Tea and tributaries In no region is China’s influence felt more strongly than in South-East Asia : geopolitics



About two weeks ago, the Economist had three articles about China’s involvement in Southeast Asia, a leader titled The rivalry between America and China will hinge on South-East Asia, an article in Asia section Asian countries are learning to cope with Chinese bullying and in Briefing Tea and tributaries In no region is China’s influence felt more strongly than in South-East Asia.

This post will focus on the last article and will be organized as follows














I decided to do this post for two reasons, to provide people with a basic understanding of China’s engagement with the region from pre-colonial times until now.


The article starts by describing the Milk Tea Alliance, a democratic solidarity alliance, that started as a meme, made of netizens from Thailand, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Myanmar. It was set up in response to Chinese internet trolls and nationalist commentators on social media. The Alliance was united in their love of Milk Tea and opposition to anti-China Communist party solidarity


Imperial China claimed primacy over Southeast Asian rulers. Vietnam, Thailand, and Burma (now Myanmar) were important tributaries. Mr. Bilahari Kausikan, a former Singaporean diplomat accuses China of “imperial hauteur”—a conviction that lesser states owe deference to China.

Ethnic Han Chinese (mainly men) from southern China began to seek livelihoods in the European settlements of Batavia (now Jakarta) and Manila [around (the 17-19th century) The bulk of the migration of ethnic Chinese happened in the 19th and 20th century as they flocked to European plantations and mines, or sought fortunes in trading ports.

Fact Check: The article talks about Chinese flocking to British and French rubber plantations. While true for British colonies, most Chinese in French Indochina were traders or craftsmen, French plantations usually employed the native population

Chinese in Southeast Asia influenced events in China, by being key backers of the revolt against the Manchu Qing Dynasty. More recently, South-East Asian nationals of Chinese descent helped kick-start China’s industrial transformation. Today ASEAN is a key link in the supply chains of a China-centered electronics sector. Chinese tycoons are still intermediaries in the region’s economic relationship with China.

Fact Check: Southeast Asian investment in China is small, making up 5% of foreign investment from 1979-2006, dominated by Singapore with 65% (p3). The economic connections between Southeast Asia Chinese business and Mainland Chinese business are exaggerated,


The PRC’s aggressive economic push into Southeast Asia has occurred in the decade for most countries. It consists of government backed/guaranteed infrastructure associated with the BRI and private investors. China is a major source of infrastructure loans needed for 1.7 trillion infrastructure investment for developing Asia over 15 years,

Along with this economic engagement has resulted in new migration from China (Xin Yimin or New Migrants). These migrants come in many forms.

  • Workers associated with PRC sponsored BRI projects

  • Private entrepreneurs and workers for private Chinese companies. They range from tech entrepreneurs in Singapore and illegal migrants working in the “Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone” (Ie border area of Myanmar, Thailand, and Laos) in Chinese-owned online casinos in the Philippines.


The dispute between China and her neighbors in Southeast Asia is over water. In Mainland Southeast Asia it is over the flow of the Mekong. A drought in 2019 in the lower Mekong might have been exacerbated by Chinese dam-building.

In Maritime Southeast Asia, its over China’s sweeping maritime claims in the South China Sea.


China’s influence operations toward Southeast Asian Chinese by the United Front Department. A key mission is to ensure that, as Bill Hayton puts it in “The Invention of China”: “regardless of how long ago someone’s ancestors left home, or for how many generations they have been citizens of another country, they…still have obligations to the ancestral nation.”

Using the example of the Chinese Ambassador to Malaysia and Indonesian Chinese Governor of Jakarta, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok), the article says it creates a situation where ethnic Chinese are seen, right or wrongly, as a fifth column. China argues the Economist is often insensitive to this dynamic.

Opinion: In the first case the Ambassador intervened, intervened against government-affiliated groups harassing ethnic Chinese merchants. Was it his initiative? In the second case, with Ahok, the Chinese government didn’t say anything, even though anti-Chinese violence did occur, because the major thrust of the attack on Ahok was political and religious.


The article concludes by talking about China’s vaccine diplomacy, with China hoping it would endear itself with Southeast Asians. However, if the vaccines fail to work, it would backfire on China, and Southeast Asia’s ethnic Chinese would be tarred.

Opinion: Given most SEA countries will buy vaccines from China, instead of getting the vaccine for free, I don’t see how this is will be a diplomatic win or disaster. It is largely a business transaction.


