The Navy That Almost Was

By Lieutenant Michael G. Forsythe, U.S. Navy

A century after the end of its last naval buildup, China again is poised to expand its fleet. Certainly, the planners of the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) are examining the failures of the l9th century closely. Indeed, the rise and fall of the first modern Chinese Navy reveals some startling similarities to and—perhaps more important—differences from the current situation.

The central problem facing China's leadership throughout the l9th century was how to cope with the formidable power of the encroaching Western nations. After a brilliant 18th century, in which the non-Chinese Qing dynasty presided over a wealthy and powerful Middle Kingdom, China was forced to give ever more trade concessions to the European powers. Defeat by Britain during the Opium War (1839-42) brought many Chinese officials to realize that China must build a modern navy to counter increasing foreign encroachment. The incredible success of the British steamer Nemesis in thwarting the defenses of Canton and Shanghai illustrated the power of advanced foreign technology. 3 Unfortunately, the proposals made to the Qing emperor were rejected. 4

Only another humiliation at the hands of the British—the 1860 British march on Beijing in which the emperor's summer palace was burned to the ground—could give new impetus to the modernizers. The "Self-Strengthening" movement marked the first time that reformers actually were able to make tangible changes. Outlining their philosophy, Chinese scholar Feng Guifen argued that "what we then have to learn from the barbarians is only one thing, solid ships and effective guns." 5 To this end, the Kiangnan arsenal at Shanghai and the Fuzhou shipyard were established in 1865 and 1866, respectively. Guns and cannon soon were being manufactured at the arsenal, and in 1868, the first Chinese-built steamship, the SS Tianqi , was launched there. 6

Chinese self-strengthening was a subset of a final, Indian summer of the Qing dynasty called the Tongzhi Restoration. Increasingly, the reform efforts of this period fell to the governorgeneral of the Hebei region, Li Hongzhang. 7 In 1872, Li founded the China Merchants Steamship Navigation Company. He had a clear idea of the difficulties he faced:

The sailing boats, rowboats, and the gunboats which have been hitherto employed cannot oppose their steam-engined warships. Therefore, we are controlled by the Westerners. 8

Li Hongzhang knew that his modernization efforts would not succeed overnight, but he also knew that China would face further humiliation unless it emulated the efforts of the Meiji reformers in Japan. The Japanese invasion of Taiwan in 1874 added further urgency to his task: China now was being encroached on by an Asiatic power whose own reform drive had begun less than a decade previously. At this point, the government established a coastal defense organization that divided the fleets into northern (based in Shanghai) and southern (Fuzhou) flotillas. Unfortunately, the fleets were not unified and were controlled by the governors-general of the coastal provinces. 9

Once again, it took a crisis to convince the Qing government to take naval modernization more seriously. In 1884, French expansion into northern Indochina caused tensions between China and France to erupt into conflict. Knowing that Chinese forces were not yet ready to engage a well-trained, well-equipped European naval power, Li Hongzhang urged a negotiated settlement. Negotiations broke down, the French fleet sailed into Fuzhou harbor, and within one hour, the entire Chinese southern squadron (11 ships, 9 of which were wood) was sunk or on fire. 10

At long last the Qing court recognized the importance of establishing a modern navy. In October 1885, the Naval Office was established, with Li Hongzhang as one of its associate controllers. 11 Li's position as governor-general of a northern region also put him in charge of the northern (or Beiyang) fleet, which soon would come to be recognized as the new Chinese Navy. 12 Li had been modernizing this fleet since the mid-1870s, purchasing battleships, cruisers, and smaller warships from abroad to complement the support ships, training ships, and freighters built in Fuzhou or Kiangnan. 13 He also understood the importance of training. In 1880, he had founded the Northern Naval College, to complement an academy established in Fuzhou in the 1860s. Li also sent 35 naval cadets to England to study at either the Royal Naval College or the Royal Artillery Academy. In addition, hundreds of naval personnel were sent to Britain and Germany to sail newly purchased ships back to China. 14

Foreign officers played an important role in the Beiyang Navy. Most notable was William M. Lang, a graduate of the Royal Naval Academy, who served as chief inspector of the fleet. Lang was given considerable power to correct mechanical and personnel problems in the new navy. 15

Established formally in 1888, after most of the foreign-purchased ships had been delivered and an organizational structure could be agreed on, the Beiyang Navy by then had 30 warships with an aggregate weight of 41,000 tons, 120 guns, and 4,000 crew members. 16 Nevertheless, this fleet was destroyed completely in 1894, in the first Sino-Japanese War; it had been in a decline since the beginning of the decade.

