October 28, 2019

The Treasure Fleets of Zhe Zinping

In the first half of the 15th century, the Chinese Admiral Zeng He led a series of expeditions as far afield as Africa. These expeditions reorganized the trade in the South Asian Maritime region and initiated what a Dr. Sen Tansen describes as an extensive state-directed commercial activity throughout the region. They had significant diplomatic impact as well as influence on the patterns and exchange of ideas. The state directing said activity was, of course, China. Today, as most regulars here are aware, there is a modern project, the Belt and Road Initiative that while outwardly quite different, is, nevertheless likely to have many effects. This endeavor has also elicited considerable concern in some quarters with regards to assumptions about China’s long term goals.

Let's look at the Ming treasure fleets...

Between 1405 and 1431 Chinese Admiral Zeng He led 7 voyages to various areas of the Indian Ocean, Indonesian archipelago, as far afield as the Red Sea Persian Gulf and as far south as equatorial Africa. He was dispatched by the third Emperor of the Ming Dynasty (generally referred to as the Yongle Emperor)These were not small deployments. Records indicate that the first of these expeditions consisted of more than 250 ships with a combined complement 27,000 personnel or more.The purpose of these exceedingly expensive deployments was multifaceted. They had their inspiration in the foreign policy of the Yuan Dynasty, which sought to extract tribute from foreign countries. However, the Ming treasure fleets were somewhat more subtle than their more modest antecedents. While the huge fleet contained an impressive number of troops, they also carried a surfeit of goodwill gifts for exchange as well as ambassadors, consuls and merchants. This resulted in a "carrot and stick” approach, with the huge size of the vessels as well as "friendly” demonstrations of China’s advanced gunpowder weapons and the sheer size of the ships themselves providing an intimidation factor that was effectively combined with the gifts and exchange of pleasantries. Additionally, the sheer size of the fleet as well as its component ships was not just intimidating to the locals, it was tantalizing to local leaders and would-be leaders as the Chinese were seen as potentially valuable allies to be competed for   

In addition, more kinetic operations were undertaken in which local pirates were eradicated, countries eager to ally with China were supported in ways both military and monetary, ethnic Chinese populations were recognized as ruling polities, other citystates and small nations that were less enthusiastic about the Chinese presence were "persuaded" (or nudged into the end of their histories) and, there were annexations of strategic locations such as Malacca.

UPDATE: There is a good discussion of this process in a paper by Dr. Sen Tansen which I just belatedly realized is not link-able without a Research Gate account, but the abstract and application to download it can be found here. :END UPDATE

Now, in comparison to those endeavors of 600 years ago, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is as much involved with the construction of extensive transportation and communications infrastructure in central Asia as it is with maritime trade, however the two aspects are intended to be facets of a highly integrated transportation and communications network both maritime and overland.

However, the whole affair has considerable similarities to the treasure fleets of old. The main difference is that, mercenary and indirect adventures aside such as those in Myanmar, there has been little in the way of outright military intervention thus far. There have, however, been analogies to the carrot / stick approach noted above.

A recent report for the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative discusses this.

From Malaysia to Maldives, China has sought to dominate critical infrastructure across sea lines of communications, gradually building a global network of access and dependencies, often at the expense of smaller nations’ sovereignty.  Under this approach, Chinese companies—most of them state-affiliated if not state-owned enterprises—zero in on prized infrastructure projects in critical sectors like electricity, telecommunications, police surveillance projects, and, most recently, major port facilities.

The article also brings up two examples of note. China (or at least state-affiliated Chinese companies) recently began attempting to assume control of a Korean shipyard in the Philippines located in the former U.S. naval base at Subic Bay. This follows on the heels of the 2017 assumption by China of control of the Sri Lankan port of Hambantota. This latter affair is of particular interest and is one example cited by those alarmed about this endeavor. In short, as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China has been liberally handing out loans to developing countries for infrastructure development. In the Sri Lankan case the construction was performed mainly by Chinese firms and when the loans came due and Sri Lanka was unable to pay, China took a majority stake in the port that they had built. It is unclear how the Subic Bay situation will play out, but this sort of thing is happening to a greater or lesser degree in a great many areas.