The article looks at China’s influence in the region, without looking at it historically and comparatively. China’s influence in the region was limited, despite China’s size and proximity:

  1. The primary way in which China interacted with the region was through trade. However, assimilation and indigenization means over time they develop a separate identity,

  2. China’s official engagement was checkered and with the centuries-long period of disengagement. China influenced Southeast Asia largely by controlling the flow of people in and out of its ports.

  3. Chinese influence is one of many. Southeast Asia is heterogeneous, where multiple influences intermingle.

  4. Currently, China faces competition in the region and its economic and demographic impact isn’t nearly as strong as perceived.

Furthermore, China’s potential in the region is hampered bY mistrust toward China and each other, China’s past failure and traumas during the Cold War have made it adopt a conservative and cautious approach in many countries.


Outside small communities of Han Chinese in Northern Vietnam and upload areas of Myanmar and Thailand, the vast majority of Chinese arrived in Southeast Asia by sea starting from 200 BC, most of them came from Guangdong and Fujian.

It was also sparsely populated, In 1800 its population was estimated at 12-15 Million, in contrast, China’s population was 350 Million in 1800.

Before the Song Dynasty, Chinese merchants and travelers mostly used foreign ocean-going vessels to travel to Southeast Asia and beyond. The first Chinese settlements in the region start appearing around the 11-12th century.

Before the 19th century, national or racial identities were vague, being Chinese was determined by cultural practices like worshipping Chinese deities. Chinese sojourners would marry local women or buy their “wives” at the slave markets. Most would be integrated within the local community

However, some Chinese formed distinct assimilated communities with local women and formed what is called Peranakan in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia. Peranakan spoke a local language with some Chinese vocabulary thrown in (Hokkien) and wore both native and Chinese clothing In the 19th century the definition was extended to full bloodied Chinese who adopted native customs and language.


Starting from 1830-40s, the largest wave of Chinese immigration to Southeast Asia, began. Unlike before, most of the migrants were laborers and craftsmen and had the numbers to form their own communities where they speak could their own dialects

As for education, Southeast Asian Chinese went to Chinese Language. Native Language or European Language Schools. Before the 1890s, Chinese schools were all dialect schools; but from the 1890s onward was gradually replaced by Mandarin medium schools Outside of Malaysia and Singapore, Mandarin never became the dominant language spoken by Southeast Asian Chinese, due to subsequent bans or severe restrictions on Chinese medium education in Indonesia (1967-2000), Thailand (1950-90s) and Vietnam (1975-1990). In the Philippines and Myanmar, despite relative freedom, only about 10-15% were enrolled in Chinese medium schools.

Even in Malaysia and Singapore, ethnic Chinese have indigenized and developed their own identity distinct from Mainland China. In Singapore, English is the dominant language spoken by Singaporean Chinese households. In Malaysia, the vast majority of Chinese Malaysians attend Chinese medium primary schools (SJK-Cina), but most continue their secondary education in English/Malay.


Relations with Southeast Asian polity until Yuan Dynasty (Mongols) was generally voluntary rather than imposed (p132). Outside Vietnam, pre-colonial Asia’s official contacts between countries were limited to infrequent contacts every 1-3 years at its height, there would be long stretches lasting 100-200 years where there would be no official contact.

China’s official engagement in the region since 1949 is checkered, and only in 1991, she had diplomatic relations with all countries in Southeast Asia. No country in Southeast Asia has maintained full diplomatic relations with China from the 1950s to now.


Before the Song Dynasty, China had an open trade regime, meaning foreign traders could come and go into Chinese ports, and the state collected taxes from the trade.

In the Song and Ming Dynasties, both dynasties tied trade to tribute status, but eventually abandoned it as ability/interest in controlling trade weakened. Under the Song, until 1141 China restricted access to foreign ships of tributary nations, but afterward allowed ships from non-tributaries. Initially, the Ming tried to channel all trade to official tribute missions, but over time this trade was replaced by smuggling, the relaxation of Chinese ships traveling overseas, and local authorities just taxing non-tribute foreign ships instead of banning them.

Under the Yuan Dynasty, trade was controlled by Muslim merchants who formed partnerships with officials, but trade declined from 1290-1350s, as the Yuan tried to achieve political dominance and monopoly on trade through force (p83)

To many, the Qing are painted as reactionary toward trade, it instituted the Canton system in 1757, most likely to curb the influence of Christian missionaries. However, the Canton system arose out of a liberal trade regime. In 1684, Emperor Kangxi officially ended the tribute trade, and allowed merchants from both tribute and non-tribute to enter at least 50 coastal ports, and lifted the ban on Chinese merchants traveling overseas. By 1700, there were tens of thousands of Chinese merchants in ports throughout Southeast Asia. However, between 1717-27, the Qing government placed a ban on Chinese traveling to Luzon (Philippines) and Batavia (Jakarta), as well as stopping Chinese merchants returning from returning to China from these locations.

