China’s strategic reach is growing, and Beijing disdains to conceal its ambition to win a wider role in governing the global community. With the United States turned inward to its Trump-era problems, East Asia must figure out by itself how best to deal with its giant neighbor.
Neither side has much experience in neighborliness. Dynastic China itself—unified early on and for the most part self-sufficient—seldom had to deal with any neighbor of near-equal gravity. For much of its continuous history of 4,000 years, the Chinese Empire was focused inward—on the threat from the nomadic peoples of Inner Asia’s grasslands.
Each in its turn, the Mongols in 1271 and the Manchus in 1644 managed to breach the Great Wall. But China’s Han majority easily assimilated them both into its sophisticated civilization.
Trade as tribute
Their sea-going neighbors on the China Sea’s shores, the Han Chinese regarded as inferior peoples. The reigning monarch was pleased to receive their trade delegations as “tribute missions,” and returned them home with lavish gifts. In these ceremonials, our principalities sometimes took part.
As late as the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.), the Chinese apparently knew of no land between Taiwan and Java; they thought the world to end beyond Brunei and what is now Indonesia’s main island (William Henry Scott, 1989).
In the tenth-eleventh centuries, people from what would become the Philippines had dealings with China.
In 1371, Brunei was listed in the imperial rolls as China’s first tributary state from Southeast Asia. Similar missions arrived from the Philippines in 1372, 1405 and 1576.
China in decadence
Economically, a decadent China failed to keep pace with a Western Europe being transformed by the Industrial Revolution. In 1793 the Qianlong Emperor dismissed a British mission’s offer of increased trade, since “we have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest use of your manufactures.” Barely half a century later, the British were back—but this time with gunboats—to force China open to Western commerce.
Our relations with China
As late as the Tang dynasty (618-906 A.D.), the Chinese knew of no land between Taiwan and Java; they thought the world to end beyond Brunei and Java (William Henry Scott, 1989). During the tenth-eleventh centuries, exports from Mindoro (Ma-i) and Butuan in Mindanao reached China through Champa, on the coast of South Vietnam. Tattooed Visayan pirates raided the Chinese coast just south of Canton in 1171 and 1172.
Only the Mongols ventured on conquests beyond the Asian mainland; so that the Chinese exerted less influence than the Arabs and Indians did on the maritime peoples of early Southeast Asia. The southern expansion of the Chinese people impinged most closely on the Southeast Asian peninsula—most of whose states at one time or other acknowledged Chinese sovereignty.
It was the Western powers’ need for mine- and plantation-labor—during the much later age of imperialism—that set off the migrations from coastal China that seeded Southeast Asia’s “Overseas Chinese” communities. Much transformed, but still hardworking and entrepreneurial, they continue to dominate the region’s multi-cultural urban societies.
Perhaps for this reason, the Southeast Asian states seem more ready than any other interest group to accept that China will sooner or later be restored to its place as a great power—and that it is unrealistic to think outsiders can prevent such a development from happening.
Keeping the balance
What prospects do the small East Asian states face? For them, the imperative is to keep the strategic balance and not to be drawn irrevocably into any one great power’s sphere of influence.
What future in the West Pacific is there for the United States? Successive generations of the US security leadership have declared the American bottom line. As then Secretary of State Colin Powell said, in June 2002: “The US is a Pacific Power, and we will not yield our strategic position in Asia.”
I see the dangerous transition as occurring in the early 2020s. As Beijing’s economic—military—and diplomatic potential matures, Washington will find it more and more difficult to keep the regional balance favorable to its interests.
A Chinese sphere of influence?
What will American recognition of China as a great power mean? Initially, President Xi Jinping expects US recognition of China’s great-power status to result in Washington’s acknowledging the legitimacy of Beijing’s security, territorial and economic interests in the China Sea. Eventually US recognition would entail Washington’s cession of “greater strategic space” to the Chinese military.
A US movement from its forward defenses opening on the China Sea to the vastnesses of the Pacific—to Guam, Alaska and Hawaii—might then become prudent. The only immediate losers would be East Asia’s littoral states: they could become vulnerable to the importunings of their big neighbor, in a kind of “Finlandization.”
The term refers to the Baltic state’s practical approach to its giant Soviet neighbor during the Cold War. Well known globally for its cellphone Nokia, Finland didn’t take part in the Marshall Plan—stayed out of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact—and did not join the European Union until after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Until now Finland stays out of any entangling alliances, although the majority of the buffer (“satellite”) states of Eastern Europe that once separated the Russian heartland from Western Europe have joined both NATO and the EU.