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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Reclaiming China's "Open Sea" Foreign Policy?


Reclaiming China’s “Open Sea” Policy? A Critical Reading of Abdul Sheriff’s ‘Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam’

By Chambi Chachage

“The Indian Ocean, perhaps more than even the Mediterranean, was an arena of open dialogue between people of many cultures and religions” – Abdul Sheriff

If there is one theme that runs throughout Abdul Sheriff’s (2010) 351 pages magnum opus Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam then it is unity. Yet it is a book about unity in diversity. Yes, cultural, political, commercial – and even religious diversity.

The book is a 14 years work of painstaking historical research. It is profoundly personal as it is political. “I grew up in Zanzibar”, the author intimates in its preface, and “therefore became conscious of the intermingling of the peoples of the Indian Ocean which underlay the cosmopolitan character of Zanzibar, of which I was myself a product” (Sheriff 2010: xiii).

As “one of the numerous dhow ports skirting the Indian Ocean” the Zanzibar in which Sheriff grew up “was almost transformed by the arrival of the monsoon dhows and sailors from Arabia, the Persian Gulf, India and Somalia” (Ibid). It is their intermingling with locals as lubricated by what Sheriff regards as cultural and religious tolerance that informs his take on the subject.

Four parts constitute the book: (1) Regional Partners; (2) Navigation; (3) Dialogue Across the Ocean; (4) The Cultural World of the Indian Ocean. In total it has 15 chapters. For the purpose of this review they are revisited with respect to the author’s nostalgia for the unity of an ‘open sea’.

Methodologically the author aligns himself with Fernand Braudel’s concept of longue durée, as applied in the Mediterranean, to explain how the Indian Ocean forged unity over a long period of time. He thus rejects the long-held assumption that the vast Indian Ocean economic system was absorbed by the Portuguese seaborne empire in the 16th century. Yet he reluctantly agrees with world-system analysts that this intervention marked the beginning of the modern capitalist world-system which littoral societies, as he painstakingly tries to show, have somehow survived.

To Sheriff, “the Indian Ocean before the coming of the Portuguese was a mare liberum where continental states rarely tried to control maritime matters” (Ibid. 7). In other words, it was an open sea whereby sailors in their dhows traded freely across the small port/city-states without the interference of major empires of the time. Interestingly, he uses the phrase “free trade” to describe such oceanic commerce. One such ‘non-interfering’ empire which he glorifies, not least because of its current western demonizers, is China. He thus romanticizes its then foreign policy:

By the fifteenth century the Indian Ocean commercial and cultural zone had matured, and it was the golden age of many of the city-states around its rim. Into this world two major incursions occurred from opposite directions, that of the spectacular Chinese expeditions from the east at the beginning of the century, and that of Portuguese from the west at the end of the century. While the Chinese expeditions were powerful armadas able, if they had wished, to conquer many of the small city-states, they generally abided by the long-held principle that the Indian Ocean was a mare liberum. The Portuguese, in contrast, were crusading conquistadors determined to capture the spice trade of the East through armed trading and trade monopolies. They initiated what has been called the ‘Vasco da Gama epoch’ in the Indian Ocean, although they were ultimately unable to monopolise the trade of the vast ocean (Ibid: 12).

An explanation for China’s seemingly aborted imperialism, however, remains elusive. Elsewhere a notable literary critic of imperialism, Chinua Achebe (2011), explains it this way: “The Chinese had their chance to emerge as the leading nation in the world in the Middle Ages, but were consumed by interethnic political posturing and wars, and had to wait another 500 years for another chance.” Following Diamond Jared, Ian Morris (2011) thus resort to geographical shifts:

Particularly, two inventions the Chinese come up with in the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries have enormous implications. These are working oceangoing ships and working guns… They spread like wildfire. Within a few generations, the techniques that make this work have spread from China to the furthest fringe of backward Western Europe… Once you get the oceangoing ships; all of a sudden an important geographical fact abruptly changes its meaning. To get from northwest Europe to the Americas is about 3,000 miles sailing with the wind across the Atlantic. To get from China to the Americas is about 6,000 miles sailing with the winds that you have to take…Other things being equal, Europeans are simply twice as close to the Americas as the Chinese are. I suggest … that, given time, it seems inevitable that sooner or later there would have been a discovery and plundering and colonization of the New World from East Asia. But they don't have time, because the Europeans are simply twice as close…There are other factors as well involved of course…

In a way Sheriff’s explanation anticipates Achebe and Morris’ ones though it seems they hardly consulted each others. For instance, in tandem with the former, he notes that in 1424, by the end of the reign of the Emperor Yung-Lo who was behind Zheng He’s expeditions, “China was not at peace” (Sheriff 2010: 310). After noting gleefully that while Portuguese “crawled down the west coast, taking nearly a century to reach Malindi on the East African coast in 1498, it took Admiral Zheng He just over a decade to reach the same port in c. 1418, beating them to it by nearly 80 years”, he seems to agree with Morris by stating that the “difference was because while the Portuguese had to explore every inch of the way in terra incognita, Zheng He was cruising through a known world of the Indian Ocean that had been traversed by Iranian, Arab, Chinese and Indian dhows and junks, and charted by their navigators, for hundreds of years” (Ibid. 292).

