China Seas Trade Research Paper

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The China Seas, a term coined by European navigators and cartographers, comprise five bodies of water adjacent to the country’s 14,000- kilometer-long coastline. Although the Chinese were not generally seafarers, throughout much of China’s history the major ports of the China Seas have been important in coastal, regional, and long-distance trading patterns.

For most of its long history, Chinese civilization has turned its back to the sea and has focused inward. The Chinese, as a general rule, have not been a seafaring people. Only a tiny fraction of the population of China derived their livelihood from maritime activities—fishing, overseas trade, piracy, or naval warfare. With the exception of the early fifteenth-century Admiral Zheng He, few Chinese mariners undertook long-distance voyages. But a coastline of about 14,000 kilometers (within today’s borders of the People’s Republic of China) makes maritime defense a significant factor of any government’s security policies. Also significant is the establishment of port towns along the coast, many of them in the river estuaries of South and central China. The main economic function of these towns and cities was to organize exchange with commercial communities across the China Seas.

The Triple Function of the China Seas

China Seas is a summary term coined by European navigators and geographers and is rarely used in China. Chinese maps and geographic manuals distinguish between five different expanses of water adjacent to the Chinese coast: the Gulf of Zhili, called Bohai in Chinese, south of Manchuria; the Yellow Sea, called Huanghai, between North China and the Korean peninsula; the East China Sea, called Donghai, into which the Yangzi (Chang) River discharges its waters; the Strait of Taiwan, called the Taiwan Haixia, separating that island from Fujian Province; and the South China Sea, called Nanhai, which is the maritime “foreland” of the southernmost Chinese province, Guangdong.

These maritime spaces are clearly separated from the high seas of the Pacific Ocean and the Indian Ocean. Yet, in an important way, they form a connection between both: for centuries after the arrival of European shipping in East Asia, the principal route from India into Pacific waters led through the Strait of Malacca and the South China Sea and then round the northern tip of the Philippine archipelago.

This fact points to the triple function of the China Seas, considered in terms of economic geography. In the first instance, they serve as an avenue for China’s coastal trade. Coastal trade has always been vital for the integration not only of the various seaboard districts, but also of all the eastern provinces of China. Before the advent of the railroad it was indispensable for transporting bulky goods in a north-south direction. Second, the China Seas are the arena in which regional trade between China, Japan, and the countries of Southeast Asia unfolds. No other function is more important than this one. The China Seas gave rise to and still support a dense network of commerce connecting different economic systems which in many ways complement one another. Third, access to the oceans necessarily leads through the China Seas. In the long run, the China Seas’ transit function is probably their least important aspect, assuming major importance only with the rise of the Guangzhou (Canton) trade in the early eighteenth century. But at least for modern times, it forms part of the complete picture. By definition, the predominant emporia are those that combine all three of these functional tasks. These major ports are simultaneously pivots of coastal, regional, and long-distance traffic and commerce.

Fourteenth-Century Trade in the South China Sea

The great achievements of Chinese nautical engineering have been reconstructed by modern scholars for epochs even earlier than the establishment of the empire in 221 BCE. Only with the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), however, does a comprehensive picture of maritime trade emerge. The basic type of ship, in use for many centuries, had already been developed during the tenth century. This “Fujian ship” (fuchuan), a safe, spacious, and fast vessel, proved admirably suited to the trading conditions in the China Seas. It later evolved into the cheap and popular “shallow-water ship” (shachuan), an even more advantageous type of flat-bottomed watercraft. Southeast Asian shipbuilders also provided technical innovation. The outcome was the ubiquitous junk (a word probably originating in Javanese, but later applied mainly to Chinese ships) that shaped European perceptions of the Asian maritime world.

Extended trading networks covering the South China Sea came into being as a result of two developments occurring in the fifteenth century. First, the Chinese government dispatched several huge fleets under Admiral Zheng He (c. 1371–1435) to establish contact with numerous countries in Southeast Asia and on the Indian Ocean. Although this policy was soon discontinued, several of the links formed by these naval missions were maintained as “tributary” relationships, in which ritual, diplomacy, and commercial interest interacted in a complicated way. The best example of a tributary relationship with a strong economic content is the Sino-Siamese (i.e., Thai) tributary trade, conducted officially between the Siamese royal court and imperial representatives in South China. Its material underpinnings were the complementary structures of the two economies: Siam produced rice that was needed to feed the rapidly growing population of the southern provinces of Guangdong and Fujian. The Chinese demand for rice, in turn, was partly the result of the conversion of rice paddies into fields for cotton, tea, and mulberry trees for silk, all commodities used at home and in trade. In the opposite direction, Siam imported copper from mines in the Chinese province of Yunnan. This trading pattern persisted up to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Second, emigration from Guangdong and Fujian seems to have increased during the fifteenth century. Chinese merchant communities settled in various parts of insular and continental Southeast Asia. They were viewed with suspicion by the Ming dynasty, and after the Chinese authorities restricted maritime commerce much of their trading activity was considered illegal. This did not prevent a flourishing trade in spices, silk, timber, skins, gold, copper, tin, medicinal materials, and other valuable goods. Apart from Chinese merchants, many local groups, Arab traders, Indian businessmen (many of them from Gujarat) and even Japanese ships were involved in these commercial transactions, often ultimately driven by demand in an increasingly prosperous Chinese market. The famous pepper trade to Europe, for example, found its equivalent in vast exports of pepper from Sumatra and other islands to China.

