The enduring legacy of the East King of Sulu in Chinese-Filipino diplomacy

ON December 3 last year (2023), I embarked on a meaningful and soul-stirring journey to pay special and heartfelt tribute at the tomb of Sultan Paduka Batara, known as “Pahala,” at his sacred resting place in Dezhou, a captivating city in China’s Shandong province. It was indeed a momentous experience for me. It was also an educational and inspiring half-day trip.

As far as I am concerned, this was far more than a mere visit; it was a profound, enlightening and enriching half-day adventure that left me both educated and thoroughly inspired, reminding me of the enduring power of history and friendship between two countries, the Philippines and China.

Let me share the personal reflections I gathered from my tribute trip to the tomb of the East King of Sulu in the historic city of Dezhou, while shining a spotlight and delving deep into the incredible and profound historical significance of Sultan Paduka Batara’s voyage to China, shedding light on the profound symbolism and the timeless narrative of Filipino-Chinese diplomacy and friendship, a connection that predates its roots to a time long before the Spanish colonization that left its mark on the Philippines, providing us with a deeper understanding of the shared history, people-to-people and cultural ties between the Filipino and Chinese people.

Significance of Sultan’s journey

Sultan Paduka “Pahala” Batara was the East King of Sulu, most famous for being the first king from the area of modern-day Philippines to be buried in China. He ruled one of the Three Kingdoms on Sulu during his time.

Sultan Paduka Pahala was a ruler of the Sulu Sultanate, a Muslim state that flourished in the archipelago known today as the Philippines. The Sultanate of Sulu was established in 1457 and was an important center for trade and Muslim missionary work in Southeast Asia. As a leader in this region, Sultan Paduka “Pahala” Batara played a crucial role in maintaining the Sulu Sultanate’s power and influence. He was a significant historical figure whose journey to China in the 15th century represented a pivotal moment in the history of Sulu and its relations with the Philippines and China.

The visit of the East King of Sulu was recorded in the 325th chapter of Ming records. In the chapter, Paduka Batara was said to have brought 340 wives, ministers and retainers. His group officially registered with the Minister of Rites on Sept. 12, 1417. The Eastern Sulu Sultan also brought with him tributes like pearls, hawksbill shells, precious stones and tortoise shells, as well as a gold-inscribed memorial that was given to the Yongle Emperor of China, Zhu Di. The third emperor of the Ming dynasty prepared a grand welcome for the Sulu king in the newly minted and heavily guarded “Forbidden City” of Beijing. Sultan Batara and Emperor Yongle also developed quite a friendship.

The Sultan’s journey to China is a fascinating episode in the history of the Philippines and China that underscores the interconnected nature of Asian maritime history. The journey was not only a trade mission but also a diplomatic gesture, symbolizing the Sultanate’s willingness to participate in the Chinese tributary system, which was a network of trade and foreign relations centered around China at that time. The journey highlights the historical ties between the Philippines and China, the broader dynamics of trade, diplomacy and power in pre-colonial Southeast Asia, and how these are relevant to the region’s regional political, economic and trade dynamics of today.


To draw a parallel between now and before with regard to regional political, economic and trade dynamics and China’s centrality in all these, it is essential to note that during the Ming dynasty, China was a preeminent power with an advanced economy and was central to regional politics and trade. Its tributary system was a set of trade and foreign relations between China and other nations, which was also a diplomatic acknowledgment of China’s cultural and political prestige.

Fast-forward to contemporary times. China’s “peaceful rise” or “peaceful development” has been a policy that underscores the approach to its growth and international relations. This policy suggests that China aims to grow its economy and extend its influence without engaging in hegemonic or military coercion, contrasting with how Western powers historically expanded their influence.

