Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Adorno
Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen. Photo: Reuters/Jorge Adorno

An event exactly 600 years ago last week prompts me to put China’s and Taiwan’s transformative roles in East Asia and the Pacific in an historical context.

On November 19, 1416, an auspicious day in the Chinese calendar, the Emperor of China presided over a the presentation of gifts – “robes with linings of patterned silk” – to eighteen ambassadors and emissaries from Southeast Asian tributary states.

Last on the protocol list, was a peculiar envoy dispatched by the “Pacification Commissioner” (Xuanweishi宣慰使) of Palembang, a southern Sumatran port city known in the Ming court as “Old Harbor” (Jiugang 舊港). He was a Palembang Chinese, representing his city’s population, mostly descendants of southern Chinese refugees from the Mongol hordes. The reason the commissioner from Palembang was low man on the protocol roster was because he did not represent a foreign king but rather the “Tou Mu” (leader) of “several thousand families of soldiers and people from Fujian and Guangdong who had sailed across the sea.” Palembang was a Chinese city-state whose pacification commissioner had been elected by Chinese expatriate citizens and which owed its allegiance to, and received its legitimacy from, the Ming Emperor.

The previous ruler of “Old Harbor,” a Muslim prince, had broken with his suzerain, the King of Java and, defeated in battle, fled first to Temasek (now Singapore) and finally to a settlement he anointed as “Malacca.” For a decade, a power vacuum in Palembang was filled by an outlaw fleet of Chinese pirates before its defeat by the legendary Chinese Admiral Zheng He. From 1405 to 1433, Admiral Zheng He, whose “Treasure Fleets” were the biggest that East Asia had ever seen, whose legendary ships were the most massive ever built, and whose fleet marine infantry numbered in the tens of thousands, installed in “Old Harbor” the authority of a “pacification commissioner” whom the local Chinese merchant community had selected from among their own. Admiral Zheng presented the new commissioner with the silk hat, brocade robes with insignia and silver seal, all pre-authorized by the Emperor.

This was the first record of a significant coherent self-governing community of Chinese merchants and traders in Southeast Asia. But overseas Chinese colonies had existed in the region for centuries. A Chinese legate to Angkor in 1295 remarked that several Chinese “men of the sea” had settled in the Cambodian city; the Mongol wars across China Proper had spurred seaborne out-migrations from Southern China pursued by Mongol fleets attempting to conquer kingdoms in the southern seas. For centuries thereafter, Chinese overseas commerce flourished. Chinese silks, porcelains, metal tools and jewelry were prized in Arabia and India, as were spices and exotic lumber from the Indies in China.

For the next half millennium, even into the 19th Century, Austronesian kingdoms across mainland and archipelagic Southeast Asia professed at least nominal loyalty to successive emperors residing in China, some Chinese, some not, in return for their share of lucrative maritime commerce. By the fifteenth century Chinese felt secure in their overseas enclaves and themselves began migrating in great numbers bringing sophisticated marketing, craftsmanship, and commercial skills. Alas, by the mid-1400s, China’s navy no longer ruled the waves. The logistics of China’s “treasure fleets” had exhausted the treasury which had to finance land armies to fight in North and Central Asia – and to rebuild the disintegrating “great wall.” Overseas Chinese were no longer under the protection of the Ming Emperor.

By the sixteenth century, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch companies, their fighting ships and cannon, had occupied most of the commercial harbors in the Indies. But in absolute numbers, Europeans were few so they, too, relied on the Chinese communities of their colonies as the engines of prosperity.

The Ming emperor, still, was fixated on the threats from Central Asia and barely noticed the European nuisances from the southern seas until the mid-nineteenth century, by which time it was too late. When the Europeans abandoned Southeast Asia after the last century’s second world war, the overseas Chinese remained, without allegiance to the Europeans, without empathy with indigenous Austronesians, and, until the twenty-first century, without a regime in China to pine for.

Thus it came about that the most dynamic demographic force in the Twenty-first Century’s Asia-Pacific region is now the overseas Chinese diaspora, what the late Australian Sinologist C.P. FitzGerald called “The Third China”. For the better part of the past seventy years, Chinese communities in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand – indeed, most Chinese communities throughout the world – had been split almost evenly between factions loyal to Chiang Kai-shek’s exiled Nationalists in Taipei and Mao Zedong’s Communists in Beijing. Of course, for the preceding half-millennium, who ruled China hardly mattered beyond Chinese shores because China had no navy and less diplomatic prestige, and the regimes in Peking or Nanking were unable to protect their co-ethnic expatriates whose forebearers in ancient times had fled China’s poverty and chaos for greener pastures abroad.

Paradoxically, the paralyzing Nationalist-Communist schism within the Chinese diaspora neutralized the foreign loyalties overseas Chinese communities and somewhat dampened suspicions among native Austronesians in the region who by tradition have envied, feared and mistrusted Chinese wealth and business acumen.

Taipei’s new “Southbound Policy” is an attempt to rebalance these underappreciated geographic and demographic dimensions of Taiwan’s Asian alignments. Far from being a minor actor of little relevance to the grand directions of Asia’s future, Taiwan’s fate will be a harbinger of Asia’s fate – or may determine it outright. Indeed, Asia’s demography is now feeling an epochal impact from Taiwan’s disappearance as an international actor in the region.

Demography is a grossly neglected element of Taiwan’s once-considerable “soft power” in the Asia Pacific region. From Taiwan’s voluntary withdrawal from Asia’s strategic equation over the past twenty years has evolved an unsettling socio-political metamorphosis in the region as the once independent “Third” China realigned with Beijing.

Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen’s Southbound Policy has the potential to maneuver “Third China” back into a more autonomous posture by restructuring the mindset of younger generations of ethnic overseas Chinese, including those of Taiwan, to view their communities as part of democratic Asia rather than long-lost outposts of a Chinese fatherland.

John Tkacik is the Director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center in Alexandria, Virginia. He is a retired U.S. foreign service officer, businessman and policy commentator with over 40 years' experience in China, Taiwan and Mongolian affairs and was Chief of China Analysis in the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He was a vice president of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Hong Kong and was a consultant to RJR-Nabisco China from 1996 to...