Friday, January 9, 2009

A String of 600 Year Old Pearls

Zheng He tablet Sri Lanka 1409
15th century Chinese ship compared to Santa Maria.

Chinese Admiral Zheng He

Zheng He Treasure Voyages
The Navy's New Map (Galrahn)

Intrepid blogger Galrahn, Master and Commander of Information Dissemination , which he has recently christened the HMS Shannon after a recent bloggers battle, Reloading All 38 Guns, has added map making to his many talents Navy's New Map.

The link leads to an article he wrote on the United Naval Institute Blog. USNI Blog where he notes China's latest foray into the waters of Southwest Asia and the Indian Ocean.

...One of the fascinating aspects of China’s emergence over the past three decades has been its efforts to learn from the external world. This has not represented a blatant aping nor an effort to cherry pick ideas from history or Western theoretical writings on strategy and war, but rather a contentious, open debate to examine and draw lessons from West’s experience. Two historical case studies have resonated with the Chinese: the Soviet Union’s collapse and the rise of Germany in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries....

Galrahn's comments accompany a link to an article China uses ports to protect trade lanes”: at at

What caught my eye was the map showing the current ports that China has been building around the edges of Southern Asia. They resemble ports of call, made by the most famous seafarer and eunuch in Chinese history, Zheng He who led seven voyages to Southwest Asia and Africa beginning in 1405 and lasting until his death in 1433.

A little over 600 years ago, Zheng was dispatched by Emperor Zhu Di of the Ming Dynasty to lead a maiden voyage into the Western Ocean (present day Southeast Asia) with fellow eunuch Wang Jinghong. The The Fleet was comprised of 27,800 men and women, and consisted up to several hundred ships. The purpose of the voyage were to establish contacts and collect tribute from the nations bordering the Indian Ocean. Zheng made seven voyages reaching all the way to the eastern coast of Africa. Zheng He: A Chronology.

My observation of historical Chinese strategy has been one of a country that seemed to be primarily concerned with collecting tribute and controlling trade routes to ensure secure access to the goods they desired. Their primary objective was to open contacts and gain access to resources or markets by establishing safe ports of call along the route. This latest move seems to be an effort to restring that 600 year old necklace of Pearls.

For example, during the era of the Silk Road in the Han and later Tang Dynasties, China guarded the routes but did not attempt to invade and politically control the far flung sources of the goods they sought. Like any great power, they insisted that respect and tribute be paid to honer their status among the nations of their known world.

Today, seems to be no different regarding this strategy. Major trading nations want to ensure access to markets by securing the sea lanes and in turn get a form of tribute, money or resources from those markets. China is awakening to that prospect and is knocking on the door of the other great powers with this latest venture. Do we consider them as a threat, or a potential partner? That is the question of the day.

During the Ming Dynasty, Zheng He's voyages were designed to do the same thing via a water route. No effort at holding territory or conversion of religion or political systems were attempted. Zheng even erected a tablet that still stands today in Sri Lanka, praising Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam, side by side. On it, inscriptions in Chinese, Tamil and Persian praise Buddha, Shiva and Allah in equal measure. No colonies were established, only embassies and trading posts in countries who deferred to China's perceived power.

This past month it was announced that China Will Fight Pirates Off Somalia. In a mini replay of Zheng He's voyages, Chinese naval vessels will practically retrace his famous route. Taking a page from his voyages it is noteworthy to watch this development to see if China follows the course of their two thousand year history of always choosing trade, over political and ideological control.

For those who really want their imagination provoked about Chinese naval capabilities I direct you to 1421 a where you can make up your own mind about recent claims about Zheng He's voyages.


pavocavalry said...

militarily as far as I have seen the chinese in terms of defence hardware China is no match for USA.

Good write up sir.

YT said...

I remember readin' some article by a CEO of a U.S. corporation like 6 yrs. ago. Well, more like glancin' at the paper some guy was holdin' while on a bus. Said C.E.O. was sayin' that there was much to be gleaned from the Admiral as relates to both politics & business. Dang! Just can't recall the C.E.O.'s name or which conglomerate he was in charge of.

Leon Basin said...

This is great! Such wonderful information.