One day in 1894 or ’95, a seaman in the British merchant-marine put pen to paper, and wrote “a story of an eastern river.” Although he spoke English with a thick Polish accent, Joseph Conrad came to be regarded as the greatest novelist in the English language. Almayer’s Folly was his first work, based largely on his own experiences in the seas of the Orient. About the river, he wrote:
“And Captain Lingard has lots of money,”, would say Mr. Vinck solemnly, with his head on one side, “lots of money; more than Hudig!” And after a pause — just to let his hearers recover from their astonishment at such an incredible assertion — he would add in an explanatory whisper, “You know, he has discovered a river.” …Into that river, whose entrances only he himself knew, Lingard used to take his assorted cargo of Manchester goods, brass gongs, rifles, and gunpowder.”
Hudig was a Dutch trader, most probably in the 1880’s, and the river was on the island of Borneo, which is today split between Malaysia, Indonesia, and Brunei. In Conrad’s second novel, An Outcast of the Islands, the forest (jungle) is explained:
The houses crowded the bank, and, as if to get away from the unhealthy shore, stepped boldly into the river, shooting over it in a close row bamboo platforms elevated on high piles, amongst which the current below spoke in a soft an unceasing plaint of murmuring eddies. There was only one path in the whole town and it ran at the back of the houses along the succession of blackened circular patches that marked the place of the household fires. On the other side the virgin forest bordered the path, coming close to it, as if to provoke impudently any passer-by to the solution of the gloomy problem of its depths. Nobody would accept the deceptive challenge. There were only a few feeble attempts at a clearing here and there, but the ground was low and the river retiring after its yearly floods, left on each a gradually diminishing mudhole…
The forest was deadly: malaria, bacteria, molds, fungi, and all manners of parasites were primed to devour challengers. In Oceana, tribes and cultures were connected by water, and isolated by land. In Europe, the connections were by land, and the isolations by water. In mathematical terms, Europe, where the Westphalian system of states was conceived, was simply connected. Lacking an opposite term for Oceana, one might say it was magically connected, by rivers such as Lingard’s discovery. In the 19th century, Oceana resembled science fiction conceptions of interstellar space, containing myriad tiny worlds, each facing The River, with their backs to the Void.
Before then, before the New World came into consciousness, the Old World was riven by natural barriers. Europe was the exception, one contiguous place, aware of itself. Far to the east, separated by land of low agricultural productivity, and hence low population density, was China. Isolated from most of southeast Asia by the Himalayas, and the rest by jungle, China also took to the sea. Between 1405 and 1433, admiral Zheng He sent expeditions of treasure ships to Oceana, southeast Asia, and as far as Africa. The size of Chinese treasure ships is debated, with estimates varying between huge and colossal. The size betrays the difficulty; it was akin to the fictional image of interstellar travel.
Besides material goods, the expeditions returned impressions. In their transit through the South China Sea, civilization, as the Chinese understood it, was not encountered, for the reasons explained by quotations of Conrad. So the Mandate of Heaven, dating at least to the Zhou Dynasty in 1046 B.C., remained unchallenged. That China is closest to Heaven, the “Middle Kingdom”, above all other earthly kingdoms, is also a synthesis of this period.
But this is ancient history, and it seems as irrelevant to us as Putin’s claim that Russia was born in Kiev. Maybe it is. So what? Sadly, most claims are based in attitudes that have little grounding in relevant fact. The Nine Dotted Line of current dispute was first demarcated in 1947 by the Nationalist government, the immediate successor of the last imperial dynasty of China. This suggests that the root of the claim is historical and cultural, and unfortunately, in complete opposition to international law as understood in the West.
Those dynasties were the custodians of a principle well explained in Chapter 6 of Henry Kissinger’s World Order. Quoting,
“In this view, world order reflected a universal hierarchy, not an equilibrium of competing sovereign states. Every known society was conceived of as being in some kind of tributary relationship…”
China is the largest buyer of U.S. bonds. Whether the interest paid is a form of tribute is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the Chinese think it is.
Continuing, “…Diplomacy was not a bargaining process between multiple sovereign interests but a series of carefully contrived ceremonies in which foreign societies were given the opportunity to affirm their assigned place in the global hierarchy…”
The entire chapter is well worth reading. Perhaps Dr. Kissinger goes into a subject that we think ancient and irrelevant because he feels that, as an attitude, and a process of thought, it somehow lives on. If Putin can think Russia was born in Kiev, why not?
Next, more complications for U.S. Asia policy.