside China.
Not only the United States stands in the way of attainment of
China’s strategic goals: the country also faces enormous internal problems. Its population is still increasing; so is environmental degradation; and the pressure on land is becoming acute. A massive internal migration is underway as rural peasants seek employment and better living conditions in the cities of the eastern seaboard. Already these population movements are being felt outside China as increasing numbers of Chinese filter into northern Burma and Laos. Social turmoil in China would threaten not only to destabilise the regime, but also to
spill over into Southeast Asia. This is one reason why few in Southeast
Asia are critical of authoritarian central government in China (which
gives a strategic twist to the Asian values debate).
China thus faces great obstacles in pursuing her strategic goals.
But these goals are unlikely to change, and the Chinese are as patient
as they are determined. The question is not, therefore, will China
actively pursue her strategic goals, but when and how.
Three scenarios
In a recent study of China’s ‘grand strategy’, Michael Swaine and
Ashley Tellis of the Rand Corporation argue that China is currently
pursuing what they term a ‘calculative strategy’.4 The key elements of
this strategy are to promote a market economy in an amicable international environment in order to ensure rapid economic growth; to
avoid the use of force while modernising military capability; and
to expand China’s international political influence, including through
multilateral interaction. This is a pragmatic policy designed to lay the
foundations for a strong and modern China. As long as it lasts, China
is likely to be amenable in its international relations, both in its dealings with major powers and with its Southeast Asian neighbours. Thus
China is ready to resolve relatively minor differences over land borders
(as it has with Vietnam), while postponing decisions on sea frontiers.
In following this strategy, China remains determined to defend what it
perceives as its long-term national interests, in particular its ‘one
China’ policy in relation to Taiwan, and its sovereignty claim to the
Spratly islands, both of which it intends to resolve from a position of
greater strength.
What developments might derail the ‘calculative strategy’? One
would be internal political conflict in the event that the Chinese
Communist Party is unable to deal with the problems outlined above.
Another would be provocative Taiwanese moves towards independence. A third would be a change in the international environment
that seriously undermined the ‘calculative strategy’, such as imposition
of severe trade restrictions or formation of a hostile coalition of powers
to contain China. But as Swaine and Tellis point out, the very success
of the ‘calculative strategy’ carries risks.5 Economic success may generate trade disputes internationally, or challenges to the CCP internally
from a growing middle class; increasing military power, along with lack
of transparency, may push smaller nations to seek US protection; the
US itself may see China’s success as a threat to its own global hegemony; or China may develop new strategic interests (such as control
of shipping lanes) that bring it into conflict with other states.
Crucial to future Chinese foreign policy will be the role of the
United States. In the post-Cold War world no power can challenge the
US. Europe is an ally; so is Japan. India is fixated on South Asia. Russia
is in temporary decline. In American eyes, only China looms as a likely
future rival. Even so, it is ironical that most of the ‘China as threat’
literature comes out of the world’s most powerful state. Strident voices
argue that the US should prevent China’s rise to power before it is too
late. More moderate opinion is accommodationist, seeking ways to
engage Beijing. Whatever the outcome of the American policy debate
on how to deal with China, however, Washington will need allies. The
American position is much stronger in Northeast Asia than in South-east Asia, despite treaties with the Philippines and Thailand.
American troops are stationed in Japan and South Korea, but nowhere
in Southeast Asia. Yet if the US were to try to contain China, it would
need the support of at least some Southeast Asian states. During the
Second Indochina War, fought allegedly to prevent the southern
thrust of Chinese communism, Washington managed to obtain the
support of only two Southeast Asian states (Thailand and the Philip-
pines). Whether the US would be more successful in the face of a more
powerful and assertive China is a moot question.
If circumstances change, what might replace the present ‘calculative strategy’?6 One possibility is that China might collapse into
internal chaos, and so be incapable of pursuing any coherent strategy.
For Southeast Asia, this unlikely scenario would be catastrophic. Not
only would Chinese foreign policy be unpredictable, but almost
certainly population movements would result that would dwarf earlier
Chinese migration to Southeast Asia. The tensions thus created in
Southeast Asia would be politically explosive and socially divisive.
