For a glimpse of the future of Chinese maritime strategy, consider how Chinese thinkers view their nation's seagoing past—and its uses. The Pentagon's 2005 annual report to Congress, The Military Power of the People's Republic of China, candidly admits that "Direct insights into China's national strategies are difficult to acquire," owing in large measure to the secretive nature of the Chinese political system. The 2005 report takes stock of official policy and strategy pronouncements from Beijing, as well as the force structure that is rapidly taking shape at Chinese shipyards and other defense installations.1 Pentagon analysts must continue to devote their energies to such appraisals, but a broader perspective on Chinese military and naval affairs is in order. Ideas matter, and so does history.
The longer view is conspicuously absent from The Military Power of the People's Republic of China, but it offers American strategic analysts their best hope of indirectly sizing up China's intentions in the maritime realm. The void in Washington's understanding demands to be filled, if only because of its potential real-world consequences.
A figure from China's sparse maritime history—Zheng He, the "eunuch admiral" who commanded seven voyages of trade and discovery in Southeast and South Asian waters (1405-1433) during the Ming Dynasty—is molding China's maritime orientation and grand strategy. In turn it is allowing Chinese diplomats to shape expectations about how China will conduct its naval affairs. Beijing has woven Zheng He and the expeditions of his "treasure fleet"—named after the silks, porcelains, and other valuables it carried to trade with foreign peoples—into an intricate diplomacy depicting the rapid growth of Chinese maritime power as a new phase in a benign regional dominance that originated six centuries ago.
Why use Zheng He as part of a diplomatic charm offensive? For two reasons. First, Beijing evidently hopes to allay suspicions in Asian countries wary of its great-power ambitions, forestalling U.S. or Asian opposition to its bid for sea power. And second, Chinese leaders hope to beckon the attention of rank-and-file citizens seaward, rousing the populace for the grand seagoing enterprise they have in mind.
The Voyages of Zheng He
Students of international affairs group the implements of national power into four categories. The first three—diplomatic, economic, and military—are straightforward. The fourth, variously known as cultural or "soft" power, is less so. Soft power refers to the cultural attributes, ideas, and policies that make a nation attractive to other peoples and countries, creating an atmosphere of good will that helps national leaders muster support for their foreign-policy initiatives.2 The United States' open, democratic society constitutes a wellspring of the nation's soft power.3
Historically the leading power in Asia, and with its economic and military power on the rise, China enjoys large reserves of soft power in the region. Zheng He, who set out on his first Indian Ocean cruise six centuries ago, has proved an ideal ambassador for Beijing, helping Chinese leaders tap these reserves. Statesmen of countries far from Chinese shores now laud his accomplishments.4 And Zheng He has helped Beijing exert a form of soft power at home, rallying citizens accustomed to thinking of China purely as a land power behind nautical ventures.5 The core theme in China's Zheng He narrative: China is a more trustworthy steward of maritime security in Asia than any outside power—such as the United States—could be.
In effect, Zheng He's expeditions made China the first country to maintain a naval squadron in the Indian Ocean.6 His fleet was a technological marvel by the standards of the age. Compasses had been in use since the Song Dynasty (960-1279). Navigators knew how to calculate latitude and maintain a course to a predetermined destination, using charts accurate enough that many of them remained in use in the 18th century. And his baochuan, or treasure ships—essentially giant seagoing junks, equipped with as many as nine masts—featured some innovations that did not make their way into Western naval architecture until the 19th century.7 If a treasure ship incurred hull damage from battle or heavy weather, for instance, watertight bulkheads limited the spread of flooding. In contemporary parlance, this "compartmentation" helped the ship resist sinking. Or, if marine combat loomed, the baochuan were battleworthy, boasting incendiary weapons such as the catapult-thrown gunpowder "grenades" the treasure fleet used to overawe and defeat a pirate fleet near Malacca, then as now a critical artery for seagoing commerce.8
Born Ma He, the son of a Muslim Mongol family in Yunnan province, Zheng He was taken captive by a Ming army as a boy, castrated, and placed in the household of the future emperor Zhu Di. He won favor from Zhu Di through his cleverness. In 1403, after wresting the Dragon Throne from his younger brother Zhu Yunwen through bloody civil strife, Zhu Di
warships, and support vessels to visit ports in the China seas and the Indian
Ocean. Bearing all the treasures the empire had to offer, such a grand fleet
had never been assembled before, and soon every province became absorbed
in the mammoth effort.9
Part of the treasure fleet's mission, suggests Louise Levathes, author of a well-known history of the Ming Dynasty's maritime exploits, was to uphold the Chinese regime. Emperor Zhu Di worried that Yunwen would return to depose him from his hard-won throne, so he ordered the fleet to "comb the seas and either find Yunwen or dispel the unsettling rumors of his exile abroad."10
Domestic interests, then, furnished ample incentive to dispatch ships overseas. But Zhu Di had other purposes in mind as well. He hoped to use foreign trade to replenish imperial coffers depleted by civil war and, in the process, he wanted to restore and expand the "tributary" system, under which foreign rulers acknowledged the suzerainty of the Dragon Throne in return for certain political, economic, and military benefits. Exploring maritime Asia and negotiating diplomatic and commercial ties with new peoples would advance all of these goals.11 Tellingly, the waters Zheng He plied—predominantly in Southeast and South Asia—are the same ones that preoccupy an energy- and trade-dependent China today.
