There’s a Dragon in the Sea

A brief his­tory of China’s geostrate­gic in­volve­ment in the In­dian Ocean

The Economic Times - - The Edit Page - San­jeev Sanyal

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

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