A strong China that had overcome its internal problems might,
by contrast, move towards a cooperative strategy in which it would act
as a responsible global citizen playing a constructive role in international forums to resolve outstanding conflicts, no longer primarily to
the benefit of China (the ‘calculative strategy’), but for the collective
benefit of the community of nations. This rather idealistic possibility
might evolve out of increased economic and multilateral political
interdependence. It would be most clearly demonstrated for the
nations of Southeast Asia if Beijing were to give way on its comprehensive sovereignty claim and divide up the islands and waters of the
South China Sea.
A third scenario would be that China abandons the ‘calculative
strategy’ for a more assertive one, either because its ‘four modernisations’ have had their desired effect and the Chinese feel they can
act from a position of strength, or because Beijing is responding to
what it perceives as hostile actions that threaten its national inter-
ests (see above). Essentially, a more assertive policy would see China
pursue its strategic goals urgently and single-mindedly with little
consideration for the interests of other states. Unification and sovereignty over all territory claimed as Chinese would be priorities, so once
again for Southeast Asia the South China Sea would be the key indicator. This would seem to be the most likely scenario, if the ‘calculative
strategy’ is abandoned, so what would the implications be for Southeast
To begin with, a more assertive Chinese posture towards South-east Asia would be designed to increase China’s influence in the
region. For fifty years Southeast Asia has been a primary target area for
Chinese foreign policy initiatives. In that time, Beijing has attempted
to forge an ‘axis’ with Indonesia, contained Vietnamese ambitions,
‘saved’ Cambodia from Vietnamese domination, and developed close
relations first with Burma, then Thailand, and more recently with
Malaysia. China has been less successful in winning the confidence of
post-Sukarno Indonesia or the Philippines. Relations with Vietnam
are correct, but hardly cordial, while suspicion of longer-term Chinese
intentions runs deep throughout the region.
Any considerable increase in Chinese influence in Southeast
Asia could only come, however, at the expense of the US and Japan.
In particular, it would require the United States to scale down its
military presence in the region. This is not impossible to imagine.
The reunification of Korea would obviate the need for a continuing
US military presence, either in Korea or Japan (though Japan, faced
with a competitive China and with few friends, might well opt to
maintain its security treaty with Washington). The US has already
withdrawn from continental Southeast Asia, and will not commit
troops there again. US bases in the Philippines have been dis-
mantled, and Indonesia, with pretensions to leadership of its own in
the region, has never been a subservient ally, even during the
Suharto era. If preceded by peaceful reunification with Taiwan, even
an aggressive Chinese seizure of the islands of the South China
Sea might not be opposed by a more isolationist US if the safety
of shipping lanes were to be guaranteed. This is not to suggest that
the US would abandon its interests in Southeast Asia entirely, just
that the US, as a global power, might be prepared to make way for
China as regional hegemon in Southeast Asia, even while retaining a
more substantial presence in Northeast Asia. Southeast Asia, in other
words, cannot rely on American power indefinitely.
Given its geographical position and regional economic interests,
Japan might prove a more tenacious competitor, though it suffers
certain historical disadvantages. Japan has never been prepared meekly
to accept the Chinese world order. The competition that might have
developed from the seventeenth century for influence in Southeast
Asia was curtailed by Japanese isolationism. After the Meiji restoration of 1867, pent up Japanese national energies were channelled into
rapid modernisation, the fruits of which were turned against China.
Japanese aggression from 1895 to 1945 sowed seeds of deep distrust and
resentment, not just in China, but throughout Southeast Asia. Fear of
the resurgence of Japanese militarism, and the ugly side of Japanese
nationalism, not to mention a lack of cultural affinity and Japanese
racial arrogance, present barriers to the extension of Japanese influence in Southeast Asia. In view of these difficulties, Japan may well be
content to rest its power on its global economic interests rather than
attempt to compete politically with China in Southeast Asia. Even so,
Japanese investment in, and aid to the region would be likely to continue as a welcome economic counterweight to China.
