Everything in China’s expansion to the south and south-west changed again after the Second World War and the Europeans’ departure from Southeast Asia, and with the victory of the Chinese Revolution and the founding of the PRC in 1949. China returned to the region after more than 150 years of forced absence. Several significant reference points mark the beginning of the process.
The first was a statement made in August 1941 by Zhou Enlai, who was already Prime Minister of the Chinese Communist government. He said, “The islands in the South China Sea have been Chinese territory for centuries.” The new Chinese Premier was actually repeating what his political antagonist — Chiang Kai-shek — had said before him, and that suggested the change of government that occurred in Beijing in 1949 and the formation of the PRC, with all the radical changes in domestic policy that it entailed, had no impact on Chinese policy towards South-East Asia.
The second was the landing in 1956 of Chinese troops on the Amphitrite Island group in the Paracel archipelago, demonstrating that for the first time in 150 years China was prepared to use its army and navy to advance its sphere of control and protect its interests in Southeast Asia.
At the time, China’s incentive for resuming its expansion in Southeast Asia probably had more to do with restoring the country’s prestige and showcasing its new power than with economics or politics. The publication of maps depicting the historical borders with Southeast Asian countries that differ from the modern borders, the advancement of territorial claims involving both land and sea borders against those countries, and statements concerning China’s historical responsibility for the state of affairs in Southeast Asia indicated that, regardless of leadership personalities, their ideologies in the Chinese consciousness have always retained the ancient ideas that the whole of Southeast Asia is a Chinese vassal and only China can be dominant there. “We rule the entire Celestial Empire and consider all vassal lands to be our territory,” the Yongzheng Emperor of the Qing Empire once wrote Vietnamese King Le Zou Tong.
Confirmation of this conclusion may be found in the fact that certain very influential Chinese publicists nowadays consider the countries of Southeast Asia almost as lost territories and the first region where China must regain its dominance. Many Chinese political scientists have begun including Singapore, as well as the Chinese diaspora (mainly that part of it located in Asia), in the “Greater China” (mainland civic China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau) that they perceive as forming. The Chinese political scientist Zhao Hong has articulated this idea even more clearly. In his opinion, the term “Greater China” should be understood to mean the “economic, cultural and historic integrity of the mainland together with its satellites.” By this definition, the concept of satellites obviously pertains primarily to the Southeast Asian countries that acknowledged Chinese suzerainty, those that the Chinese understood to be the satellites of the Middle Kingdom.
This analysis shows that there is no doubt today that China’s leaders have for many years been consistently and persistently looking for ways to restore China’s historical position in the region that was lost during Southeast Asia’s colonial period. The purpose of the effort is obvious — to make a historic comeback in Southeast Asia as an area adjacent to the Chinese border and as a “historic” area of Chinese supremacy, where China’s retreat in the 19th and early 20th centuries was particularly harsh and painful.
The main stages and models of Chinese politics in Southeast Asia
Several stages can be identified in this struggle by China to reclaim its supremacy and dominance in Southeast Asia. During the long period from early 1950s to the early 1970s, Beijing hoped that its policy of supporting local communist parties coupled with non-recognition of the ruling political regimes would allow the Communists in Southeast Asian countries to seize power, and thus China’s return to the region as the dominant power would be resolved.
The second phase — from the early 1970s to the late 1990s — could be called a period with a two track policy, during which China, on the one hand, recognized the ruling political regimes in Southeast Asian countries and, on the other, pursued a policy of applying constant military and political pressure and increasing its presence in the region. During this period, China occupied all of the Paracel Islands and large parts of the Spratly Islands; and it maintained and further enhanced the porosity of its land borders with Burma, Laos and Vietnam.
The third phase was carried out intensively from the late 1990s until the second half of the 2000s. It can be defined as China’s transition to a policy of cooperation and integration based on rapid economic growth, first economically and then politically, in order to integrate the Southeast Asian countries into the Pax Sinica, i.e., into the greater Chinese world. In 2006-2007, it became clear that this policy offered little political return, and a major adjustment was required. Therefore, China’s policy today can be defined as one in which the tactics of power politics against its neighbors have once again come to the fore (this is especially evident in the renewed clashes in the South China Sea). On the other hand, China is somewhat separately continuing the policy of economic integration and is pursuing the development of a free trade zone in which it would have a permanent deficit in trade relations with Southeast Asian countries, for which it would became the chief trading partner.
As we analyze China’s expansion into Southeast Asia, we need to dwell on a few of the paths it is taking. First, there is the integration of all ten ASEAN countries into the free trade zone with the subsequent transition to closer formalized cooperation in the political sphere.
The second is coalescence around its policies and the integration of the countries of Indochina adjacent to the Chinese border — Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Burma —to participate in actively developing the so-called Mekong Project. This path for the Chinese advance into the region was well advanced when the strategy of integration and cooperation with all ASEAN countries seriously stalled.
The third was the involvement in Greater China of some neighboring countries that are heavily dependent on China and are no longer making certain policy decisions independently, not a group of Southeast Asian countries. It has to do with strengthening Chinese supremacy in Laos and especially in Burma, which is visibly becoming increasingly dependent on China with the construction of a network of oil and gas pipelines and a railway through its territory and China’s purchase of a sea port on the Andaman Sea and gas deposits on the continental shelf.
In summary, taking China’s policies in Southeast Asia in a broad historical context, we can say that the original impulse to return to Southeast Asia arising from concepts of prestige and emotionally charged historical recollections now has economic considerations as an added factor. Control of the region, especially the hydrocarbon deposits on the Spratly Islands, offers opportunities for turning it into an important source of raw materials for China’s growth. Currently, military and political interests linked to political domination in the region adjacent to China’s southern and south-western borders have also been added to the mix as China’s economic power has grown. Even more relevant are the tasks of gradually forcing the United States out of the region, extending China’s military security zones thousands of miles from the Chinese coast and, of course, gaining control of key sea lanes through the South China Sea.
At present, therefore, the overall thrust of Chinese pressure in the region resembles a combination of an emotional/historical reading of history and the specific benefits and interests of current politics. This largely explains Beijing’s consistency, intransigence and firmness in promoting its interests and its reluctance to make even minimal concessions to its partners during negotiations. This thrust is very difficult to stop because it is part of China’s historical tradition, which today is also reinforced by its need to continually expand its commodity and trade markets in order to keep growing. Beijing understands very well that any raw material or trade crisis could easily upset the hard-won stability of Chinese society and cause profound upheavals in China. We can therefore say that the outward expansion in search of new trade and commodity markets is a natural part of modern existence and China’s survival, and the example here of the Southeast Asian countries might be only a special case of this historical trend.
To be continued…
Dmitry Valentinovich Mosyakov is a Professor, Doctor of Science (History) and Director of the Center for Southeast Asia, Australia and Oceania and the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. This article was written expressly for New Eastern Outlook.