Learning from Zheng He

Do historic parallels show that Sri Lanka must re-define its foreign and economic policies to face a multipolar new world order?

On 19 January, the Turkish military began an offensive against the YPG guerrilla force in the Kurdish-majority Afrin area of northern Syria, seeking to create a 30km “buffer-zone” next to the Turkish border. A US announcement of a future 30,000-strong “Border Security Force” in the Kurdish areas, led by the YPG—whom they have been arming to fight the so-called “Islamic State” (ISIS)—precipitated the offensive. Turkey decided to attack despite warnings from the US Government, a long-standing ally and partner in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). America’s powerlessness to act against Turkey is seen by many commentators as underlining its decline in the role of “top nation”.

Arab and Islamic studies expert Gareth Stansfield wrote in the Guardian, “Events in Afrin … have profound consequences for the west as it confronts the challenge of an increasingly influential, dynamic and capable Russia.” The celebrated American economist and columnist David P Goldman went even further, writing in the Hong Kongbased Asia Times, “It’s worse than it looks: Turkey cemented a new set of strategic and economic relation ships after defying the United States, its erstwhile main ally.”

Turkey is backed financially by two very different powers: Qatar and China. The former has obtained Turkish military and logistical support in its confrontation with Arab neighbours. All parties being American clients, the USA’s position in the Middle East has weakened.

China is the winner in this situation. As Goldman says, “All of the players are lining up towards China, where Turkey and Iran see their economic future.” Turkey is an essential hub in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative (BRI), and the latter is investing heavily there in transport and telecommunication infrastructure and technology. China is also supplying weapons and know-how to Qatari forces. Its investments in the tiny emirate have increased by leaps and bounds. Qatar, in turn, is the second-biggest supplier, after Australia, of natural gas to China.

A new alliance is forming, with China aligned with Russia and Iran; Turkey, Qatar and many other states being affiliated to the new power bloc. This brings Sri Lankan foreign policy to a cusp – should we follow the traditional non-aligned policy or should we align with the China-Russia-Iran partnership? Although US regional allies, such as India and Australia, are overtly hostile to China, they find themselves relying increasingly on its expanding economy. The BRI will intensify this dependence, giving China economic dominance in the Indian Ocean.

Voyages of Zheng He

There is a parallel in history, during the Ming Dynasty. In 1405, the “Perpetual Happiness” Emperor, Zhu Di, despatched a Muslim eunuch, Zheng He, in command of a fleet of ships on a series of voyages to distant lands, apparently to establish Chinese dominance over the major trade routes.

Zheng commanded a huge fleet of the largest ships built hitherto. His mission included bringing peace to conflict-prone areas, such as suppressing pirates on Sumatra. In 1405, Zheng He visited Sri Lanka, but received a rebuff from Vijayabahu VI, ruler of the depressed Gampola kingdom. He returned five years later to admonish Vijayabahu to stop quarrelling with neighbouring countries. This resulted in the defeat of Vijayabahu at Kotte, and his deportation to China.

In his stead, according to Chinese sources, Zhu Di sent back as king Yeh-Pa-Nai-Na (Epa), who changed his name to Pu-La-Ko-Ma Ba-Zae-La-Cha (Parakrama Bahu Raja). As Parakrama Bahu VI, he continued paying tribute to China for two decades. However, by-and-large, Zheng He behaved correctly and did not interfere in internal affairs. Sri Lanka experienced a renaissance under the Kotte kings, possibly because of improved economic conditions stemming from the Chinese intervention against piracy.

Attempts to pacify Mongols in the north and to conquer Vietnam in the south, combined with the high cost of Zheng He’s expeditions, caused China’s economy to flag. The importance of Chinese silk declined as sericulture took off in the West, reducing the importance of the Maritime Silk Road (the Mings closed the land route early in their rule). The Ming dynasty turned inward and began to exclude foreigners, ordering Zheng He’s fleet to be burnt and banning such expeditions. This began a Chinese decline.

Zheng He statue in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum

The Afrin crisis is milestone in the decline of the USA’s status. Writing in Britain’s respected New Statesman last September, academic, broadcaster and biographer Nigel Hamilton stated, America… is hurtling today towards Second World status.” It is an opinion shared by quite a few experts. This contemporary slump has parallels with the ebb of the British Empire, which enjoyed its heyday in the century bookended by the battles of Waterloo (1815) and Gallipoli (1915). The first saw Britain emerge as the sole superpower, the second the defeat of its forces by Turkey’s Asian troops. These dates had symbolic parallels in Sri Lanka. In 1815, the British swallowed up the Kandyan Kingdom, entrenching themselves on this strategic island. With Britain having no worthy rivals left in the Indian Ocean, the Kandyans found themselves unable to carry out the tried-and-proven strategy of balancing foreign powers against one another—the policy which yielded the Sinhala idiom “miris deela ingurugatta” (“exchanged pepper for ginger”). The British considered the conquest of the coastline and ports of Sri Lanka to be vital to their project of expanding into India. Although they had lodged themselves in Bengal and part of what is now Tamil Nadu, they only held small parts of the coastline between Mumbai and Chennai. Their capture of Sri Lanka’s ports in 1796 gave them an advantage against the French, which they exploited in their battle against France’s ally, the Maratha Confederation. The Maratha defeat at Assaye in 1803 made the British the supreme power on the subcontinent. Without Assaye, Waterloo would have been impossible.