By Zheng He's day, Chinese seafarers had established two major sea lanes: an East Sea Route leading to ports in Java, Borneo, and the Philippines, and a West Sea Route leading to ports in Sumatra and the Malay Peninsula and to the Strait of Malacca. The Dragon Throne's influence permeated coastal Southeast Asia—a fact that is not lost on China's rulers today. The treasure fleet used the latter route to reach the Indian Ocean. On a typical cruise, the fleet would undergo intensive training before wending its way through the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea. Ports of call generally included Hainan Island; the Xisha (or Paracel) Islands; Champa, in modern-day Vietnam; islands off the west coast of Borneo; and Sarabaja, in Java. In July, when the winds turned favorable, Zheng He's ships would traverse the strait, ultimately calling at Calicut on India's Malabar Coast. From there the fleet would break up into smaller flotillas, scattering to exotic locales such as Aden, Hormuz, Jidda, and even modern-day Kenya.12
Zheng He's Military Role
Third, and closely related, Chinese officials contrast Zheng He's expeditions of commerce and discovery with the Western legacy of imperial conquest and exploitation. Chinese power, they suggest, benefits all peoples in the region. Declared Premier Wen while visiting the United States, Zheng He "brought silk, tea and the Chinese culture" to foreign peoples, "but not one inch of land was occupied."25 Guo Chongli, China's ambassador to Kenya, proclaimed, "Zheng He's fleet [was] large. . . . But his voyages were not for looting resources"—code for imperialism—"but for friendship. In trade with foreign countries, he gave much more than he took," fostering "understanding, friendship and trade relation[s] between China's Ming Dynasty and foreign countries in southeast Asia, west Asia, and east Africa."26 The overt message to countries queasy at Chinese ambitions: despite China's ascendancy in Asia, it can be counted on to refrain from territorial conquest or military domination. The implied message: Chinese mastery of the seas is preferable to that of the United States, the self-appointed guarantor of the Asian sea lanes.
In short, Beijing has used Zheng He to fashion a maritime diplomacy that bestows legitimacy on China's naval aspirations in Southeast and South Asia, mollifying littoral nations skeptical of Chinese pretensions; undercuts America's claim to rule the waves in the region; and appeases Chinese nationalism, helping the communist regime maintain its rule. This represents an impressive use of soft power.
What Does China's Zheng He Diplomacy Tell Us?
This maritime outreach campaign has resonated in Asia. Many Asian diplomats now lavish praise on China's ancient mariner, reciprocating Beijing's overtures.27 Even so, it is worth pointing out that China's Zheng He narrative is not good history, however effective it may be in soft-power terms. For one thing, today's communist regime bears scant resemblance to the Ming Dynasty. Drawing a straight line from the Dragon Throne to the Chinese Communist Party, or from the treasure fleet to the People's Liberation Army Navy, is dubious at best.
For another, Zheng He's voyages spanned too brief a time to draw any firm conclusions about the Ming predilection for Western-style colonialism. The encounter on Ceylon suggests that, had the Dragon Throne persisted with the tributary system over time, it might well have used force to uphold its suzerainty—giving China's oceanic enterprise the semblance of colonialism. Asian officials' readiness to overlook these defects in China's tale of marine grandeur bespeaks a receptiveness to Chinese diplomacy that escapes many in Washington, which since 9/11 has predicated its Asia policy on counterterrorism, scanting political and economic considerations.