It was during the period of open trade with Southeast Asia, that migrants to the region developed a reputation as trouble makers and lawbreakers that persist to this day, despite their contribution to the imperial coffers (p443). Most likely because the main source provinces of Guangdong and Fujian also have sub-culture of criminality due to a history of smuggling due to periodic trade restrictions and the presence of secret societies.


In the early Ming and with the BRI, private Chinese companies/traders would often join official delegations In the 15th century, 50% of the envoys from Java had Chinese surnames. During a tribute mission, the bulk of the trade is collateral trade occurring outside the formal tribute, bought by the envoy and accompany by merchants. The same principle applies today with trade delegations. Chinese leaders go to countries promising billions of aid and investments. These delegations included potential Chinese private/SOE investors who are like the collateral trade during a Ming tribute mission. For example, the Indonesian government was complaining about China not keeping their promises, but realized they had to take initiative, and started aggressively contacting investors on these trade delegations, and Chinese FDI in Indonesia went from US$0.6 Billion in 2015 (p37) to US$ 8.3 Billion in 2020.

China’s first infrastructure projects in Africa were modeled on Japan’s agreements with China in the 1980s, which exchanged infrastructure for natural resources. However, the difference was Japanese projects were focused on East Asia and Southeast Asia where Japanese companies had a presence, whereas China’s construction projects aren’t tied to the presence of Chinese private / SOE investors. From 2011-2017, China loaned an average of US$13 Billion to Africa, but the Chinese FDI has hovered around $2-3 Billion a year for the last decade.

Even where Chinese infrastructure funding and private investment have a strong presence like Indonesia, there isn’t much synergy. For example, North Sulawesi, is a popular destination for Chinese tourist, and Chinese investors are planning to build hotel resorts, but the Indonesian government-financed airport upgrades in North Sulawesi airport themselves, With this in mind, Indonesia has slated North Sulawesi as one of four provinces for Chinese BRI project.

My personal opinion is people are caught up with the BRI, they should focus on Chinese infrastructure lending and private FDI. Not all Chinese infrastructure lending is BRI, and some private investments are classified as BRI. Many strategically significant private investments aren’t counted, and vice versa. People often confuse a loan pledged against natural resources for infrastructure as an investment in the build a plant with no guarantee of return.


Southeast Asia, especially Maritime Southeast Asia, is the most “colonized” region in Asia. Philippines, Malacca, and Spice Islands have been colonized by Europeans starting in the 1500s. Until the First Opium War in 1839, Southeast Asia was the main conduit for China’s contact with the West. Most Western ships would sail from ports in Southeast Asia, and Chinese merchants would travel to colonial ports in Southeast Asia. The earliest Dutch-Chinese and Spanish-Chinese dictionaries were published in Batavia and Luzon respectively in the mid-1600s.

Modern Southeast Asia economic foundations begin in the 19th century when its jungles were cleared for plantations and mines. This expansion was followed by rapid natural population growth and migration of millions of Chinese and Indians. The bulk of ethnic Chinese are descendants of people who migrated during this wave from 1850-1949. This period saw the birth of new towns, most notable, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Davao (Philippines), and Bandung (Indonesia).

While many were escaping the dire situation in China, they were also equally motivated by opportunities the opening of Southeast Asia created. One can see the wealth they brought back by the large European inspired fortress mansions they built in their home villages

r/geopolitics - Tea and tributaries In no region is China’s influence felt more strongly than in South-East Asia

The presence of ethnic Chinese is intertwined with colonialism. Here is a group photo of Chinese and Dutch women in the Dutch East Indies in the 1930s. The Chinese women are wearing either Javanese, Chinese and Western dress. The women both Dutch and Chinese would have communicated in a mix of Malay, Dutch, and Javanese. While racial classifications existed in the Dutch East Indies, the definition of European was applied to any whose European father recognized them as their legitimate children. Most “Europeans” were part native or Chinese.

r/geopolitics - Tea and tributaries In no region is China’s influence felt more strongly than in South-East Asia

While, Southeast Asia historically was part of the Indosphere, by the 19th century it starts the process of integrating with East Asia and marks the beginning of the decline in Indian influence. Today there are hundreds of thousands of Muslim Indonesian maids working in Hong Kong and Taiwan with Sanskrit-influenced names like Supriyanti, Darmawati, etc.


Southeast Asia has varied economic ties, which have become more diversified over time. The table below shows China’s share of Southeast Asia’s exports, FDI, Infrastructure funding, and Tourism. It is much lower than United States dominance in North America or Germany’s importance in Europe.

