Is China, under President Xi Jinping, Southeast Asia’s new hegemon?
Pundits like to compare President Xi to an emperor. Such talk has increased after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he was widely praised.
Many people regard Xi as one of China’s most powerful leaders – equalling or surpassing his recent predecessors, Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong.
Also, with Donald Trump’s America in full retreat, the prospect of a Pax Sinica – a China-led world order – looms as an increasing possibility.
Inevitably many, especially those in Southeast Asia, have been scrambling for parallels in China’s history, looking to the past for clues to a Xi-led future.
Sombre, dignified and impressive, Xi has inspired countless personality profiles.
Certainly, his rise to prominence, cold-blooded elimination of rivals and the imposition of his personality upon the country more than matches the ambition and ruthlessness of some of China’s most distinguished historical leaders.
Given that China was once – arguably still is – an empire, the tendency has been to compare him to previous emperors.
Indeed, many see a restored, reinvigorated Chinese Empire (with a red tint) under Xi as a crucial component of the geopolitical shift to the Asia-Pacific.
There are certainly many candidates for historical precedents for Xi. His consolidation of power, expansion of China’s influence and strong emphasis on national identity have led some to compare him to the Qing dynasty’s greatest emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong.
Yongzheng, in particularly, was known for his crackdown on corruption and financial reforms – things that Xi is also pursuing.
Others believe that he resembles the Ming dynasty’s Yongle emperor, who re-established Beijing as the imperial capital, undertook extensive construction projects and more importantly launched the Zheng He voyages to Southeast Asia and beyond.
Looking further back, one can point to extensive contacts between the Middle Kingdom and the region to the Song and even the Tang dynasties, especially the latter which saw I Ching make his famous journeys to Srivijaya.
The possible parallels are endless, and they often tell us more about the agenda and anxieties of the person who is making the comparison rather than what the China of the 21st Century and Xi might really do.
For Southeast Asia however, the important question is whether these leaders and their dynasties were net positives for our region?
Did we benefit from stronger trade and economic ties?
Did the region’s relations with China which, let’s not forget, was essentially a tributary system with the empire always on top and other nations serving as “barbarian” supplicants, work to our benefit?
It’s important to note that China’s relations with the region were never 100 per cent benign nor disinterested, whatever the era.
The Zheng He voyages, for instance, also included the sacking of the Srivijaya capital of Palembang in 1407, ostensibly to quell the activities of Chinese pirates in the region.
Both the Ming and Qing dynasties launched repeated incursions into Vietnam (1407-1427 as well as 1788 and 1789, respectively) and Burma (four incursions each between 1382–1449 and 1765-1769).
The level of attention Southeast Asia has got from China has also varied through the centuries.
The Qing emperors’ focus was often mostly, if not exclusively on their Central Asia ancestral hinterland.
Most of China’s dynasties tended to move inward, especially towards the end of their eras.
Certainly, whatever influence China had in Southeast Asia was arguably lost to the march of Western colonialism, in tandem with its own decline and decadence.
It is also highly significant that China's 1911 revolution, which overthrew the Qing dynasty and the Chinese monarchy, was decisively backed by overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia, many of whom arrived after the Qing’s humiliation via the Opium Wars (1839-1842 and 1856-1860) and Taiping Rebellion (1850-1871).
The point is this: Southeast Asia does not want hegemons.
We prefer a China that’s strong but a little distracted by its own internal affairs.
That way, we in the region can play the Great Powers against one another. We want them to vie for our support and attention, not the other way around.
No one is denying the need to engage China economically, politically and culturally.
But an all-powerful Xi and an emboldened China is not in Southeast Asia’s interest.
Xi’s admirers who are keen to hail him as the “new Yongzheng” should also bear in mind that the Qing Emperor’s reign marked a turning point in Chinese history, as the Middle Kingdom faltered under the misguided policies that began in his era.
So while China seems on the upswing now, another stumble could well be in the offing – especially if the looming debt crisis and growing domestic income inequalities are not resolved.
Looking at history, maybe that’s not such a bad thing for Southeast Asia after all.