Boats off Negombo
This originally ran in The Sunday Leader
In 1410, Chinese admiral Zheng He erected a tablet near Galle with a message in Chinese, Persian, and Tamil. In 2010, we have begun to understand what it means. Sri Lanka is uniquely positioned between China, the Middle East and India. We are also uniquely oblivious.
The Losers History
Chinese, Persian and Tamil were languages of power in 1410. At that point the Indian Ocean was dominated by Chinese junks, Arab dhows and Tamil traders, plying the monsoon winds. This was the commerce of the day. Then, for internal reasons, the Chinese effectively bowed out. When the Europeans circled round Africa, they sailed into a power vacuum and – with their technology and ruthlessness – were able to take over the Orient like Sicilians took over New Jersey.
The West didn’t understand this commerce in the first place, they just came, saw a bunch of cool things and wrote the history books as if they discovered the place. This worked in the Americas in that their diseases and ruthlessness effectively genocided the native population erased the native history. In the East, however, that history was merely dormant and has begun to re-emerge.
In the east, the native populations survived. They may have betrayed each other mercilessly, but they physically survived in strength, unlike the Native Americans. Europeans took over Indian Ocean commerce, but they didn’t substantially change the population. Now the Indian Ocean is slowly returning to the old geo-politics, a vortex that swirls subtly around Sri Lanka.
The politics shifted partly because the Europeans had good technology, but also because the Chinese left a huge power vacuum. Chinese rulers would periodically freak out and ban shipping entirely. First in 1371, then in 1550, then in 1647. The latter ban was the most drastic, forcing the coastal people to burn their ships and move 20 kilometers inland. The Chinese did this for internal reasons, to fight piracy or weaken coastal rebels. The results, however, were global. The Chinese effectively bowed out of the great game.
The major powers left were the Muslims and Indians or – as it was quickly becoming – Muslim Indians. They were the one fighting force that could compete with the Europeans on the seas. Meanwhile, on land, the Sinhala King Mayadunne had Kotte under siege.
The Zamarin of Calicut (Kerala) pledged Naval support, but the Portuguese beat them off and resupplied the city. This and other battles entrenched colonial rule, cemented the political balance of the day and enabled centuries of western growth powered by the Indian Ocean. By the time China noticed what was going on, it was too late.
Over time, English became the main language of trade and container ships and oil rigs became the vehicles of commerce. A combination of luck, internal stability and this technology enabled the West to control the Indian Ocean for a time, but, like it always does, the monsoon winds have shifted.
The Eastern Reincarnation
Today, the Chinese are building ports and securing shipping lanes from Pakistan to Sri Lanka to Burma. Today the Indians are asserting military control over their waters, wary of a circling China. Meanwhile, the Middle East is doing constant trade from Dubai and supplying energy to all. This is essentially a return to historical form with modern technology. The Chinese have checked back in to the great game, and the Indian and Arab nations have reemerged.
Spotting this trend, American author Robert Kaplan recently released a book called ‘Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power’. In it he says “The Indian Ocean will be where global power dynamics will be revealed.” He continues, “Sri Lanka, with its growing and increasingly influential Muslim minority, its political war debt to China, and its proximity to India, is the ultimate register of geopolitical trends in the Indian Ocean region.”
Indeed, here we can see China’s growing power as well as India’s soft influence. We have over a million Sri Lankans working in the Middle East as well as millions of Muslims here. There is a Chinese port in the south and the Indians are building an airport in the North. This broader realignment of Indian Ocean powers has greatly affected Sri Lanka’s fate, but we still prefer to think that the sun goes around the earth.
In Sri Lanka, we tend think that our problems and solutions are entirely internal. Mayadunne failed because he lacked the strength, not because he had no naval support. Rajapaksa succeeded because he had the will, not because China supported him. We tend to attribute things to people rather than situations, but the political currents of the Indian Ocean are very strong. When in season they are, effectively, a monsoon.