The 'Third China" in the 21st Century

November 21, 2016
Asia Times

Personal thoughts on the ancient history and recent influences of Overseas Chinese communities in the Southeast Asia and the Pacific region and their implications for Future Asia


The Asia-Pacific and the ‘Third China’ in the 21stCentury

By John J. Tkacik 


On November 19, 1416, an auspicious day in the Chinese calendar, the the Great Ming Emperor 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 colonial enclave's emigre population, mostly descendants of southern Chinese refugees from the Mongol hordes. 

The reason the Pacification Commissioner's legate from Palembang was low man on the roster of foreign envoys 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.”  In those days before formal nationality and citizenship codes existed in either China or Southeast Asia, Palembang was a Chinese city state of peculiar status.  Its pacification commissioner had been elected by Chinese emigres, it was under the military protection of Great Ming Treasure Fleets, and it owed its allegiance to, and received its charter from, the Ming Emperor.  

The previous ruler of “Old Harbor,” a Muslim prince of Austronesian ethnicity, 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 ships were the most massive ever built (if perhaps not quite as massive as Joseph Needham believed [21]), 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 outmigrations 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 half a 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 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 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 in 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 the Austronesians, and, until the twenty-first century, without a regime in China to pine for.

Thus has it come to pass that the most dynamic demographic force in the 21st Century's Asia-Pacific region is the overseas Chinese diaspora, what the late Australian Sinologist C.P. FitzGerald called “The Third China”.[1] 

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 Nationalists in Taipei and Mao Zedong’s Communists in Beijing.  Of course, for the half-millennium before that, 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 who in ancient times had fled China’s poverty and chaos for greener pastures abroad.

 Paradoxically, the schism within the Chinese diaspora politically neutralized the Chinese communities and somewhat dampened antipathies among native Austronesians in the region who by tradition have envied, feared and mistrusted Chinese wealth and business acumen.   

This essay looks at some of the more underappreciated geographic and demographic dimensions of Taiwan’s Asian alignments and argues that, 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. With Taiwan’s voluntary withdrawal from Asia’s strategic equation, an unsettling socio-political metamorphosis in the region is taking shape as the “third” China realigns with Beijing.  

Perhaps the sharpest picture of the divide between overseas Chinese and indigenous populations in Southeast Asia is in Malaysia.  In August 1965, so fearful were Malay sultans of the influence of the peninsula’s Chinese community that they unilaterally expelled the country’s major Chinese population center, the city of Singapore, from the new Federation of Malaysia.  Former Singapore Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s memoir describes the Chinese-Malay partnership in Malaysia as one “marred by increasing conjugal strife over whether the new Federation should be a truly multiracial society, or one dominated by the Malays.”[2]  

“Conjugal strife” was understandable.  In the 1950’s, the Malayan sultanates were victim to severe communist guerrilla rebellions which were supported largely by Beijing and fought largely by ethnic Chinese.  At secession, Lee Kuan Yew, anxious that Singapore not be seen as pro-Beijing, instead developed a robust military relationship with Taiwan, and by the mid-1970s Singapore had established a permanent training operation called “Xing Guang” (星光) in which thousands of Singapore ground troops rotated through Taiwan each year, a relationship which continues to this day.  

It is a puzzling relationship.  China repeatedly has asked Singapore to remove its troops from Taiwan, but Singapore has not.  In 2000, Lee Kuan Yew even told a group of journalists – for the record – that “I instead clearly told [then Chinese premier] Li [Peng] that Singapore intends to continue sending its military servicemen to Taiwan for training and military exercises.”  Lee even explained (for the benefit of the reporters) that Singaporean troops wear Taiwan's military uniforms with Singapore insignia.  Lee wryly added that he had asked Beijing to inform Singapore in advance of China's plans to take military action against Taiwan so that Singapore could evacuate its troops from the island in time.  He explained that while Singapore's soldiers in Taiwan “know that they could be attacked in a Chinese invasion, their mothers and fathers might not know it.”  “If everyone knows that there’s a ‘third party’ in Taiwan,” Lee joked that Singapore's military presence there would be an early-warning against a Chinese invasion.  “If anything should happen,” it would be a warning because “we would be getting out in a hurry.”  Singaporean military forces, including artillery, armor and infantry troops, have been training in Taiwan since 1975.[3]  The symbiotic Taiwan-Singapore military relationship not only regularly exposes Taiwan’s armed forces to the operational doctrine of a truly world-class professional military, but also gives Taiwan the “face” and prestige of a first-class international security “arrangement” outside its client-patron one with America.  The “arrangement” is also an essential part of tiny Singapore’s defense survival doctrine which deploys a significant portion of its overall air and ground forces outside the home island where they cannot be destroyed by a “first strike” conventional attack.  From whom?  Well, it seems important to Singapore not to specify who it fears might ever attack the majority Chinese citystate.

