There is an uncanny resemblance between today’s China and the voyages of Zheng He in the early 15th century. The specific parallel I have in mind is China’s Belt and Road initiative, which is being celebrated by the May 14-15 summit meeting in Beijing of 23 leaders of nations along the routes.
Back in the 15th century, those early Ming expeditions were equally globe-spanning. At the time, they were led by a eunuch commander who was a captive Muslim of Arab and Mongol extraction. He had risen to his post because he had proved his ability in helping the usurping Hongle emperor Zhu De to the throne.
Zheng He’s voyages were the first, and till now last, concerted effort by China to exert its influence by sea far beyond its own coastline – though 100 years earlier Kublai Khan had tried and failed to invade Java.
Then as now detachments or whole fleets from the seven voyages between 1405 and 1435 at some point touched every significant port in Southeast Asia, the Bay of Bengal, Sri Lanka, the coasts of India and Arabia and east Africa to Malindi in northern Kenya.
Today, Zheng He’s exploits are billed by China as example of peaceful diplomacy, trade development and seafaring and navigational prowess. That they were suddenly ended is viewed as a great error, turning China inward again and making it easier for the Portuguese, who were a leading power in the Indian ocean by the end of the century and then other Europeans to gradually gain maritime supremacy.
Myth vs. economics
The reality is that the voyages were abandoned because of their extraordinarily high cost and, excursion aside, the lack of serious purpose. They were initially abandoned in 1424 when Emperor Zhu De died. One more was later permitted, but thereafter the voyages were seen as a useless extravagance.
Each comprised dozens of ships and 25,000 to 30,000 men, mostly carrying sailors, soldiers and their own supplies, not trade goods.
PR exercise or cultural diplomacy
Their trade benefits were modest as was their contribution to state security. Threats to China came from the north and west, as Zhu De himself acknowledged by moving the capital from Nanjing to Beijing. Seaborne trade (almost all conducted by non-Chinese) between southeast Asia and India had operated well enough for centuries. The ships were said to be huge, but so were the Javanese junks first encountered by the Portuguese.
The main objective of the voyages was to impress the many small, trade-dependent states that flourished along the shores of the southern and western seas. This they duly did, with Zheng He obtaining the submission of a long list of rulers to the overlordship of the Chinese emperor and valuable gifts were accepted, hence the use of the words Treasure Ships to describe the leading vessels.
Logistics, not strategy
In some cases, force was used to obtain submission or remove recalcitrant rulers. But mostly, the voyages were displays of power and meant to show China as superior to all nations on the routes and the Hongle Emperor as ab all-powerful, but beneficent ruler of all under heaven.
They were a great logistical achievement, but contributed nothing to navigating seas which had been sailed by Southeast Asians, Indians and Arabs for a thousand years.
The voyages did leave some legacy. More Chinese became acquainted with the Nanyang – the Chinese term for the lands surrounding the South China Sea – establishing small communities which flourished even after the Ming banned private trade.
Probably, the voyages helped the spread of Islam by fostering Melaka and Chinese Muslim traders on the Java coast.
Impress thy neighbors
But this leads to the major questions hanging over Belt and Road.
How many of these projects are commercially viable?
Will trade with China expand sufficiently to make them useful to China?
How much of all this will China have to pay for?
Will it get the money back?
How many projects will fail at the half-way stage due to lack of local financial resources, implementation capability or changes of regime?
How many projects, like the 1960s Tanzam railway, will end as monuments to the triumph of Chinese propaganda or simply replace colonial era lines – for example in the Philippines? These had become useless through neglect by officials who do not understand the word maintenance because it offers few opportunities for kickbacks
The old land “Silk Road” passes through vast areas which are relatively thinly populated, mainly by the Turkic Muslims who are causing such trouble in Xinjiang as well as through a Russia which has its own agenda.
Factors helping China
The southern sea route is more important to China now than it was in the 15th century and local powers are no more cohesive now than then. Yet, as Gulf oil fades in importance and island and peninsula states grow relative to a more advanced but aging China, views will change.
Meanwhile China’s aggressive sea claims neutralize some of the OBOR lure, and gain India’s suspicious glances.
Of course for now, small and medium-sized countries will hope for a slice of any cheap funds, even if they go to port and rail projects which would not otherwise be national priorities. Most money is fungible. Politically, it helps, for now that the United States has stabbed itself in the foot and alienated several natural allies. It also helps that China does not give moral lectures to recipients of its money.
It helps furthermore that no one can reasonably object to Chinese engagement in anti-piracy and smuggling ventures far from its own shores. But proving that China does have global reach is not the same as saying that China needs to do all these things if the financial and diplomatic cost is high.
On a longer view, as in the 15th century, the security threat to China’s borders, now almost the most extensive they have ever been, may lie on those western and northern fringes.
Philip Bowring is one of the founders of Asia Sentinel. This appeared originally in The Globalist