Thus the move by what is regarded as the greatest navy the world had ever known to will itself to extinction within a hundred years is a fodder to the historian’s ‘if’ conjectures. No wonder to an advocate of its then foreign policy that “fateful decision” is thus lamentable: “But eventually the Chinese decision was to expose not only China but also the whole of the Indian Ocean, which had grown to largely peaceful trade for hundreds of years, to the rapacity of Portuguese armed trading without a credible response” (Ibid. 311). But, again, what if China did not retreat at all?

Naturally, another 'force' that the author attempts to defend from the ongoing western demonization is Islam. Interestingly, it ties perfectly well with his defense of the then Chinese foreign policy not least because the admiral he seems to so much admire, Zheng He, was “from the line of Muslims who had migrated from Bukhara in Central Asia during the Mongol Yuan dynasty six generations earlier, and his grandfather and father had both apparently performed the Hajj” (Ibid. 294) and “his own Muslim background facilitated his dealings with rulers of many Islamic as well as Hindu states” (Ibid. 297). His last expedition was even earmarked for Mecca.

It is not surprising then that Sheriff dedicates a whole chapter to the Indian Ocean as arguably ‘A Muslim Lake’ and therein he devotes a whole section on The Hajj – A Great Unifier and another one on Trade and Tolerance alongside The Hajj and Commerce. Of course as a scholar Sheriff is careful enough to present alternative critiques of such significations. After citing as varying sources as Ali Bey al Abbasi, a Spanish nobleman originally named Domingo Badia y Leyblich, who fervently witnessed the great gathering at Arafat in 1807, and Malcolm X, who changed his name to Al-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz after his enthusiastic pilgrimage in 1964, on the Hajj as “a wonderful institution in the interest of strength, unity and spiritual power of Islam” he cautions:

The exuberance of Ali Bey is understandable, but thousands of pilgrims from the four corners of the Muslim world obviously could not all speak Arabic. They spent only a few days or weeks in the Holy Cities and spoke at least forty languages, according to Burckhardt, […] even if they all prayed in the same devotional language and shared in the emotional unity of a single religion (Ibid. 248-249).

Nevertheless thereafter Sheriff maintains one of his main points; that Islam was – and is still – favourable for cultural, commercial and even religious tolerance in the Indian Ocean as elsewhere. As he puts it in regard to understanding the complex intersection of Islamic and maritime histories in relation to commerce: “Under what has been called pax Islamica in this sense over the vast region, merchants of all nationalities and religions generally found security and protection” (Ibid. 257). No wonder therein he is bold enough to join in this conclusion:

Hodgson rightly concludes, Islam ‘came closer than any had ever come to uniting all mankind under its ideals’, and represents ‘one of the most thoroughgoing attempts in history to build a world-wide human community.’ […] This was even more true in the Indian Ocean (Ibid. 258).

Time will fail me to review, among others, the chapters of the book on The Dhow; The Iranian Interval; The Era of Sindbad; Madagascar: ‘People who have come from the Sea’; Slave Trade and Slavery in the Indian Ocean: The Zanj Rebellion. Nor will space allow me to critique its sections on Piracy; The Superimposition of Roman Trade; The Persian Gulf: The Periplus' ‘Blind Spot’; Slavery in Islam; Hadhramaut: The Geography of Migration; The Swahili: ‘Oriental’, ‘African’, or Schizophrenic?; Mappilas: ‘Sons-in-law’ of the Monsoons and so forth.

So the best you can do, gentle reader, is to get hold of the book and navigate through its fascinating pages. Perhaps along the way you will untangle the mystery of why the mighty China, despite its then Sino-centric view and solicitation of tributes, it did not conquer half of the world that was within its grasp. In the meantime you could as well join in this conclusive eulogy:

Zheng He’s tablet in three different languages by the admiral of the then most powerful superpower, addressed to three different gods but making exactly the same offering to all of them, is difficult to interpret other than as a fine example of the cultural heritage of the Indian Ocean world before the coming of the Europeans (Ibid. 319).

China is back in the global stage with a bang. So is Islam as it grows steadily across the intolerant West. In the long run will the resurgent China entrench itself as an ‘empire without imperialism’? What about Islam – will it entrench itself as a global ‘religion without religionism’?

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