Southeast Asia and China: The Role of History and Culture in Shaping Future Relations

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Introduction: China's Regional Ambitions

China has strategic interests and goals that it is determined to pursue, even in the face of U.S. opposition. (1) These are summed up in the two phrases that recur again and again in discussions with Chinese officials: to overcome the "century of humiliation" that China suffered at the hands of the West and Japan from the First Opium War to the proclamation of the People's Republic (PRC) in 1949; and in the process to regain China's "rightful place in the world". (2) But what is that "rightful place"? Chinese leaders are hot so unrealistic as to hope to recreate a new sinocentric world order with China as global hegemon in place of the United States. They do, however, want China to be recognized as one of a small and select group of great powers responsible for shaping the international world order. (3)

For China to regain its "rightful place", it must remain united (one lesson of Chinese history is that the Middle Kingdom was weak when divided) and avoid any loss of territory (in Tibet, Xinjiang or elsewhere). It is determined, therefore, to regain Taiwan. A primary goal for China is to remain economically and militarily strong. But to be a world power, China must exercise influence beyond its frontiers, and that means particularly in the ring of neighbouring states that China has historically sought to dominate (at least to the extent that these states take primary account of China's security and strategic interests). In the view of China's leaders, only America stands in the way of these strategic goals. It does this in two ways: by preventing the return of Taiwan to China (the last galling reminder of the century of humiliation); and by limiting the influence of China internationally, particularly through its military presence in East and Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia is important for China for several reasons. Perhaps the most strategically significant is that Southeast Asia, especially the mainland as opposed to the maritime states, provides potentially the most fruitful and receptive region for the projection of Chinese influence. For as long as Korea remains divided and the U.S.-Japan alliance is in place, the American military presence is too strong in Northeast Asia. (4) In Central Asia, Xinjiang offers a weak base for the projection of Chinese power, for there China is in competition with Russia, political Islam and a growing American presence. Despite China's long friendship with Pakistan, South Asia will always be dominated by India. So this leaves Southeast Asia, a region where historically, Chinese influence has been considerable, and to which many Chinese have migrated over the centuries. Moreover, it is an economically vibrant region in close communication with China's coastal provinces, the powerhouse of China's own rapid economic development. It is obviously tempting for Beijing, therefore, to attempt to draw Southeast Asia into a recognizably Chinese sphere of influence. (5)

China consistently denies any ambition to act as a "regional hegemon"; but such denials ring somewhat hollow in the light of history. Any historical atlas of East Asia graphically shows the extent to which Chinese territory has expanded over the centuries. Claims by Chinese officials and historians that China has been expansionist only when ruled by non-Chinese dynasties (Mongols, Manchus), in contradistinction to the peaceable Han, are ingenuous at best. Tang and Ming armies marched into Central Asia and Southeast Asia. The Vietnamese in particular have been on the receiving end of a succession of Chinese invasions. Han Chinese have never shown much compunction about ruling non-Han Chinese peoples, which they justified by a conception of China's mission civilisatrice that long predates any European equivalent. (6) To this day, China remains an "empire-state", with a policy towards subject peoples that is, despite its proclaimed minorities policy, essentially assimilationist, as it always has been historically. …


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