Boer POW Camp Happy Valley Diyatalawa

Britain, then the “workshop of the world”, used its industrial might to bolster its empire, which seemed impregnable, even when in 1857, native troops of the Indian Army rebelled. The British crushed the rebellion, emptying Sri Lankan barracks of soldiers, who were rushed to India. Queen Victoria of Britain became Empress of India, ruler of “The Empire on which the sun never sets”.

However, by the turn of the 20th century, things changed. Both the US and Germany had caught up with Britain in terms of industrial production, and their industries were more modern. Although it remained the most powerful nation, Britain’s aura of invincibility dissipated in the face of the Boer War.

In 1899, the British went to war against the “Boers” (descendants of Dutch settlers) in South Africa. Despite capturing the main Boer towns, they had to fight a bloody guerrilla war until 1902, which drained men and resources. One estimate puts British expenditure at over £200 million, equivalent to Rs40 trillion today. The British Empire began its long fall.

The war impacted Sri Lanka. A “Ceylon contingent” (of Europeans—non-Europeans were not allowed) served in South Africa over 1900-02, of which eight members died. Some 5,500 Boer prisoners of war were interned in Sri Lanka, mainly in Diyatalawa. Their legacy remains: a cairn at Diyatalawa commemorates their dead; booru anda (“donkey bed”, i.e. camp bed) actually derives from “Boer”; and some, such as Henry Engelbrecht, who became game warden of Yala, left descendants here.

‘The Empire on which the sun never sets”, 1886

In 1914, the German cruiser Emden bombarded Chennai and sailed past Sri Lanka’s East coast, causing panic. Thereafter, mothers frightened their children saying “Emden is coming”, and Emden has passed into Sinhala usage as a term for a bad person. Engelbrecht was falsely accused of having supplied meat to the enemy ship, indicating how sensitive the British became to events on the island. This nervousness came about because the Emden challenged the concept of the Indian Ocean as a “British Lake”, to which Sri Lanka had been vital. The German Kaiser’s self-declaration as “Protector of Muslims” added to British defensiveness, so when the anti-Muslim riots occurred in 1915, they treated Sinhalese leaders heavy-handedly, causing a loss of trust between the colonial elite and the occupying power, laying foundations for a struggle for independence.

Within a quarter-century, anti-colonial agitators established connections with Britain’s enemies, the Left allying with the Soviet Union, the Right with Japan. Sri Lankans found that multi-polarity had its benefits. In the years following the Second World War, governments of the new Dominion of Ceylon were able to use the new multi-polar world order to carve out greater independence, starting with the 1952 Rubber-Rice Pact with China. The policy of non-alignment held good until the 1990s, when the collapse of the Soviet Union made the world unipolar once again, with the US as the sole superpower.

1815: Kandyan Adigars with British agent John D’Oyly

As a new millennium dawned, the US seemed, like Britain a century before, on top of the world. Then came the New York World Trade Centre attack. Subsequent American interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq became equivalent to Britain’s debilitating Boer War, beginning the US decline, exacerbated by the Global Financial Crisis. A 2017 study found that post-19/11 “credit card wars” cost $4.8 trillion (Rs740 trillion), financed by loans rather than taxation, so interest could add a further $7 trillion (Rs1.08 quadrillion) over the next 25 years.

These borrowings caused US foreign debt to spiral to the current $6.3 trillion (Rs980 trillion), of which China holds 20%, underlining Beijing’s financial power. The shift came into focus as early as 2004, when leaders at the APEC summit in Chile clustered around Chinese President Hu Jintao rather than the USA’s George W Bush. China overhauled the US as the world’s top manufacturing nation in 2010, and now accounts for nearly 20% of world manufacturing output. GDP-wise, China is set to overtake the US in 10 years (by purchasing power comparison, it already has). It is the next Top Nation in waiting.

However, the Chinese have learnt from history, and have vowed that they intend the BRI to be mutually beneficial with partner countries, and that they adhere to a policy of strict non-intervention in internal affairs. What does this mean for Sri Lanka? Following 8 January 2014, the new government attempted to deviate from the country’s traditional, non-aligned foreign policy, and drew further away from China. An economic disaster resulted. The West, which the government thought would step in to save the economy, remained aloof. The government had to lean over backwards to placate China, but trust has not yet been restored fully.

The new reality is that East Asia—not just China but also Japan and South Korea—has replaced the West. Our political leadership should take note of the changing global balance of forces, learn from the examples of Zheng He and Parakramabahu VI. Perhaps our non-alignment should be more nuanced towards the East.


Photograph by: Diloshan Leon

2D Illustration by: Leyanvi Mirando and Yomal Vajrajith Payagala