Sat, Jul 10, 2004 - Page 5 News List

China looks to eunuch admiral for inspiration

LESS INNOCUOUS The Chinese navy was never anything to write home about, at least since the Ming Dynasty, but now a Ming admiral is fodder for a maritime revival


China is celebrating the 15th century voyages of a Chinese eunuch admiral sailing as far west as the coast of Africa as evidence of its historical pursuit of peaceful relations with other countries and cultures.

Analysts say Zheng He's (鄭和) tactics were less innocuous than Chinese historians would portray and their martial nature mirrors more closely Beijing's expansion of its maritime presence today.

Festivities launched this week for the 600th anniversary of Zheng's voyages vaunt Beijing's benevolent diplomacy, remembering how the Muslim admiral led seven armadas through southeast Asia and beyond to spread Chinese influence from 1405 to 1433.

"Instead of occupying a single piece of land, building a fort or seizing treasure, Zheng He treated other countries with friendship," said Xu Zuyuan (徐祖遠), China's deputy minister of communications. "We think the legacy of Zheng He's seven voyages to the West is that a `peaceful rise' is the inevitable outcome of China's history."

Some China historians and maritime security experts take issue with Xu's assertion that Zheng's voyages bolstering the influence of the recently installed Ming dynasty were of a purely peaceful nature -- and not expansionist.

And a question mark hangs over the motives of Beijing's communist rulers as they slowly develop their coastal navy into a blue-water force capable of following in Zheng's wake and building relationships in southeast Asia.

"The current enhancement of the Chinese presence in the region is very much parallel to 600 years ago when Zheng He cruised through the region and tried to set foot in neighboring territory to extend Chinese influence," military expert Andrew Yang (楊念祖) said.

"The purpose is more or less identical -- to try to establish some kind of collaboration and cooperation conducive to China's long-term economic and national interests," said Yang, who is secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies.

The goals of the 15th century admiral and his successors today have common features.

"They were military missions with strategic aims," writes scholar Geoff Wade of the National University of Singapore. "The military aspect of these voyages needs underlining, in part because of the stress placed on these missions in much current scholarship as `voyages of friendship.'"

Zheng wanted to not only spread imperial Ming influence but to develop trade. China's communist overlords want to have a say in regional diplomacy and also protect sea lanes that carry the oil to fuel their economy and their burgeoning exports.

"China's energy flows are very, very critical and will become more so in the years to come," said Prakash Metaparti, a former Indian navy commander and a naval expert at the Center for Asian Studies at the University of Hong Kong.

Several southeast Asian neighbors, and likely the US as well, worry about spreading Chinese influence and whether Chinese naval vessels will one day acquire the capability to sail into waters where Zheng's 62 warships and thousands of sailors conquered ports and gathered tribute.

Beijing may, for now, be more worried about ensuring an uninterrupted flow of oil imports through the Malacca Strait from the Middle East. It needs to guarantee that the industrial machine that has become the world's workshop provides a steady stream of jobs, boosts incomes and keeps the Communist Party in power.

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