Curious Rise of the Sea Dragon

By Bloom, Jim | Sea Classics, March 2010 | Go to article overview
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Curious Rise of the Sea Dragon

Bloom, Jim, Sea Classics

A review of the Chinese quest for Naval supremacy in the Pacific and Indian Oceans Part 1- BY JIM BLOOM

The frantic 15-yr-old building and acquisition program of the oddly named "People's Liberation Army Navy" (PLAN) - the modern Naval force of the People's Republic of China - is all the more striking in that the Chinese are generally seen as conspicuously lacking a strong maritime tradition. Whereas the former Soviet Union - now Russian Federation - Navy could claim Adm. Gorshkov as their Manan, and had a long, if checkered, seafaring history, a Navy seems to be a novelty for this continental land power. In fact, such is not the case, but one has to look all the way back to the Ming Dynasty for a precedent.

There was one period of history, six centuries ago, when China deployed the most powerful Naval force in the known world. Their huge fleet of ocean-going junks dominated the maritime enterprise of the Indian Ocean periphery, a vast endeavor spanning from the South China Sea on the western fringe of the Pacific, to the coasts of East Africa. In Portugal, Prince Henry the Navigator was years away from kicking off his nautical think tank - the occasion that marks the commencement of the European voyages of discovery.

In the first half of the 15th Century, a Chinese admiral named Zheng He sailed a fleet of gigantic (for the times) treasure junks, allegedly over 400-ft long each, throughout the South China Sea, along the Southeastern Asian coast and into the far western reaches of the Indian Ocean. It was a prodigious expedition for its day. The vessels were so large and thenjourney so extensive that there were special sections on the decks devoted to vegetable gardening. Recall that it wasn't until the voyages of James Cook in the 1760s that Western Naval authorities discovered that the cure for that scourge of extended sea journeys - scurvy - was to serve the crew fresh fruits and vegetables.

Significantly, the Chinese Naval authorities recently sponsored the building of a full-sized replica of one of Adm. Zheng He's treasure junks that plied the western Pacific and Indian Ocean in the early 1400s. Models of a Zheng He Treasure Boat (1:100 scale) were completed by artisans at the Quanzhou Maritime Museum in Fujian, China, one copy specially made as a gift to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the great expedition of 1405. The exact configuration of the ships are largely conjecture but the model makers accept the figure of 410-ft for the length and its massive beam of 80- to 100-ft.

There is no disputing that there was a time when late-medieval China was briefly preeminent along the spice-and-silk sea lanes. In fact, China's current claim to the South China Sea and its resources, which the modernized PLAN is intended to enforce, rests in part on the almost legendary Naval operations of Zheng He. Thanks to a rather sensational and highly controversial book 1421 by Gavin Menzies, some accept that the fleet touched portions of North and South America in one of the later sorties. However, this is pure conjecture and not supported by most authorities. Nonetheless, the expeditions undertaken by Zheng He were quite prodigious. The Chinese of that day had no reason to suspect that there was anything worth exploring so far to the east, with respect to commercial potential. It was the southeastern and southwestern sea lanes where influence and tribute were worth pursuing.

There was a rather mysterious selfimposed maritime isolation that descended upon China shortly after the Ming Dynasty voyages and during the 18th and 19th centuries, European powers imposed a kind of commercial hegemony over China that inhibited homegrown Naval ambitions. But let's take a look at how the Chinese arrived at their seafaring prowess.

The earliest records of Chinese Naval activity date from the sea battles known as the Kingdom's Battle ofChibri in AD 208; however, it was not until 1132, during the Song Dynasty that China established a permanent standing Navy.

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