What insights should American leaders draw from China's Zheng He diplomacy? First, that the attentions of China's leadership are now locked on the seas. Gone are the days of Mao Zedong, when Beijing was content to entrust its meager maritime interests to the U.S. Navy. Nor will China's navy be a pushover, as it was formerly. As China comes to rely on the sea to support economic development, it will deploy naval forces able to defend its interests. Second, Beijing will direct its strategic gaze not eastward into the Pacific, as many China-watchers predict, but southward, along the sea lines of communication that convey vital commodities into Chinese ports. These are where the nation's vital interests lie. Third, Beijing understands how to incorporate all elements of national power into its diplomacy. Like Zheng He, today's Chinese leaders merge diplomacy, economic and trade incentives, low-key shows of naval and military force, and cultural influence into a comprehensive outreach program.
And finally, owing largely to deft Chinese diplomacy, the countries of the Asian littoral do not view China with the same foreboding that grips many in Washington. For them China represents trade and investment. It is less a "China threat" than a means to economic vitality—the top priority for national leaders throughout Asia. Indeed, contrary to international-relations scholars' predictions that Asian nations will join together to counterbalance China's rise, some analysts confidently assert that a hierarchical order, resembling the Sinocentric tributary system crafted in large part by Zheng He, will reemerge.28 If history does repeat itself in such a manner, it will fundamentally challenge the Asian security architecture designed and sustained by the United States since World War II. America's overall position in Asia will surely suffer, along with its alliances in the region.
Washington should accept and even welcome Beijing's claims to leadership in Asian waters, which could advance mutual aims, while remaining wary of its efforts to restore Chinese supremacy in the region. At the same time, the United States must devise a more coherent grand strategy of its own in Asia—maximizing its soft power and realigning its naval force structure lest it find itself less and less able to influence Asian affairs or, in the worst case, shut out of the region altogether.29 If China's ancient mariner supplies Beijing with a way to apply soft power, he also supplies the United States with a measuring stick for China's intentions. Assuming the United States wants to preserve its own preeminence in Asia, it must watch for signs that China is deviating from the beneficent purposes embodied in its Zheng He-style diplomacy.
1. Office of the Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: The Military Power of the People's Republic of China, 2005 (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, July 2005), p. 9. See also "The Pentagon Eyes China's Military: Back to Threat-Based Planning?" IISS Strategic Comments 11, no. 5 (July 2005): pp. 1-2. back to article
2. Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004), and "Asia's Allure Lies in Soft Power," Straits Times, November 16, 2005, Taiwan Security Research Website, http://taiwansecurity.org/ST/2005/ST-161105.htm. back to article
3. Joseph S. Nye, "The American National Interest and Global Public Goods," International Affairs 78, no. 2 (April 2002), p. 238. back to article
4. In August 2005, for instance, a major conference convened in Singapore to commemorate Zheng He and his achievements in maritime Asia. George Yeo, "Speech by George Yeo, Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Opening Ceremony of the 'Third International Conference of Institutes & Libraries for Chinese Overseas Studies' on 18 Aug 2005 at 9.20 AM," HuayiNet Website, http://www.huayinet.org/happening/zhenghe/keynote.htm. back to article
5. On China's plans to commemorate Zheng's voyages, see "China to Mark 600th Anniversary of Zheng He's Voyages to Asia, Africa," Xinhua, December 4, 2003, FBIS-CPP20031204000165; and Joseph Kahn, "China Has an Ancient Mariner to Tell You About," New York Times, July 20, 2005, China Digital Times Website, http://chinadigitaltimes.net/2005/07/joseph_kahn_chi_8.php. Some youthful Chinese nationalists now reproach their government for failing to fervently embrace Gavin Menzies's fanciful claim that Zheng He visited the Americas decades before Columbus. Wang Gungwu, "China's Cautious Pride in an Ancient Mariner," YaleGlobal Online, August 4, 2005, http://yaleglobal.yale.edu/article.print?id=6095. See also Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America (New York: William Morrow, 2003). back to article
6. Bruce Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon: A History of China's Quest for Sea Power (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1982), p. 28. back to article