For instance, in ancient times, the Silk Road and maritime trade routes were essential for international trade, with China providing silk, porcelain and tea. Today, China is central and essential to global and regional supply chains and has initiated the Belt and Road Initiative, which echoes the Silk Road’s spirit in creating a network of trade and infrastructure links. Before, China’s wealth attracted nations to engage with its tributary system for mutual benefit. Today, China’s economic growth is a pull factor for countries of the Global South seeking investment and economic ties, especially in Asia, Latin America and Africa, under the mantra of “win-win cooperation and shared future for mankind.”

Likewise, before, China’s diplomatic relationships were structured through the tributary system, which brought distant polities into its sphere of influence through ritualized exchanges. Today, China’s diplomatic efforts often involve economic partnerships, investment in hard and soft infrastructure projects and green technology, and engagement in multinational institutions through multilateral cooperation, responding to global issues like climate change and the like in an emerging multipolar and interconnected world.

While the methods and the world system have evolved, the underlying concept of using economic, cultural and diplomatic means to attract and influence remains a consistent thread in Chinese foreign policy from the Ming dynasty to the present. The peaceful rise today is more in line with multilateralism, globalized interdependence and international norms, whereas the tributary system is more hierarchical.

Chinese-Filipino diplomacy

On another note, there’s a lot to be said about the complexities and nuances of the ongoing bilateral relationship between the Philippines and China, particularly the heightening tension over their maritime and territorial disagreements in the disputed waters of the South China Sea (SCS). It is also easy to get lost in the narratives amid the prevailing tensions over the SCS dispute that often dominates this bilateral dynamic.

Yet, amid the headlines and narratives that often paint a picture of strained relations, it is crucial to acknowledge and recognize the enduring legacy and the rich history of harmonious and friendly Sino-Filipino relations and connections as epitomized by the East King of Sulu’s voyage to China. This historical bond etched deep into the annals of history, reaching back to the pre-colonial Philippines, is worth reminiscing as the two countries respond to the challenge of peacefully and diplomatically resolving their differences and conflict of interests, particularly in the SCS, toward mutual understanding and a friendship that withstand the test of time.

Knowing this and knowing how the two cultures and nations are intertwined, have coexisted, co-developed, flourished and prospered harmoniously throughout the ages and all the stories in between, as with most lessons in history, we uncover a trove of wisdom embedded within the stories that bridge the past and present. Just as history often serves as a compass for our current and future interactions, these narratives provide a compelling roadmap for steering the sometimes tumultuous waters of contemporary relations between these two nations toward a brighter horizon.


Sultan Paduka Pahala’s journey to China is a fascinating episode that underscores the interconnected nature of Asian maritime history. It highlights the historical ties between the Philippines and China, the parallelism of before and now in terms of the broader dynamics of trade, diplomacy and power in pre-colonial and contemporary Asia, particularly Southeast Asia in relation to China.

While the tale of Sultan Paduka Batara may seem like a forgotten footnote to some in the broader context of Sino-Filipino relations, for me, it remains a profound symbol of the enduring connection that our two nations have nurtured over centuries.

Hence, it becomes evident that there is much wisdom to glean from the stories nestled within the folds of time. Just as history often serves as a guide for our present and future endeavors, delving into these narratives can offer invaluable insights into how we might navigate the current, sometimes turbulent, relations between these two countries for the better.

Source: The Manila Times

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy

Prof. Anna Rosario Malindog-Uy is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Institute of South-South Cooperation and Development (ISSCAD), Peking University, Beijing, China. She is currently a director and the Vice President for External Affairs of the Asian Century Philippines Strategic Studies Institute (ACPSSI), a think tank based in Manila. She also serves as the political/geopolitical analyst of ACPSSI. Currently, she is a Senior Researcher of the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI) and a Senior Research Fellow of the Global Governance Institution (GGI). She is also the President of Techperformance Corp, an IT-based company in the Philippines. Prof. Anna Uy taught Political Science, International Relations, Development Studies, European Studies, Southeast Asia, and China Studies. She is a researcher-writer, academic, and consultant on a wide array of issues. She has worked as a consultant with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and other local and international NGOs.