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Asian security and the reemergence of China's tributary system
Eric Teo
10/24/2004

Recent indications point to a growing Sino-US rivalry in the Asia-Pacific, with China's emergence not only as an Asian power, but a world power. The impressive haul of Olympic golds by China, second only to the U.S., testifies to this Asian giant's rising prowess on the world stage. The Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the Shanghai International Exposition of 2010 are poised to crown China's effort in reaching Asian superpower status by the next decade.

Asian victories in Athens testify to a rise in eastern power, not only in sports, but also in economics, politics and culture. The reemergence of Japan from its "lost decade" of the 1990s and the impressive economic and sports breakthrough of South Korea, as it engages more confidently with the North, all testify to a growing Asian revival, as well as increasing "Asian nationalism." Against this backdrop, China is putting forth great efforts to become a regional leader, attempting to regain a preeminence not seen since the middle of the 19th century before Western powers and Japan took advantage of a weakening China to colonize its "Middle Kingdom" system.

In fact, China could remind its Asian neighbors of the once powerful tributary system of the Ming and Qing Dynasties, when the "Middle Kingdom" was in fact at the center of an Asian system of trade, cultural eminence and respect. Though Beijing may have no aspirations of re-creating such a system, just as Japan had failed to create its Asian Sphere of Co-Prosperity during World War II, this "Middle Kingdom" mentality cannot be totally neglected today.

Chinese "Imperial Tributary System" Mentality?

A publication by BeiDa's (Beijing University) Institute of International Relations in 2003 on "China's Security Environment" put forward a novel perspective on China's "new" security environment, with profound implications for Beijing's relations with its Asian neighbors and its regional role. It seems that the "tributary" mentality has reemerged not only within China but among its neighbors as well, especially the former tributary states in East Asia. From a historical perspective, Beijing's "new" security environment, or at least its thinking on the matter, could have been modeled after this old tributary system, which was started under the Ming Dynasty and perfected under the Qing.

China's Ming/Qing tributary system was based on three cardinal points. First, China considered itself the "central heart" (zhongxin in Mandarin) of the region, with the tributary system assuring its overall security environment. Second, China needed a stable external environment, immediately surrounding the Middle Kingdom, to maintain its own internal stability and prosperity. Third, the Chinese emperor, at the "heart", would in principle give more favors to tributary states or kingdoms than receive from them; for his "generosity," the emperor gets their respect and goodwill.

From the royal Qing archives (according to BeiDa's publication), the well-established system laid out meticulously tributes from regional countries to the Chinese court. Korea had to pay tribute once a year, the Ryuku Kingdom (present-day Okinawan islands) once in two years, Annam (Northern Vietnam) once in three years, Siam (Thailand) once in four years, Sulu (in Southern Philippines) once in five years, and Burma (Myanmar) and Laos, once every seven to ten years. The publication even calculated the number of times these kingdoms had effectively paid tribute to Beijing, from 1662 till early 1900s, listing some of the tributes paid, like elephant tusks from Siam or precious stones from Burma. Resurrecting such a system (or at least the mentality behind it) in the 21st century would be impossible, were it not for China's spectacular rise within the Asian sphere and the general acceptance of Beijing's preeminent role in the present-day system of trade and political influence among China's neighbors.

This ancient imperial mentality seems to have had some bearing on certain recent geo-political trends emanating from China. In accordance with its own theory of "peaceful rising," China has discreetly challenged U.S. presence and influence in the Asia-Pacific region, thus putting forward Beijing's own vision of Asian regionalism and community-building. The linkage of "internal" and "external" stability (neiwen and waiwen) is crucial in China's development. This issue is so sensitive that the Chinese leadership seems to have even agreed to drop the phrase "peaceful rising" (heping chueqi) for "peaceful development" (heping fachang), to ally fears of an aggressive superpower-in-the-making.

Internally, Beijing is more and more concerned with securing natural resources and raw materials for its rapid economic development. The search for energy -- raw materials and logistics routes -- is of paramount importance in Beijing's international diplomacy today. Although the Chinese economy should cool this year, thanks to a reduction of investment growth from 26.9% in 2003 to a more reasonably estimated 15%, its growth for the next few years could still be maintained at an impressive 8% per annum; Beijing is thus bent on securing energy and raw materials in order to maintain this momentum for growth.

Challenging the U.S. and Building its Own Asian System

China's lasting fear of "encirclement" by the U.S. and its allies, which could restrict Beijing's economic growth and access to vital energy routes like the Malacca Straits, rose to the fore during the May-June controversy over the presence of American troops patrolling the crucial Straits. Beyond the energy gridlock problem, Beijing is always concerned that Washington could build an anti-China coalition around its periphery, stretching from Japan and South Korea, through Taiwan and Southeast Asia to Australia, thereby creating a "containment arc" along China's Pacific coast to limit its Pacific logistical access. The Theater Missile Defense system (TMD) question also falls into realm of strategic concerns for China, just as the Taiwan issue, which is perceived by some in Beijing as a tool in Washington's attempts to destabilize China vis--vis the region, by building this anti-Beijing coalition.

To attain stability in its immediate area, ensure economic sustainability and social peace, and prevent the strategic encirclement of China by the U.S. and its Asian allies, Beijing has deployed a formidable diplomatic effort to build its own system of allies and friends across the Asia-Pacific. And its efforts have paid off. Witness Beijing's role in six-party talks; its on-going negotiations for an ASEAN-China Free Trade Agreement by 2010; its recent hosting of the Third International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP), which brought together 350 delegates of 82 political parties from 34 Asian countries; and the warm welcome extended to leaders of Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand to Beijing after its bilateral spat with Singapore over the visit to then-Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to Taipei. All these testify to China's coalition-building efforts in the Asia-Pacific region. Even more significant than the recent ICAPP itself is the pragmatism of the Communist Party of China in organizing such a conference of diverse political parties, as well as the equally pragmatic approach taken by other Asian political parties many of which openly opposed the communist ideology of Beijing in the 1960s and 1970s.

In fact, Beijing's efforts to woo its smaller neighbors and build its own "system" in Southeast Asia could suggest that a first outline of a China-style Monroe Doctrine may now be discernable, though it is far more subtle and discreet than the American version. Beijing could be intending to organize an Asian security system along the lines of Europe, after snubbing the annual last July's Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore for the first time. The recently concluded defense cooperation between the Philippines and China, despite their differences over some South China Sea islands and the Manila-Washington military alliance, only adds to China's growing involvement in the region. This coalition-building by Beijing is somehow reminiscent of the mentality of China's former imperial tributary system, which had effectively stabilized China and Asia all the way from 1644 till the last years of the 20th century.

Sino-US rivalry can thus be expected to increase dramatically in the Asian-Pacific, beyond just the Taiwan issue. Japan, the Korean normalization process, Southeast Asia, South Asia (and especially India), Central Asia and Australasia could all be vital areas of competition between Beijing and Washington. Such a rivalry would inevitably spill over from the economic and cultural spheres into the political and strategic arenas, sucking China's smaller neighbors into great power disputes. Beijing's attempts to assert its pre-eminence within the Asian-Pacific and eventually challenge American presence and influence there will be strengthened as trade, investments and people-to-people exchanges increase regionally and become progressively centered around China. Beijing will want to manage its own Asian system, thus increasingly frown upon the existing American presence and any American attempt to lead Asia.

Dr Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist, is Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs (SIIA).

This article appears on AFAR with permission from China Brief, Jamestown Foundation.

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