Africa, India, China – President Obama “Pivots” on the AICHIN Ocean

Professor Nazeer Ahmed


It is an Ocean of oceans, the vast body of water connecting the continent of Africa with India and China. I will call this mega-ocean, “the AICHIN Ocean”.  In this acronym, A stands for Africa, I for India and Chin for China. The reader may, with equal justification, maintain that A stands for Arabia, I for Indonesia and Chin for China. It embraces the Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, the Bay of Bengal, the Straits of Malacca, the South China Sea and the Western Pacific Ocean. There are also smaller seas and gulfs that stand out due to their geopolitical importance, such as the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Tonkin and the Sea of Japan.   A student of history must look at this vast Ocean of oceans through a single lens, both to capture its historical interconnectivity as well as to emphasize the linkages between its littoral states in a shrunken, global village.

If a visitor from outer space was to visit planet earth and was looking for its center of gravity, he would have no difficulty zeroing in on the AICHIN Ocean. It kisses the shores of East Africa, Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indochina, the Philippines, China, Korea, Japan and Russia. Two thirds of humankind calls it home. And it is the most vibrant, most dynamic part of the globe in the twenty first century.

The AICHIN Ocean offers a fascinating panorama of peoples, cultures, religions, nationalities, races and histories. Many are the stories of human tragedy that lie buried under its waters. And many are the songs of human triumph that are sung on its shores. Most importantly, it holds the keys to the riches of the world.

Now that President Obama has decided to pivot the American military posture on the Western Pacific, it is important for us to ponder over its historical and geopolitical significance.  The implications of this strategic decision can be understood when we keep in mind that as late as the year 1700, the great empires around the AICHIN Ocean contributed more than sixty percent to the GDP of the world. India, under the Mogul Emperor Aurangzeb accounted for 22 percent of the world GDP. Ming China accounted for 18 percent. Japan, Indonesia, Safavid Iran and East Africa together accounted for another 20 percent.

Historically, the fortunes of Europe have hinged on trade with Asia. As Asia reclaims its historic role in the twenty first century, the AICHIN Ocean once again becomes the principal trade route for the nations of the world. Today, approximately 30 percent of world trade sails through its waters. By 2020 this is expected to grow to forty percent. And by the year 2050 almost sixty percent of world trade will be accounted for by the littoral states of this vast ocean. China, by itself is projected to be the dominant economic power of the world with India close behind. Japan and Indonesia will not be too far behind.

The heavens have blessed the AICHIN Ocean. The monsoon winds crisscross this vast body of water enabling the peoples of its littoral states to interact and carry on trade and commerce. In the Indian Ocean the southwest monsoons are the lifeblood of the India-Pakistan-Bangladesh subcontinent. As these monsoons hit the mighty Himalaya Mountains and turn around, the northeast monsoons set in bringing additional rains from the Bay of Bengal. These same winds connect Africa and Arabia with India and also Indonesia with India and Madagascar. Similarly, in the South China sea, the southwest monsoons flow towards the landmass of Asia in late summer. They change to a southeasterly direction in the late fall and winter. Cross cultural interactions take place as people move back and forth.

From the vantage point of history, perhaps the most significant of these interactions were those between the large population centers of India and China. In the first century CE, several Buddhist monks travelled to India to study Buddhism. Noted among them were Faxian, Xuanzang and Yijing. Some of the  Chinese monks traveled along the northerly silk route in the Asian landmass.  Others used the sea lanes through the Gulf of Malacca to Sri Lanka and India. Ancient India had many fine universities in Bihar and the Punjab.  The visits continued in later centuries. The noted traveler Fa Hien visited what are today Pakistan, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka between 399 and 422 CE.  The descriptions left behind by the Chinese visitors provide detailed and fascinating information about the peoples, cultures, philosophies and dynasties that ruled the sea lanes of the AICHIN Ocean.

Hinduism arrived in Indonesia with Indian traders in the fourth and fifth century. In the tenth century, the Chola Empire of South India established colonies all along the eastern shores of India, Myanmar and Acheh, Sumatra. The Majapahit Empire of the fourteenth century represented the zenith of Hindu culture in the Archipelago.

Islam arrived on the scene in the seventh century.  Active trade had existed between Yemen and Malabar for thousands of years. In the year 628 CE (AH7), King Cheraman Perumal (a.k.a. Sultan Tajuddin) made his journey from Cochin to Arabia, met the Prophet Muhammed (peace be upon him) and personally accepted Islam at his hands. That would make the king the first and perhaps the only Indian Sohabi (Companion) of the Prophet. There was intermarriage between the visiting Arab merchants and Indian women and a large number of people along the southwestern coast of India accepted Islam

Arab and Persian merchants established trading posts all along the coastline of the AICHIN Ocean, from Sofala in Africa to Canton in China. By the eighth century CE, the Indian Ocean had become an Arab lake. Arabic became the lingua franca for trade and commerce. Thriving on the Indian Ocean trade, prosperous cities grew up in Sofala, Kilwa, Mombasa, Mogadishu, Yemen, Hermuz, Gwadar, Surat, Cochin, Colombo, Acheh, Malacca and Canton. The piety, integrity and spirituality of the visiting traders appealed to local people.  A large number became Muslim. The noted historian al Masudi (d 956) records the existence of Muslim colonies in Malacca and Canton as early as the eighth century.