How might Southeast Asian nations respond to a more assertive
China? Any answer to this question must take account of the historical and cultural context of Chinese–Southeast Asian relations. One
point to note is that as the history of the relationship has shown,
Southeast Asian kingdoms faced with the preponderance of Chinese
power never concluded alliances to ‘balance’ it. Balance-of-power
thinking that comes so naturally to Western international relations
analysts7 was never the way Southeast Asian kingdoms traditionally
dealt with China. Only in the last fifty years, as a result of Western
dominance in the region, have balance-of-power coalitions been
constructed—and then Southeast Asian nations proved remarkably
reluctant to join. It is significant that the ASEAN states are today just
as opposed to any balance-of-power coalition that could be construed
as aimed at China.
As we have seen, the kingdoms of Southeast Asia dealt with
China on a bilateral basis through the tributary system. In so doing,
they forged bilateral relations regimes not on the basis of similar world-views (except for Vietnam), but through accommodation of the
Chinese world order, given key compatibilities and the moral obligations to which both sides were committed. China demanded recognition of both its status and its security interests (keeping peace on its frontiers) in return for trading privileges and political legitimisation (investiture). When Chinese armies marched into Southeast
Asia against powerful kingdoms like Vietnam and Burma, however,
whether to ‘punish’ or extend imperial frontiers, they encountered
concerted resistance. Once Chinese armies were defeated, the Vietnamese and Burmese well understood that the only way to ensure their
future security was to re-establish the tributary bilateral relations
regime in recognition, if only symbolically, of China’s superiority. A
similar pattern of events marked the normalisation of Vietnamese relations with China a decade after their border war of 1979, as both
Vietnamese and Chinese with their long historical memories were well aware.
The states of mainland Southeast Asia are most unlikely to be
lured into a balance-of-power coalition orchestrated by Washington
to contain China, as they well know the US would be most reluctant
to commit troops to defend them. They must deal with China, therefore, in their own way. That way varies from ready alliance with the
new regional hegemon in the case of Thailand, to the dour suspicion
and tough self-reliance of Vietnam, from the opportunist realism of
Burma to the weak dependency of Cambodia and Laos. The common
element in all mainland Southeast Asian bilateral relations regimes
with China, however, is that status recognition is the price of security.
History indicates that China is unlikely to invade mainland Southeast
Asian countries that accord China de facto great power status, and
respect China’s security interests, as independent Burma consistently
has done. The obverse face of status recognition is Chinese obligation
to apply certain principles of international relations (non-intervention,
fair economic exchange, political support for ruling regimes). It was not
always thus during the revolutionary phase of China’s relations with
Southeast Asia. But that was, historically, something of an anomaly and
Beijing has become more conservative and predictable—which is to
say, more traditional—in its relations with its neighbours.
Maritime Southeast Asia (including the Malay peninsula) poses
a much greater barrier to the extension of Chinese influence, for the
historical bilateral relations regimes with China were much less
developed. Relations depended far more than for continental states
on the commercial activities of Malay merchants and Chinese
migrants who had no official standing in their country of origin. It is
interesting that in the map published in Beijing in 1954 in a history
of modern China, Sulu was the only island territory in maritime
Southeast Asia shown as formerly Chinese. None of the rest of the
Philippines, nor Indonesia, were so designated (though the Malay
peninsular was). Apparently the tributary relations of port principalities on Java and other islands with the Qing dynasty counted as
qualitatively less binding, perhaps in the sense that they did not represent substantial polities with historical continuity through to
modern independent states. The Chinese subsequently repudiated
this map, but it is significant nonetheless for the distinction it drew
between continental and maritime Southeast Asia.
Of all the countries of Southeast Asia, the one least likely to
accept Chinese hegemony is Indonesia. No bilateral relations regime
has historically linked Indonesia and China. The great inland king-
doms of Java never really acknowledged Chinese suzerainty: tributary
missions to China were never more than for the purpose of trade.
China’s relations, as we have seen, were with various trading ports
throughout the archipelago over which inland kingdoms such as
Mataram exercised, at best, limited control. Trade in the hands of both
Muslim and Chinese merchants took precedence over diplomacy in
shaping the relationship with successive Chinese dynasties. Thus
independent Indonesia could look back on no long historical
kingdom-to-empire bilateral relations regime of the kind developed
between China and Vietnam, or Thailand, or Burma. Even less could
the Philippines, whose significant trade relations with China (apart
from Sulu) post-date the arrival of the Spanish and were conducted
under their auspices.
