Does Confucianism hold as much sway in China today as it did during the rule of the Ming Dynasty?
A massive Chinese armada commandeered by the navigator Zheng Le embarked on a seven-voyage maritime adventure from 1405-1433. His inimitable feat took him as far as the Persian Gulf and the East coast of Africa with the purpose of collecting tributes from the ‘barbaric’ countries across the seas.
This was half a century before the Portuguese and the Dutch ‘discovered’ the Indian Ocean.
But by the time the indefatigable Zheng Le returned after his last voyage with a wealth of cargo, the ruling Ming Emperor had changed his mind. He ruled that the act of voyaging to foreign, ‘barbaric’ countries was against the spirit of Confucius’ teaching.
Historians have ever since marveled on the turn world history would have taken had the Chinese continued their nautical exploits.
Hard power in the seas
Of late, China’s aggressive strategy of securing the sea lanes of communication from the South China Sea through the Malacca Strait to the Persian Gulf has left many jittery. Many believe that the Hambantota port in Southern Sri Lanka is the latest addition to China’s policy of securing maritime sea routes by developing ports in strategic areas (commonly known as the String of Pearls strategy). In August this year, Sri Lanka started operating a $500 million container terminal in the Colombo port with the aid of the Chinese government. This chain of ports begin from the Hainan Island in South China Sea and encompass Hambantota in Sri Lanka, the port of Sittwe in Myanmar, Chittagong in Bangladesh, Marao in Maldives, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan, Pakistan and the port of Sudan.
These nodes of influence could be upgraded as air bases and naval stations, apart from securing China’s oil supply routes from the Persian Gulf.
A common denominator unifies most of these possible Chinese military bases: insurgencies and conflict mar these port cities. The Baloch insurgents have threatened to disrupt China-backed construction projects in Gwadar and Sittwe stands at the centre of a protracted conflict between the Kachin rebels and the Myanmar government. Protests in Bangladesh’s Shahbagh have spilled over to Chittagong state while Sudan faces sanctions from the international community for its abysmal human rights record in Darfur.
Does conflict leverage the role that China plays in these countries?
China has been trying to intermediate talks between the Pakistan government and the Baloch insurgents. In February this year, China hosted peace talks between the Myanmar government and the Kachin rebels. It has systematically defied a US-led call to isolate Sudan from oil trade.
Even though China has consistently denied the possibility of using these Indian Ocean ports as naval facilities, there seems to be a motive in this apparent development of ports at strategic locations and commercial choke points. Kanwar Sibal, member of India’s National Security Advisory has succinctly affirmed a “method in the madness” vis-à-vis the location of the ports that China has decided to help build, upgrade and run.
Ghosts of 1962
The events of 1962 might have taught the Indian government to be fixated on all things terrestrial in terms of its relation with China. Chinese troops had already entered India through Arunachal when Nehru realized the gravity of the situation. The invasion took days after Nehru had asked the nation to be rest assured about India’s enduring friendship with China.
India deliberately did not use Air Force for fear of spreading the site of conflict to other regions. Ironically the brutal crackdown on generations-old Chinese pockets in India’s North east by the Indian state touches many a sensitive nerve even today.
The 1962 conflict taught India to be suspicious of the Chinese dragon, and also for some reason or lack of reason taught India to concentrate its security policies on land- Arunachal Pradesh, Aksai Chin, Tibet and Kashmir. The waters of the Indian Ocean never occurred as a potential threat.
What could Zheng Le teach the Indian strategic and defence think tanks?
That five centuries ago the Chinese had awed the world by making a series of expeditions to as far as the Persian Gulf. That the Chinese are better equipped today to repeat an unrivaled chapter in their history.
The new Chinese President Xi Jinping might have promised to crack down on increasing corruption within the Communist Party of China and address growing economic inequalities.
But who knows how inspired he is with the analects of Confucius?