In the context of the Sri Lankan and Pakistani situations this raises the possibility of more ports being completely operated by China in the near to mid-term.

A similar situation is developing on the subcontinent. For instance, Pakistan’s Gwadar port is part of a subset of the Belt and Road Initiative called the Chinese Pakistan Economic Corridor. This transnational entity deals with the integration of both the rail, road and sea aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative as they relate to Pakistan specifically.

Gwadar is a large container port in the province of Balochistan that is being constructed virtually from scratch with considerable Chinese, financial, technical and military assistance. That last type of help is not typically expected in a construction project but it does highlight another similarity between the Chinese Treasure Fleet strategy and this new endeavor. Balochistan is a rather restive region, ethically and historically distinct from Pakistan until well after the end of the Raj, it has been the scene of considerable unrest in recent years and due to concerns regarding the local militants, mercenary and PLA assets are being used to guard the P.E.C. facilities.

The $62 billion project will link Xinjiang Province of China with Gwadar port on the Makran Coast west of Karachi. China is extremely concerned about the safety and security of its workers engaged in construction work in CPEC projects. Though Pakistan is raising a Special Security Division comprising approximately 15,000 personnel to provide security for the CPEC against terrorist attacks, the experience of Chinese dam construction in Gilgit-Baltistan has shown that eventually PLA soldiers are inducted for this purpose. The presence of PLA personnel in Pakistan in large numbers will further vitiate the security environment in South Asia. 

This Gwadar situation bears considerable similarities to the Ming Dynasty’s elevation of Cochin from seaside village to major trading port, In that case (which is described i detail in the aforementioned paywall blocked paper) the purpose was to bypass Callicut. Likewise the Ming virtual annexation of Malacca was under the pretense of developing a major port from a small coastal city. However, by contrast, in both of those antecedent cases the Chinese military pressure was used in support of the recalcitrant locals rather than the established political entities. The Ming Dynasties virtual annexation of Malacca in 1403 as a naval base is certainly similar in principle to the establishment of the PRC’s first overseas base, in Djibouti. This has raised some concerns, in some quarters, which are in part reflected in this excerpt from a recent Washington Post article:

 "The Djiboutians are up to their neck in debt to China,” Reuben Brigety, former U.S. ambassador to the African Union told The Washington Post. Brigety said he expects this leverage to be used to force the Djiboutian government to hand control of the port to a Chinese company within the next six months. The Chinese will eventually use that enormously important strategic position to crowd out U.S. military operations,” Brigety said.”

Naturally, the one example that is getting attention from the American Press,  while developed similarly to the Chinese establishment of Malacca, has established in a very different context which the Chinese can point to  for propaganda purposes. For one thing, China is joining other nations in the area as France, Italy, the United States and even constitutionally constrained Japan have established naval bases in Djibouti to monitor the confluence of trade routes, as well as act against the endemic piracy of the region. China is more dependent on the trade through this bottleneck than any of the other countries listed except Japan, and the fact that legally pacifistic Japan has an overseas military base in the same locale gives some measure of the importance that the horn of Africa has for the PRC.  This African facility is, therefore, potentially less adventurous in scope than its Ming Dynasty predecessors and China will no doubt point to this when the alarm is raised. That THIS is the port that has gotten attention is somewhat infuriating.


However, the alarm noted by Ambassador Brigety above is not unique. This is especially true in the context of the Hambantota situation noted above. Recently the Center for strategic and International Studies did an assessment of ports in Africa and found that:

” There are at least 46 existing or planned port projects in sub-Saharan Africa, which are funded, built, and/or operated by Chinese entities.  "

Read the whole thing but this one graphic (of several) is illustrative.