Singapore’s close ties with Taiwan and its arms-length stance toward China’s military also demonstrate to the rest of non-Chinese Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Indonesia, that it does not intend to become a Chinese pawn in the region.  But if Taiwan is out of the picture, Southeast Asian suspicions that Singapore might become a Beijing stalking-horse will deepen.

At the onset of the 21st century, the ranks of overseas Chinese communities now swell with recent migrants from the PRC who are unanimous in their affection for China.  No longer can the “Bumiputra” (ethnic Austronesian “sons of the soil”) Southeast Asian governments rest assured that their prosperous and numerous “Huaqiao” (華僑) citizens (in the case of Malaysia, long-time “Paranakan” Chinese – many of whom can trace their family’s arrival in the peninsula back to the 15th century - count for at least 25% of the population[4]) cancel each other out in their Nationalist-Communist rivalries.  The sort of anti-Chinese pogroms that took place in Indonesia (1965 and 1998), Malaysia (1969) and even New Guinea’s Solomon Islands (2006) which had served to keep the Chinese in their place in the last century, will in this century likely be seen in Beijing as casus belli for a new China that now assumes a protective role for its co-ethnics overseas.[5]  Beginning in 1978, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam launched forced expulsions of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese after the collapse of the Saigon regime.  The United States resettled many Vietnamese refugees who escaped by sea, but China absorbed the bulk of the refugee deluge into its southern provinces.  The brutality of the Vietnamese communists’ deportations prodded Deng Xiaoping into a short but nasty border war against the SRV in February 1979.  In fact, Deng’s obsession with “teaching a lesson” to Hanoi was a major factor in his decision to normalize relations with Washington despite Washington’s refusal to terminate arms sales to Taiwan or peremptorily terminate its still-binding mutual defense treaty with the Taipei government.  (Deng later regretted his failure to get a commitment from the U.S. to end its security relationship with Taiwan as a condition of normalization.  But what was done, was done.)

Ethnic divisions in Southeast Asian and Pacific island nations are understandable. The enormous political influence of Huaqiao communities in any particular Asia-Pacific nation is hard to quantify, but the example of the Solomon Islands in 2006 is emblematic.  There, ethnic Chinese account for a fraction of one percent of the 500,000 population but control most of the country’s retail trade. In April 2006, leaders of the major opposition party in the Solomons took advantage of deep anti-Chinese resentments among fellow Solomon Islanders with accusations that the ruling party was bankrolled by prominent ethnic Chinese businessman, charges that unleashed violence in the capital’s small Chinatown, destroying 70-80 percent of the shops and prompting about a third of the Chinese population to flee the country.  

While Taiwan’s embassy evacuated only a few officials, China, which had no diplomatic relations with the Solomons, took responsibility for rescuing 325 Chinese (including Hong Kong) nationals in unofficial chartered civilian airlines flights.[6]  Many of the evacuees apparently were recent migrants from the People’s Republic of China; in the aftermath of the violence, one opposition politician complained that “this new wave of Chinese that have come in over the last couple of years, they own Honiara, so to speak.”  Another opposition leader Joses Tuhanuku explained:

"It is very serious in many ways. First of all, people feel they have lost control of their country. People felt that the last government was controlled by these people. The perception is that the Solomon Islands is no longer in the hands of Solomon Islanders, it is now in the hands of the Chinese. First of all, they control the economic life of the country, and now they are working on taking over the political life of the country. That is the fear that people have now." 

