Two millennia of history is no guide to the next two decades. But it can help to provide a broader perspective, in this case on China and its relationship with its southern maritime neighbours.
Much of this history has been overlooked by Eurocentrists, for whom history begins in the 16th century; by those whose histories focus on anti-colonialism and nation-building; and by Sinocentrists, who see China’s neighbours as more or less tributary.
Usually forgotten, too, is that the maritime region—the whole archipelago and peninsula—has a common Austronesian linguistic and cultural identity. This region, sometimes referred to as Nusantaria, now has some 400 million people and in principle commands the major straits, including Malacca, Lombok and Sunda.
The region has always been key to east–west commerce—west, in this case, being India, Persia and Arabia before Europe entered the scene. For almost all of the two millennia, traders from China played only a minor part; foreigners went to China because of its market. From the 18th century, Chinese migrant traders played an increasing role but were never dominant. Nor are they today in international commerce, which remains, as ever, dependent on ships and not on high-cost journeys over mountains and deserts—the over-rated Silk Road.
The first known direct contact between imperial Rome and China was not over land but by ship. Romans arrived in Nusantaria by sea in the second and third centuries, when Rome had massive trade based out of Alexandria with India, which in turn was linked by traders and Hindu and Buddhist preachers with the archipelago. Chinese goods reached India and beyond via the archipelago or the Kra isthmus. Chinese monks visited Sumatra, where Buddhism was thriving, but the traders and sailors were not Chinese. Fast-forward to the Tang dynasty, which lasted from the 600s to the early 900s, and whose prosperity led to a surge in trade. Guangzhou was a trading hub to which came Malays, Arabs, Tamils and others. The Chinese stayed home to make their money from the domestic market.
Chinese traders began to play a role from the late Song dynasty (960–1279) onward but were never predominant. The first Chinese communities that permanently settled in Nusantaria appear to have been those left behind by Kublai Khan’s failed invasion of Java. The Yuan emperor tried to force King Kertanegara to accept his overlordship. A huge invasion fleet should have overwhelmed the Javanese, but, tricked and ambushed, the invaders had no time to finish the job before the seasonal wind change and a lack of supplies forced them to leave. Asymmetric war won.
The next effort to spread Chinese power was the seven Ming voyages under Zheng He with his huge fleets in the early 1400s. He persuaded several minor states to acknowledge the emperor’s supremacy. But it was a short-lived power projection—30 years—because it cost too much with scant return. China was a giant compared with the coastal states of the archipelago and India, but fragmentation was a disadvantage for a centralising land-based power. The Srivijayan and Majapahit empires, on the other hand, thrived by being loosely organised and trade based.
A mythology has grown up over the size of Zheng’s ships and his navigational achievements. The voyages were made a thousand years after Asian Austronesians began to colonise Madagascar. The Portuguese, who arrived at Melaka only 75 years after Zheng, viewed the Javanese as the region’s leading navigators with the largest ships they had ever seen.
Another convenient (for China) myth is that states from the archipelago were ‘tributary’ to China. Tribute was mostly an exchange of goods, or a tax for the right to trade. Chinese merchants often had to pay tribute to local rulers if they wanted to trade at a port in the archipelago.
Over time, European commercial imperialism undermined the power and trade wealth of the various sultanates. Europeans made the trade rules and created demand for labour for mines and plantations, which brought huge numbers of Chinese and spurred the rapid growth of regional trade with southern China. That, in turn, led to the emergence of an ethnic Chinese business class. But the demographics that partly drove the shifts in the 19th and 20th centuries are reversing as China’s population declines while the populations of the countries of maritime Southeast Asia grow.
China’s need for large-scale foreign trade is a very recent phenomenon. It only started about three decades ago, and a shift back to self-reliance has already begun. As in the past, threats to China are more likely to come from its overextended western and northern land borders.
Meanwhile, China’s recent expansion in the South China Sea has sparked a reawakening of pan-Malay sentiment. Even the Philippines, so long forced by Spain and the United States to look across the Pacific, is refocusing. Obsessions with Pakistan and Kashmir remain an impediment to India’s reorientation, but in India’s port cities there’s the potential for reinvigorating historical trading links to the archipelago, as well as Persia and Arabia. ASEAN can barely paper over the interest gap between its naturally more vulnerable mainland member states and the maritime ones, which include once-Austronesian Vietnam (Champa).
China’s plan to influence politics and trade through the Belt and Road Initiative seems likely to produce many projects that have little economic justification or that, like the Tanzam railway in Africa, quickly decay. The BRI comes at a time when transcontinental trade shows signs of stalling and growth prospects lie more in smaller ports that serve regional traffic, particularly in the archipelago but also in India, with its long, two-faced coastline. China’s accumulated capital in the region is small compared with the investments made by Japan and the West, and its surpluses for foreign investment are shrinking. Equalling the US in some fields of technology—as the Soviets did during the Cold War—is of limited relevance.
In short, there’s little basis in history or economics for Chinese hegemony over the southern maritime region of Asia (the Nanyang), however much it militarises the seas. The cost in money and relationships will be too high as the Chinese Communist Party dynasty and its people age.