7. The dimensions of the baochuan are a matter of some dispute. Ming histories report that the vessels were 440 feet long and 180 feet wide—a ratio that would make them so broad-beamed as to be "unresponsive even under moderate sea conditions," in the opinion of one modern analyst, Bruce Swanson. Swanson contends that the treasure ships more likely resembled the large junks used in succeeding centuries, estimating their length at 180 feet, and he notes that ships with these dimensions would have been large enough to accommodate ship's companies of the size recorded in the histories. Others, notably Louise Levathes, accept the figure from the histories. Either way, the treasure ships dwarfed the ships sailed by the likes of Columbus and da Gama. (Columbus's Santa Maria was all of 85 feet long.) Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, pp. 33-34. See also Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 19. back to article
8. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 47, 50-52. back to article
9. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 57-73. back to article
10. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, p. 73. back to article
11. Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, pp. 28-33. back to article
12. Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, pp. 36-40. See also Frank Viviano, "China's Great Armada," National Geographic, July 2005, pp. 34-53. back to article
13. Viviano, "China's Great Armada," pp. 36-37; Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 98-99, 102. back to article
14. Swanson, Eighth Voyage of the Dragon, p. 39. back to article
15. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 114-18; Viviano, "China's Great Armada," p. 41. back to article
16. Viviano, "China's Great Armada," pp. 37, 41. back to article
17. James Legge, trans., Confucius: Confucian Analects, The Great Learning & the Doctrine of the Mean (New York: Dover, 1971), p. 170. back to article
18. Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas, pp. 167-78; "Strategic Opportunities: This Is the Fourth Opportunity in Modern History," Interview with Zheng Bijian, Wen Wei Po, March 13, 2003, FBIS-CPP20030313000067. back to article
19. Some 80 percent of China's oil imports, accounting for 40 percent of total Chinese oil consumption, passes through the Strait, giving rise to what Chinese President Hu Jintao has called China's "Malacca Dilemma." Office of the Secretary of Defense, Military Power of the People's Republic of China, 2005, p. 33. On China's demand for petroleum, see David Hale, "China's Growing Appetites," National Interest 76 (summer 2004): pp. 137-47. back to article
20. "Premier Wen's Several Talks During Europe Visit," Xinhua, May 16, 2004, FBIS-CPP 20040516000069. Wen sounded similar themes during a spring 2005 trip to South Asia. See Xiao Qiang, "Premier Wen's South Asian Tour Produces Abundant Results," Renmin Ribao, April 13, 2005, FBIS-CHN-200504131477. back to article
21. Reporting on the efforts of Yao Mingde, the official in charge of organizing activities to commemorate the treasure voyages, the official news service Xinhua observed that "Zheng He's fleet surpassed all other marine navigators of his time in scale, sophistication, technology and organizational skills in his seven sea trips, which were a great event in the world's navigation history." "China Launches Activities to Commemorate Sea Navigation Pioneer Zheng He," Xinhua, September 29, 2003, FBIS-CPP20030928000052. back to article
22. Hu Jintao, "'Constantly Increasing Common Ground': Hu's Speech to Australian Parliament," October 24, 2003, http://www.australianpolitics.com/news/2003/10/03-10-24b.shtml.back to article
23. Zheng Bijian, "China's 'Peaceful Rise' to Great-Power Status," Foreign Affairs 84, no. 5 (September/October 2005): pp. 18-24. Zheng is a close advisor to President Hu. back to article
24. See for instance "China Celebrates Ancient Mariner to Demonstrate Peaceful Rise," Xinhua, July 7, 2004, FBIS-CPP20040707000169. back to article
25. Chen Jian and Zhao Haiyan, "Wen Jiabao on Sino-US Relations: Cherish Harmony; Be Harmonious But Different," Zhongguo Xinwen She, December 8, 2003, FBIS-CPP20031208000052. back to article
26. "Kenyan Girl Offered Chance to Go to College in China," Xinhua, March 20, 2005, FBIS-CHN-200503201477. back to article
27. See for example "Malaysian Deputy PM Najhib Vows to Enhance Ties with China," Bernama (Kuala Lumpur), January 11, 2004, FBIS-SEP20040112000008; "Singapore Tourism Sector 'Wooing' Chinese Tourists," Xinhua, April 30, 2004, FBIS-CPP20040430000205. back to article
28. See for example David C. Kang, "Getting Asia Wrong: The Need for New Analytical Frameworks," International Security 27, no. 2 (spring 2003): pp. 57-85. back to article
29. China's ambition to dislodge America from its leading role in Asian affairs is already on display. In mid-December 2005, partly at Beijing's insistence, Asian nations held their inaugural East Asia Summit, excluding the United States. back to article