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China's growing might and the spirit of Zheng He

Philip Bowring

TUESDAY, AUGUST 2, 2005
HONG KONG The United States and the countries of Southeast Asia are struggling to know how to respond to the rapid growth of China's military power. Is it the natural outcome of China's economic growth, or does it presage a desire on China's part to throw its weight around in world affairs?
 
The recent Pentagon report to Congress on China's armed forces, and last week's meeting in Laos of ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, were both testimony to the dilemmas faced by big and small nations alike as the benefits of commerce with China are undercut by fears that Beijing is building military capability far too fast for others' comfort.
 
There is little guide from history as to how the significance of China's possession of nuclear armed long range ballistic missiles will affect its relationship with the United States. Is this a case, as with the U.S.-Soviet confrontation, of a strategic impasse created by mutually assured destruction? Or will China's willingness at some future date to threaten nuclear war over Taiwan prove decisive in driving U.S. power from the western Pacific?
 
Southeast Asia, on the other hand, does present an historical precedent - one that should be attracting particular attention in 2005. This year is the 600th anniversary of the first of seven great voyages to south and west by China's most famous admiral, Zheng He. The anniversary is being widely celebrated inside and outside China with exhibitions and articles. The Beijing leadership has paid tribute to the outward-looking policies of the Ming dynasty during the 15th century, suggesting that today's commercial engagement with the world was in the same spirit of trade and openness.
 
Zheng He is presented by China as a remarkable commander whose voyages of exploration and goodwill led to the exchange of knowledge and goods as far afield as the east coast of Africa. (Chinese historians generally do not subscribe to the ill-supported claims in the best-selling "1421: The Year China Discovered America" that Zheng He got there 71 years before Columbus).
 
Zheng He was indeed a remarkable man, but he was neither an "ambassador of peace and friendship" nor a one-off explorer-navigator. His expeditions, which followed lesser ones by the Mongol Yuan dynasty, were military. He was merely the most famous of a number of Chinese admirals who carried out the expansionist policies of the Ming dynasty for most of the 15th century. This had huge consequences not only for the geopolitics of the region but also for its demographics, the region having hitherto been more subject to Indian than Chinese cultural influence.
 
This movement paralleled expansion of Chinese territory in the north and west. But whereas China there faced real military threats from the Mongols, its southward expansion - made possible by its combination of shipbuilding technology and sheer size - was driven by a desire for commercial and political hegemony.
 
On land this included the annexation of Yunnan, a partially successful attempt to control Vietnam and interference in the affairs of Burma. By sea it took the form of expeditions to achieve "regime change" among the small political entities of Southeast Asia, including detaching the trading states of Sumatra from allegiance to the Java-based Majapahit empire. The military forces of Zheng He and others overthrew rulers as far away as Sri Lanka who would not submit to Ming hegemony, installing puppets in their place.
 
Military might ensured Chinese imperial control of the trade between these entities and China, which forced them to pay tribute as a condition for continuing to trade. Trade did indeed flourish with Southeast Asia, which acquired a taste for Chinese manufactured goods; China, for its part, took to imported opium, birds' nests and peanuts.
 
In the wake of the imperial fleets went traders and adventurers who established the permanent connections between southern coastal China and Southeast Asia. Chinese gradually took the place of Arab, Indian and Bugis traders. The connections continued after Beijing lost interest in the south seas. The Europeans took their place as feudal overlords but individual Chinese remained to dominate commerce.
 
History may not repeat itself. At the peak of the Ming dynasty, China really was a dominant power, more like the United States today than China today. There was no power in either Japan or India to challenge Ming naval hegemony. But the lure of trade with China and the ease with which China was able to play divide-and-rule games in Southeast Asia has lessons for today's Asean countries.
 
China may prove to be a gentle giant, but the anniversary of Zheng He's first voyage should also be a reminder that Ming policy expanded China's geographical and tributary claims. These are found in its claims to the whole of the South China Sea, used to justify its seizure of islands from Vietnam, and Ming-era assumptions of the superiority of Chinese civilization over its Malay and Indian counterparts.
 
 
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