LONDON–When the Chinese admiral Zheng He set out on the first of seven historic voyages of exploration 608 years ago, the sails of his 317 ships blotted out the horizon. Included in the fleet were several colossal, football field-sized vessels–large enough to fit 65 of Columbus’ ships end-to-end–whose holds would eventually bring home mountains of gold, ivory, and porcelain for the glory of the Ming emperor. Sailing to a dizzying array of coastal countries over the next three decades, Zheng’s flotilla made its way across the modern-day Middle East, ultimately reaching the Cape of Good Hope some 4,000 miles away.
Such expeditions had never been seen before–and would not be seen again. Internal instability, Mongol threats, and high financial costs conspired to cripple China’s Age of Exploration. Zheng died and was buried at sea. His magnificent ships were burned. Records of his voyages were destroyed. For nearly six centuries China turned inward, away from the ocean.
That is, until now. With its release last month of a 350-page “blue book” detailing China’s strategy in the Indian Ocean, Beijing has served notice that–while insisting its interests are strictly economic–it is not content to ignore the waters to its west any longer. And India, which relies on the Indian Ocean for most of its trade and has long suspected China of pursuing a so-called “string of pearls” strategy in the region–encircling the subcontinent with a network of commercial and military facilities–is understandably wary.
Despite the blue book’s conciliatory tone, it has become clear, as the journalist and geopolitical analyst Robert Kaplan observes in his book Monsoon, that as “China expands vertically [and] India horizontally… the Indian Ocean is where the rivalry between the United States and China in the Pacific interlocks with the regional rivalry between China and India.” To explore Kaplan’s view that “together with the contiguous Near East and Central Asia,” the Indian Ocean “constitutes the new Great Game in geopolitics,” I reached out to a man who has trained three generations of Indian diplomats.
Maharaja Krishna Rasgotra, a former Foreign Secretary under Indira Gandhi in the early 1980’s and ambassador to six countries–a courtly Indian version of Henry Kissinger–is a keen student of this “new Great Game.” Rasgotra joined India’s Foreign Service in 1949, just two years after India’s independence, the same year the People’s Republic of China was established. He has witnessed the entirety of the two Asian giants’ modern relationship, from the heady years of “Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai”–a popular Hindi slogan meaning “Indians and Chinese are brothers”–to the brief but bitter Sino-Indian War of 1962; to the simmering border disputes that carry into the present day, including a baffling Chinese incursion into Indian territory in May that reportedly left New Delhi on the verge of crisis with Beijing.
“I look at the Indian Ocean as a projection of India’s landmass–all of it vital for India’s security, stability and progress,” Rasgotra says. Likewise, “the Chinese have an interest in the Indian Ocean. New Delhi is watching the developments. If the Chinese get militarily interested in dominating the Indian Ocean, then India is strong enough to resist that.”
Certainly, there have been developments worth watching. No sooner had the ink dried on the blue book, for instance, then China offered Iran $78 million to upgrade its Chabahar Port, which is near the Iranian border with Pakistan and a stone’s throw from the Straits of Hormuz–a strategically vital chokepoint through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes. This comes amid China’s $200 million investment in the Pakistani port of Gwadar, a $209 million airport in Sri Lanka, and plans to build another port on the coast of Tanzania.
While China’s Ministry of National Defense has dismissed the “string of pearls” theory as “totally groundless,” India has observed 22 recorded instances of Chinese nuclear submarines encroaching into the Indian Ocean–as recently as February 2013, and as close as 50 miles off Indian soil.
Still, for all China’s newfound assertiveness in India’s backyard, Rasgotra remain skeptical of Beijing’s belligerence. The string of pearls, he tells me, “is part history, part poetry, and part mythology.”
“China’s strategy is motivated by two major factors,” he says. “First, to project power in the Indian Ocean in rivalry not only with India but primarily with the U.S.; and second, to safeguard supplies of much-needed energy and other material sources from the Middle East and Africa.” Neither is cause for hysteria, though Rasgotra feels India should do more to modernize its military. Indeed, plans are underway to spend nearly $45 billion to build 103 new warships over the next two decades while strengthening naval cooperation with friendly countries. Echoing Rasgotra, a western diplomat in Sri Lanka says confidently of the island off India’s coast, “This isn’t going to become India’s Cuba.”
Rasgotra adds that the Chinese “are beginning to realize that containing India is not a practical proposition,” and sees “signs of China becoming less aggressive, even less assertive, in its dealings with India.” China has seemed eager to downplay border disputes, preferring to focus on economic engagement. Trade between the two countries topped $66 billion last year, a figure China and India hope will reach $100 billion by 2015. To promote tourism, India is also considering a proposal to ease visa restrictions for Chinese citizens.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited New Delhi in May, on his first trip abroad since assuming office. After several days of meetings, and signing agreements on issues ranging from urban development to religious pilgrimages, Prime Minister Li declared that “our two countries fully possess the will, wisdom and ability to together nurture a new bright spot in Asian cooperation.”
Until China begins establishing military bases in Sri Lanka, Myanmar or the Maldives, Rasgotra will sleep easy. “There is a desire with China to get along, and I know there is such a desire in India,” he says. “Commerce will help soften political attitudes.”
As these two rising giants navigate the rocky geopolitical shoals, both countries would do well to remember the stone stele Zheng erected in Sri Lanka in 1410, not far from where a Chinese-financed shipping center now stands. Written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil, the inscription “invoked the blessings of the Hindu deities for a peaceful world built on trade.” Here’s hoping that out of the irritants of today’s maritime maneuvering, true pearls may yet grow.