After the Xi-Obama summit, US jury is still out whether China’s rise is peaceful or a threat, with much focus on its increasing naval power projection in the near seas and afar in the Mideast, amid recent reports it has joined Russians forces off the Syrian coast, to boot. However, what is little known is that this is not the first time in history the Chinese navy has fared the far seas.

Revival of Ming Dynasty’s Maritime Silk Road

Six hundred years ago, a Muslim admiral by the name of Zheng He helmed the famous treasure ships that explored Southeast Asia, South Asia, Middle East and East Africa during 15th Century Ming Dynasty, almost 100 years before Columbus and Vasco Da Gama explored the New World. He established a tributary system centered on the Middle Kingdom, along the maritime silk routes in the Indian Ocean.

Zheng He

In 2013, Xi Jinping resurrected this maritime silk road and economic belt as his “One Belt, One Road” development strategy, this time with the maritime route continuing past the Red Sea into the Mediterranean due to the Suez Canal.

China's Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road

China’s Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road

Surprisingly the renowned admiral of the imperial Ming navy was actually not Chinese, but a Central Asian Muslim. Born Ma He, the son of a rural official in the Mongol province of Yunnan, he was taken captive and trained as an imperial eunuch assigned to the court of Zhu Di the Yongle emperor (1402-1424). Renamed Zheng He, he was promoted to lead one of the most powerful navies at that time.

During his career as a naval commander, Zheng He negotiated trade pacts, fought pirates, installed puppet kings, and brought back tribute for the Yongle Emperor in the form of jewels, medicines, exotic animals, among other things. His armada travelled and traded with not only what is now Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, but even with the Arabian ports of modern day Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and as far as Somalia and Kenya.

His first fleet consisted of 317 ships including 62 “treasure ships” loaded with silks, porcelains and other precious gifts to trade for exotic products of the Indian Ocean, and 27,870 men including soldiers, merchants, civilians and clerks manned the ships. The treasure ships dimensions were astonishing—said to be 140 meters (450’) long by 58 meters (185’) wide, carrying nine masts—twice the length of the first transatlantic steamer 400 years later.

On his third expedition in 1409, Zheng He allegedly carried 30,000 troops, stopping at Champa, Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin and Calicut. On his fourth expedition in 1413 he went west of India, visiting Hormuz and Yemen.

Zheng He visited Hormuz again on his seventh and final expedition from 1431-1433, arriving at a time when Hormuz was at the peak of its prosperity, and linked by overland routes to the major cities of Iran, Central Asia, and Iraq. Damascus, which the Chinese dubs as “ning jiu li” (凝聚力), or “cohesive force”, was the terminus node of the overland route that is now replicated in the current Silk Road Economic Belt.

Zheng He, symbol of China’s Peaceful Rise

With the image of Zheng He and his treasure ships bearing gifts and trade, the Chinese have weaved this into an intricate narrative of a peaceful rise, portraying the swift ascent of Chinese economic, military, and naval power as the latest phase in a benign regional dominance with its provenance in the Ming era. Since 2005 there has been increased writing and research into the Admiral, and on July 11, 2005, China commemorated the 600th anniversary of Zheng He’s first voyage as National Navigation Day to signal China’s maritime resurgence in the world.

True to form, in December 2008 China signaled its resurgence by deploying naval vessels to the Gulf of Aden for anti‐piracy exercises. This is followed by subsequent port calls in the following years to the Mediterranean, including a naval training vessel dubbed Zheng He.

Nonetheless, despite China touting Zheng He’s peaceful intentions, some scholars such as Geoff Wade from National University of Singapore observed the voyages were about ‘gunboat diplomacy’, coercion, and recognition of Ming dominance. While the primary mission of the treasure fleet was to display Ming power and engage in trade, Zheng He had a mandate to also collect tribute and establish ties with rulers all around the Indian Ocean shores.

The purpose was to establish suzerainty under Ming Empire, and this policy was institutionalized later in 1636 when ruler Hong Taiji established Lifan Yuan (理藩院, various translations as court of colonial affairs, office of barbarian control, office of Mongolian and Tibetan affairs) that became Lifan Bu (理藩部) in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Indeed if submission to the Dragon Throne was not forthcoming, Zheng He did not hesitate to intervene militarily. For example, the ruler of Sri Lanka refused to recognize the emperor and was taken to China as a prisoner, while similar fate befell two rulers in Sumatra.

Zheng’s missions were intended to exert political and economic control across space rather than territorial control. By controlling economic lifelines of nodal points, networks, ports and trade routes, China was thus able to control trade. In do doing, a dominant maritime power reaps economic and political benefits by taking control of main port polities along major East‐West maritime trade networks as well as the seas in between.

Syria the missing link in China’s silk road

Thus China appears to be replicating this mission today by investing in various seaports along the Indian Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, including Egypt’s Port Said, Israel’s Port Ashdod, Lebanon’s Port Tripoli, and recently Turkey’s Kumport in Ambarli Port Zone. Syria remains the missing link. Without Damascus, there is no “ning jiu li”/cohesion for China’s Silk Road. As such, it would be interesting to see if indeed the Middle Kingdom joins Russia’s military campaign to stabilize Syria in the coming weeks.