Shelton WOODS

China has profoundly affected the states of Southeast Asia throughout history, losing its dominance only during a period of Western colonialism in the region. Chinese influence in Southeast Asia is again on the rise and is evident in the spheres of economics, religion, and political ideologies.

The opening decade of the twenty-first century saw China reestablishing itself as Asia’s dominant power and redefining China–Southeast Asian relations. In effect, the Southeast Asian states have been returning to an earlier phase in their history, when they had accepted a subordinate role in their relationships with China. Only between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries, when Western imperialism held sway in the region, did China lose its dominance vis-à-vis the Southeast Asian countries.

Chinese Migration in Southeast Asia

Chinese influence in the eleven countries of Southeast Asia (Brunei, Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar (Burma), Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam) is relatively proportional to the number of Chinese in each country. Vietnam, for example, was historically the Southeast Asian state most influenced by China because of the steady stream of Chinese migration into northern Vietnam. This influx of Chinese soldiers, officials, and peasants into Vietnam came about through geographical and political conditions. Geographically connected to southern China, Vietnam was an attractive alternative for Chinese fleeing from local bullies, civil wars, dead-end bureaucratic positions, and limited land. Chinese immigration to Vietnam was rather seamless during the first millennium of the common era with Vietnam actually China’s southernmost province between 111 BCE and 939 CE. While this political reality was based on military subjugation, the very fact that it lasted for a millennium is significant. No other Southeast Asian country experienced such profound Chinese influence on its history and society for such a length of time.

Chinese migration to other areas of Southeast Asia involved establishing enclaves only on the coasts of those countries. During the first centuries of the common era, merchants from China’s southern and eastern provinces used small boats, known as junks, to venture into Southeast Asian waters, facilitating trade. This trade dramatically increased during periods when the Silk Roads were impassible due to civil wars along the overland route, which connected China with Western empires. Over time, Chinese traders set up communities in Southeast Asia at established ports. In places such as the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos, Chinese settlements took root where the land met the sea. In short, the Chinese migration into the islands of Southeast Asia was limited to the periphery of the states and did not reach into the interior. The geographical margins of these Chinese communities matched the social isolation the early migrant Chinese sought. Overseas Chinese did not always integrate into the native population because the Chinese believed in the superiority of Chinese culture and society.

Western industrialization and the concomitant imperialism (Western powers colonized every part of Southeast Asia except Thailand) changed the nature of Chinese influence in Southeast Asia. The Chinese actually became more important in Southeast Asian financial systems as Chinese merchants were the personnel that Western colonial powers used to plug Southeast Asia into the world’s economy. In places such as the Malay Peninsula in the mid-nineteenth century, the British established tin mines, which produced the vast majority of the world’s tin. Anglo officials in Malay preferred to employ Chinese laborers rather than the indigenous population, for the former were less likely to create strife and had no ties to local Malay chieftains or the ubiquitous mosques. The importation of Chinese labor was on such a scale that in 2008—a century and a half after the mass arrival of Chinese laborers—26 percent of Malaysia was ethnically Chinese; in neighboring Singapore 76 percent of the island’s residents was Chinese.

While Chinese people constitute only a minor portion of the Philippines’ population, they possess disproportionate economic control, which can be traced to their partnership with the colonial Spanish officials of the region. The Philippines proved to be a losing economic proposition for Spain, which ruled the archipelago from 1571 to 1898. But the Spanish did use the city of Manila as an area for exchanging international goods. Chinese porcelain, finished silk textiles, and other material from southern China were sent to Manila. The Manila-based Chinese merchants partnered with Chinese in southeast China to make this trade possible. From Manila, Chinese wares were placed on a galleon and shipped across the Pacific to Acapulco, Mexico, in exchange for Peruvian silver, which was sent back to Manila and China.

China’s Philosophical Influence in Southeast Asia

More powerful and profound than economic influences has been China’s ideological impact on Southeast Asia. Varied in time and nature, Chinese philosophies have affected the cultures of its southern neighbors.

