China’s interest in maritime trade dates back to early 15th century when, between 1433 and 1495 during Ming era, Admiral Zheng undertook seven ocean voyages to coastal territories of Indian Ocean and beyond. Historians credit him as well accustomed to battle and having sound knowledge about warfare. Over the course of these voyages, Ming China became a pre-eminent naval power and traded with then major centers of commerce such as Qui Nhon (Vietnam), Surabaya, Palembang, Semudera (Indonesia), Malacca (Malaysia), Galle(Sri Lanka), Cochin (India), Hormuz (Persia), Dhofar (Oman), Aden (Yemen) and all the way to Swahil (Kenya).

To this date, the size of ships in Zheng’s fleet (some vessels were five times the size of vessels sailed by Columbus to US and Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama to India), magnitude of the fleet (31 ships carrying nearly 28,000 men), routes taken, nautical charts used, cargo carried and countries visited are subject of keen interest amongst nautical enthusiasts. Interestingly, Admiral Zheng was born in a Muslim family and his father carried the title hajji. He was the great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar of Persia. In the 7th century, Sa’ad ibn Abi Waqas, an uncle of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), had travelled to China and established the first mosque.

Fast forward to 21st century, where we can overlay Zheng’s sailing destinations onto China’s ‘One Belt-One Road’ (OBOR) paradigm and the link of the past with the present trading interests becomes clearer. As an emerging economic power, China’s ambitions to utilise its abundant over-capacity to good use, its desire to develop and industrialise its less developed western region and promote itself as an economic powerhouse in its own right, as opposed to being a manufacturing house to churn out low priced products for more developed countries is well placed.

The maritime dimension of China’s OBOR paradigm has wider footprint emanating from its eastern seaboard and reaching out to a network of ports and coastal infrastructure traversing an arc across South East Asia, South Asia, The Gulf, East Africa, Mediterranean, and terminating at Piraeus (Greece), Venice (Italy), Rotterdam (Netherlands) and Mombasa (Kenya). The success of this paradigm, with potential to benefit the entire region, is heavily dependent on maritime security and un-interrupted flow of trade across oceans for the benefit of all people as stipulated in United Nations conventions.

More than half of world’s population lives in China, Middle East and Africa around Indian Ocean and flow of money and trade is increasingly binding countries of this region with China into a potential new hub of global economy. China has repeatedly stated that its burgeoning maritime strategy is entirely peaceful in nature and designed solely for the protection of its global as well as regional trade interests.

It is already the world’s largest exporter and second largest importer. It controls a fifth of the world’s container fleet mainly through giant state owned shipping lines. In 2012, 41% of ships built in the world were in China. Like all surges of trade in history, explosion of Indian Ocean commerce is not immune from strategic rivalry – a phenomenon which usually accompanies generation of wealth and resources brought about by trade.

Nearly two centuries ago, it was A T Mahan, a renowned strategist, who had cautioned that: “Whoever controls the Indian Ocean, dominates Asia. This ocean is the key to seven seas in the 21st century. The destiny of the world will be decided in these waters.” The Indian Navy’s ambitious plan to expand its fleet to 200 ships by 2028, adding a third aircraft carrier and US support to see India as a ‘key guarantor and net supplier of security in the region’ is raising concerns amongst littoral states and making people wonder about Mahan’s prophesy.

India, as largest geographical state in the region, has a special role to play in stabilising Indian Ocean but to view Indian Ocean as its backyard, can be problematic and not in harmony with international law which permits freedom of navigation for all. It is also a contradiction in terms if navies from US, Russia and Australia can navigate freely in Indian Ocean but eyebrows are raised in the case of the Chinese Navy. The usage of the word ‘backyard’ for an open and international sea is highly inappropriate and could be a source of conflict for which the onus would squarely lie on India.

While Indo-US ambitions in the region, coupled with the latter’s stated policy of “pivot to the east”, where sixty percent of US naval assets will be shifted, leaves no doubts about their intentions, there are no indicators yet of China’s ambitions to control Indian Ocean to the disadvantage of other littoral states. The “string of pearls” geopolitical theory regarding Chinese intentions to establish a network of commercial facilities in Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, with hidden agenda of military underpinnings, is unfair and, mischievously being hyped up as a “security dilemma” in the region. If anything, the success of “love bombing” campaign by Indian Prime Minister Modi in Seychelles and Burma in persuading these regimes to scale down Chinese presence - and China deferring to their wishes, further negates Indian propaganda about China’s hidden agenda of backing commerce with military muscle.

In a detailed analysis, the well reputed Economist magazine reinforces China’s public stance of its maritime strategy being mainly motivated by commercial impulses. It is quite natural for a country of China’s size and its clout in global economics, to have a global shipping and ports industry and facilities. Undoubtedly, such a strategy is double edged as it could be a source flashpoints for diplomatic tensions as well as create environments of huge economic stakes with enormous incentive for trading partners for peaceful co-habitation.

The Economist further attributes this anxiety about “string of pearls”’, more to India’s fears that Sri Lanka might dominate India’s trade while being a close ally of China. A revamped Colombo port operating at full capacity could relegate nearly all major Indian ports to a secondary status – or at least so goes the thinking. With only 22% of Indian trade containerised, a 28% handling by Colombo is too hurtful for Indian pride.

Within India too, there isn’t much support for “string theory” to threaten its security. C Raja Mohan, a foreign policy analyst, and director of Carnegie India, for example, argues in his book on Sino-Indian rivalry in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, that China’s port policy reflects a desire to get easier access for trade to and from west part of China. The globally expanded footprint of its mercantile marine warrants increased presence of Chinese Navy whose duties for the first time in recent years have been enhanced in a White Paper published by People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to include “open seas protection” far from its shores.

Launching of OBOR paradigm by China, of which CPEC is an important element since Gwadar lies on a strategic and critical intersection of ‘Belt’ and the ‘Road’, has provided unique opportunities for both Pakistan and China. It serves China’s interest in taking a shorter and safer route to its less developed western region through Gwadar as opposed to vulnerable Malacca Straits. And it also serves Pakistan’s interest of developing its resource rich but impoverished Balochistan province and its greater integration in the national economy.

There is now an unmistakable convergence of national interest of the two countries. The CPEC will also enhance policy co-ordination with neighbours, help trade facilitation and liberalisation, financial integration, and connectivity including that of people to people across the region. Both Pakistan and China want peaceful environments in Indian Ocean without compromising on safe and secure navigation of trade emanating out of and leading into Gwadar.

After Admiral Zheng famous voyages, the Ming Empire discontinued further forays into Indian Ocean due to internal power shift and resource crunch though trading continued for some more years. Whether or not, a continued Chinese interest in the ‘far seas’ would have had a different outcome of this region, as witnessed by later Portuguese and British expeditions, is now a moot point.

What is certain this time around is that there are compelling reasons and a historical opportunity for China to pursue the cause of prosperity for its people – including its extension to ‘open seas protection’ far from its shores.