Is it Indo-China Sea or South China Sea?

Published on Aug 06, 2022 12:47 PM IST
  • The article has been authored by Subramanyam Sridharan, member, Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS).
History records that except for very brief periods in 2,000 years, the Chinese trade forays on high seas have been few and far in between. On the other hand, it was the traders from India, Arabia, Africa, Roma, the littorals of the SCS and later Europe who came to Chinese ports for trading.(REUTERS)
History records that except for very brief periods in 2,000 years, the Chinese trade forays on high seas have been few and far in between. On the other hand, it was the traders from India, Arabia, Africa, Roma, the littorals of the SCS and later Europe who came to Chinese ports for trading.(REUTERS)

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 et al, the Chinese absorption of the SCS would take the Middle Kingdom’s ambitions to rule the world, several notches up and closer to reality. It is thus a cause for worry for democratic countries and littorals. However, a study of the ancient maritime trade and of the history of this region compel one to revise the SCS nomenclature.

History records that except for very brief periods in 2,000 years, the Chinese trade forays on high seas have been few and far in between. On the other hand, it was the traders from India, Arabia, Africa, Roma, the littorals of the SCS and later Europe who came to Chinese ports for trading. For well into the second millennia, India was not only a source of goods but also a trans-shipment point for trade between Arabia, Africa and China. The first time that the Chinese ventured out seriously was during the Tang dynasty in 10th CE. This was also as short-lived as a similar venture by the Ming four centuries later. The important thalassocratic empires in this region in the last two millennia were Funan, Champa, Srivijaya, and Majapahit. Several Indian kingdoms, especially from the south and the east, such as the Pallava, Chola, Pala, Kalinga and the Zamorins of Calicut and Kochi were involved in trade and diplomacy with China and other littorals of this region continuously throughout this period.

Traders used the monsoon winds to their advantage by employing multi-modal and multiple trans-shipment points along the route stretching from Africa to China. The Kra Isthmus was an important multi-modal point to short-circuit a long sea journey through the Melaka Straits. A variety of items was traded which included textiles, silks, spices, ceramics, aromatic woods, camphor, paper, herbs, frankincense, myrrh, gold, silver, ivory and jewels. Beyond raw products, technologies were also exchanged such as those for making alloys, sugar and glass products.

Unlike the tributary system that the Chinese want us to believe, the one along these sea-lanes of communication (SLOCs) was more a means to facilitate trade, like modern-day most favoured nation status, rather than a mark of submission to a foreign power as a vassal.

The trading and trans-shipment ports enroute flourished and became thalassocracies in due course of time. All these maritime empires were enormously influenced by Hindu and Buddhist precepts and practices. They followed the Indic mandala concept as the structural underpinning of a loosely-federated state. Sanskrit was the lingua franca. They had good relationship with both India and China, the important hubs at the twin-ends of the maritime trade.

The earliest such thalassocracy was the Funan Empire located in the Mekong Delta. It flourished from the 1st to the 5th century and was heavily influenced by Hinduism. The Empire dissolved for reasons of a new rising empire of Champa to its east and the increasing ability of the mariners to navigate further up the coast. The degeneration of China into warring states added to its problems. Although not much remains of Funan today, the place Oc-Eo on the west coast is a testimony to the Hindu nature of the Funan Empire. Funan laid the foundation for the Indic influence over the rest of the thalassocracies that flourished until the mid-18th century. Though Indic in nature, they were not established by kings from India through conquests and were organic and ethnic.

Champa which was also strongly influenced by Hindu culture and governance system rose in the central parts of present-day Vietnam. The names of its port cities Indrapura, Simhapura, Amaravati, Vijaya, and Panduranga attest to its Hindu influence. It reached its peak by the 10th century. In the 13th century, it collaborated with the Javanese Hindu Kingdom to thwart Chinese influence. There were other ethnic Indic-empires to its west, the Angkorian Khmer and the Siamese Ayuthayya. Ruins at Mỹ Sơn and Phan Rang testify to Champa’s Hindu influence as do the native Cham Hindus of Bacam even today. Though 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 vanquishing Champa.

The Buddhist SriVijaya Empire (7 to 12 CE) was centred in Sumatra facilitating the Guangzhou-Baghdad sea trade and controlling the Melaka and Sunda Straits. However, its involvement in sea piracy incurred the wrath of the mighty Chola Empire which not only had a flourishing trade with China but also a powerful navy. In 1025 CE, Rajendra Chola’s navy came around the Sunda Strait and defeated the SriVijaya and sacked Palembang, the capital and Jambi, the port city. The Tamil traders, known as Ainnooruvar (Five Hundreds) who were embedded with the Chola Navy, settled down in Sumatra and engaged in trade.

Majapahit (13-16 CE) was a Javanese Hindu empire of many mandala tributaries that succeeded the short-lived Hindu empire of Singhasari. They also defeated the Sumatran SriVijaya. Majapahit extended up to Papua New Guinea and shores of Borneo thus establishing the concept of Cakrawala Mandala Dwipantara, that is a circular mandala of islands in between (Sanskrit dwipa and antara). They defeated the Yuan Emperor Kublai Khan’s navy in 1293 as they were opposed to Chinese hegemony. The Javanese were excellent mariners, and the Chinese are said to have coveted their navigation charts. The Chinese never ventured out after this defeat until Zheng He’s voyages (1405-1433). Zheng He established the Melaka Sultanate which became Majapahit’s nemesis.

It was only in c. 989 that the Song Court allowed private Chinese traders to ply their trade independently, but their travel was restricted to only nine months a year and that too only up to Sumatra. By 1090, the Juerchen-Jin defeated the Song and private sea trade was banned.

After Zheng He’s seven voyages, the Ming court banned further sea voyages as the Empire was bankrupt. All ocean-going vessels were burned. Finally, the Portuguese captured Melaka and ventured further beyond, giving the sea the name Mare da China (China Sea), which was otherwise known to the Chinese only by the name, Nanhai, South Sea as China never had a name for their country.

Sea trade was restarted only by the Qing Emperor in 1683. The French and later the Japanese destroyed the Nanhai and Beihai (northern) fleets of the Qing Navy respectively.

The new capital of Indonesia being built at Nusantara, a Sanskrit word meaning islands in between (nusa + antara), captures the essence of Indic influence in the region. It is not for nothing that the French coined the term Indo-China after they discovered the hidden splendors of Angkor Wat and the surrounding areas of Siem Reap in Cambodia and many parts of Vietnam. The indelible Indic influence all over this region for at least two millennia, makes it more appropriate to rename the sea linking the Indian and Pacific Oceans as the Indo-China Sea (ICS)

The article has been authored by Subramanyam Sridharan, member, Chennai Centre for China Studies (CCCS).

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