China’s Long March to Historic Glory
By Dr. Patrick Mendis
With its assertive foreign policy, China has been striving increasingly to become a maritime superpower to replace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region. It started with Beijing’s historical claims to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands—called Diaoyu Islands by China—in the East China Sea; then China began claiming the South China Sea and building artificial islands and military bases in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands region.
Similarly, over the last 15 years, China has shrewdly been sending submarines and surveillance ships to the Indian Ocean. In Chinese literature and poetry, this body of water has historically been called the “Western Ocean” or the “West Sea” since the Ming Dynasty (1429–1644).
Notwithstanding that it has not yet been deliberately expressed by the Chinese government, Beijing might eventually rename the Indian Ocean the “Western Ocean” to impose its own lexicon, as historic pattern seems to suggest. Would it be part of President Xi Jinping’s “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and culture” in the new era to show the dominance of China’s propaganda superiority and global “wolf warrior” diplomacy?
Past Is Prologue for China
In the Chinese civilization, the East and South China Seas represent the two bodies of water in each of the four cardinal directions. The other two symbolic seas—Lake Baikal in the north and Qinghai Lake in the west—defined the boundaries of the Middle Kingdom since the second imperial Han Dynasty (202 BC–220 AD).
The nomenclature of “Western Ocean” or the “West Sea” started with the seven historic “Ming Treasure Voyages” of Admiral Zheng He (1371–1433). Demonstrating its unprecedented maritime superiority in the world’s history, the Ming armada reached more than 30 countries in the “Western Ocean” from 1405 to 1433. The Ming admiral visited Sri Lanka three times, reviving the Middle Kingdom’s cultural, diplomatic, and trade relations with the island-nation of Buddhist Kingdom that dated back to the Han Dynasty.
In his third voyage in 1409, Admiral Zheng erected a Trilingual Inscription in the port city of Galle in Sri Lanka for “a peaceful world built on trade.” Six centuries later, President Xi Jinping made his first historic visit to the island in September 2014. He described Sri Lanka as a “splendid pearl.” As part of his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi unveiled the Chinese-funded Colombo Port City on the land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean and signed more than 20 cooperative agreements with Sri Lanka.
With his vision of national rejuvenation, Xi has a clear mission of policy “connectivity” in the East, South, and West Sea regions that is interwoven with the thriving civilizational-state returning to its old glory.
Sri Lanka and Yuan Wang 5
The ancient Buddhist Island is pivotal to the master plan of the 2049 centennial goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the completion of its great rejuvenation. The earliest Silk Road that expanded from the Han Dynasty turned China into a cosmopolitan nation in the Tang Dynasty (618–907). Throughout two millennia, the dynasties of Han, Tang, Ming, and others have enjoyed a long line of cultural, diplomatic, military, and commercial interactions with Sri Lanka. The ancient legacy has now been elevated into a new height with President Xi’s “China Dream” and his means of achieving it through BRI.
After President Xi’s visit, two military ships arrived in Colombo Harbor in October 2014, making India and the United States concerned about China’s concealed intention cloaked in the BRI strategy. In its long march to historic glory, China also dispatched its most technologically sophisticated Yuan Wang 5 “spy ship” to the Indian Ocean and docked it at the Chinese-built Hambantota Port in August 2022. The mission of the “spy ship” was officially stated as tracking the Chinese rocket and spacecraft launches for its manned space program, the Moon and Mars exploration missions, and the deployment of China’s own satellite navigation system. For almost two decades, the ship has completed more than 80 maritime tracking missions, sailed more than 570,000 nautical miles, and docked in many international ports in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.
For China, the rejuvenation of ancient culture and the renaming of the Indian Ocean into the “Western Ocean” would hardly be completed without Sri Lanka. Beijing’s covert strategy towards the CCP’s centennial goal is continuous but gradually “phased” to advance the critically integral components of the East China Sea, the “reunification” Taiwan, the South China Sea, and eventually the Indian Ocean.