Several of these ports are fully operated while most of the rest were, or are being constructed by, Chinese firms with close ties to Beijing.

According to the article, currently, 11 of these 46 Chinese affiliated African ports are operated by the PRC! Usually this is done through PLA adjacent corporations. Do note that the division of responsibility between locals and the Chinese on many of these ports is subject to change as the Hambantota affair demonstrated.

The capacities of Indian Ocean ports mentioned earlier are illustrative: Gwadar has a channel depth of 18.5 meters  Hambantota 17 meters, both have berths up to 600 meters long. By contrast a Nimits class aircraft carrier is 333 meters long and draws 11.9 meters at full load in an undamaged state.  The potential for accommodating the world’s largest warships is at least theoretically impressive. given the speed with which China can throw together construction projects and the CCP's ability to persuade local governments via rickshaws full of cash, the potential for several of these ports to be developed into at austere but serviceable forward bases in a remarkably short time is a very real variable o be considered.

There is less information readily available about the inland nodes of the Belt and Road Initiative, along and parallel to the old Silk Road, but those, particularly the airports are likely to have similar contractual arrangements. Suddenly appearing PLAA aerodromes in sub-Sahara Africa or countries ending in "-stan" could be an unwelcome surprise for the US or other nations in the event of a crisis.

 Nor are Africa and India the only location where this dynamic is playing out.

Several European ports are technically part of the Belt and Road initiative as they are the end points of the immense transport network being developed under it, and Chinese companies have been helping them modernize and improve infrastructure, with the result that Marsaxlokk(in Malta), Piraeus, Istanbul, Genoa, Marseille, Valencia, Bilbao, Nantes, Le Havre, Dunkirk, Bruges, Antwerp, and Rotterdam all have ports between 10 and 100 percent owned by COSCO, the Chinese state owned shipping concern.

While not, strictly speaking, part of the Belt and Road project the Americas are getting the same attention, particularly in the Caribbean where Chinese companies are building numerous port facilities and highways in association with Chinese foreign aid.

China’s biggest and most visible projects in the Caribbean include the development of port facilities and highways.

In Jamaica, hundreds of Chinese workers have completed a $720 million four-lane highway stretching from north to south across the island.


Meanwhile, the China Harbour Engineering Company has agreed to build a deep-water port in Jamaica that will serve as a transshipment hub for giant Chinese container ships arriving through an expanded Panama Canal.


The small island nation of Dominica lacks a good natural harbor but its position at the juncture of the Leeward and Windward chains makes it a fairly strategic location. This is of particular interest now that the Chinese and Dominica have signed an agreement similar to the one initially signed between China and Sri Lanka.

 "Dominica and China have signed a new 300 million dollars cooperation agreement that includes the construction of a hotel, construction of an international airport and building a new hospital. The sum involved is equivalent to a third of the small Caribbean island GDP, which could mean Beijing virtually is 'purchasing' the small territory.”

The admittedly hyperbolic nature of the above quoted Radio Free Asia report does not help such matters get the consideration they perhaps deserve. Jamaica, The Bahamas, Panama, Venezuela, Trinidad&Tobago, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Guiana are among the countries that have infrastructure projects along the lines of those mentioned above in Africa and South Asia.

Shades of another October, 57 years ago. No missiles yet though.

On the Domestic U.S. front the Trump administration only last week managed to pry the former Long Beach naval shipyard out of Chinese control after it had ended up  owned by COSCO, which is de-facto owned by the PLA. during the previous administration*. What information the PLA gained and what parting gifts might have been left behind in the form of discreet signals intelligence infrastructure is unclear but an interesting thought exercise for the reader.

Far beyond any use by naval assets, having entities controlled by the PLA in charge of such ports might, in the event of a crisis, present a thorny strategic problem to any number of countries via such mundane things as the passage of trade goods.

