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 Chinese fleets were withdrawn into coastal waters.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.
This makes India nervous. India has been watching China develop what is called its “string of pearls” around the Indian subcontinent — the 21st century equivalent of 19th century coaling stations. China has been working on port arrangements, access to airfields, and special political and diplomatic relations with India’s neighbors in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Mauritius, the Seychelles, and Pakistan where China is helping to build Gwadar, a new port on the Arabian Sea.
India has toyed with the idea of offering its own naval protection to Chinese ships in order to lessen the need for such an ambitious Chinese naval presence in the Indian Ocean. China would never accept such an offer.
India sees itself as a rising superpower and regional rival to China. When India developed a nuclear bomb, some Indian politicians let it slip that their bomb was to counterbalance China more than it was to intimidate traditional rival Pakistan.
Southeast Asian nations are worried about becoming new vassal states to modern China. Many are quietly urging the United States not to pull back in the Pacific, hoping to keep a strong U.S. naval presence to maintain a balance of power. Japan, too, is keeping a wary eye on China’s naval build-up.
Now that China has passed Germany as the world’s leading exporter, and with China’s economy vacuuming up the world’s mineral resources, it was inevitable that China would want to develop a high seas fleet to protect its economic life lines. Naval power is also a symbol of great power status. But China’s naval build-up is going to rankle some Pentagon feathers, and ruffle those who perceive China as the one great threat to American military hegemony.
China does not have the technological edge it had in the 15th century, and its blue-water fleet is far smaller than America’s. No one foresees a naval arms race similar to the one between Britain and Germany before World War I. But the Pentagon is building up its naval power in the Pacific, transferring assets from the Atlantic.
The one conceivable flashpoint might be the Taiwan Strait. The United States has a commitment to protect Taiwan, maintaining that Taiwan is part of China, technically, but that any political union should come about peacefully. China, on the other hand, says it will not allow Taiwan to declare its independence. If China has a military aim beyond protecting its sea lanes and showing the flag in the world’s oceans, it would be to deny the United States naval control of the Taiwan Strait. In other words, if China sees a need to take back what it considers an integral part of China, it doesn’t want an American fleet to be able to prevent it.
It is in both China and America’s interest, and Taiwan’s too, to maintain the status quo as far as Taiwan and China are concerned. As China’s naval power increases the burden of keeping tensions low in the Taiwan Strait will fall to diplomats and politicians on both sides of the Pacific.