The Stealth Missions
After the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017, President Xi declared in a coded language that “we must deeply understand that realizing communism is an objective that happens in a historical process. It occurs in stages, one step at a time.” In May 2022, Xi again highlighted “the importance of deepening the study of Chinese civilization to enhance historical awareness and cultural confidence of the Party and society” to realize his national rejuvenation. He then added that “the program to explore the origins of the Chinese civilization has made remarkable achievements, but there is still a long way ahead as the successes are still preliminary and phased.”
Indeed, the success of Beijing’s great rejuvenation in the path of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is purposefully gradual, strategically phased, and wordlessly coded. Thus, the rejuvenation of Chinese nation is not limited to the CCP’s internal system of governance; it has now become “the most active and positive force in global governance,” said China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Departing from the former Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of “secure our position . . . hide our capacities and bide our time,” Xi’s economically, diplomatically, and militarily powerful China has now embarked on its long march into the Indo-Pacific region for international glory.
First, Beijing started claiming the Tokyo-administered five uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea nearly 50 years ago. Xi intensified China’s claims since Japan purchased the islands from a private owner in 2012. Ever since, Chinese coast guard vessels and military aircrafts have regularly entered the territorial waters of the disputed Senkakus. The chain of the Senkaku Islands as well as Okinawa was part of an archipelago of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429–1879) between Taiwan and Japan in the East China Sea.
China has historically asserted that its trade, cultural, and diplomatic relations have existed with the Ryukyu Kingdom—a tributary state of the Ming Dynasty and the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912). After WWII, when Tokyo entered into a treaty alliance with Washington in 1951, the United States built 32 American military bases on Okinawa Island that played critical roles in armed conflicts in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq, Korea, Laos, and Vietnam.
Additionally, for more than a half-century until 1945, Japan ruled Taiwan (also known as Formosa). The United States provided the security and foreign assistance to the island until the United States Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.
For China, the strategically valuable “unsinkable” Taiwan and Senkaku islands would also make a difference in its historical claims and economic relations. In the midst of emerging Sino-American tensions, all these islands are of significance to China—especially in a potential military conflict with Taiwan that is considered by Beijing as a breakaway province. The communist People’s Republic of China has never governed the island-nation of Taiwan since the Republic of China (1912–49) was relocated to Taipei in 1949; however, President Xi has repeatedly claimed that “resolving the Taiwan question and realizing China’s complete reunification is a historic mission and an unshakable commitment of the Chinese Communist Party.”
The South China Sea Strategy
Second, Beijing has also claimed the portrayal of the dotted U-shaped line engulfing the greater part of the South China Sea as its own. It was originally an “eleven-dashed line” claimed by the Republic of China (Taiwan) in 1946. The People’s Republic of China revised it to a “nine-dashed line,” which was used by Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai to officially declare Beijing’s claim to the South China Sea in 1958.
Since President Xi came into power, China intensified the artificial island buildings in the Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands region. China has now fully militarized at least three of several islands—arming them with “anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile systems” as well as “laser and jamming equipment and fighter jets” while threatening all nations operating in the South China Sea.
During Xi’s first state visit to Washington in September 2015, President Barack Obama expressed concerns over the Chinese militarization of artificial islands. Xi categorically denied any plan to establish military bases. He repeated that the “islands in the South China Sea since ancient times are Chinese territory” and China has “the right to uphold [its] own territorial sovereignty and lawful legitimate maritime rights and interests.” In his prepared speech at the White House, Xi cleverly outmaneuvered Obama when he reiterated that China is committed to “support freedom of navigation and overflight of countries according to international law and the management of differences through dialogue.” The Obama White House essentially followed Xi’s lead and honored China’s “Ménluó Doctrine” (a transliteration of America’s Monroe Doctrine) while trusting the euphemism of Chinese “dialogue” to deflect military conflicts.
