China has a long history of trading in the Indian Ocean. While in the past, this did not create any significant conflicts with the nations in the region, today’s China poses a big threat as it is under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Historical trading expeditions
During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) Chinese trade activity in the Indian Ocean reached its peak. In 1402, Emperor Zhu Dei came into power, defeating his nephew. He was anxious to prove his legitimacy and ordered the development of an imperial fleet that would include several trading ships, warships, support vessels, and “treasure ships.” The fleet was put under the command of Admiral Zheng He, who was one of Zhu’s closest friends since childhood.
The fleet would allow the Chinese to expand their commercial and diplomatic relationships into new areas while cementing Zhu’s position as the Emperor. It was believed that the states visited by the fleet would submit to China’s superiority in a bid to increase trade. In case some states refused to accept the greatness of the incoming Chinese, Zheng had full authority to use any force necessary. The need for exploration was also driven by the fact that China had been struck with several epidemics over the past few years and wanted to acquire herbs and medications that would help health officials deal with them.
In total, Zhen commanded 317 ships and 28,000 people. In the first voyage, the fleet traveled to Vietnam, Java, Sumatra, and Sri Lanka. In the second voyage, they stopped at Calicut on the southern coast of India. During the third voyage, Zheng got involved in a local war in Ceylon, which he won, thereby installing a new ruler loyal to Chinese interests. In the later voyages, Zheng was able to reach the African coast. During this time, he was always involved in local politics of the regions explored.
Current Chinese ambitions
Today, China is once again seeking to expand its naval power in the Indian Ocean. And just as during the Ming period, China seems to be aiming at gaining power over local politics of the region to strengthen their military and economic dominance. In Sri Lanka, China was successful in making the government hand over the Hambantota Port after trapping them in debt. In the Maldives, China has been working hard to counter India’s influence. In Djibouti, China has set up its first foreign military base.
Sunil Lanba, the Indian Navy chief, recently stated that China’s growing presence in the Indian Ocean was a challenge to his country. “No nation has invested as much as China in shipbuilding. It is a challenge; we keep a close eye on their presence and deployments… it is here to stay,” he said in a statement (The Economic Times). Lanba pointed to the presence of up to eight Chinese naval ships in the northern regions of the Indian Ocean as a possible threat.
To counter the challenge posed by Chinese naval aggression. India needs to develop its own grand strategy that expands its naval presence throughout the Indian Ocean. In the past, India held huge sway over the trade in the region thanks to its huge number of ships.