The geographical and political connections between Vietnam and China also affected the Vietnamese worldview. Assimilating Vietnam into the Chinese bureaucracy meant the imposition of China’s political paradigm on its southern province. Embedded in this system was an implicit moral value system. In other Southeast Asian states these values were spread through intermarriage and the establishment of Chinese schools.

Some of the Confucian ideas that were transmitted to Southeast Asian states include a high regard for education, an emphasis on affable relations, and filial piety. In Vietnam as in China, there emerged an elite educated class that ran the political system. Mastery of the Confucian classics was the means to a more secure, economically viable existence in Vietnam. The Confucian notion of the superiority of learned men was integrated into Vietnamese culture, and a good number of Vietnam’s most influential twentieth-century figures—such as Ngo Dinh Diem, Vo Nguyen Giap, and Ho Chi Minh—spent much of their early careers acquiring an education.

In more recent times the thoughts, policies, and writings of Mao Zedong have spawned revolutions in Southeast Asian states. One example of a group that Mao influenced was the Khmer Rouge. This somewhat marginalized Communist group in Cambodia borrowed many of its ideas and practices from Mao’s formulations. During the 1970s, when the popular Cambodian king, Norodom Sihanouk, was ousted by pro-American elements in his army, China facilitated an uneasy alliance between the ousted monarch and the Khmer Rouge. Led by Saloth Sar, also known as Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge capitalized on this China-negotiated alliance and staged a civil war that allowed the Khmer Rouge to run the country from April 1975 to December 1978. The leaders of the Khmer Rouge envisioned an agrarian-based utopia that valued ideological correctness more than education in the humanities and sciences. Their policies resulted in the systematic elimination of people based on their high educational attainment, ethnicity, and ties to the old regime. It is estimated that 2 million out of Cambodia’s population of 6 million died during the Khmer Rouge rule. The Cambodian Communists’ policies and atrocities were not unprecedented. Taking their cue from Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1958–1961), the Khmer Rouge leaders tried to emulate Mao’s vision for a society where people’s li
ves, energies, and productivity would all be for the state. And, just as in China, vast numbers of Cambodians lost their lives for this ideology.

As in Cambodia, post–World War II Communist movements in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines borrowed heavily from Mao’s teachings, continuing a more than two-thousand-year-long pattern of Chinese philosophers affecting the worldview of Southeast Asian peoples.

Current and Future Relations

“The Chinese people have stood up.” Mao’s memorable words at the 1 October 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were more prophetic than real. In fact, it was only after Mao’s death in 1976 that China’s rise shifted the balance of power in the region and in the world. The country’s recent, rapid economic growth is unparalleled in human history. For example, since 1979 China’s economy has doubled every eight years. In that same time period the U.S. economy had doubled once.

It is apparently not in China’s destiny to cross oceans and colonize other countries. Identifying their country around 1000 BCE as the Middle Kingdom, surrounded they then thought only by barbarians, the Chinese to this day have not sought overseas colonies because they see themselves as the source of culture: “Let nations come to us and discover our greatness” is the historic Chinese attitude. Some observers question whether this hands-off policy will remain, given China’s economic and military growth. All signs point to the continuation of the peaceful relationship between Southeast Asia and China, though there does seem to be a shift in China’s hegemonic role in Southeast Asia. China’s relations with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and its claim on potentially oil-rich regions around Southeast Asia point to new developments between China and Southeast Asian states.

