Historic Mission for Chinese Navy

Mike Schuler
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December 30, 2008


Last Friday, the Chinese Navy set off on an historical mission: the first modern deployment of battle-ready warships beyond the Pacific.  What was the task?   An anti-piracy mission that will provide escorts and patrols in the pirate-infested Gulf of Aden.  It is reported that the naval forces that set sail from southern Hainan on Friday afternoon included a supply ship and two destroyers (Luyang II-Class 171 Haikou and Luyang-Class 169 Wuhan) – armed with guided missiles, special forces and two helicopters.   AFP tells us:

It marks a new chapter for the modern Chinese navy, which has focused on the defence of coastal waters, combined with the occasional friendly port call. Only in 2002 did it circumnavigate the globe for the first time.

Indeed, a Chinese fleet has not fired a shot in anger near Africa since the 15th century, when a Ming Dynasty armada sailed to the continent and back.

The navy has been drawn back to Africa by an escalation of pirate attacks on merchant ships, including Chinese vessels, plying the crucial shipping route linking Asia and Europe.

“It is a huge breakthrough in China’s concepts about security,” said Li Wei, director of the anti-terrorism research centre at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, according to the China Daily.

“(It) sends a strong political message to the international community that China with its improved economic and military strength is willing to play a larger role in maintaining world peace and security.”

So when was the last time the Chinese Navy travelled this far?  Well, my searches led me to Zheng He, a Hui Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet admiral, who made the voyages collectively referred to as the travels of “Eunuch Sanbao to the Western Ocean” or “Zheng He to the Western Ocean”, from 1405 to 1433.    Wikipedia explains these voyages:

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. Emperor Yongle designed them to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. He also might have wanted to extend the tributary system, by which Chinese dynasties traditionally recognized foreign peoples.

Zheng He was placed as the admiral in control of the huge fleet and armed forces that undertook these expeditions.

Zheng He’s fleets visited Arabia, East Africa, India, Indonesia and Thailand (at the time called Siam), dispensing and receiving goods along the way.  Zheng He presented gifts of gold, silver, porcelain and silk; in return, China received such novelties as ostriches, zebras, camels, ivory and giraffes.

Zheng He generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, and his large army awed most would-be enemies into submission. But a contemporary reported that Zheng He “walked like a tiger” and did not shrink from violence when he considered it necessary to impress foreign peoples with China’s military might. He ruthlessly suppressed pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. He also intervened in a civil disturbance in order to establish his authority in Ceylon, and he made displays of military force when local officials threatened his fleet in Arabia and East Africa. From his fourth voyage, he brought envoys from thirty states who traveled to China and paid their respects at the Ming court.

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage. Although he has a tomb in China, it is empty: he was, like many great admirals, buried at sea.

Zheng He, on his seven voyages, successfully relocated large numbers of Chinese Muslims to Malacca, Palembang, Surabaya and other places and Malacca became the center of Islamic learning and also a large international Islamic trade center of the southern seas.

His missions showed impressive demonstrations of organizational capability and technological might, but did not lead to significant trade, since Zheng He was an admiral and an official, not a merchant. Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared. The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels.

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