 Tuhanuku added, “everybody knew that Chinese businesspeople would give financial support to candidates and when they were elected they would expect them to return the favour.”[7]    Indeed, the riots had little to do with the Beijing-Taipei rivalry except insofar as Beijing claimed that they were stirred up by Taiwan government “money diplomacy,” claims that were echoed by the Australian government but vigorously denied by Taipei.[8]  It is doubtful that the Australian government had any independent intelligence that Taipei money had indeed been the root of the Solomons’ violence of April 2006 because no subsequent academic studies even alluded to it.[9]  

Lintner notes that the Solomon’s old Chinese “Waku” (Huaqiao) feel “closer to the Republic of China, or Taiwan, than the communist ruled People’s Republic of China.”  Certainly the Solomons’ older Waku supported the Solomons’ ruling party politicians – and they were sympathetic to Taipei, not Beijing.  Yet, the rioting primarily targetted “new Chinese” who have migrated from mainland China since the 1980’s – a distinct subset of the Chinese community – leaving the old Waku relatively untouched.[10]  The source of the Honiara unrest, it would appear, was not Taipei’s “money diplomacy” but demographic dislocations caused by the influx of new Chinese migrants from the PRC.

Beijing guarantees Overseas Chinese security

Moreover, there was an ominous new geopolitical dimension to the April 2006 anti-Chinese riots in Honiara.  It was the first time the Chinese government had organized an overseas evacuation of its nationals threatened by ethnic violence since 1966 when four Chinese ships were dispatched to collect 4,251 overseas Chinese from overcrowded refugee camps in Sumatra a year after bloody massacres of Chinese throughout Indonesia.[11]  

In fact, Beijing’s reaction to the more recent anti-Chinese riots in Jakarta and across Indonesia in 1998 in which scores were killed and at least 150 Chinese women were raped (including 20 who died of their injuries) was more muted: the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Propaganda Department reportedly ordered domestic media to downplay the 1998 Indonesian violence against Huaqiao.[12]

That had changed by 2006.  Following the Solomons evacuation, the Chinese foreign ministry asserted that “the Chinese government has always attached great importance to protecting the legitimate rights and interests of overseas Chinese including compatriots from Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan,” a stance that one Chinese academic (quoted by China’s official Xinhua news agency) said “signified a major change in [the Chinese government’s] protection of overseas Chinese.”[13]  China’s skillful and well-organized evacuation of 33,000 Chinese workers from Libya in March 2011, all the more impressive because it was managed long-distance from Beijing, marks an entirely new phase in China’s commitment to the security of overseas Chinese populations across the globe – wherever they may be.[14]

It is clear, therefore, that China has far more profound interests in the Asia-Pacific region’s Huaqiaocommunities than mere bickering with Taipei.  Even in countries where Taipei does not have relations, like Fiji, Tonga, Western Samoa and New Zealand, China has encouraged large-scale immigration over the past twenty years, and that immigration has changed the electoral demographics of whatever country receives it.

The November 2006 riots in the Pacific island kingdom of Tonga, for example, also had an anti-Chinese subtext.  Lintner notes “there were hardly any Chinese-owned grocery stores in the capital Nuku'alofa 20 years ago. Now, more than 70 percent are owned by newly-arrived Chinese, whose wealth and savvy have pushed local shopkeepers out of business.”[15]  Western Samoans, too, harbor antipathy toward newcomer Chinese.[16]  

Newcomers from China exert themselves on behalf of Beijing in their adopted lands (their enthusiasm for China’s globe-trotting Olympic Torch bearers in 2008 and their organized hostility toward Tibetans around the world are examples of their patriotic exuberance).  In New Zealand, post-1991 immigrants from Mainland China are ardently pro-China and have begun to make their views felt in New Zealand’s electoral politics where they complain that long-time New Zealanders of Chinese descent don’t adequately represent Asian-New Zealander interests.  One Labor party stalwart, the Beijing-born radio announcer Richard Huo, charged that New Zealand’s best known “old Chinese” community politician, National Party MP Pansy Wong, "does not connect well" with most Chinese New Zealanders because “she is from Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese rather than Mandarin.”  In private, Huo’s complaint was that Wong “is not Chinese enough,” not that she isn’t New Zealander enough.[17]

