Vice Admiral (retd.) Vijay Shankar
Keywords: China maritime strategy, Zheng He, Comprehensive National Power, Third Island Chain
Download full article here: Shankar, The Zheng He Bequest
A Historical Perspective
Between 1405 and 1433 CE the Ming emperors of China commissioned a series of seven naval expeditions into the Indian Ocean in order to impose imperial control over these waters and to awe the littorals of the South East Asia and the Indian Ocean of their techno military prowess. Resistance to the grand scheme of the emerging 15th century super power was met by the sword. Zheng He the eunuch admiral in court was made in charge of a grand fleet the likes of which had never been conceived before. Typically the fleet for each of the seven splendid voyages, included large treasure ships of a displacement unheard of in medieval times (400 feet in length, warships, troop transport, equine ships and a host of other support units totaling near 300 vessels (no armada was ever to match such force levels, either in terms of numbers or tonnage, till well into the 20th century.)
Through diplomacy, trade, coercion and the iron fist, Zheng irresistibly exacted tribute and capital from the suzerains of the countries he visited. In addition he ruthlessly suppressed the pirates of the South East Asian straits bringing to an end a long and anarchic period in these waters; he forcibly populated the Malaca region with Chinese (Muslims), the larger impact of which is felt to this very day; he waged a land war against the Kingdom of Kotte in Sri Lanka for trading rights; fought a campaign in Muscat, Aden and Mogadishu; and established fortified trading posts and cultural centers in Champa (Vietnam), Java, Siam, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Muscat, Dhofar, Aden, Jeddah, Zeila, Mogadishu and the Maldives. He brought back to China, some voluntarily and at times forcibly, thirty envoys to the Ming court. 
There is undoubtedly considerable gap between China’s ambitions of realizing great power status and her current capabilities, so too the seriousness of internal stresses and inequities, the hazards that further deep penetration reforms may pose to the social fabric of the nation and the dangers of strategic miscalculations; there is no denying the will of the CCP and the relentless nature of their pursuit to global leadership. There remain however four crucial determinants which will dictate the course of China’s ambitions in the Indian Ocean region. These are:
(a) What form reconciliation of the Taiwan imbroglio will take and with what finesse China will resolve her South China Sea territorial disputes. If either are conflictual it will have far reaching negative impact on their ambitions in the Indian Ocean region.
(b) Energy security is greatly influenced by global markets, technological innovations and is sensitive to geo political turbulences in the oil producing regions. A slowdown in economic growth will prove a serious dampener to long term designs.
(c) The coming ‘Third Island Chain’ covering the Indian Ocean region is hardly suggestive of a cooperative approach to security. Such unilateral strategies will invariably give rise to friction between the main stakeholders which may result in actions that are unfavourable for growth .
(d) Internal stresses and the growing economic gap in society are fissures that are not easily bridged, particularly if current growth rates are to be maintained. Pace of reforms and its penetration may all add up to turbulences in the core.
Chinese leadership had in the early nineties given guidance to their security strategies through the instrument of the ‘24 Character strategy’ and have allocated resources to pursue a military transformation from Mass to Mobility and Precision. Force structuring would not only be capable of securing the Second Island Chain but would look to projecting power in a broader regional sense and for global objectives. However this is subject to the determinants listed above. In any event the absence of a true sea control capability and its continued presence through the deployment of carrier groups in areas of interest is unlikely to be a reality for the next two decades. The absence of moves to establish cooperative stabilizing structures in areas where the stakeholders are many hold the portents for friction. Given such a delicate situation, Admiral Zheng He would have in all probabilities opted for a solution marked by mutuality and accommodation.