Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Civil Affairs Association and Divergent Options Writing Contest which took place from April 7, 2020 to July 7, 2020. More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.
Tom Perkins is a 2010 graduate of the United States Military Academy. He commissioned into the U.S. Army as an Infantry Officer and served at the Platoon, Company, and Battalion level. He is currently serving as a Southeast Asian Foreign Area Officer. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing the Chinese Diaspora as Key to Southeast Asian Human Factor Influence Through 2035
Date Originally Written: June 17, 2020.
Date Originally Published: August 17, 2020.
Article and / or Article Point of View: This article is written from a U.S perspective concerning partnership in Southeast Asia vis-a-vis the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
Summary: The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is able to define the “Chinese” identity. This gives the CCP human factor influence over ethnic Chinese communities throughout Southeast Asia. The PRC can use these community relationships to influence and even manipulate nations throughout Southeast Asia. Chinese Americans, as credible Chinese voices, can build relationships and define cultural norms that are not dictated by the CCP.
Text: The Chinese Diaspora, or Chinese abroad, is a concept that developed from Chinese immigration throughout history but particularly the 19th and 20th centuries. This concept created tight knit, and in some places, large communities outside of China. The largest of these communities are in Southeast Asia. These communities traditionally defined their identity based on family, language, business, food, and traditional practices such as Confucianism, Buddhism, Taoism etc. The large number of ethnic Chinese in various countries made the community a significant force for political mobilization. The most overt example of mobilization is the ethnic Chinese led Malayan Communist Party which waged a communist insurrection in Malaysia throughout the second half of the twentieth century.
Even when large scale political mobilization does not occur, the existence of these communities at times causes conflict in the host nations. Ethnic Chinese throughout Southeast Asia are perceived to be better connected in business than the local ethnic majorities of the countries they live in. As a result, distrust and resentment has occasionally erupted into the local ethnic majorities protesting and engaging in violence against the Chinese communities. There is no easy solution to such a conflict. Historically, efforts to force assimilation of these communities were generally unsuccessful at reducing conflict and erasing Chinese identity. Starting in 1966, under the Suharto presidency, Indonesia orchestrated a series of policies meant to discourage Chinese identity and culture in an attempt to forge a more nationalist Indonesian identity. However, since the reform period in Indonesia, these policies have been rescinded. These historical trends suggest overseas Chinese communities will continue to exist and grow as an independent cultural and social network into 2035.
The growth of China into the world’s second largest economy has given it a new level of prestige. China’s real economic power as well as soft and sharp power will continue to increase through 2035. The ability for the CCP to influence human factors among and through overseas Chinese is more favorable than it has ever been, and will continue to be more favorable into the future. The increased economic wealth of people in China makes them a natural source for business ties among the diaspora. It is conceivable that the CCP will leverage such relationships in the future to gain political influence throughout Southeast Asia. This leveraging can be an alarming prospect when one considers a long-term U.S partner, such as Thailand, has an ethnic Chinese population of around 7 million, which is approximately 10% of the population. Actions by the CCP signal a desire to gain influence in Southeast Asia. Traditional soft power programs such as the Belt and Road Initiative promulgated by Xi Jinping are supplemented by more subtle gestures such as establishing Confucius Institutes. The latter being an example of the CCPs manipulation of human factors to increase political capital by using Confucius institutes as a communications platform for signaling Chinese cultural values.
The heart of the issue is that the CCP is able to define the Chinese identity. Thus, anyone who identifies as Chinese, will have an affinity for the culture, and will be more susceptible to CCP messaging. This is an old struggle in a new context. The Republic of China, aka Taiwan, has been raging against the CCP’s attempts to define what is and is not Chinese since the Chinese Civil War. The strategy throughout history was to lay claim to the terms “Chinese” and “China” with its own branding. The issue is that the CCP has been very successful at stamping out such branding attempts. This is why even well-traveled and educated Americans are surprised to learn that China Airlines is not based in China, it is based in Taiwan, and why there is nothing weird about some “Chinese” people marching into an Olympic stadium under a banner labeled “Chinese Taipei.”
The U.S is in a good position to address the CCP dominance of Chinese culture in Southeast Asia. The U.S is home to a large and relatively affluent ethnic Chinese population. The Department of State and accompanying agencies can make efforts to reach out to community and business leaders to empower them to define what it means to be overseas Chinese. By empowering ethnically Chinese Americans the United States can lead the overseas Chinese movement in Southeast Asia and prevent the business networks, family ties, social networks, and overall population from being tools of CCP sharp power. In popular culture influence, Chinese Americans could be leading the production of Mandarin language cinema and music. Southeast Asian Chinese could look to Chinese American businesses for capital investment as well as future markets. Additionally, U.S government messaging can reconsider usage of the term “Chinese” because of its implicit affiliation with the CCP. The word “Sino” sufficiently distinguishes the ethnic affiliations from national affiliations associated with the PRC. These actions are an effective start to neutralizing CCP appropriation of the ethnic Chinese identity.
As PRC state power grows, its ability to wield influence outside of its boarders increases. The State Department and supporting agencies can take initiative to combat messaging that implies the CCP monopolizes Chinese culture. The U.S can foster real relationships between Sino Americans and ethnic Sino populations throughout Southeast Asia. By doing this the U.S can deny the CCP human factor influence among partner nations in Southeast Asia.
 Opper, M. (2020). People’s Wars in China, Malaya, and Vietnam. Washington D.C: University of Michigan Press.
 Kitamura, Y. (2019). The Re-recognition of Confucianism in Indonesia: An Example of China’s. In M. S. Dioko, H. M. Hsiao, & A. H. Yang, China’s Footprints in Southeast Asia (pp. 172-193). Singapore: NUS Press.
 Goodkind, D. (2019). The Chinese Diaspora: Historical Legacies and Contemporary Trends. Washington D.C: U.S Census Bureau.