Strategically, Taiwan’s diplomatic presence in the Pacific does occasionally have its silver lining for the United States.  In 1999, news reports said China’s space tracking station at the eastern end of Tarawa island in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands) had all its radar dishes pointed directly at the US Army missile testing base in the Marshall Islands' Kwajalein Atoll 600 miles to the northwest.  Kwajalein is a splashdown zone for American ballistic missile defense tests. China reportedly supported Kiribati politicians linked to the then-president Teburoro Tito.  In Kiribati’s 2003 presidential election campaign, however, opposition candidate Anote Tong – the son of a Gilbertese mother and a post-World War II Chinese migrant father – pledged to recognize the Taipei government.  Tong was elected and due course recognized Taipei’s “Republic of China” government on November 7.  Chinese diplomats in Kiribati immediately began to dismantle the Chinese tracking station, but apparently instigated protest demonstrations in support of China.[18]  

No doubt, the security of U.S. missile testing benefited somewhat in the absence of the Chinese radar facility.   Eight months later, three Chinese diplomats remained in Kiribati apparently overseeing the packing and shipment of the radar equipment and embassy facilities.  But their continued presence inclined President Tong to remark that the Chinese had “participated in the [presidential election] process before. They continue to hope there will be a reversal of the situation and a change of government, I guess.”[19]

With the Taiwan factor removed from the Chinese Diaspora community equation, Southeast Asian nations must now calculate that any future violence against ethnic Chinese will be grounds for “humanitarian intervention” by China – and will involve the appearance of new and modern Chinese naval flotillas in their waters.  Huaqiao communities across Southeast Asia and the Pacific islands are already a dominant economic force.[20]   Able to count on the “People’s Liberation Army Navy” (PLAN) to defend them in future unrest, Huaqiao communities in Asia will leverage their wealth and numbers into concomitant political influence. Asia-Pacific regimes now face the prospect of rising political activism in their wealthiest and most educated minorities, an activism that will have backing in Beijing.

For the Overseas Chinese in the Asia-Pacific, it has taken the history of East Asia six centuries to repeat itself.  The breathtaking modernization and expansion of China’s navy, including new aircraft carriers and squadrons of new troop-carrying LSD assault ships, will revive a culture of suzerainty in East Asia that China has not experienced since the voyages of Admiral Zheng.  But in the new century, China’s hold on the Asia-Pacific region will depend as much on the Chinese diaspora as it will on its navy. 


[1] C.P. FitzGerald, The Third China, the Chinese Communities in Southeast Asia, F.W. Cheshire, Melbourne, 1965.

[2] Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story, Memoirs of Lee Kuan Yew, Simon & Schuster, Singapore, 1998, p. 14.

[3] Liang Dongping, “Xingjun zai Tai shouxun bu hui zhongzhi”  (星軍在台受訓 不會中止) [Singapore will not halt military training in Taiwan]; Taipei China Times, October 29, 2000.  For those who read Chinese, the wording of  original news story may be amusing: “不過李光耀同時也很快地指出,新加坡軍人穿著台灣軍人的制服,但是所別的徽章還是新加坡的;而且,如果大家都知道有個「第三者」(指新加坡部隊),萬一真有什麼事情要發生,可以作出預警,「那麼,我們就可以及時撤出」。

[4] In most Southeast Asian nations, overseas Chinese are not counted in population statistics if they are citizens.  While Taiwan’s “Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission” gives numbers for “Huaqiao” in Southeast Asia as of 2007 (Indonesia 7.776 million  out of a total population of 237,512,352 (July 2008 est.) – 3.24% of population; Thailand 7.123 million of 65,493,296  - 11%; Malaysia 6.324 million  of 25,274,132 (July 2008 est.)  - 25%; Singapore 2.687 million of 4,608,167 (July 2008 est.) - 60%; Vietnam 1.31 million of 86,116,560 (July 2008 est.)  - 1.5%; Philippines 1.170 million  of 96,061,680 (July 2008 est.) - 1.2%), these must be considered minimums.  In the case of the Philippines, at least 22% claim Chinese heritage.  See p. 11 2007 Statistics Yearbook of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, available at  

[5] Japan’s former ambassador in Bangkok, Hisahiko Okazaki, made this case persuasively in an address entitled “The Strategic Value of Taiwan” delivered at The Heritage Foundation, July 31, 2003.