Category China’s Position and Share (includes HK) Competitor Position and Share
% of Asean Exports To Region (2019) 1 1 20.7% 2. EU 18% 3. USA 12.9%
% of FDI 2018 2 4 14% (p22) 1 EU 20-25%, 2. Inter-Asean 16%, 3. Japan 15%
External Infrastructure Lender 2019 3 2 $255 Billion 1 Japan $350 Billion
% of Tourist 2019 1. 22% 2. Singapore 9%

1 For trade we use ASEAN exports to China because it is a better indicator of dependency. It varies between countries, but every ASEAN country runs a trade deficit with China. Australia and New Zealand exports to China make up 35% and 24% of their total exports and South America roughly sends about 25% of its total exports to China

2 Since 2015 China’s share of FDI is 14-16%. EU is ASEAN’s largest investor, with second place alternating between China, US, Japan, and Inter-ASEAN. The total capital stock of US investment in Southeast Asia is more than the combined value of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean investments. This is just direct investment, this doesn’t include the massive amounts of Western and Japanese portfolio investments.

3 Only single source donors, does not include World Bank or ADB. Before Covid-19, lending from China’s two biggest policy bank has dropped by 80% for 2018 and 2019,

Companies from different nationalities invest in different sectors. European investments are mostly in banking and services, the Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese are predominately in manufacturing, ranging from 70-80% of the investment. The Chinese companies are more diversified than other East Asian countries with about 20-25% in manufacturing, and the rest divided among utilities, infrastructure, telecommunication, services, and mining

The Japanese started moving export-focused manufacturing from China to ASEAN seven years ago, and the South Koreans in 2017. Chinese and Taiwanese have only begun in 2019 with the trade war. US exports have shifted from China to ASEAN, In 2010, ASEAN exports to the US were only 1/4 that of China’s, now it’s 50%. Since 2014, outside the 2020 Covid spike, Chinese worldwide exports have stagnated.


The number of new Chinese migrants in Southeast Asia is estimated to be around 2 Million (20 out of Southeast Asia’s total population of 673 Million, It s most likely more, but even if you take the outlandish estimates for each country the combined total would be less than 4 Million. It might seem like a lot, but as a % of the population, it is small compared to recent Chinese migrants in Australia or Canada. The bulk of them come from Yunnan as they cross overland from the porous borders between China and Mainland Southeast Asia (ie Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia)

The number of legal Chinese immigrating to Southeast Asia is low. The only country where there is a substantial number of legal permanent Chinese migrants is Singapore, with 450,000, where 70,000 are from Hong Kong and Macau. This number includes naturalized Singaporean citizens, Permanent Residents, and Temporary Workers Compared to the West, Singapore isn’t a welcoming place for Mainland migrants, it is often seen as a stepping stone for most Mainland migrants to the West. In most other Southeast Asian countries it is difficult to get permanent residency, let alone citizenship.

The Chinese government often considers these new migrants, like previous generations of Chinese sojourners, to be troublemakers. First, many are working in their respective countries illegally. Secondly, Chinese gangs run online casinos and other questionable activities like phone scams targeting people in China. While these activities are disliked by residents and the Chinese government, it Is a lucrative source of income for many regional governments.


According to David Shambaugh, China’s relations with Southeast Asia starts in 221 BC, when the Qin Empire invade Yue kingdoms in what is now Southern China and Northern Vietnam. This started a 400 year period of conquest and rebellion. By 200 AD Southern China was largely pacified. During this period, Northern Vietnam was occupied from 111BC – 905 AD. Yunnan was incorporated into China in 1382 after the Ming defeated the Dali Kingdom. From 221 BC to the 1700s Southern China experienced waves of Han migration. The migrants assimilated with the local population, and displaced them, pushing some to what is now Southeast Asia.


While there were subsequent invasions, like the invasion of Burma in 1765-69, Chinese expansion and settlement stopped by the Ming Dynasty, and the current dividing line between China and Mainland Southeast Asia took hold. However, the border areas of Southwest China and Mainland Southeast Asia are one cultural and economic region.

The fear of losing the jungle barrier and economic feasibility has stymied efforts to build rail links connecting Southern China to Southeast Asia. The Nanning-Hanoi line is the only rail link connecting Southeast Asia to the outside. The Laotian section of the China–Laos railway is only expected to be completed at the end of 2021.

Here is a list of Chinese invasions and interventions after the first occupation of Vietnam (111BC-905 AD) Dynasty (includes those of Mongol and Manchu dynasties).

