There’s a Dragon in the Sea
A brief history of China’s geostrategic involvement in the Indian Ocean
China’s growing geostrategic presence in the Indian Ocean is now more than visible: the dual-use port in Gwadar, the naval base in Djibouti and so on. Interestingly, Chinese empires have tried to assert their influence in the region for over a thousand years. This is a brief history of these early attempts.
At the end of the 10th century, maritime trade boomed between the Song empire in China, the Cholas in India and the Fatimids in Egypt. There were two main sea routes: through the Strait of Malacca controlled by the Srivijaya of Sumatra/Malaya, and through the Sunda Strait controlled by the Javanese. Not surprisingly, the two were bitter rivals.
In 987 AD, the Srivijaya came under attack from the Javanese and requested the Song emperor for protection. Thus, China came to have influence in the region. The Srivijaya were soon using Chinese backing to expand. Around 1012, the Khmer king Suryavarman I sent an unusual gift to Rajendra Chola: his war-chariot. In the Indic cultural context, such a gift has great symbolic importance and it appears that the Khmers were trying to woo the Indians to counterbalance the Sino-Sumatran alliance.
In 1016, the Srivijaya defeated the Javanese and sacked their capital. This left Srivijaya in control of both sea routes and soon began to exploit the situation by exacting exorbitant tolls on merchant ships. The Indians responded. Rajendra Chola probably sent a small naval expedition to Sumatra in 1017 as a warning but returned in 1025 with a much larger fleet.
The fleet made its way into the Strait of Malacca and systematically sacked Srivijaya ports. Finally, the Cholas decisively defeated the main army in Kadaram (now Kedah province in Malaysia). The raid significantly diminished Srivijayan power. But remarkably, the Chinese did not do anything in support of their vassals. It is possible that the Chinese were just as annoyed at Srivijaya’s rent extraction and had an understanding with the Indians.
China’s One Liner
The Srivijaya, too, seem to have accepted their reduced status. They continued to send ambassadors to the Chola court and participated in a joint diplomatic mission to China. When a Chola naval fleet returned to Kadaram in1068, it was in support of a Srivijaya king against his local rivals.
The Turkic conquest of India and the Mongol conquest of China and West Asia dissolved the old geopolitical equilibrium in the 13th century. In the beginning of the 15th century, however, a new Ming emperor decided to fund a series of grand voyages to the Indian Ocean. These were not voyages of exploration, but a display of geopolitical reach.
During 1405-33, the Chinese fleet would make seven voyages that would visit Southeast Asia, India, Sri Lanka, Oman and East Africa. Each voyage included giant ‘treasure ships’ accompanied by hundreds of smaller vessels and as many as 27,000 men. The voyages were led by the Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He.
The first voyage was mostly for in- formation-gathering. After that, the Chinese would use the fleet to push strategic interests. They would back the Thai against the declining Khmer empire. In India, they probably installed a new Samudrin in Calicut.
When Zheng visited Sri Lanka during the third voyage, he found the island in a state of civil war. The Chinese captured one of the claimants and took him back to meet the Ming emperor. He would be sent back as part of a plan to ensure Chinese influence over the island. The Chinese would similarly intervene in a war of succession in Sumatra.
Perhaps the intervention with the most far-reaching historical implications was the support for the new kingdom of Malacca as a counterweight to the Hindu Majapahit of Java. The founder of Malacca was a prince called Parmeswara. The Chinese would provide him with systematic support and he made at least one trip to China to personally pay obeisance to the Ming emperor.
Interestingly, Malacca was also encouraged to convert to Islam. Although Zheng was a Muslim, this should be seen mostly as a geostrategic move to create a permanent opposition to the Hindus of Java.
Malacca prospered under Chinese protection while the Majapahit were steadily pushed back. This is the origin of the steady Islamisation of Southeast Asia. The Javanese princes who refused to convert eventually withdrew to Bali, where their culture is alive to this day.
Meanwhile, in China, the Confucian mandarins were suspicious of the power accumulated by the eunuchs through the navy. So, they deliberately undermined the navy.
The treasure ships were allowed to rot and the records of the voyages were suppressed.
Gone With the Ming
China would withdraw into centuries of isolationism and leave a vacuum in the Indian Ocean that would be filled by a completely unexpected source: the Portuguese. The Europeans would not only take control of the Indian Ocean but would soon turn up on China’s doorstep.
As one can see, previous Chinese incursions in the Indian Ocean did have major geopolitical consequences. But China itself was unable to benefit from them. While one should not blindly extrapolate history into the future, it is a reminder to today’s geostrategic thinkers of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
Looking seawards again: A bronze statue of Admiral Zheng He, Semarang, Java