Chinese leaders are acutely conscious of the sea's importance to their country's economic development and, indirectly, to their political survival. They have come to view defending the sea lanes where merchant ships haul the oil, gas and other raw materials needed to fuel the economy as a vital national interest. China is less and less content to entrust its interests at sea to the uncertain goodwill of the US, its rival for regional pre-eminence and Asia's long-time guardian of maritime security.
Accordingly, China has embarked on an assertive foreign policy in Southeast and South Asia, which adjoin the sea lines of communication connecting Chinese seaports with the Middle East and the Horn of Africa. Its strategy: to build up sea power, measured in ships, bases and alliances. Energizing a populace accustomed to thinking of China as a land power is one crucial element of Beijing's new maritime diplomacy. Allaying fellow Asian nations' suspicions of its motives is another.
Beijing's maritime diplomacy blends the traditional elements of national power -- diplomacy, economics, military force -- in sophisticated fashion. It also makes use of "soft power." Harvard University's Joseph Nye, who coined the term, declares that a country rich in soft power boasts cultural attributes that make its society attractive to foreign peoples -- augmenting the routine tools of foreign policy.
For Nye, such manifestations of culture as movies, clothing and popular music play a role in international affairs, creating an atmosphere of international goodwill -- an affinity between peoples that a country's leaders can use to rally support for their foreign-policy initiatives. Nye worries that the administration of US President George W. Bush squandered US soft power in Iraq, but he assures us that China, traditionally Asia's central power, possesses abundant reserves of it. Chinese leaders agree.
Beijing has conjured up an unlikely ally for its soft-power offensive: Zheng He (鄭和), the Ming Dynasty's legendary eunuch admiral, who set out on the first of seven voyages of trade, diplomacy and commerce exactly six centuries ago. By recounting the feats of China's ancient mariner, Beijing radiates soft power throughout regions whose waters his "treasure fleet" -- so dubbed for the porcelains, silks and other trading goods it carried -- once plied.
Chinese officials cite Zheng's expeditions as a precedent for a strong, seafaring China. Their message: that China's current effort to amass sea power merely represents the latest phase in a benign regional supremacy that benefits all Asian nations.
Zheng's treasure fleet was in effect the first naval squadron stationed in the Indian Ocean by an outside power. Chinese officials play up several aspects of his exploits. First, they remind Chinese citizens and Asian leaders that China has a long heritage as a seagoing nation, despite its more recent preoccupation with land power. Thanks to Zheng, some 30 countries throughout the Southeast and South Asian littorals once acknowledged the Dragon Throne's suzerainty.
Second, Zheng's endeavors allow Beijing to indulge in one-upsmanship at the West's expense. His baochuan (寶船), or treasure ships -- essentially giant seagoing junks -- far outstripped European naval technology of his day. Not only did the baochuan dwarf the ships sailed by the likes of Columbus and da Gama, but they boasted innovations such as incendiary weapons and watertight bulkheads.
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.