  1. Mongol Invasions of Vietnam 1258, 1282–1284, 1285, and 1287–88

  2. Mongol Invasion of Burma 1277-1287

  3. Mongol Invasion of Java 1292

  4. Fourth Era of Northern Domination (Vietnam) 1407-1427

  5. Ming Military Pacification of South Sumatra 1408 (p11)

  6. Sino-Burmese War 1765-69

  7. Qing Invasion of Vietnam 1788–89

  8. Sino-French War 1884

  9. Sino Vietnam War 1979


Countries in Mainland Southeast Asia have a history of war and conflict. The Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia ended 32 years ago, and the Thai-Cambodian Temple dispute occurred just 8 years ago.

Secondly, the smallest countries, Cambodia and Laos are dominated by their larger and richer neighbors, Vietnam and particularly Thailand. Thailand makes up 58% of Laos imports and 42% of Laos exports, While Cambodia has a more diversified trade regime. 22% of the Cambodian labor force works in Thailand. As a result, Laos and Cambodia turn to China to balance against their larger neighbors. However, the dominating presence of Chinese interest in Cambodia and Laos concerns both the Thais and Vietnamese.


While the article doesn’t mention it, in the 1950-80s, China supported insurgents and Communist parties throughout the region. And in the case of Myanmar still does. With regards to the countries that didn’t recognize her until the 1970s like Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, and the Philippines, the official stance is don’t acknowledge it ever happened. With Cambodia, the Chinese have convinced the Cambodians not to mention China’s support of the Khmer Rouge.

While for countries like Indonesia and Myanmar, it’s more problematic, since documents that call for a suspension or downgrading of ties indicate China’s interference. When ties were normalized between China and Indonesia, both parties agreed to disagree on Chinese interference Until recently, academics thought the Chinese had no prior knowledge of the Indonesian Communist Party’s (PKI) murder of six generals, but a Chinese researcher found proof in the archives in Beijing that Mao had discussed the plot with the PKI leadership before the coup while researching another topic. However, the extent remains a mystery.


In the 1950s, China considered Southeast Asian Chinese a problem that harmed their relations with regional countries. For the early PRC leaders like Zhou Enlai, overseas Chinese meant Southeast Asian Chinese, since they made up 90% of overseas Chinese in the 1950s.

Southeast Asia Chinese were mostly merchants who considered themselves superior to the native population and did not assimilate. They were village money lenders and controlled the rice mills. Until 1900, most colonial and native governments outsourced to them, tax and the state-regulated opium trade. It is not the type of people, Mao’s China wanted to associate themselves with.

NOTE: Opium taxes contributed anywhere from 10-50% of tax revenue in 19th century Southeast Asia, whether it was Burma, Siam, Philippines, Dutch East Indies, Singapore, or French Indochina. It was also important for the beginnings of Chinese capitalism in Southeast Asia,

However, in non-Communist countries where she had diplomatic relations like Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Laos but had active KMT support among the Chinese community, she backed pro-CCP elements. From the modern Chinese perspective, the ethnic Chinese are seen as victims, but to the Indonesian and Burmese, who already had a multitude of problems, the Chinese were just another problem.

Chinese diplomats manned barricades in West Java, Indonesia in 1959 to stop the expulsion of Chinese families from their rural landholdings. China took in 100,000 Chinese Indonesian evacuees from this expulsion, hoping to get young people with technical skills, but instead got middle-aged traders and their families, many of whom could barely speak any Chinese dialect. Even though it was resolved in1960, it worsened relations with elements in the Indonesian government. Then there was the breakdown in relations between China and Vietnam between 1975-79 exacerbated by China’s attitude toward Vietnam’s persecution of Vietnamese Chinese (Hoa), while at the same time condoning her allies, the Khmer Rouge’s genocide of their ethnic Chinese population.

By the 1980s, China realized her past involvement with ethnic Chinese issues yielded little results back home and abroad. Now China is more concerned about protecting citizens and her economic interest in Southeast Asia, which is challenging enough, In Vietnam in 2014, there were anti-Chinese riots due to the South China dispute, 21 Mainland Chinese were killed, Recently, in Myanmar, Chinese factories have been ransacked and destroyed in response to China’s suspected involvement in the coup.


The basis of any understanding of China’s relations with Southeast Asia and the West should always be trade and economics first, and from there you build a foundation for your strategic and political engagement with China. That is why political geography and critical geopolitics are better at portraying this reality than an IR-centric approach, because it doesn’t assume the dominance of the state, or that the state is cohesive. The Chinese state actors had to deal with non-state actors (ex. overseas Chinese) as well as multiple local state actors, the situation can get messy like in Myanmar

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