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Beijing's plans to increase its power in the oceans hark back to the 15th century, when it wielded naval superiority.
BOSTON — Six hundred years ago, several decades before the coming of the Europeans into Asian waters, China mounted seven ambitious maritime expeditions to South East Asia, through the Malacca Strait into the Indian Ocean — even to the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf.
In what historians have called “spectacular displays of power,” these expeditions not only impressed, and in some cases intimidated China’s neighbors, they also opened up trade into regions where China’s reach had been slight or non-existent before.
Now China is preparing to expand its navy and send its ships around the world as part of its new status as a world economic power. With the announcement that it will launch a “far sea defense” the Chinese military gave the world notice that it intends to project its naval power to distant ports that are sources of vital oil and raw materials.
Back in the 1400s, China’s fleets in the early years of the Ming Dynasty were technologically superior to anything else in the world. China had invented the sternpost rudder 1,200 years before it appeared in Europe, and some of their junks were 400 feet long, with four decks and four to six masts, double planking, and water-tight compartments.
Those Chinese naval expeditions were led by a eunuch admiral, Zheng He (or Cheng Ho depending on your transliteration), who was also a Muslim.
From 1405 until 1433 China’s maritime power extended the tribute system far beyond its borders, a system in which China’s neighbors would recognize Chinese superiority. For the Ming held the largest and richest empire in the world.
“In no other realm was there such a huge population, so many great cities, such a high standard of living,” wrote Maurice Collis of China in the 1400s. “Everything that men could desire was supplied in superfluity by the most talented artisans.”
Then, just as suddenly as it began, China’s maritime prowess came to an end. Chinese fleets were withdrawn into coastal waters. China became a continental power, concentrating on its armies and holding China together. Never again would China project naval power so far afield; until now.
Today, as China’s Deputy Commander of the East Fleet, Rear Admiral Zhang Huachen, put it: “With our naval strategy changing now, we are going from coastal defense to far sea defense.”
Because so much of China’s oil comes from the Persian Gulf through the Malacca Strait, China’s naval ambitions closely track the path their eunuch admiral blazed in the 15th century. No longer will China be content to let the U.S. Navy be the guarantor of world shipping lanes.