The reasons for the failure of China's naval modernization program can be divided into four broad areas: strategic, political, financial, and administrative.

A good case could be made that Li Hongzhang personally was responsible for the modernization of the Chinese Navy in the 1870s and 1880s. Yet Li had a remarkably myopic view of naval strategy and power projection. Writing in 1872, he surmised that because China has "more land than water; it is more urgent to train an army than a navy" 17 —even though the history of foreign aggression against the Middle Kingdom during the 19th century clearly showed that most encroachments came from the sea. Li saw China primarily as a land power, and his naval strategy reflected that vision. China's fleet was defensive in nature—a coastal defense force.

Japan, on the other hand, fell under the spell of Alfred Thayer Mahan's writings on the importance of sea power and soon recognized the importance of decisive blue-water naval engagements. The aggressive Japanese strategy paid rich rewards during the 1894-95 conflict with China.

The Chinese strategic nearsightedness was caused in part by a chronic lack of vision and commitment at the Qing court. After the disaster of 1894, Li lamented the endemic conservatism of the Qing dynasty:

If we remain conservative, without making any change, the nation will be daily reduced and weakened.... Now all the foreign countries are having one reform after another, and progressing every day like the ascending of steam. Only China continues to preserve her traditional institutions so cautiously that even though she be ruined and extinguished, the conservatives will not regret it. 18

The Qing government acted only in response to crises. "When the heat was off, the effort at reform cooled down." 19 Such shortsightedness assumed its most shameful manifestation with the pillaging of the naval budget by the Empress Dowager Cixi to reconstruct the Summer Palace. 20 But the financial problems caused by such blatant misdirection of funds were only a function of the general financial malaise of late l9th-century China. Corruption was epidemic, and the lack of sophisticated accounting methods severely hampered long-term commitments to and assessments of projects. 21

The Navy's lack of administrative prowess on all levels most likely was the main cause of the Chinese failure. Strategic myopia, lack of political will, and financial troubles certainly crippled the naval buildup; nevertheless, by 1888, the Chinese fleet was at least numerically superior to the Japanese Navy. Modern battleships and cruisers had been acquired from abroad and scores of officers had been trained overseas. The Chinese naval academies also were coming of age. Unfortunately, the leadership at the top was woefully inadequate. Ting Zhuchang, the Beiyang Fleet's commanding admiral, previously was an army general, with little experience in naval affairs. After William Lang was ousted by political maneuvering in 1890, the Navy went into rapid decline. No one possessed his expertise in the day-to-day administration of a fleet. 22 By assuming that China's problems could be solved by grafting foreign technology and methods without making fundamental changes to the underlying society, Li Hongzhang also deserves some of the blame.

To be fair, Li Hongzhang knew China's modernization was not going to happen overnight. During his memorial to the throne regarding the establishment of the Chinese Merchants Steamship Navigation Company, Li noted:

If we can really and thoroughly understand their methods—and the more we learn, the more improve—and promote them further and further, can we not expect that after a century or so we can reject the barbarians and stand on our own feet? 23

That century has passed. One hundred years after the last formidable Chinese fleet was destroyed on the Yellow Sea and in Weihaiwei harbor, China at long last has the potential to become a major naval power. Modern China meets all of Mahan's traditional measures of sea power and is poised to expand her fleet. 24 The People's Republic has not yet embarked on a large-scale naval buildup, but if it does, it may include many similarities to last century's expansion. More important, the rise and fall of the Beiyang fleet highlights critical differences between the strategic position of late imperial and modern China.

