China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie was at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of Asian and US defense ministers and military brass in Singapore last weekend, proclaiming that his country’s “peaceful rise” was still intact despite some very evident clashes with Vietnam and Philippines only a few days before.
Indeed, his Vietnamese and Philippine counterparts were on hand to put the claim in a different light. Elsewhere, hundreds of protesters descended on the Chinese Embassy in Vietnam Sunday to protest an incident in which a Chinese vessel allegedly deliberately cut a submerged cable of a Vietnamese oil survey ship conducting seismic tests. The Philippines has also accused China of putting up military posts on reefs claimed by Manila.
Regional belief in “peaceful rise” has been much eroded over the past year by a combination of incidents including with India and Japan as well as over the South China Sea, and by China’s evident success in moving towards possessing weapons systems, some of which in principle can match those of the US and Russia. Some of those must be viewed as strategic assets of limited relevance to more localized potential conflicts. But one new asset which is both a global statement and new potential threat to immediate neighbors is about to enter the arena to attempt again to rewrite a history that does not always square with the facts..
That is China’s first aircraft carrier, a 67,000 ton monster which began life as a partly-finished Soviet vessel that was sold to China by Ukraine in 1998. Reports suggest it will enter service this year based out of a southern Chinese port with a complement of about 50 aircraft -- and pilots who have been practicing carrier landing and takeoffs on improvised platform and de-commissioned carriers.
But it is not just the capability of the ship that sends shudders through neighbors already concerned about the US government’s ability and will to maintain its Pacific fleet to a level that ensures that in conjunction with its allies it maintains overall supremacy in the region. Even the name carries a threat.
All reports to date say that the aircraft carrier is to be named “Shi Lang.” This is the name of the general, working for the recently established Qing dynasty, who conquered Taiwan in 1683, defeating the Ming general Zheng Chenggong. Zheng had fled to the island to escape the Qing, which in turn had pushed out the Dutch in 1662 and established a small state around what is now Tainan.
Shi Lang thus for the first time in history made Taiwan part of the Chinese empire. That Shi Lang was fighting on behalf of China’s Manchu occupiers, who had destroyed the Ming empire a few years earlier, is quietly forgotten.
The use of Shi’s name is most obviously intended to send a message to Taiwan about its eventual fate – being re-incorporated into the Peoples’ Republic – and to impress on China’s domestic audience the importance that its none-too-self-confident leaders attach to regaining Taiwan.
However, it also sends a message to Southeast Asia about the expansion that the Chinese empire has undergone since the Manchu conquest – the incorporation of Manchu lands and much of Mongolia, into the Chinese empire, the acquisition of Taiwan and, since 1949, massive Han settlement of lands historically occupied by non-Hans – Uyghurs, Mongols, Tibetans, etc. The case of Shi Lang’s conquest of Taiwan is particularly significant for the 350 million people of the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
At the time of Shi Lang’s conquest, Han Chinese were a small minority of the region’s population, then consisting of various Austronesian-language, Malayo-Polynesian ethnic groups closely related to those in Northern Luzon and more distantly to those in what are now Malaysia and Indonesia. That the Austronesians who spread south from Taiwan probably originated on the Asian mainland does not make them Chinese. Indeed there are none among China’s many minorities today, the nearest being the remnants of the Cham who ruled central Vietnam until the 15th century.
Hitherto Chinese empires had shown no interest in acquiring Taiwan and had actually sought to prevent any outflow of people from Fujian to it or to Southeast Asia. Significant Han immigration only started with the Dutch who encouraged traders and settlers to grow rice and sugar cane.
That process gathered pace after Shi Lang’s conquest so that over time the native inhabitants divided into tribes and technologically less advanced, were on retreat, being forced into the hills or into intermarriage with the newcomers. It was a gradual process but Hans did not become a majority until some time in the 19th century. Now the aboriginal people still able to speak their Austronesian dialects are about 2 percent of Taiwan’s 23 million population.
Nothing can undo that now any more than Native Americans can turn the clock back 200 years. However Shi Lang will now be a constant reminder to the Malay (in the broadest sense) peoples of their Taiwan defeat at the hands of an expansionist China, adding to their fears about China’s ambition to control the whole South China Sea and its islands, right up to their own territorial seas and ignoring the continental shelves which usually help define exclusive economic zones. In the case of the latest Chinese attack on a Vietnamese exploration vessel, it occurred just 120 nautical miles off the south-central coast of Vietnam.
The PRC also accompanies its claims with accounts of a history worthy of Stalin’s encyclopedia, China’s airbrushing of disgraced politburo members or its yo-yo treatment of Confucius. Recent history makes it very plain that Taiwan has not been part of the Chinese political entity “since time immemorial” but was almost the last addition to the empire.
As for claims to the South China Sea and its islands based on visits by fishermen, they ignore the fact that commerce in that sea, and into and across the Indian Ocean was run by Malay vessels and crews hundreds of years before Chinese mariners and merchants ventured far from their coast. Chinese Buddhist pilgrims to Sri Lanka went on Malay boats via Java or Sumatra. Nearly two thousand years ago Roman merchants brought spice island products from southern India whence they had been brought by Malay and Indian sailors. At much the same time, Malays with 20-meter ships with outriggers were crossing the southern part of the Indian Ocean, settling the huge island of Madagascar and leaving marks in Africa. Even today, after migration from Africa, Arabia and India, Madagascar’s human gene pool is 50 percent Austronesian and its language 80 percent.
The modern states that are the successors of those seafaring, migrant and trading Malays lack – unlike the Chinese -- the written records to show their history. Nor is there much local elite awareness in those nations of their histories prior to the arrival of Islam and, very soon afterwards, of European traders and imperialists. But advances in archaeology, in genetics and other sciences which can make up for gaps in written history, are beginning to make the broad Malay world better aware of its past and of its right both to contest Chinese claims and resist further Han expansion into Southeast Asia.
The carrier Shi Lang will surely add to that awareness. Meanwhile one tide has turned in favor of the Malays/Austronesians which may ultimately count for more than weaponry – demography. The Han Chinese population, so long the main driver of expansion of the Chinese state, is peaking out. The Malays’ and Austronesians’ numbers are still growing.
*Some paragraphs were inadvertently repeated when this article was originally uploaded. We apologize for the error -- Eds.