Recent photographs of land reclamation by China on reefs in the Spratly Islands – to which the mainland, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have overlapping claims – have added fuel to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea. With four of its 10 members involved and the real possibility of a Chinese naval presence right at its doorstep, the Association of Southeast Asian nations is rightly concerned.
China-Southeast Asia relations haven’t always been adversarial, though. Historically, apart from the millennia-long love-hate relationship between China and Vietnam (ironically the only Sinicised Southeast Asian nation), China has played nice with the rest of the region – most of the time.
It was recorded in Chinese annals that a diplomatic mission visited China in AD131 from a kingdom called Yediao, which historians have identified as Yavadvipa, or Java, in present-day Indonesia. The Yongle Emperor, of the Ming dynasty, established trading ports in 1403 in the coastal provinces of Zhejiang, Fujian and Guangdong to facilitate trade with Southeast Asia. In addition to their emissaries and traders, the rulers of places such as Siam (present-day Thailand), Borneo and Sulu also made state visits to China. In 1411, Parameswara, founder of the Malacca Sultanate, together with his wife, his son and a contingent of 540 people sailed to China, where he was recognised by the Yongle Emperor as the rightful ruler of Malacca.