Through profit-minded foreign firms, the Chinese fleet was transformed within a decade from wooden steamers and sailing junks to modern-looking battleships, cruisers, and torpedo boats. Clearly, the Chinese Navy of the 1890s was unable to use its modern force effectively, but the ease by which it was obtained is noteworthy. Today's PLAN, given the budget, also could acquire a large fleet of modern, Western-built warships. Just as Taiwan is acquiring French La Fayette -class frigates and building Oliver Hazard Perry (FFG-7)-class frigates from U.S. technology transfers, so too could the PLAN acquire the trappings of a state-of-the-art navy, as its recent purchases of Kilo-class submarines demonstrate. 25

It took several naval disasters to convince the Qing government to acquiesce to a major naval expansion, but a temporary sense of resolve created—at least on paper—a formidable counter to the burgeoning Imperial Japanese Navy. The second commonality between last century's experience and any future Chinese naval buildup will be a strong will to become a leading naval power. Despite recent saber rattling in the South China Sea over the Spratlys and the March 1996 tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the PLAN still is a second-tier naval force. Given the resolve, China's new wealth could finance a first-rate navy.

If the People's Republic of China finds the will to embark on a major naval buildup, the chance that such a venture will end in failure is much less likely now than a century ago. China is not the economic backwater that it was during the dying days of the Manchu (Qing) dynasty. By some measures, it is poised to replace the United States as the world's largest economy within a generation. 26 In the past decade, the PRC has made strides toward using the ever-increasing flow of foreign technology transfers more effectively. And China's Navy is becoming better trained, gaining experience from a huge merchant marine.

Chinese civilization places great importance on history and the lessons that can be learned from it. Without a doubt, Chinese military historians and PLAN strategists are looking back a century and analyzing the navy that almost was. We would be wise to do the same.

1 Fuzhou is in Fujian province on the northern reaches of the Taiwan Strait. Comparison of Fuzhou and Yokosuka budgets found in David Pong, "Keeping the Foochow Navy Afloat," Modem Asian Studies 21 (1987): 148.

2 Wang Chia-Chien, "Li Hung-chang and the Peiyang Navy," Chinese Studies in History 25(1) (Fall 1991): 63.

3 Jonathan D. Spence, The Search for Modern China (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1990), p. 158.

4 Wang, "Li Hung-chang," p. 52.

5 Ssu-yu Teng and John K. Fairbank, China's Response to the West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 53.

6 Spence, Modern China, p. 198.

7 Ibid., p. 218.

8 Li Hongzhang's memorial to the throne is defending the building of steamships, Chang Peilun's, Proposal of 1884, quoted in Teng and Fairbank, China's Response. p. 124.

9 Wang. "Li Hung-chang," p. 53.

10 Spence, Modern China, p. 221.

11 Chang Peilun’s Proposal of 1884, quoted in Teng and Fairbank, China’s Response, p. 124.

12 Wang, “Li Hung-chang,” p. 53.

13 Ibid. p. 56.

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid. p, 59.

16 Ibid., p. 60.

17 Li Hongzhang's memorial to the throne defending the building of steamships, quoted in Teng and Fairbank, China's Response, p. 110.

18 Li Hongzhang, quoted in Teng and Fairbank, China's Response, p. 87.

19 Ibid., p. 85.

20 Ibid., p. 89.

21 Pong, "Foochow Navy Yard," p. 143-44.

22 Wang, "Li Hung-chang," p. 59.

23 Li Hongzhang's memorial to the throne defending the building of steamships, quoted in Teng and Fairbank, China's Response, p. 109.

24 Mahan's six elements of sea power are geographical position, physical conformation, extent of territory, population, national character, and character of government. Quoted in Lt. Michael G. Forsythe, USN, "China's Navy Stirs," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, August 1994, 41.

25 Racing," Economist, 3 February 1996, p. 29.

26 William H. Overholt, The Rise of China (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), p. 346.

Lieutenant Forsythe is the International Plans Officer, Maritime Forces Atlantic, at Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Previously, he served as navigator on board the Mobile Bay (CG-53), forward deployed in Yokosuka, Japan. He attained proficiency in Mandarin Chinese at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.


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