The arrival of European ships changed the established trading patterns within the region without overturning them. The Europeans’ main advantage lay in the size and armament of their ships (although Zheng He’s exploring fleet compared favorably to those of his European counterparts). After a brief period of intrusive violence, the Portuguese understood the wisdom and even the necessity of partially adapting to Asian trade. The Dutch and later the British developed their own forms of “country trade,” conducted by European trading firms along intraregional trading routes. European traders were closely dependent on indigenous producers, merchants, and providers of credit. Long-distance trade to Europe remained in the hands of the European chartered companies. While the East India Company (EIC) preferred direct contact with Chinese merchants in Guangzhou (Canton) and other South Chinese ports, the Dutch Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie (Dutch East India Company, or VOC) relied on Batavia (present-day Jakarta) as its central emporium and collecting point in the East. Thus, Batavia served as a link between the various Eastern networks and the transoceanic shipping routes.

There is little statistical evidence for the scope of trade in the China Seas in the early modern era. Data on maritime customs revenue collected at ports in South China, however, indicate that the volume of trade multiplied between the sixteenth century and the 1820s. The expansion of foreign trade facilitated regional specialization all around the China Seas and thus had a profound effect on economic activity in the entire region. The rise of port cities, with their cosmopolitan communities of sailors and traveling merchants, contributed significantly to social differentiation. Yet there was no steady progress of opening up to the world. Japan’s Tokugawa shogunate, the military government in power from 1600 to 1868, drastically curtailed Japan’s foreign trade with all possible partners from the 1630s onwards, and while Chinese maritime commerce flourished after about 1720, many noncolonial entrepots in Southeast Asia lost their dynamism at roughly the same time. Trade in the China Seas not only constantly changed its patterns in space, but also went through long-term as well as short-term cycles of expansion and contraction that were partly driven by political and military factors, as the market economy of maritime Asia in early modern times operated under conditions set by rulers and states.

Treaty Ports, Steam Shipping, and the World Market

The “opening” of China and the establishment of the earliest treaty ports (ports designated by treaty for trade) in 1842 was soon followed by the introduction of steam shipping into Chinese coastal and riverine traffic. Steamers possessed advantages that had a deep impact on trading patterns. Their carrying capacity was far greater, they could easily operate on the sea as well as on major rivers, and their deployment could be organized by large-scale capitalist enterprises. In the China Seas, especially in the south, sail and steam continued to coexist for more than a century. The most dynamic lines of business, however, were captured by modern forms of transport.

From the 1820s through the 1870s, China’s foreign trade was dominated structurally by illegal and, from 1858, legalized shipments of opium from India to China. This trade used the South China Sea for transit, but hardly affected Southeast Asia, where different networks of drug trafficking existed. An important change came with the economic development of the European colonies in that part of the world during the last quarter of the nineteenth century. The introduction of large-scale plantations and of mechanized mining as well as the intensification of peasant production for export integrated Southeast Asia much more closely into the world economy than ever before. Expatriate entrepreneurs of Chinese origin were instrumental in forging these connections. By this time, an overpopulated China became a supplier of cheap labor. Chinese emigrants took advantage of the agricultural and mining opportunities in insular and continental Southeast Asia and beyond. The migration of contract labor from southern China to various overseas destinations, termed “coolie trade” by contemporaries, was largely organized by Chinese recruiting firms, although transport remained in the hands of European- owned steamship companies.

It was a structural hallmark of Chinese foreign trade between the First Opium War (1839–1842) and the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949 that indigenous shipping companies secured a substantial share of the market in coastal and inland transport, but never succeeded in entering overseas shipping. China’s lack of a merchant navy was symbolic of the country’s subordinate position in the international economy. Another new feature in the early twentieth century was incipient industrialization.

The Fall and Rise of China’s Maritime Commerce

The Great Depression of the 1930s along with Japanese aggression against China and the Western colonies in Southeast Asia put a severe strain on the trading networks in the region. Exports of conventional commodities declined sharply during the Great Depression, when demand fell in Asia, Europe, and the Americas. Chinese emigration, formerly a mainstay of steam traffic in the South China Sea and also between North China and southern Manchuria, went into decline. After the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931, the activities of Japanese shipping companies became ever more imperialistic. The formation of a Japanese-dominated trading sphere known as the “yen bloc” was a bid for autarky and protected export markets. In the early 1940s, the Japanese restructured large segments of long-distance trade according to the needs of their war economy. The Pacific War itself was caused in part by economic factors, such as the United States’ petroleum embargo against Japan, put in place in July 1941, which made it clear to the Japanese that a self-sufficient empire unaffected by the world market was an impossibility.

The collapse of the Japanese Empire in 1945, the Chinese revolution of 1949, and the disappearance of European colonial rule in Southeast Asia after the end of World War II ruled out a return to prewar patterns of maritime commerce. Only Hong Kong survived as a first-rate emporium, now with a considerable industry of its own. A large part of the People’s Republic of China’s trade with Southeast Asia and Europe was channeled through Hong Kong. At the same time, the Communist government in China began the longterm process of reestablishing China’s lost military sea power and mercantile presence in the China Seas and on the world’s oceans. China’s stated intention of acquiring an aircraft carrier is a serious indication of its intent to become a major maritime and naval power capable of maintaining a presence and projecting that power well beyond China’s shore.

In respect to trade, the China Seas remain a very significant and geostrategic body of water. With the rise of China as a major exporter of manufactures to the world, the establishment of a free trade agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and between China and ASEAN, the China Seas remain one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.


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