International Conference: China and Southeast Asia in the 21st Century, Beijing, 26 August 1994
Almost 500 years ago, Vasco da Gama and his fleet of three battered caravels rounded the Cape of Good Hope and landed in East Africa on their way to Asia. Da Gama's voyage was momentous and immensely consequential to Asia until our days, yet the African natives that greeted the arrival of the Portuguese were visibly unimpressed with their battered small ships and even scoffed at their presents. We cannot blame the Africans for their indifference, for their village elders told tales of white "ghosts" who wore silk and had visited their shores long ago in large ships. These large ships were bao chuan, the Chinese treasure ships under the command of Admiral Cheng Ho. The biggest was five times the size of the ship with which Columbus crossed the Atlantic. The nine-masted giant junk was accompanied by nearly a hundred supply ships, water tankers, transport for cavalry houses, warships, and multi-oared patrol boats with crew numbering up to 28,000 sailors and soldiers. It was a unique armada in the history of China, and the world, not to be surpassed until the invasion fleets of the First World War sailed the seas.
Cheng Ho and Vasco da Gama missed each other in Africa by eighty years. One is the symbol of wealth and splendour of a civilization at its zenith, while the other a representative of an emerging ferocious global power that sought to subdue and dominate others. One wonders what would have happened had they met each other, and whether Asian history would have been the same.
It is never our intention to return to history to glorify the achievements of our past or to exaggerate our sufferings. But history is necessary to provide us with the perspective as we reflect on the prospects and the direction of the future global order. The arrival of the Portuguese signalled the beginning of the globalization of western interests. It also means, at the same time, the marginalization of Asia from global developments. But that process, after five long centuries, is coming to a close. Indeed we are today at the threshold of a new beginning.
This sense of a new beginning in global history has become so pervasive in our region that it makes the triumphalist proclamation that history has come to an end laughable. We are witnessing the changing balance in economic strength that will rectify past inequities. By the end of the first decade of the next century East Asia alone will contribute slightly more than one- third of total global output. At the same time there is the awakening giant in South Asia, which no one can afford to ignore but to their own disadvantage. The ramifications of this economic phenomenon to the non- economic sphere will be profound and far-reaching. Inasmuch as cultural flowerings and the growth of political institutions and practices are contingent upon material prosperity, we believe Asia is going through a new phase of transformation. However, we can be equally certain that transformation will not merely imitate the path trodden by any other societies. Our values and traditions will help shape the direction of our development, but our social and political practices will not be insulated from change.
However we must not be naive into believing that our role would become significant globally unless we have the confidence and boldness to act. If we are unhappy with the imbalances and stark inequities in the global order that we inherit from the past we must collaboratively establish our own agenda to promote our legitimate collective interests.
After ideological disputes have cooled down or even swept aside, the conduct of international trade becomes the burning issue of our time. Even security issues are now subordinate or an instrument of economic and trade interests. Equally so, with regard to the criteria of political correctness including human and workers rights, with all their oscillations and contradictions over time and places, between pronouncements and practice, and their projection at this particular point of time, it is difficult to refute that they are also trade instruments in another guise.
China and Southeast Asia have a long history of political and economic relations. During the Ming period in the 15th century China and Southeast Asia have mutually beneficial diplomatic and economic relations. In the ashes of the Second World War and when the Cold War began its full swing, China was a major force in the Southeast Asian initiative in Bandung to forge the non-aligned movement. We are indeed heartened that China has lent its support to the Malaysian initiated and now an Asean's undertaking to establish the East Asia Economic Caucus (EAEC). We are now in fact ready to go a step further in realizing that initiative, to formalize that caucus as a vehicle to deliberate on our regional interests and as a countervailing force against protectionism in other regions. Again, we are encouraged that China is with us to transform EAEC into a reality.
We are impelled to act regionally because it is the way things will happen in the next few decades. We must not deny ourselves of this pragmatism, lest we again become subject to new forms of divide and rule, which eventually weakens everyone's position. Regionalism will become dangerous if it is used to fortify oneself against competition by excluding others on the basis of one's own definition of political correctness, and to deny others the right to form their own groupings. The ideal situation is of course to put the whole world under one grouping, which will not happen in the foreseeable future. In the meantime we must move to protect our interests, as long as we do not infringe on the interests of others.
What we can reasonably envisage in the coming years is the growth of a global system with multiple centres and Asia being one of them. Despite stunning economic progress in East Asian, we have no illusion to turn it into the only centre of global activities. It is for this reason one must caution oneself against chest-beating jingoism that will only close up our minds from the manifold facets and complex realities of our time.
It has become somewhat a fashion among some to scorn at the West. Such attitude is easily understandable and the criticism are often not without foundation considering the suffering of non-western societies under imperialism. But we need to be honest to ourselves and to do justice to the West where it is due. By virtue of its cumulative wealth and multi- dimensional strength, the prominence of the Atlantic societies will remain in the foreseeable future. Even the prosperity of some countries in our region would not have been possible without western capital, markets and technology. True, this situation of dependency is unhealthy and must be reduced, yet its positive effects must not be dismissed. More importantly Western civilization, like the Chinese, Indian and Islamic, is one of the crowning achievements of humanity. Only morbid parochialism can turn a blind eye to that powerful reality. If and when the West is able to purge itself of its residual arrogance and cease to pronounce itself as the defining civilization, we should be less ambivalent towards its rich contribution to human society. Lest one forget, the West rediscovered and reinvigorated its classical roots during its encounter with Islam. It would not be merely fortuitous that a renaissance of Asia will be aided by a more profound understanding of the western legacy.
If we are to fully realize the potential offered by this new beginning, we have to be vigorous to pursue our common interests through concrete instruments. In the mid-1960s, five statesmen decided to found a new order in the tumultuous region of Southeast Asia. The countries they led were either strangers to each other, or disliked each other, or were suspicious of each other, or had very little to do with each other -- or all of the above. They had th haziest of notions. They were driven by a great sense of frustration and disenchantment with the present and the past. They saw the need for a new beginning.
Stripped of the nice words, they decided to form what was in fact a loose consultative forum dedicated to the search for peace and friendship, economic and social cooperation and development. They called it the Association of Southeast Asian Nations -- ASEAN. Twenty-seven years later, there is now an Asean community of cooperative peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia. It is one of the most remarkable accomplishments in peace- building history of the 20th century.
The environment for attempting to build a system of cooperative peace in East Asia today is in several regards better today than the environment in which the builders of Asean embarked on this mission a generation ago. I believe that it is time to earnestly begin this journey of a thousand li.