Book Review: a Short History of China and South-East Asia: Tribute, Trade and Influence
by Martin Stuart-Fox
Professor Stuart-Fox is an expert in South-East Asian history and politics and Professor of History at the University of Queensland.
In this book he has set out to trace the relations of various South-East Asian countries with China over a long period, so that their position today vis-à-vis each other may be more readily understood. He explains how the various South-East Asian countries have had to learn over the centuries how to accommodate China, so as to retain substantial independence whilst not offending their powerful neighbour.
The author notes that the corollary to China's historical expansionism is that China has been remarkably reluctant to surrender any territory gained. Successive Chinese dynasties tried to reconquer Vietnam, the only formerly directly administered territory in South-East Asia "lost" to the Chinese Empire. Chinese of all political persuasions are quite unsympathetic to Tibetan aspirations for independence, whilst the more recent "loss" of (Outer) Mongolia and the Russian Far East still rankles. These two areas are probably now irretrievable, but two others may not be: Taiwan and the islands of the South China Sea.
The author concludes that with the prospect of increasing Chinese power and influence, continental South-East Asian states will never be prepared to be part of a balance-of-power coalition against China; and maritime states will be reluctant to join for fear of dividing A.S.E.A.N. The South-East Asian states will together prefer accommodation with China and in doing so will draw upon their past experiences. However, they will be happy to encourage a United States presence in the region, as a counter-balance to the threat from the north.
Professor Stuart-Fox's book is thought-provoking and valuable. Australia has a strategic interest in maintaining independent South-East Asian states as protection against possible future expansionism from China and, perhaps, from India at a more remote future time. This expansionism may present itself as a direct military threat, or it may reside in pressure to accept Chinese or Indian immigrants in large numbers, for example. Although threats of this kind are unlikely to arise for some very substantial time, history has demonstrated that survival and defence strategies should begin to be implemented as early as possible before apprehended threats eventuate.
National Observer No. 56 - Autumn 2003