The style is a little didactic but the account (1421) by a former British naval officer (didactic therefore explained) of his search for evidence that the Chinese bounced around the globe in their massive ships and fleets in the early fifteenth century is surprisingly compelling. His proposition seems to have survived wide peer review which is perhaps the acid test for such disruptive claims. That being the case I read with incredulity the likely wrecks of Chinese junks off the Australian coast, evidence of Chinese settlements on the US New England coast and pervasive evidence of their settlements along California and down into South American. Under the leadership of Admiral Zheng He the Chinese were sent around the globe on missions of trade, diplomacy and exploration. And not in tiny vessels or in small numbers but in 400 foot ships, hundreds of hulls and tens of thousands of sailors and others.
All quite remarkable when they apparently preceded the more well known European commanders and explorers, many of whom, it is argued, sailed with maps based most probably on what the Chinese discovered. Apparently Magellan only managed to keep his crew from mutiny by revealing to them that he knew there was a passage through which they could travel to the Pacific. His knew that …from the Chinese? So the argument goes.
The Indian Ocean was a Chinese pond and they traded up and down the African coast (a giraffe made it to Beijing for the curious pleasure – and fright – of the Emperor) and around India. In those days their goals, set down by the Emperor no less, were suzerainty through peaceful trade. It was a powerfully successful strategy.
Nearly 600 years later and the Chinese are creeping back out there again. Not in their hundreds and thousands but in a small number to protect their shipping from pirate attacks off the Horn of Africa. Three warships turned up in January and the Chinese are talking about sending more. Suddenly their so called “light blue” navy is looking very different to that which has always hugged its coast and focused its attention on Taiwan and the South China Sea. Theirs is a hard argument to refute – given so much of their resources are shipped through that part of the world – not unlike that of Japan. Regardless of all the strategic-political reasons for the deployment of these warships my guess is that right now the real benefit for the Chinese government lies with internal, domestic consumption. These days Beijing has more than a giraffe to show for their international presence and reach, and the average Chinese citizen paying attention to these things will appreciate the “glory” days of Chinese naval expansion.