Some of these innovations didn't make their way into Western naval architecture for centuries.
Third, Chinese officials point out that Zheng used force only sparingly during his expeditions -- never to conquer territory. His warships crushed a pirate fleet near Malacca -- a boon to all states that depended on free passage of ships through the Strait -- and Chinese marines intervened briefly on Ceylon. Other than that, Zheng was able to establish commercial and diplomatic ties as far afield as Kenya without recourse to arms.
This, say Chinese spokesmen, makes a welcome contrast with Western imperialism: China makes a more trustworthy steward of Asian maritime security than any non-Asian power.
In short, Beijing has used Zheng to fashion a maritime diplomacy that bestows legitimacy on China's seafaring aspirations, mollifies nations skeptical of Chinese pretensions, rouses Chinese nationalism and subtly undercuts the US' standing as the leading maritime power in Asia. As history, Beijing's narrative is dubious -- after all, today's communist regime bears scant resemblance to the Ming Dynasty -- but it is impressive as a use of soft power.
Diplomats and military officers usually think about foreign policy in material terms, scanting the cultural dimension. Washington -- and Taipei -- must heed Nye's advice when thinking about China's bid for sea power.
James Holmes is a senior research associate at the University of Georgia's Center for International Trade and Security in Athens, Georgia.