Return of Admiral Zheng Hen’s Policy to Current Chinese Maritime Ambitions in Indian Ocean: The Case of Sri Lanka

The pandemonium marked by the high inflation, civil disorder and Rajapaksa ruling family’s fall from grace to the gutter in Sri Lanka last year seemed to be a nemesis for China for its presence in the island nation as Chinese involvement often viewed as a wanton effort in its predatory imperialism which was partially responsible for financial impoverishment of a sovereign nation. It was against this backdrop that some of the Western pundits forecasted China would lose its grip over Sri Lanka, followed by the political-economical hullaballoo that encompassed Sri Lanka in 2022. Yet the truth that is now hiding in plain sight is the general loss of China’s ostensible influence in Sri Lanka will not cede its growing influence in the Indian Ocean regardless of India’s orbit.

It should be bear in mind that modern Chinese strategists’ take on their zest for maritime power reflects the views espoused by the eminent US military strategist of the 19th century Alfred Thayer Mahan, whose contention on naval strategy indicating the complete supremacy of the seas as a means for great powers was a celebrated idea in an epoch even before America clung to its global leadership. In his seminal work on the future of American power in the Indian Ocean, Kaplan refers to Mahan as the key strategic inspirer for Chinese naval strategy and whether it is true or false, it is worth noting that China’s naval engagement in the Indian Ocean or Sri Lanka has its historical roots which date back to the time before the European advent in South Asia in the 16th century. The Chinese sea power flourished under the Song and Ming dynasties, from the late 10th to the early 15th century, which culminated in the celebrated voyages of the eunuch admiral Zheng He and their naval approach was decisively different from the European invaders who sought to establish a permeant military presence in the countries they explored in the 16th century. On the contrary, imperial China promoted the notion of tianxia (everything under heaven) and appealed to the nations for building alliances or tributary systems. But this was not a process always opted for a pacific path as Ming China’s war with the Kotte kingdom in Sri Lanka in the late 15th century was a subtle display of Chinese military intervention in needed circumstances.

The benign efforts that China tends to manifest in its naval strategy today resemble China’s own historical naval voyages under the Ming dynasty and it is not mere hyperbolic rhetoric to ignore Chinese influence in Sri Lanka after the expulsion of Rajapaksa regime  from power as a dwindling factor. The strategic importance of Sri Lanka for China’s maritime dominance may be stemming from the island’s intrinsic position as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. Naval power will be as accurate as an indicator of an increasingly complex global power arrangement as anything else. Given China’s obsession with acquiring naval supremacy in the backyard of India, Sri Lanka’s future lies in balancing the global actors.

The island chain strategy formulated by the US statesman John Foster Dulles in 1951 received its momentum in the hands of Chinese strategists as its defensive method and it has extended to the Indian Ocean by adding Sri Lanka’s Hambantota and Gwadar in Pakistan as the fourth island chain. In the annals of global history powerful states have always engaged in transmarine expansion to gain the fullest control of adjacent seas, but China’s doctrine of island chains would not embody an explicit interest of gaining the complete command in the Seas as the British empire did in the 19th century. Taking a shift from Mahan’s mantra of gaining maritime supremacy to the core, Chinese strategy now conspicuously focuses on balancing power at sea without a hegemony of one state, but that tilts in favour of China. According to IR scholar Andrew Letham, this shift embodies China’s maritime strtagic turn from Mahan to Corbett, the late British naval historian whose works insisted that all maritime strategies should derive from political goals.

The political instability of Sri Lanka, which resulted in ousting of pro-Chinese Rajapaksa from power and the negative portrayal of China as the principal culprit for its debt trap on Sri Lanka would not reduce the solid foundation built up by China in the island nation to get outflanked by Indian or Western influence. The dilemma faced by the Sri Lankan government in the aftermath of Rajapaksa’s fall last year regarding permitting the Chinese spy ship Ywan Wang 5 shows the stark reality of Chinese influence on the island regardless of India’s security concerns.

Beyond this looming political-economic chaos in Sri Lanka, the astute geopolitical advantage awaits that Beijing would assiduously embrace as it would solidify China’s maritime BRI, which symbolizes the Chinese version of globalization in the 21st century. The shape of Sri Lanka as an unsinkable aircraft carrier in the Indian Ocean is akin to how Taiwan becomes strategically important to both China and the US in the Pacific Ocean. Given this timely geopolitical advantage in favour of Chinese interests, it is unlikely to see any possible ebb of Chinese influence upon Sri Lankan polity in future. In particular, the array of development projects carried out by China around the island and the massive support that has been extended to the Sri Lankan government in the past either in the UN Human Rights Council or elsewhere remains China’s forte in Sri Lanka, wherein India and the West have shown a sense of ambivalence.

The current Chinese reading on Sri Lanka amidst its turmoil reflects the same old doctrine initiated by the Ming General Zheng He in the 15th century toward the Kingdom of Kotte in Sri Lanka. Zheng He’s indomitable military spirit ran parallel to his ambition for commercial objectives and the trilingual inscription erected in Galle in 1410 invoked the blessings of deities for a peaceful world built on trade. All in all, the Ming dynasty in the 15th century and modern Beijing’s vision towards Sri Lanka take the same root, which expects Sri Lanka’s cooperation as a tributary state for the great naval strategies of China to blossom.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

How Assyrians Became Caught in the Crossfire in Various Wars Throughout the Middle East

Assyrians are one of the oldest continuous ethnic groups in the world today and their ancient civilization played a major role in the foundations...

Can Bangladesh Surpass China in Apparel Exports?

In the last couple of decades, Bangladesh and China formed an exemplary alliance defined by mutual trust, respect, and affinity. Cooperation between China and...

Towards a Reset in Bangladesh-UK Relations?

The past years witnessed a flurry of UK delegation to Bangladesh and heralded a new epoch of bilateral partnership. In such context, British Minister...