The relationship between Indonesia and China has indeed been
‘troubled’,8 for several reasons. One is that nowhere else in Southeast
Asia has the problem of overseas Chinese proved so prickly. This is
because, for reasons of past policy and religious differences, nowhere
else (with the exception of Malaysia) has the Chinese community
been so poorly assimilated. Another reason is that Indonesia, despite
its continuing focus on internal security, has seen itself as the natural
leader in the region, and has been reluctant to allow room for China.
A third reason is that Indonesia sees itself as an Islamic state and, as
such, looks west to the great centres of the Islamic world more readily
than it looks north to China. No other Southeast Asian nation, apart
from the Philippines, has had its international relations culture less
shaped historically by the need to accommodate China. There has,
therefore, been correspondingly less historical basis on which to build
a mutually acceptable Indonesia–China bilateral relations regime.
Given these factors, it would be in China’s interests if Indonesia
split into smaller polities more easily dominated by the PRC. This was
the more prevalent pattern historically. Of course, China is not going
to encourage the break-up of Indonesia: it would just not be too concerned if this happened. This is not the case for ASEAN, for which a
strong and unified Indonesia provides a much more substantial counterweight to China than would a plethora of small states. Nor would it
be in the interests of the West.
The Philippines also lacks a deep historical relationship with
China, though its Chinese community is better assimilated than in
Indonesia. Filipinos have looked east to America and west to Europe
more than north to China in constructing their international rel-
ations culture. The Philippines is less sure of its position in Southeast
Asia than is Indonesia, more ready to take offence and respond in a
confrontational way to threatening situations, as the Mischief Reef
incident illustrated. The Philippines–China bilateral relations
regime remains, as a result of these factors, somewhat shallow and
As for Malaysia and Singapore, both historically formed part of
the Malay trading world. Port cities on the Malay peninsula and
Borneo have a long tradition of economic and political relations with
China (Melaka, Brunei), but like Indonesia, these impinge little on
the modern Sino–Malaysian bilateral relations regime. The exceptionally high proportion of Chinese in the population of Malaysia,
and the fact that Singapore is majority Chinese, has injected an
understandable ambiguity into their relations with China. Both claim
to enjoy close relations with the PRC, while being acutely aware of
possible adverse implications, either internally (Malaysia) or externally (Singapore).
Both prior to falling under European colonial domination and as
independent states, the island nations of Southeast Asia have developed very different bilateral relations regimes with China to those of
mainland Southeast Asian nations.9 This has been due to a combination of geography and worldview (Muslim or Christian). The question
is, therefore, would the maritime states be more ready to oppose
Chinese regional hegemony? Would they, in the face of a more
assertive China, even join an American-led balance-of-power alliance
lying off the East Asian continent, comprising the US, Japan, Taiwan,
the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia? Here another factor enters
the equation: the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
China and ASEAN
The division that exists between continental and maritime states, in
the place China occupies in their international relations, has not prevented consensus so far on one point: balance-of-power containment
of China is not the way to go. Far better to engage China in as many
ways as possible, to build a set of common interests that will bind the
PRC to the region. In large part this consensus has been arrived at
through ‘the ASEAN way’ of non-confrontational consultation and
discussion.10 ASEAN has encouraged not just exchanges of views
between member states that have enhanced mutual understanding of
differing international relations cultures, but has also developed a
sense of solidarity and common identity vis-à-vis outside powers,
China included. But would this solidarity hold up in the face of an
assertive China and an exigent United States?
It is significant that what forged a degree of solidarity between
the original ASEAN five was not, as in the case of the European
Union, the need to overcome a legacy of war between member states,
but rather the need to confront a sudden external threat, and to agree
on a role for China in what was a regional crisis. The external threat
was to Thailand in the form of aggressive Indochinese communism.
