Image source: The Economist here
One influential element in Southeast Asian history has been the impact of external great powers. Some of these powers have risen to prominence more recently, such as Japan and, even more recently, the United States, but others have had a significant impact over a much longer period.
Few of these external great powers have had a greater impact than China and India. These power centres haven’t always been recognisable in their current forms, but the underlying Sino-Indic tensions and influences have been present for centuries and have significantly shaped the contemporary political and cultural landscapes.
This is evidenced in a vast range of examples, spanning the Brahmanic traditions in Thai Royalist rituals, the syncretic form Islam in Indonesia with its Hindu-Buddhist traits and the Chinese mercantile philosophy embedded in Singapore’s deep state.
Looking at contemporary societies in Southeast Asia it is tempting to consider these Sino-Indic influences as being largely historical relics, slowly being erased by global forces including capitalist consumerism and radical Islam, but I think that view is only partially correct.
The graphic above is, and can only be, a hazy snapshot of a point in time. How, for example, is starting or stopping being Chinese or Indian defined? Despite the difficulty of answering that question I believe two broad assertions are valid.
One is that most of the great Indian diaspora is not seeing, and has not seen for some time, a future for themselves in Southeast Asia. Whether this is by choice or compulsion is a different question, but I see the region as now being much more inclined (demographically) to a Chinese orientation.
The other is that, notwithstanding the rubbery figures presented, the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia would itself be a sizable nation state. In other words, China has already established a presence in Southeast Asia that goes beyond seizing control over some small and other inconsequential rocks in the South China Sea.
What is much more ambiguous however is the extent to which this diaspora can, and desires to, access and exert political power in support of its Chinese origins and against the interests of its host state/s.
That test of loyalty is complex and from what I have read seems to throwing up some interesting answers, but must sadly be a topic for another day.