The narrative that two superpowers are pressing ASEAN to make a choice is a staple of journalism. But is that truly the case?
International trade in the region in the 14th century already had a well-established structure. China was the dominant factor of trade, the rule of which was based on a tributary system. This was an exchange of loyalty and profit, in which neighboring countries sent messengers to contribute offerings as vassals, while the emperor bestowed sometimes 10 times worth of gifts.
The South China Sea was an important trade route. The Maritime Silk Road, as it is referred to by China today, is always exemplified in this context as the transportation route used by Cheng Ho (Zheng He). The role played by Cheng Ho to recruit tributary states by traveling to more than 30 countries along the Maritime Silk Road was instrumental indeed.
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