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Asia: China Rediscovers Its Maritime Heritage

China has been steadily building up its surface and submarine fleets in recent years A recent U.S. Defense Department report suggests that China is seeking to become a regional sea power. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this development is that it took so long. In recent decades, China has been exploring a maritime tradition that it largely abandoned centuries ago.

The Pentagon argued recently that China is steadily seeking to build up a blue-water navy with capacities that will go beyond intimidating Taiwan or staging power plays with other regional powers over disputed islands and coral reefs (For a related story, see Is China Becoming A Regional Military Threat?). The immediate purpose of such a fleet is to protect the sea lanes through which China's growing imports of oil and other raw materials must pass. Beijing's long-term objective, however, might well be to establish itself as a serious regional naval force with a possible eye to challenging U.S. maritime supremacy in the Pacific and perhaps eventually replace the Americans as the most powerful maritime power in east Asia.

Some Chinese military leaders speak in terms of China's future being "on the oceans" in terms that recall the speeches and writings of leading politicians, publicists, and military figures in the major imperialist countries a century ago. In fact, once Japan embarked on its reforms in the 1860s geared to propel it into the ranks of the world's major powers, one of its primary aims was to acquire a first-class navy. It succeeded in doing so to the point that it defeated China and then Russia in the decades prior to World War I and then handily mopped up the German colonies in the Pacific during that conflict. The large and modern imperial Japanese Navy was crushed by the Allies during World War II, but only after some impressive victories and hard-fought battles.

China in the last decades of the Qing Dynasty, which was overthrown in 1911, took a rather different course. Like Japan at that time, the late Qing also had some "modernizers" in the government, although they scarcely directed national policy. China nonetheless began building up a modern navy in the 1870s at a time when its territorial integrity and sovereignty were seriously threatened by foreign maritime powers. Ships and equipment were purchased abroad -- mainly from Great Britain and Germany -- but the fleet was poorly funded and often lacked even shells and gunpowder.

In a stunning example of how poorly the Qing under Empress Dowager Cixi were able to recognize and respond to the threats China faced at the time, money raised for the navy in the 1880s was diverted to build a new royal summer palace -- complete with a stone ship in the middle of a lake. The Chinese Navy, accordingly, posed little threat to Japan in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95. By 1898, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, and Germany all had "spheres of influence" in China that included their own ports and naval bases.

Such a lack of attentiveness to maritime pursuits might seem odd in a country with a history of statehood going back millennia, a martial tradition, a flair for commerce, a lengthy coastline, a distinct naval architecture, and a long history of overseas emigration, legal and otherwise. Indeed, the Chinese military tradition generally included a naval component, although it was not a paramount one. The Chinese Empire, however, was always a land empire with tributary states on its periphery. It did not include distant overseas possessions like those of the European colonial powers or even imperial Japan in the decades before World War II.

A Brief Naval Tradition

It is perhaps most remarkable that throughout its long history, China was master of Asian waters for a period of only about three decades, from 1405-33. It was during that period that Admiral Zheng He, a court eunuch from China's Muslim population, carried out seven voyages, primarily in the China Sea and the Indian Ocean. His trips took him to areas ranging from Taiwan to present-day Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf, and east Africa. Zheng navigated with a compass and by the stars, and speculation has it that he might have even reached Australia.

Two striking aspects about his voyages were the huge size of his fleets and how soon after his last voyage China's short-lived sea-faring tradition came to an end, halted by changes in imperial policy. Zheng's so-called Treasure Fleets included up to 300 ships of varying sizes and types with a total crew of up to 27,000 men on his last voyage, according to Louise Levathes in her 1994 book "When China Ruled The Seas." Although precise information on Zheng's fleet is incomplete, she argues that his principal ships were bigger by far than anything in contemporary Europe, being about 130 meters long, compared to Christopher Columbus' "Santa Maria," which was less than 30 meters long.

The Treasure Fleets appropriately carried the finest Chinese porcelains, lacquers, silks, and other goods, and returned with products from afar, including Arabian horses, a giraffe, and other exotic specimens. But U.S. Ming Dynasty scholar Charles Hucker argues that the main purpose of the expeditions was not trade but diplomacy. Zheng sought to enlist local rulers into the Chinese tributary system, whether they fully understood this or not. Zheng himself, like Columbus, often did not really know where he was, and believed that India was part of the Middle East and that Christianity and Islam, as well as Buddhism, originated there.

Levathes writes that Zheng's descendants believe he died and was buried at sea toward the end of his seventh voyage. By 1436, a new emperor held back money on construction at shipyards as wasteful. The fleet soon declined in size and power, and eventually could no longer provide security for official trade missions. By 1500 a ban was in place on the construction of ships with more than two masts (Zheng's ships might have had up to nine masts), and finally in 1525, an imperial edict ordered the authorities to destroy all ocean-going junks and the arrest of the merchants who used them. One year later, it became a crime to go to sea in a ship with more than one mast.

Levathes ascribes the changes in maritime policy to internal economic changes and convulsions in court politics, but the effect proved very long lasting. Some observers have been tempted to draw a parallel between China's one-off attempt at major maritime exploration and the Chinese approach to scientific discovery, which has produced some great inventions like paper and gunpowder but never followed up by developing a Western-style scientific method.

In any event, Beijing's current rulers have reinvented Zheng as a national icon. The 580th anniversary of his first voyage was marked in 1985, and major celebrations are taking place in 2005 to honor the 600th anniversary. Given the ongoing expansion of the Chinese Navy, this will probably not be the last year that Beijing trumpets the exploits of Zheng as an important part of China's heritage.