China needed to reassert her suzerainty, and be recognized once again as the benevolent sovereign of Asia. And it has been gracious to its client states. Though espousing democratic values, many states nevertheless recognize the superiority and authority of China. This is the old world order reconstituted: the states look to China for guidance and a steady hand, and China guides all of Asia to prosperity as a benevolent ruler…
Once there was a lake. A lake of shifting sands, where tribes coexisted peaceably and khaganates rose and fell. This was the home of conquerors who swept east and south to lay waste and lay claim to the empire of China. It was a lawless land, and a land of shifting allegiances. Politically savvy creatures could swim in the uncertainty and forge an empire, as did one khan, who carried his empire of nomads across the desert into the uncertain lands of the west.
By the early modern period, this lake of petty tribes was gradually pacified by China. Regularly at the mercy of barbarians who threatened their existence and way of life, they finally thought to occupy and absorb this land to its empire. This pacification continued to the Qing period, where they absorbed the desert to the west of them, and ended in the late 1940s, when they absorbed Tibet.
There is another lake, a sea similar to this desert. To the south of China is a sea of islands, where communities started out in small units and gradually formed petty states. It was a community of sailors, and because of their geography there was hardly a unified political unit, although there were notable empires expanding in the region.
This lake was at the heart of the region we now call Southeast Asia—states that surrounded China to the south and waters to the east, they did not comprise a political, regional whole until the West claimed them as such in the modern period. And for a time, distracted by the nomadic enemies to the north, they paid no attention to this lake of small dynasties and kingdoms.
China, however, eventually claimed itself as the absolute suzerain (and sovereign) of Asia; they presided over the deserts and the waters that comprised their world. Since its unification from vast warring states in the Chinese landscape, the Chinese presided over a political empire, and saw themselves as the great seat of civilization. Naturally, they presided over the lands, as well as the barbarians, around them. They were a benevolent empire; the states around them offered tribute and recognized their sovereignty, and in exchange the empire heaped wealth and blessings to its client-states much more than the tribute given to them.
And the “lake” became a vibrant heart of the sailors of the region; it was the crossroads of trade between states and growing empires. No one political unit laid claim to the sea; not even as interlopers from the Western seas arrived and began to carve politico-economic empires out of the region. China, for a time, remained the absolute suzerain of Asia, recognized (albeit nominally) by the client-states as well as the Western interlopers.
But eventually the region experienced a historical convulsion that upset the existing order. The empires of the Western interlopers refused to recognize China, and became independent political entities. These same Western interlopers, having stolen the lands from China’s benevolent rule, now eyed carving up China itself. China eventually fractured, and descended to the same madness once experienced by her ancestors.
After a bloody reprise, China regained itself and the unity of its peoples. Much had been lost, and the states around it were in disarray. It was now prey to the game of the world powers, the Cold War. And the states of Southeast Asia adopted an ideology that would disrupt the old world order: democracy. It is the belief that all states are equal to each other, that no state was sovereign.
But China persevered. Eventually, by the new millennium, it had regained its stride. The desert was now wholly pacified, and the wild lands of Tibet and Xinjiang had been absorbed into the empire. The lake of the south, however, remained a no-man’s land. It was the new Wild West of Asia, the new desert with shifting alliances. It was a body of water with a cluster of islands that in itself was no consequence.
To China, however, it was a different matter. She needed to reassert her suzerainty, and be recognized once again as the benevolent sovereign of Asia. And it has been gracious to its client states. Though espousing democratic values, many states nevertheless recognize the superiority and authority of China. This is the old world order reconstituted: the states look to China for guidance and a steady hand, and China guides all of Asia to prosperity as a benevolent ruler.
Naturally, then, the lake to the south is an integral part of China’s suzerainty, as all of Asia is in indirect or direct suzerainty of China. It is arrogance to think otherwise. It is arrogance to think that the states are above their station, and China’s equal. This is not to give the due respect to China. That is why it is better to accept the order as it always has been—China is the suzerain of all lands of Asia. It is not arrogance, it is just what it always has been.
The South China Sea is this lake. To the West, and the ignorant Southeast Asian client states, it is the new Wild West. A no-man’s land where no one law prevails. It is a land where the one with the mightier guns prevail. To China, however, as Asia is their sovereign land, so is the lake.
To the West, China sees both an economic and political advantage to acquiring the South China Sea. Economic, as not only is the sea home to vast oil and gas deposits, but in acquiring the sea, the states will depend on China for maritime trade, as they traverse Chinese seas. Political, as the South China Sea is an outlet for Chinese ships and breaks the apparent geopolitical isolation. I have always preferred the political explanation.
To China, however, this is simply a return to the old world order lost due to the Western interlopers.
An early reference I used for research was the A Short History of China and Southeast Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence. I wasn’t initially looking for links to the South China Sea issue/hotspot, but the historical precedent China had in its relationship with the Southeast Asian states (or any external/peripheral State for that matter) was clearly there.
To get a sense of the long-sighted political strategy of China, one can look at the geopolitical strategy of its sort-of partner, Russia. The reference (available in Amazon): The Grand Strategy of the Russian Empire details the evolution of Russia’s geopolitical strategy, but more importantly how it remains significant today. One can compare it with China’s own strategy for world leadership, or use it as reference in Russia’s own emergence in recent times.
I actively use both as reference.