In July 2020, the Trump administration announced China’s claims and coercions are “completely unlawful.” Soon afterward, the United States for the first time sanctioned the two dozen Chinese companies linked to the construction and militarization of “the internationally condemned artificial islands” in the South China Sea.
Following the initiative of President Donald Trump’s China policy, the Biden administration issued a detailed report on China’s “Maritime Claims in the South China Sea” in January 2022. It outlined Beijing’s “unlawful” claims that have put China on a “collision course with the Philippines, Vietnam, and other Southeast Asian nations.” It also rejected both “the geographic and historic bases for its vast, divisive map” of the dashed lines.
The Passage to the “Western Ocean”
Third, Beijing has similarly launched its most ambitious maritime phase in the historically claimed “Western Ocean.” It is the last frontier of the great rejuvenation for China’s naval strategy in the Indo-Pacific region. The Ming history of the “Western Ocean” has ostensibly been veiled but discreetly revived when President Xi inaugurated the China-backed $14 billion Colombo Port City during his historic visit to Sri Lanka in September 2014. The Chinese company that invested $1.4 billion has been given 43 percent of the 269-hectare (665 acres) of land reclaimed from the Indian Ocean on a 99-year lease. It is indeed noteworthy to disclose that a Chinese submarine and a warship docked not at the Sri Lankan government-controlled port facility in the Colombo Harbor in October 2014; instead, China purposefully chose to berth them at the Colombo South Container Terminal, a facility controlled by a Chinese developer.
The decisively calibrated action of two warships in the Chinese-controlled facility has sent a symbolic but geopolitical message to Sri Lanka. The Colombo government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his ruling family had either unforeseen the Chinese art of gamesmanship or willingly ignored a futile confrontation with the family’s benefactor.
The entire episode has a subtle historical precedent with the Ming-Kotte war of 1411. In his third voyage, when Admiral Zheng He’s massive city-like flotilla arrived on the island, the unexpected conflict led to the capture of the defeated King Alakeshvara and the taking of him, his family, and the inner circle back to the Imperial Ming Court in Nanjing as “prisoners.” Likewise, the fear of Chinese reprisal may have prompted the Rajapaksa administration to welcome the ships; however, the deliberate incident raised geopolitical concerns in India, the United States, and beyond.
In 2015, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi branded Sri Lanka as a “dazzling pearl on the Maritime Silk Road” in the southern strategy of BRI, reviving the Ming legacy of maritime superiority. The northern strategy associated with the cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty has become the Terrestrial Belt that expanded throughout the Southeast and Central Asia to Europe. The Belt is connected to the Indian Ocean by the economic corridors of oil and gas pipelines in Pakistan and Myanmar. The “unsinkable” Sri Lanka is central to connecting these peripheral land-based economic corridors to China while encircling India.
Belatedly beginning in 2015, the Obama administration began to revitalize its military posture within the “Asia Pivot” strategy and increase its engagement with India. The reactionary American strategy was designed to counterbalance the BRI strategy; however, the United States has long recognized the centrality of Sri Lanka to American security and maritime interests as evidenced by the bipartisan Kerry-Lugar Senate Report of 2009.
The Last Frontier with Yuan Wang 5
In August 2022, both the United States and India asked the Sri Lankan government that it not allow the Yuan Wang 5 ship to dock in Sri Lanka. With its struggle to pay the mounting debts to China, the Colombo administration conceded to Beijing’s pressure and allowed the “spy ship” to berth at the China-built Hambantota Port, which is similar to the Colombo Port City and has had a 99-year lease to a Chinese company since 2017.