Two recent examples of increased tension between China and Southeast Asian nations are the disputes over the Spratly and Paracel islands in the South China Sea and the establishment of a Chinese base on Mischief Reef, situated 250 kilometers off the southern Philippine island of Palawan. In these cases Southeast Asian countries claim that China is moving into territory that does not belong to it. China contends that it is not interested in colonizing these islands, but it does seek to explore potential oil reserves in the area. Various ASEAN diplomats remark that when they seek to negotiate with China on these matters, the Chinese are more likely to cite past dynasties and old maps than they are to talk about present realities.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of the U.S. military presence from Southeast Asia, particularly from its two large bases in the Philippines (Clark Air Base and Subic Bay Naval Base), there has been a superpower vacuum in the region. While China has not yet stepped into a hegemonic role in Southeast Asia, there is an opportunity for it to do so. Its future in the region will depend on how it maintains relations with each country rather than with the entire region as a whole because ASEAN is too ideologically and ethnically disparate to provide a united front against any type of Chinese dominance in the region. Furthermore, the 20 million overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia are treated differently from country to country. For example, Chinese have adjusted quite well in Thailand and the Philippines, but they have not experienced the same amiable integration in Vietnam, Malaysia, or Indonesia. During 1978 and 1979 the mistreatment of Chinese in Vietnam was considered so intense that the Chinese government sent ships to Vietnam to evacuate its overseas constituents.

Compared with Vietnam, hostility between Malays and overseas Chinese in Indonesia and Malaysia is relatively recent. During the nineteenth century thousands of Chinese emigrated to Malaya to the point that in 1931 Chinese made up 41 percent of the Malay Peninsula’s population. The Chinese eventually dominated the economy of Malaysia. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, however, bloody riots against the Chinese on the Malay Peninsula have caused tension between China and Malaysia. During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the Chinese community in Malaysia still has an inordinate amount of influence on the Malaysian economy

In neighboring Indonesia the Malay population holds some animosity toward their Chinese neighbors because of their economic wealth in the archipelago. The Indonesian Chinese were also accused of supplying 1960s Communist revolutionaries with weapons, bringing the country to the brink of civil war and leading to President Sukarno’s eventual downfall.

Given the historic precedent of Chinese dominance in Southeast Asian relations and China’s recent rise to superpower status, it appears natural that China will view itself as a guardian over its southern neighbors. But given the diverse historic and current relationships that each Southeast Asian country has with China, it is unlikely that there will be one universal policy that governs Sino-Southeast Asian relations. Rather, the nature of these relations will be predicated on China’s economic/military interests in a particular region and the strength of the bonds between a particular Southeast Asian country and China.

Further Reading

Alilunas-Rodgers, K., & Reid, A. (2001). Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Anwar, D. F. (1990). Indonesia’s relations with China and Japan: Images, perceptions and realities. Contemporary Southeast Asia 12, (103–115).

Bert, W. (2003). The United States, China and Southeast Asian security: A changing of the guard? New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Funabashi, Y. (1993). The Asianization of Asia. Foreign Affairs 72, (75–85).

Goh, E. (2006, December 12). China and Southeast Asia. Retrieved on December 8, 2008, from

Haley, G., Haley, U., & Chin Tiong Tan. (1998). New Asian emperors: The overseas Chinese, their strategies and competitive advantages. Boston: Oxford Press.

Khai Leong Ho & Changyong Gu. (2005). China and Southeast Asia: Global changes and regional challenges. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Kurlantzick, J., & Pei Minxin. (2006, June 13). China’s soft power in Southeast Asia: What does it mean for the region, and for the U.S.? Retrieved on December 8, 2008, from

Simon, S. (1991). China and Southeast Asia: Suspicion and hope. The Journal of East Asian Affairs 1, (185–202).

Stuart-Fox, M. (2003). A short history of China and Southeast Asia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin.

Suryandinata, L. (2007). Understanding the ethnic Chinese in Southeast Asia. Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asia Studies.

Source: Woods, Shelton. (2009). Southeast Asia–China Relations. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2053–2056.
Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Southeast Asia–China Relations (Zh?ngguó hé D?ngnányà de wàiji?o gu?nxì ???????????)|Zh?ngguó hé D?ngnányà de wàiji?o gu?nxì ??????????? (Southeast Asia–China Relations)

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