The strategic community has of late been debating whether China, which claims the entire South China Sea (SCS) despite the UNCLOS arbitration ruling, could use its close ally Russia’s Ukraine template in the SCS. Unlike its untenable claims on Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, and others, Chinese absorption of the SCS takes the Middle Kingdom’s ambitions to rule the world, several steps closer to reality. Thus it is a cause of concern for democratic countries and littorals. However, the study of ancient maritime trade and the history of the region forces us to revise the SCS nomenclature.
History records that Chinese trade incursions on most seas were few and far between, except for very brief periods over 2,000 years. On the other hand, traders from India, Arabia, Africa, Roma, littorals of SCS and later Europe came to Chinese ports for trade. By the second millennium, India was not only a source of goods but also a trans-shipment point for trade between Arabia, Africa and China. The Chinese first became seriously involved during the Tang Dynasty in the 10th CE. It was short-lived, as was a similar venture by the Ming four centuries later. The most important Thalassocratic empires in the region during the last two millennia were Funan, Champa, Srivijaya and Majapahit. Several Indian states, especially from the south and east, the Pallavas, Cholas, Palas, Kalinga and the Zamorins of Calicut and Kochi were constantly engaged in trade and diplomacy with China and other littorals in the region during this period.
Traders used the monsoon winds to their advantage on a multi-modal and multiple trans-shipment point route extending from Africa to China. The Isthmus of Kra is a multi-modal key point to short-circuit the long sea journey through the Straits of Melaka. Various goods were traded including textiles, silk, spices, porcelain, perfumes, camphor, paper, herbs, perfume, myrrh, gold, silver, ivory and jewellery. Apart from raw products, technologies for making alloys, sugar and glass products were also exchanged.
Unlike the tributary system the Chinese would have us believe, these sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs) are a means of facilitating trade, much like modern-day favored nation status, a vassal power rather than a mark of submission to foreigners.
Trade and trans-shipment ports flourished along the route and eventually became thalassocracies. All these maritime kingdoms were heavily influenced by Hindu and Buddhist ethos and practices. He followed the concept of the Indic mandala as the structural basis of a loosely-compound state. Sanskrit was the lingua franca. They had good relations with both India and China, important centers at the twin-ends of maritime trade.
One such early thalassocracy was the Kingdom of Funan, located in the Mekong Delta. It flourished from 1st to 5th century AD and was heavily influenced by Hinduism. The empire dissolved due to the newly emerging empire of Champa to its east and the increasing ability of sailors to navigate further up the coast. China’s descent into warring states compounded its problems. Although there are not many remains of Funan today, the site of Oc-Eo on the west coast bears witness to the Hindu nature of the Funan kingdom. Funon laid the foundation for the Indic influence on the rest of the thalassocracies that flourished until the middle of the 18th century. Although Indic in nature, they were not established by kings from India through conquest and were organic and ethnic.
Strongly influenced by Hindu culture and administrative system, Champa rose in the central parts of present-day Vietnam. The names of its port cities such as Indrapur, Sinhapura, Amaravati, Vijaya and Panduranga attest to its Hindu influence. It reached its peak by the 10th century. In the 13th century, it cooperated with the Javanese Hindu kingdom to counter Chinese influence. To its west were other ethnic Indic-empires, the Angkorian Khmer and the Siamese Ayutthaya. Ruins at Mỹ Sơn and Phan Rang still bear witness to Champa’s Hindu influence, as do the local Cham Hindus of Bacham. Although the Champa-Guangzhou (Canton) maritime trade was strong, the eclipse of the Tang dynasty (c. 907) led to the now-liberated Đại Việt kingdom in the north defeating Champa.
The Buddhist Srivijaya Empire (7 to 12 CE) was centered in Sumatra to facilitate the Guangzhou-Baghdad sea trade and controlled the Straits of Melaka and Sunda. However, its involvement in sea piracy drew the ire of the powerful Chola Empire, which not only had a flourishing trade with China but also a powerful navy. In 1025 CE, Rajendra Chola’s fleet came around the Sunda Straits and defeated Srivijaya and captured the capital Palembang and the port city Jambi. Tamil merchants known as Ainnuruvar (Ainhundred) who were embedded with the Chola fleet settled in Sumatra and engaged in trade.
Majapahit (13–16 CE) was a Javanese Hindu kingdom of several mandala tributaries that succeeded the short-lived Hindu kingdom of Singhasari. He also defeated Srivijaya of Sumatra. Majapahit extended to the coasts of Papua New Guinea and Borneo, thus establishing the concept of Chakravala Mandala Dwipantara, a circular mandala of islands (Sanskrit वुद्वा and antar). He defeated the fleet of the Yuan emperor Kublai Khan in 1293 who opposed the Chinese supremacy. The Javanese are excellent sailors, and the Chinese are said to have coveted their navigation charts. After this defeat the Chinese never ventured further until Zheng He’s expedition (1405-1433). Zheng established the Sultanate of Melaka, which became an enemy of Majapahit.
It is only c. 989 The Song court allowed private Chinese merchants to conduct their trade freely, but restricted their travel to only nine months a year, and that too to Sumatra. By 1090, Jurchen-jin defeated the Song and private sea trade was banned.
After Zheng He’s seven voyages, the Ming court forbade further sea voyages because the empire was bankrupt. All ocean-going ships were burnt. Eventually, the Portuguese captured Melaka and moved beyond, giving the sea the name Mare da China (China Sea), known to the Chinese as Nanhai, South Sea, since China never had a name for their country.
Only by the Qing emperor in 1683 was sea trade restarted. The French and later the Japanese destroyed the Nanhai and Beihai (North) fleets of the Qing navy respectively.
Indonesia’s new capital is being built in Nusantara, a Sanskrit word meaning islands between (nusa + antara), capturing the essence of Indic influence in the region. It is not for nothing that the French coined the term Indo-China after discovering the hidden splendor of Angkor Wat and the areas around Siem Reap in Cambodia and many parts of Vietnam. The indelible Indic influence throughout the region for at least two millennia is more apt to rename the sea connecting the Indian and Pacific Oceans as the Indo-China Sea (ICS).
This article was written by Subrahmanyam Sreedharan, a member of the Chennai Center for China Studies (CCCS).