Thailand, as the front-line state, was much more eager to turn to
China for support than was Indonesia, which then had no diplomatic
relations with Beijing. Agreement came out of deliberations that drew
upon the Indonesian concepts of consultation and consensus. The
concerted policy agreed upon was to force the withdrawal of Vietnamese forces and restore the neutrality of Cambodia by allowing
China an essential role in funnelling support to the despised Khmer
Rouge via Thailand.
There are two things to note about the precedent set in ASEAN’s
response to the Third Indochina War for future relations with China.
The first is that if the primacy given to the strategic needs of a frontline state is transferred to an expanded ASEAN in conflict with
China, this would presumably commit ASEAN to the defence of
Vietnam, Laos and Burma. It is unlikely, however, that ASEAN would,
or could, respond to a threat from China to any of these three countries, yet failure to act would place both ASEAN’s credibility and solidarity in question. The second point is that the consensus approach of ASEAN presents both a weakness and a strength in dealing with
any crisis involving China. Though consensus for a concerted policy
would make it more compelling, this will always be more difficult to
achieve with ten than with six members. Consensus would confront
China with a unified response that could severely embarrass Beijing,
but China could exploit differences within ASEAN to divide members
and prevent consensus. In an extreme situation, ASEAN could even disintegrate.
A common criticism of ASEAN is that it has failed to develop
the institutional basis for a unified regional grouping of states, in the
way that the European Union has. Nor is there any organisation to
promote ASEAN security, apart from the amorphous ASEAN
Regional Forum. Some of this, usually Western, criticism carries with
it an edge of irritation: why can’t Southeast Asians be more like Europeans? But there are good reasons for the ASEAN approach. How to accommodate the growing power of China will be the most important challenge ASEAN will face into the new millennium. ‘Accommodation’ is the key word, for given the strategic vulnerability and very different international relations cultures of the mainland Southeast Asian states, any attempt to contain, or even ‘constrain’, China would almost certainly divide ASEAN.
The ASEAN ten will do all in their power not to provoke China.
What they want is to both slow and ease the changing power balance.
They want the United States to remain a powerful presence, serving as
a balancing force in the regional power equation, and have made this
known; but they do not want to be part of any balance-of-power coalition. At the same time, they also want to make room for China. No
ASEAN state wants to be drawn into a US confrontation with China
(for example, over Taiwan), so all reject any formal alliance. There is
widespread agreement over a continuing US presence, though about
Japan, even as a US ally, there is more ambivalence. Most ASEAN
states would not be comfortable with either a militarily powerful or
politically aggressive Japan, but they do want Japan to remain a major
economic partner to offset growing Chinese economic penetration and
For China, dealing with ASEAN as a group also presents challenges. Beijing has always preferred bilateral to multilateral relations.
From at first refusing to deal with ASEAN, however, China has
become an active Dialogue Partner. Partly this was to advance Chinese
interests, but China also wants to encourage ASEAN not to turn to
outside powers. As a Chinese goal remains a reduction in the US presence and US influence, China does not want to see the US return to
bases in the Philippines, or anywhere else in the region.
To reiterate, however, the most important test of Chinese–ASEAN relations is what happens in the South China Sea. Possession
of all the disputed islands by China would secure Beijing a strategic
bridgehead into Southeast Asia, but any move to take possession would
strengthen the alliance between continental (Vietnam) and maritime
(the Philippines, Malaysia) states, and so risk armed conflict with a
unified ASEAN, not to mention the United States. China’s strategy
has been to make maximum sovereignty claims, and then to place the
whole question of sovereignty on hold while calling for joint resource
development. This is a clever ploy. A peaceful and reasonable China
pursuing its ‘four modernisations’ presents no immediate threat. In the
longer term, when Beijing has had time to build its economic and
military power, the balance of advantage will surely change.
