Asia and the Seas: Looking Back to Look Forward

19 Nov, 2014    ·   4746

Dr Vijay Sakhuja writes about how Asian countries are recalling history to showcase their maritime prowess in the 21st century

Three Asian powers – China, India and Indonesia – have, in recent times, attempted to project their power potential by recalling their maritime histories. China has highlighted the Maritime Silk Road (MSR) that has foundations in the ancient world. Chinese President Xi Jinping promoted the MSR based on his reading of ancient Chinese maritime connections with Southeast Asia, India, Persia, the Arab world, and as far as Africa.

However, the MSR has invited sharp reactions from some Asian powers. They argue that China is reliving the era of Zheng He who led seven expeditions from 1405 to 1433. The Chinese fleet undertook expansive voyages and sailed through the Asian waters along the MSR, engaging in trade, projecting power, defeating challengers, and establishing spheres of influence. However, there are others such as Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bangladesh who appear to be convinced that the MSR offers them immense opportunities and that they can benefit from the Beijing's maritime prosperity.

India has chosen Project ‘Mausam’ to highlight its historical connection with the contemporary. ‘Mausam’ or ‘Mawsim’ in Arabic means ‘season’ during which, ships would undertake voyages and sail safely. The monsoon winds had facilitated the movement of peoples, cultures and trade across the Indian Ocean. Project ‘Mausam aims to “record, celebrate history, connect and re-establish communications between countries of the Indian Ocean world” for a better understanding of cultural values and concerns in the maritime milieu.

The newly-elected Indonesian President, Joko Widodo, has called on the people of Indonesia to be “as great in the oceans as our ancestors were in the past.” For Indonesia, the motto of the Indonesian Navy, ‘Jales Veva Jaya Mahe’, meaning ‘in the water, we are triumphant’, appears to be the driver.

Indeed, China, India and Indonesia were preeminent maritime powers during ancient times and had relied on the seas for a full realisation of their power potential. China’s Song and Ming Dynasties, India’s Chola Dynasty, and the Sumatran Srivijaya Empire had strong maritime aspirations and invested enormous capital in the development of a sophisticated maritime system. They were globalised powers and possessed formidable maritime capability that reflected in their shipping, ports and trade that crisscrossed the Asian waters, carrying goods, culture and people.

These states established political, economic, social, cultural and strategic networks as far as Africa, Eurasia, the Mediterranean and Persia - that which came to be referred to as the proverbial maritime silk route. They also developed naval power that was effectively used during periods of crisis. It is also true that Asian powers declined due to several internecine disputes and wars that resulted in their colonisation, which came from the seas.

In the 21st century, Asian powers are experiencing high economic growth, burgeoning maritime trade, a promising maritime science and technology base, and above all, a desire to build a robust maritime military capability.  There is strong evidence of sensitivities about safety and security of sea-lanes, and forward presence of extra-regional navies, which is an issue of significant concern. In the case of China and India, naval fleets built around nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers, expeditionary platforms are gaining primacy, and for Indonesia, the focus is on building robust naval capability to address a string of maritime threats and challenges.

There are at least six reasons for Asian countries to evoke their glorious maritime past and celebrate it in the 21st century:

First, the Asian states are witnessing a flourishing maritime enterprise, which displays strong elements of interdependence. This is a mirror image of the sophisticated maritime trading system that emerged in ancient Asia that contributed not only to their growth, but had linkages with other trading systems of the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and the modern day Pacific.

Second, the Asian countries wish to demonstrate that during ancient times, they were highly interconnected and globalised and the seas had shaped their destiny in significant ways, and that they continue to do so.  

The third possible reason is that the 21st century is indeed the period for the rediscovery of their maritime power with phenomenal economic growth built around trade, a bulk of which is carried out via the seas.

Fourth, the Asian powers have successfully shed the 400 years of colonial legacy that came from the seas, and are developing impressive naval capabilities to preclude dominance of their seas, protect trade over the sea-lanes, and to ensure safety of marine resources in the Exclusive Economic Zones.

Fifth, they are confident of contributing to Asian efforts to ensure order at sea. Finally, the sixth reason is that Asian countries wish to rely on the seas for a full realisation of their power potential and place in the international system.