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India vs China in the Indian Ocean is really the Cholas Vs Zheng He

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

Understanding the historical arguments behind the power contestations between the Asian giants in the Indian Ocean.

The seal of Rajendra Chola I, often described as Rajendra the Great, was the ruler of the Chola Empire in south India between 1012 - 1044 CE.

In the recent hit Indian film Ponniyin Selvan, the young prince Arulmozhi Varman sets off from the capital of his father’s lavish kingdom, Tanjore or Thanjavur (in present-day Tamil Nadu in south India), with a band of devoted generals to conquer Lanka (present day Sri Lanka). The subsequent battle and rousing victory underlines both the ambition and the power of the dynasty that Varman belongs to.

Their routing the Sinhala (Lankan) army on the white sand beaches is cinematically reminiscent of the depiction of Achilles and his Myrmidons taking the beach of Troy for the Greek army.

Ponniyin Selvan is a fictional story based on the real-life Chola dynasty, one of India’s most illustrious ancient kingdoms sprawling nearly 1,500 years, one of the longest ruling dynasties in history.

The Cholas were a maritime power devoted to spreading their influence through military and cultural expeditions across the Indian Ocean region and planting the flag of their Hindu religious beliefs around southeast Asia.

From modern-day Malaysia, and Cambodia to Indonesia and Vietnam, Myanmar to Bali, Chola power and influence spread through numerous voyages by sea led by their intrepid kings and generals. The earliest diplomatic interaction between India and China was most probably a retinue from the court of Chola king Raja Raja I around 1015 to the court of the Song emperor; and it was during the time of the Cholas that adventurous merchants from their kingdom set up guilds in Indonesia and Myanmar.

This history has repeatedly been underlined by India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

The Indian Ocean has always been a cornerstone of the worldview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has emphasised on many occasions that, “India has had a long maritime tradition… The seas forged links of commerce, culture, and religion with our extended neighbourhood across several millenniums… India has been shaped in more ways by the seas around us… So, Indian Ocean Region is at the top of our policy priorities”. He has highlighted that the Cholas are key to understanding India’s long history with the Indian Ocean and its ‘maritime legacy’.

In 2014, the year the Modi government first came to power, the RSS pointedly celebrated the thousand-year anniversary of the coronation of Rajendra Chola I (1012-1044 CE), the Chola king who expanded the reach of the kingdom's might across southeast Asia.

All this is the backdrop against which India has always considered the Indian Ocean as its own, its backyard as it were, and firmly under its influence. It takes the ‘Indo’ in the Indo-Pacific very seriously.

Not without increasing contest, though. China, which the Indo-Pacific strategy including the Quad, or the quadrilateral security dialogue made up of the United States, India, Australia, and Japan, seeks to contain, has its own historical reading.

China’s history teaches it about Zheng He. Recently, Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel from China, associated with Tsinghua University Centre for International Security and Strategy gave a lecture at King’s College, London. Bo said, "It's only a matter of time before a Chinese carrier strike group appears in the Indian Ocean" and that India should get accustomed to China’s presence in South Asia.

"I do not think it's necessary to remind everyone that during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He's fleet, the most powerful fleet in the world, went to the Indian Ocean seven times. Therefore, China is not a newcomer to the Indian Ocean. To safeguard China's growing interests in the Indian Ocean and maintain the security of strategic sea lanes, the Chinese navy must maintain or even strengthen its presence in the Indian Ocean,” Bo said.

"It is only a matter of time before a Chinese carrier strike group appears in the Indian Ocean. Since the end of 2008, the Chinese navy has been sending naval formations to patrol the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin in the Indian Ocean,” he added.

Zheng He is one of the most famous maritime voyagers and generals in Chinese history. Commandeering some of the biggest ships of his time, in the early 15th century, He led seven great voyages across the Indian Ocean from southeast Asia to west Africa to bring back treasures for the Chinese emperors.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has invoked the legacy of Zheng He to promote his dream Belt and Road project in 2017. “In the early 15th century, Zheng He, the famous Chinese navigator in the Ming Dynasty, made seven voyages to the Western Seas, a feat which still is remembered today,” Xi Jinping had said. Echoing this, recently the Chinese ambassador to Maldives (another Indian Ocean country India considers under its natural area of influence) Wang Lixin recently told the state television of Maldives: “The friendly exchanges between China and Maldives have enjoyed a long history. About 600 years ago, Zheng He, a Chinese navigator, visited Maldives twice, which showed that the ancient Maritime Silk Road had already connected the Chinese people and Maldivian people long time ago.”

In pitching these legacies, each country emphasises the long history, the cultural depth, and how this country could be a bedrock of future collaboration. This, of course, also means that these histories form the basis of the two Asian giants butting heads in the Indian Ocean.


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