Five thousand pieces of silver, a thousand pieces of gold, jewelled silk banners, candlesticks, candles, scented oils, incense: In Tamil, Persian and Chinese, the great stone inscription borne across the seas by the Grand Admiral Zheng He recorded the gifts of Zhu Di, third emperor of the Ming dynasty, to Buddha, to the Hindu god Tenavarai Nayanar and to the Light of Islam. The Ming fleet “had escaped disaster or misfortune and journeyed in safety.” The gifts thanked the gods for their “beneficent protection.”
Vira Alakeswara, the Sinhala king, had reason to interpret the text in a different light. Five years earlier, in 1405 CE, when an enormous fleet of 62 Ming ships bearing 28,000 soldiers first arrived off Sri Lanka’s coast, Zheng He had sought to obtain the Tooth Relic of the Buddha—the signifier of the island ruler’s sovereignty. Zheng had since handed out gifts to local chieftains, and cultivated religious leaders.
So, Zheng’s inscription on the stone—dated to the regnal years of the Ming Emperor, not the Sinhala king—was a grave insult to Alakeswara’s authority. The king plotted his vengeance.
What happened next holds out important lessons for India and the Narendra Modi government, as it seeks to craft a strategic response to the economic implosion of Sri Lanka. Chinese President Xi Jinping has cast himself as the custodian of an imperial tradition, which once cast a shadow across what we now call the Indo-Pacific. The story is important, though, not just for teaching us about China’s imperial ambitions, but why they failed.
The high noon of Chinese power
From 1405 to 1433, Zheng led seven expeditions into the Indian Ocean. At the high noon of Ming power, the emperor’s navy defeated pirate king Chen Zuyi in the straits of Malacca, put down Sekender, the usurper-prince of Sumatra, and dealt with Indian kings in Kozhikode and Kochi. The emperor’s envoy, historian Tansen Sen has recorded, even ordered Bengal warlords Jalaluddin Shah and Ibrahim Shah to cease their raids on each other.
Alakeswara, who attempted to lure Zheng into an ambush, ended up being captured along with his family, and taken in chains before the emperor. He was sent back home but ousted from power.
“From that time on,” historian Lorna Devarajan reports an imperial chronicle as recording, “the barbarian nations across the seas showed themselves more submissive to the majestic virtue of the Son of Heaven.”
Xi’s plans to seek similar geopolitical deference aren’t a secret. The People’s Liberation Army Navy has invested in creating logistical assets from Djibouti to Gwadar and Hambantota. China’s naval capabilities have expanded dramatically, and it now has the world’s largest military fleet.
The cash-strapped Indian Navy, by contrast, remains at least a decade from its modest 200-ship target. Even the United States Navy’s budget has raised questions about India’s ability to counter the PLAN in the Indian Ocean.
Generations of Indian diplomats, scholar P. Venkateshwar Rao has noted, saw India “as the security manager of South Asia.” China’s growing economic influence and military power, raise fundamental questions about New Delhi’s ability to play that role. The question is: How should India respond to that challenge?
Sri Lanka’s debt crisis
To answer that question, it’s important to understand that China’s controversial investments in Sri Lanka aren’t the problem. From the 1950s on, Sri Lanka’s revenues from exports allowed it to generously subsidise food, health and education. The country consistently outperformed the region on its social development indicators. Sri Lanka’s economy opened up in 1977, drawing in generous flows of external aid, and allowing governments not to worry too much about raising revenue.
Aid flows began to shrink, though, from 1999, when Sri Lanka was declared a lower-middle-income country. The country’s long civil war, which ran until 2009, also strained government resources. Even though balance-of-payments problems had been a regular feature of Sri Lanka’s economy—the country had to take International Monetary Fund assistance 16 times since 1965—they now became more pressing.
The government, scholar Yolani Fernandes has shown, turned to commercial market borrowings to make up the difference between revenues and spending. In 2004, commercial borrowings were just 2.5 per cent of foreign debt; in 2019, that figure was up to 56 per cent. In contrast, debt held by China was only 17.2 per cent—and, on average, came at half the interest rate as commercial borrowings.
Last year, interest payments alone took up 95.4 per cent of the Sri Lankan government’s revenue. “For comparison,” Fernandes notes, “its credit rating peers Ethiopia and Laos have rates of 11.8% and 6.6%, respectively.”
The reasons why Sri Lanka kept borrowing are obvious. Politicians didn’t want to slash Sri Lanka’s popular social welfare spending. To make things worse, President Nandasena Gotabaya Rajapaksa put in place deep tax cuts, which led to an international credit downgrade. Then, came the Covid pandemic, followed by an agriculture-destroying decision to end the use of chemical fertilisers.
Even though New Delhi has been generous, giving Sri Lanka a $1 billion lifeline, it doesn’t take a genius to see no amount of aid will purchase a relationship that excludes China. Sri Lanka has approached the IMF for a bailout, which will almost certainly involve painful cuts to social-sector spending. That will encourage Sri Lanka to seek more investment from China in the future—not less.
But India still has a winning hand—if it shows patience and creativity.
The empire that failed
Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang had risen from poverty in the midst of plague and war to found the Ming dynasty. In 1373, his borders secure, Zhu advocated against foreign expansionism. “The countries of the southern barbarians are separated from us by mountains and seas”, Zhu wrote. “If they were so unrealistic as to disturb our peace, it would be unfortunate for them. If they gave us no trouble and we moved troops to fight them unnecessarily, it would be unfortunate for us”.
“I am concerned that future generations might abuse China’s wealth and power and covet the military glories of the moment to send armies into the field without reason.”
The fallout from Xi’s neo-imperial policies illustrates the wisdom of Emperor Zhu’s advice. Like in countries across Africa and Central Asia, there has been growing resentment in Sri Lanka against high-profile Chinese projects, which many see as benefitting corrupt elites. Grandiose investments like the Hambantota Port, or the Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport, earned China bad assets, not influence.
Instead of seeking to engage in dollar-for-dollar competition with China, New Delhi needs to change the game. Even though a South Asia Free Trade Agreement has been in place since 2006, a World Bank study has shown, the region’s countries still trade on better terms with distant economies than their neighbours. Intraregional trade has been choked by tariff barriers, connectivity issues and political mistrust.
Even if Pakistan doesn’t want to move forward on cross-border trade with India, New Delhi can move on, and deepen ties with countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Grand Admiral Zheng’s efforts, in the end, served no useful ends. Chinese traders and trade networks were already well-established in the ports he wanted and needed no naval force to defend them. As his ships turned homeward from Kozhikode in 1435, Zheng passed away and was buried at sea. Emperor Zhu Gaochi ended the expensive but pointless maritime power projection, leaving India’s world unchanged.
Praveen Swami is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.