Philip Bowring says China’s own written records show that, long before its vessels became active, seafaring merchants from Southeast Asia and elsewhere ruled the South China Sea.
Is China starting down a path similar to that followed by Japan and Germany before 1945, when nationalism backed by new economic clout led to overconfidence and adventures which eventually proved disastrous?
The question needs asking in the context of China’s latest moves ultimately aimed at making the South China Sea into a Chinese lake. Beijing has been railing against a US overflight of a China-controlled islet being expanded with a massive dredging operation.
Mainland-based academics have rushed to condemn this “dangerous provocation”. Yet the brutal fact is that no international body or significant state recognises China’s claim that the sea and its islets and shoals are its territory; least of all neighbouring states.
The artificial expansion of the islets may be more for show than to provide any significant strategic advantage. They may even prove impermanent, should they be hit by monster typhoons. But they are part of a pattern which in 2013 saw Chinese vessels occupy the Scarborough Shoal and drive out Philippine fishermen. The shoal lies well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and had long been fished by boats from nearby Luzon. The seizure was an act of imperialism.
The US, like any other country, has a right to overfly territory which is not officially acknowledged as part of this or that nation. The same applies to features occupied by Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. China’s claim that its reclamations are to improve security are viewed with derision by its neighbours. But those people do not count. They do not exist in the version of history by which Beijing claims the whole sea, stretching to the coast of Borneo, as defined by its nine-dash line, on the basis that the Chinese had always been in command of the sea.
Given that Hong Kong last week celebrated the Buddha’s birthday, it is worth recalling the relevance of China’s experience with Buddhism to the question of the sea. Far from showing Chinese maritime command, China’s own records show clearly that long before Chinese vessels first became active – during the Song dynasty – shipping between China and the Strait of Malacca, and even to southern India, was the preserve of mariners from Sumatra, Java, Borneo and south and central Vietnam, with Tamils and Arabs later becoming major players.
The leading centre of Buddhism in Southeast Asia was the Srivijayan capital, Palembang, in Sumatra, to which Chinese Buddhist monks travelled on Srivijayan ships to study, sometimes proceeding from there to Sri Lanka or India.
A 7th-century Chinese monk wrote of it: “There are more than 1,000 Buddhist monks whose spirit is turned only to study and good actions. They study all possible subjects like in India.” A Chinese wanting to study in India needed to go there “to learn how to behave properly”.
Chinese texts from as early as the 3rd century refer in detail to ships from Sumatra more than 50 metres in length and able to carry 600 people plus cargo. By the 6th century, trade between Srivijaya and ports around the South China Sea was very regular, with the journey to Canton usually taking 30 to 40 days. Other links included routes from Butuan in northeastern Mindanao to the Cham ports, such as Nha Trang. Javanese traders had a settlement near Manila in the 9th century, long before Chinese settled there.
The single largest driver of trade was Chinese demand for and supply of luxury goods, buying aromatics, ivory, spices and tropical forest products and selling silk and porcelain and other goods. For a thousand years, the traders were primarily the people of island and coastal Southeast Asia – the Austronesians whose seamanship enabled them to colonise the island world from the eastern Pacific to Madagascar. It was also an era where India was the main outside cultural influence on the region, spreading Buddhism, Hinduism, writing systems and kingship ideas.
Yes, this was a long time ago, but Chinese claims today are best refuted by China’s own written records, be they of Buddhist monks or in dynastic annals reporting trade missions and accounts of travellers to the southern lands. Chinese documents are the single most important source for the early history of maritime Southeast Asia and conform to evidence in more fragmentary Tamil, Javanese, Malay and Arab records.
Even though Chinese merchants and settlers in the region’s ports came to play a major role in commerce, they always shared these roles, whether with the Arabs, the Muslim sultanates and later the Europeans. China only twice briefly attempted to use force to impose its will on the maritime region, during the Mongol period when an invasion of Java failed, and briefly during the Zheng He voyages of the early Ming.
Communist party governments everywhere, not just in China, are notorious for rewriting history. But if Beijing wants to know why it feels surrounded by enemies, it should ask itself the reason: riding roughshod over the interests and identities of its neighbours, raising issues of “unequal treaty” borders and engaging in colonialism in Xinjiang and Tibet, by fostering Han settlement to undermine the ethnic identity of those once-independent nations.
Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator
Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, Asia Sentinel, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.