[6] Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry estimated that there were about 1,000 ethnic Chinese in the Solomon capital of Honiara, of whom 500 were Solomon passport holders, three were Taiwan passport holders, and the rest were non-nationals. “Government preparing to evacuate diplomats from Solomon Islands,” China Post, April 25, 2006 at  

[7] Patrick Walters, “Race for supremacy, Ethnic Chinese political and financial influence is an underlying factor behind destruction and violence in Solomon Islands,” The Australian, April 20, 2006.

[8] Beijing’s foreign ministry officials “lashed out at Taiwan's ‘Money Diplomacy’” in conversations with Americans.  See AmEmbassy Beijing cable 06 Beijing 8333 of May 6, 2006, entitled PRC on Relations with Australia & New Zealand and the Solomon Islands Evacuation” at Australian Prime Minister John Howard; “Envoy slams Australian accusations,” Taipei Times, April 21, 2006, p. 4.

[9] Bertil Lintner, “The South Pacific: China’s New Frontier,” in Looking North, Looking South - China, Taiwan, and the South Pacific, World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd., p. 8  at  A comprehensive collection of chapters on Solomon politics is in Sinclair Dinnen and Stewart Firth, eds, Politics and State-Building in Solomon Islands, Asia-Pacific Press and ANU E-Press 2008. 

[10] Clive Moore, “No More Walkabout Long Chinatown: Asian Involvement in the Solomon Islands Economic and Political Processes,” presented at an Australian National University workshop on Solomon Islands: Where to now? May 5, 2006 at

[11] For a review of the diplomatic exchange and negotiations between Beijing and Jakarta on the refugee repatriation see Jerome A. Cohen and Hungdah Chiu, People’s China and International Law, a Documentary Study, Princeton University Press, 1974, pp. 874-878.   

[12] “China Media Asked To Play Down Indonesian Riots,” Hong Kong Ming Pao, May 16, 1998 p. a15, translated by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service at FBIS-CHI-98-197. Details of the violence were not published in China’s domestic media until mid-July, two months after the fact: He Chong, “Roundup: China Is Concerned About the Rape of Chinese Women in Indonesia”; Hong Kong Zhongguo Tongxun She, July 19, 1998 translated at FBIS-CHI-98-200.

[13] “Evacuation of overseas Chinese from Solomon Islands completed,” Xinhua News Agency, April 25, 2006, at  

[14] The Libya evacuation marked the first time Chinese military aircraft and naval ships have responded to an evacuation crisis.  See “Late Departure? China Airforce Flies to Libya,” The Wall Street Journal internet edition, March 2, 2011, at

[15] Lintner is quoted by Aigaletaulele’ā F. Tauafiafi, “Riots warning,” on the website of the Western Samoa Chamber of Commerce, December 30, 2010, at

[16] Tupuola Terry Tavita, “Samoa: Don't hate the Chinese, learn from them,” Pacific Scoop, Auckland University of Technology, March 3, 2011, at

[17] The U.S. Consul General in Auckland, John Desrocher, describes Chinese community electoral dynamics in a diplomatic cable to the Secretary of State, 08 Wellington 295, dated September 12, 2008, entitled “New Zealand Election 2008 – the Chinese vote.” 

[18] “China rushes to pull down atoll satellite tracker,” Agence France Presse, November 27, 2003, at  

[19] “Kiribati fears Beijing's new strategy,” Agence France Presse, July 6, 2004, at

[20] One writer points out that every Indonesian billionaire in 1995 was ethnic Chinese, and that ethnic Chinese business networks in Southeast Asia were routinely transnational.  Henry Wai-chung Yeung, “The Internationalization of Ethnic Chinese Business Firms from Southeast Asia: Strategies, Processes and Competitive Advantage,”  International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. Volume 23 (1999), Issue 1 (03), Pages: 88-102 at


[21]  Sally K. Church, “Zheng He: An Investigation into the Plausibility of 450-Ft Treasure Ships,” Monumenta Serica Journal of Oriental Studies, Volume LIII, 2005, pp. 1-43.



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