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Can ASEAN Stand Up To China?

October 31, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

For nearly three decades the Chinese navy was unmatched wherever it went. No other great empire at the time could rival its economic might nor did any maritime kingdom dare to ignore its emissaries. This achievement, spanning the years 1405 until 1433, is remembered today as a rare period when Chinese prestige was such that it almost controlled the world’s busiest trade routes. Almost.

None of this would have been possible if the Yongle Emperor, a princely general who brought the Ming Dynasty to the height of its power, hadn’t entrusted a favored eunuch and secretary named Zeng He with carrying out an unprecedented mission. Over years and decades across entire oceans he led armed expeditions to faraway lands, demanding fealty to Beijing wherever he went.

The scale of this operation wasn’t just extraordinary. (The financial cost did irk the Ming Emperor’s accountants.) The achievements of Zheng He and his commanders were significant too even when their conduct was far from peaceful. Although these voyages involved hundreds of treasure ships for hauling cargo and merchandise they were accompanied by warships and colonists ready to settle abroad. Judging by the historical record, Zheng He’s fleet fought in at least two locations in the course of seven voyages. These are a short war in Ceylon against a local ruler and an early punitive action against a petty sultanate in northern Sumatra. But caution and subservience to the Chinese fleet had its rewards. The influence of Zheng He allowed the small kingdom of Malacca to flourish and become a center for international trade until it was despoiled in 1511.

The records of Zheng He’s seven voyages show how an imperial China, embodied by the Ming Dynasty that ruled from 1368 until 1644, compelled so many lesser states and kingdoms to accept its hegemony. But this doesn’t explain how some states did manage to resist the Ming’s attempts at forceful expansion. Two years after the first expedition the Ming tried to annex Dai Viet, or the present northern half of Vietnam, with disappointing results. Following a brief occupation a revolt managed to throw out the Chinese and restore independence under the long-lived Le Dynasty. The Le’s triumphant rise joined a rich national heritage of thwarting foreign aggression that always involved China’s rulers be they the Chin Dynasty or the rapacious Mongols. The failure of the Ming to annex neighboring territory given its earlier conquests of Mongol lands could have made Zeng He’s maritime operations seem a better strategy at the time.

The Zheng He voyages and their aftermath are just one entry in a masterful saga woven by Philip Bowring for his new book Empire of the Winds. A veteran regional journalist and former editor with a passion for deep history, Bowring’s magnum opus is a rare serving of non-fiction; it dredges up a new world from the depths of myriad primary sources. What emerges is Nusantaria–the great archipelago between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. What is Nusantaria?

For Bowring it’s the most consequential expanse of islands and waterways that connected the world’s seaborne trade routes for millennia. Its inhabitants are the Nusantarians, a mysterious people who flourished at the end of the last ice age and learned to master the high seas. If not for the Nusantarians then some of history’s most valuable commodities would never have reached other continents. In Bowring’s historical lens the Nusantarians weathered China’s imperial encroachment but were unprepared for the Europeans who arrived in the 16th century as soldiers of fortune and colonizers. He remains hopeful that today’s ASEAN bloc with its enormous population and surging economies is better prepared to resist Communist China’s hegemonic ambitions.

The Ming Dynasty saw few returns in its bold maritime adventures, Bowring recalls, because the cost of preparing such large fleets strained the imperial budget. In three short decades foreign policy changed under the Hongxi Emperor to meet threats from Central Asia. Bowring is convinced Beijing will face the same conundrum soon. Faced with tangled disputes over its nearby waters China could turn to its land borders instead, which is underway as part of the BRI.

Empire of the Winds is now available everywhere.

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