Logically for China, reunification with Taiwan should precede any move in the South China Sea. This may also be a reason why the Spratlys are on hold. But this does not mean that China has abandoned its expansionist ambitions, and the possibility of greatly
augmenting Chinese influence in Southeast Asia that possession of
the Spratlys would offer. Only a negotiated settlement that met some
of the claims of Southeast Asian nations would indicate that Beijing
had a more benign agenda. What might a negotiated settlement offer
China, given that the PRC would have to surrender part of the
archipelago? The primary benefit would come from the reassurance it
would give to Southeast Asian nations that China really did want
peaceful and friendly relations. ASEAN states would be grateful, and
ready to accommodate China in other ways. They would treat China
with due deference as the regional great power. But there would
be more. China would still stand to gain control of a good part of
the South China Sea and its resources. A settlement would still
project Chinese power far to the south and place China in a stronger
strategic position. So China would still end up exerting greater influence in the region.
Would these benefits, substantial as they are, be enough for
Beijing? Or is China determined to become the undisputed regional
hegemon in its pursuit of global great power status? If so, China will
reject all ASEAN attempts to negotiate a settlement of the South
China Sea and, instead, pursue its long-term strategic goals, with all
that entails for the countries of Southeast Asia.
In summary, the situation appears as follows. Changes are underway in
the strategic balance and security environment in Southeast Asia as
China’s power increases. To this both the US and Japan must respond,
as well as regional states. The US and Japan may oppose the rise of China, or make way for it. But whatever the two major powers do, continental Southeast Asian states will never be part of a balance-of-power coalition to contain China; and maritime states will
be reluctant to join for fear of dividing ASEAN. Southeast Asian
states will together prefer accommodation with China, and in doing
so, will seek appropriate ways to evolve both their bilateral and combined multilateral relations regimes. For this they will naturally draw
on their own histories and international relations cultures. Thus, as
China assumes its former preponderant position in Asia, history and
culture are likely to become more important, not less, in the evolving
relationship between China and Southeast Asia.
How would an aggressively hegemonistic China affect the independence and security of Southeast Asia? There is no denying that, historically, China has been expansionist, to the south as well as to the north and west. But although Southeast Asian kingdoms were at times
invaded, the tributary relationship was not unduly burdensome. Tributary states remained independent, and their security was guaranteed by
status recognition and the acceptance of mutual moral obligations.
Obviously no new tributary relationship is about to evolve, and China
will never be in a position to reimpose its own world order. But certain
elements central to historical bilateral relations regimes are likely to
carry over. These include Chinese respect for the independence and
territorial integrity of Southeast Asian nations in return for tacit
acceptance of de facto Chinese regional hegemony. No kowtow will be
performed, but Southeast Asia leaders are adept at polite, some might say deferential, diplomacy, and they understand how to deal with the Chinese.
The alternative to this kind of culturally and historically
grounded accommodation would be for ASEAN to form its own
NATO-like security organisation. But this would be relatively powerless unless it included alliance with a great power—and that would be
seen by Beijing as directed against China. Tensions would increase as
China stepped up pressure on selected states, to the point where disintegration of ASEAN would be a likely outcome. So despite the frustrations of Western security analysts who argue for a more robust security framework for ASEAN, even in the face of an increasingly
powerful and assertive China, this is unlikely to happen.
This leaves open the fate of the islands of the South China Sea.
An assertive China would certainly want control of the Spratlys, but
is there anything ASEAN could do to prevent that happening? Solidarity would not be enough once China has a blue water navy, even given ASEAN’s combined military resources. Besides, ASEAN states would have to sort out their own overlapping claims in order to present a common front to Beijing. Only the United States could stand in the way of a determined Chinese invasion of islands garrisoned by ASEAN states. But the Spratlys are not Taiwan, and the US might be reluctant to risk war for a few atolls. The political fallout might deter Beijing, though it hardly did during the Maoist period. The only policy for
Southeast Asian states, therefore, would appear to be to continue to
engage China while at the same time quietly encouraging a continued
US presence without committing themselves to any balance-of-power
alliance. It is a fine line to hew in the face of China’s determined drive
for status recognition and American arrogance of power, and it may
still not be enough to save the Spratlys.
In the longer term, the countries of Southeast Asia must face the
challenge of developing bilateral relations regimes with China that
both protect their own interests and security and accommodate those
of China, as the de facto regional hegemon and great power. It would
hardly be surprising if in doing so they draw upon the cultural presuppositions and historical precedents that, as I have shown, lie buried deep within their respective international relations cultures.

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