In the opposite direction, Malay and Indonesian ships visited Sri Lanka and Madagascar.  The people of the Archipelago were expert ship builders. They carried on a brisk trade within the islands of the archipelago as well as Sri Lanka, Yemen, Madagascar and East Africa.  Recent DNA testing has confirmed that a substantial number of the people of Madagascar carry Polynesian genes.

The contacts between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula were even closer. Africa was not only connected to Arabia through the AICHIN Ocean but had also the benefit of proximity. It had its arms open to refugees resulting from the political upheavals in the Islamic world. There are records of successive waves of Arabs arriving on the coast of East Africa (called the Swahel in Arabic) in the early years of Islam, in the years 686, 719 and 930. Circa 1000 CE, Prince Ali Ibn Hassan al Shirazi of Persia migrated to East Africa along with his entourage of courtiers and supporters and founded the kingdom of Kilwa. By the fourteenth century, Kilwa had grown to be the most important trading center on the East African coast.  Using the Astrolobe, the Kilwans developed precise maps of the Indian Ocean and used it to carry on a brisk trade with India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Malaysia.

Islam made its appearance in Sumatra in the eleventh century. It spread through the continuous islands through the dedicated and loving work of Sufi Shaikhs. By the fifteenth century a large majority of the people of Java and Sumatra had accepted Islam. The Hindu rulers of the decaying Majpahit Empire followed the example of their subjects. Thus it was that in Indonesia, Islam grew “bottoms up”, from the masses.  The rulers were the last ones to convert. There was no compulsion in the process.

In 1409 Raja Parameshwar of the Malaccas fell in love with a Muslim princess of Pasai, accepted Islam, married the princess and adopted the name Sultan Iskandar Shah. Love was the vehicle for the introduction of Islam into Malaya.

By the turn of the fifteenth century most of the Archepilago had accepted Islam. Hindu influence was confined to the island of Bali. Islam was spreading rapidly through Mindanao north to the other Philippine islands when the Spanish arrived on the scene in 1540, which arrested the spread of Islam and converted most of the Philippines to Christianity.

In the sixteenth century, the peace of the AICHIN Ocean was shattered by the boom of Portuguese guns. Vasco da Gama circumnavigated the Cape of Good Hope in 1498 and with the help of a Muslim Mariner, Ahmed Ibn Majid, landed in Cochin, India. The first trip was only a scouting exercise. He appeared on the scene again in 1502 with an armada of armed ships and blasted his way all the way from the coast of Zanzibar to India. The trading posts, hitherto dominated by Muslim traders, fell one after the other. By 1560, the Portuguese had firmly established themselves in Sofa, Kilwa, Hormuz, Goa, Malacca and Canton.  Only a determined resistance by the Ottoman navy as well as the Portuguese defeat in Morocco in 1578 at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir contained the Portuguese onslaught.

In the seventeenth century, the North European powers, the Dutch and the British made their appearance. With greater resources at their disposal, they muscled out the Portuguese. As the land powers of Asia imploded due to internal dissension, the Europeans extended their sway in Asia. India was the first great non-European civilization to fall to the British. With the enormous resources of India at their command, the British became masters of the AICHIN Ocean establishing themselves in East Africa, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Hong Kong. The Dutch rode on the British coat tails and consolidated their grip on the Indonesian islands.

The Second World War so weakened the colonial European powers that they could no longer hold onto their colonies. The initial victories by the Japanese army had blown away the myth of European invincibility and had shown the Asians that they too could be independent. India gained its independence in 1947. Indonesian independence followed after an armed struggle in 1949. The Vietnam War was an exception. After the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the Americans intervened. It dragged on well into the 1970s with tragic, large scale human losses. Vietnamese casualties were more than a million. America lost more than 50,000 soldiers.  The war ended with the withdrawal of American forces in 1974 but it left deep scars on the American psyche. Africa followed on the heels of Asia and was free at last in the 1960s.

Independence brought its own challenges including economic development, education, trade and building up representative institutions. After an initial period of experimentation with different economic models, the economies of Asia took off.  China and the East Asian nations led the way. Despite the shock waves of a currency crisis in 1997, Asia has regained its footing. Today, China boasts a GDP of S12 trillion measured in Purchasing Power Parity. India and Japan each have multi-trillion dollar economies. Indonesia is not far behind. What is more important, the Asian economies have kept up a fast growth rate while Europe and the United States are mired in excessive debt, high unemployment and political stalemate. In the next ten years, China is expected to overtake the United States as the leading economic power on the planet. Perhaps what is equally significant is that three of the top four economies of the world are littoral states of the AICHIN Ocean.

It is against this background that one has to look at the strategic decision made by President Obama to “pivot” the U.S. military posture to the Western Pacific. There are huge American bases in Okinawa and Diego Garcia. Other bases are going up in Australia, the Philippines, Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf. Whether the presence of such awesome American power so close to centers of Chinese economic power is a recipe for stability or instability, only the future can tell.

As far as the Islamic world is concerned, our vision must be to provide a spiritual base to the nations of Asia and Africa that are rising up to dominate the twenty first century. The essence of Islam is individual transformation so that humankind can discharge its mandate to know, serve and worship God. Conflict is not in the interest of Muslim states or the Muslim masses. Their interests lie in the development of spirituality, ethics, education, economics and mutual cooperation with all the nations. That is what will bring out the existential potential of the blessed AICHIN Ocean.