With the increasing fear of Sri Lanka becoming a vassal state of China, both Washington and New Delhi have expressed serious security concerns over the visit of the Yuan Wang ship with advanced space and satellite tracking technologies. In its annual report to Congress in 2021, the United States Department of Defense stated that China was “pursuing additional military facilities to support naval, air, ground, cyber, and space power projection” and had “likely considered a number of countries as locations” for People’s Liberation Army facilities, including Sri Lanka. Indian media—Indian Express, Hindustan Times and India Today, among others—has widely described Yuan Wang 5 as a “dual-use spy ship.” The Indian government responded that it would carefully monitor any development that might have “a bearing on India’s security and economic interests and take all measures to safeguard them.”
With the signing of the joint communiqué for closer maritime security and defense cooperation in 2013, Sri Lanka has elevated its bilateral “strategic partnership” with Beijing to enhance China’s involvement on the island’s infrastructure projects. When Yuan Wang 5 docked at the Chinese-built port at Hambantota, Sri Lanka also allowed the Chinese-built Pakistani warship to berth at Colombo Port. New Delhi quietly viewed the coincidence of a Chinese surveillance ship and a Pakistani warship permitted in Sri Lanka as double diplomatic and military strikes on India. During the Indo-Pakistan war in 1971, Sri Lanka also granted the non-Hindu Pakistan the right to utilize the Colombo airport against India.
The anti-India sentiments in the majority Sinhala-Buddhist polity are deeply rooted since the times of Indian invaders to the island while the pro-Chinese attitudes are historically shared by the governing nationalistic Buddhist rulers. The current socio-political atmosphere in Sri Lanka suggests that the Buddhists and nativist leaders preferred the Buddhist-leaning China as opposed to the historical Hindu and Tamil invaders of India.
The Warfare of the Minds
In his article in August 2022, Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka Qi Zhenhong wrote about the “great history of the island” and highlighted the history of aggression from its “northern neighbor 17 times” and “colonization by the west for 450 years.” “Just like Sri Lanka,” Qi continued, “China had suffered a hundred years of humiliation from 1840 to 1949. Because of a similar dark experience, China has always been supporting Sri Lanka.” Referring to the attempts by India and the United States to block the docking of Yuan Wang 5, the ambassador claimed that Sri Lanka “resisted the rude and unreasonable interference from third parties.”
Indeed, China has the rights to conduct maritime and scientific research consistent with international law. Beijing reiterated that “China is willing to work with Sri Lanka to consolidate political mutual trust and promote the healthy and stable development of relations between the two countries.” In the center of crucial financial, economic, and political crisis in Sri Lanka, the rising tensions between and among China, India, and the United States are inevitably high in geopolitics.
The Yuan Wang 5 crisis sent a chilling message to New Delhi at the time of a long-standing military standoff between India and China along their shared Himalayan border that has claimed many lives on both sides. Since Sri Lanka defaulted on international debts earlier this year, India has provided $4 billion in credit lines to ameliorate the food, fuel, and medicine shortages on the island. With the multi-billion dollars invested in the Chinese projects in Sri Lanka, China has increasingly larger stakes on the island for reaching its long-march strategic goal by 2049.
Overall, China’s expansion has been successfully phased and strategically gradual from the East and South China Seas to the Indian Ocean. As military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu (545–470 BC) counselled in his Art of War, Beijing has thus far effectively used its ancient wisdom that “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.” If the triumphant China dominates the Indian Ocean, Beijing might then rename it as the Western Ocean for posterity to seal the success of its “great rejuvenation” and the restoration of historic glory.
Dr. Patrick Mendis, a former American diplomat and a military professor in the NATO and Indo-Pacific Commands of the US Department of Defense, is a distinguished visiting professor of transatlantic relations at the University of Warsaw in Poland as well as a distinguished visiting professor of global affairs at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan. A non-resident senior fellow of the Synergia Foundation in Bangalore, India and the Taiwan Center for Security Studies in Taipei, Prof. Mendis served as a distinguished visiting professor of Sino-American relations at the Yenching Academy of Peking University in Beijing. He is a former commissioner to UNESCO and the secretariat director of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs in the US Department of State. The views expressed in this analysis do not represent the official positions of his current or past affiliations nor governments.