These worrying assessments all assume that China will have the desire and ability to cause mischief, and to be sure, there is an argument against the claims of imminent Chinese hegemony; one  that has been noted that has only recently manifested itself. The amount of money going into the belt and road initiatives has, this year, started to dry up.


In the second half of 2018, the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) only recorded 12 China-funded megaprojects with a total worth $3.9 billion, down from 33 projects worth $22 billion from one year earlier.

This is a precipitous decline. Much of this is due to concerns of local polities about situations like that which befell Sri Lanka, but it is also may reflect a weakening of the Chinese economy.


Accurate info about the Chinese economy is fiendishly hard to come by but if true this could represent another parallel with the Ming Era Treasure Fleets of Admiral Zeng He.

Yes we're back to that.

Admiral Zeng He’s 7 voyages may have massively changed the trade patterns and economics of the South Asian Maritime region, and was setting up area knowledge infrastructure and diplomatic relations to facilitate a massive maritime trading empire. Then the government of China became concerned with the expense and distracted by other affairs. Given the expense of the Belt and Road Endeavor, aneconomic downturn would qualify as an affair that might distract the CCP, as might domestic unrest such as is currently manifesting in Hong Kong.The fact that pork, the most consistent expression of the absolute baseline acceptable diet in China is about to become as rare as Waygu Steak does not bode well for China's domestic tranquility. The trade war with the U.S. is a further distraction; China having gotten used to the idea that the U.S. was always going to sit down and "take it" until it was too late.

The scale of the infrastructure projects that China has already completed will materially change commerce worldwide going forward just as the voyages of Zeng He forever altered trade and culture in southern Asia. If they continue the changes will indeed be profound, though that is as the saying goes "a very big if”.

There are, of course,  limits to parallels that can be made between Chinese policies 600 years ago and today's, but there are similarities and the main difference is in scale. The matter of where the situation will most profoundly diverge is the question.

In any event, much rests on China’s intentions and the strength of their economy.
Going from 22 billion to 4 billion as noted above is such a dramatic re-alignment that it smacks of desperation, and that is not necessarily cause for relief. Many a despotic regime looking to distract from its domestic woes has tried to do so via a short sharp war.

Note too though, that predictions of Chinese economic collapse have been circulating in academia for over a decade now as have predictions of their global omnipotence. Neither have come to pass, and indeed few predictions made by experts in this field that passed peer review have passed observation over time. China is a singularly difficult nation to analyze for western experts as their cultural outlook is vastly different and even those native to the culture of the oldest society on Earth, can be stymied in their analysis as China’s actions are directed by conflicting forces. Legalism, Confucianism, Communism, Realpolitik, International Relations, Game Theory, and the hard to quantify concepts of honor which are, to varying degrees, philosophically at odds with one another. This is all acted on through the cultural framework of the Han and with information that outside observers are simply not privy to.

This is is not a formula for reliable analysis. It is, however, something that must be attempted given the potential and peril of the middle kingdom.

One final thing, scarcely worth mentioning;

This post has focused mainly on property and infrastructure acquisitions with an eye to physical logistics and their similarities to the methods used by the Middle Kingdom over half a millennium ago. Perhaps not enough attention is being paid in our think tanks to less kinetic  influences such as the "rickshaws full of money" briefly mentioned above.

China has corrupted and bribed a vast swath of our ruling class and their control over our domestic speech and even financing is surprisingly profound.

Unlike us, the Chinese are not discarding the knowledge and wisdom of their ancestors. and count among their forbears a fellow named Tsun Tsu who literally wrote the book on war.

The first rule of which is win without fighting. 


 *As I understand it,  this started during the Clinton Administration which approved sale of the former base to the Chinese. The Republicans raised Kane about it and it was sold to Hanjin, a Korean firm, which then sold it to COSCO when Hanjin imploded.

Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 04:47 PM | Comments (2) | Add Comment
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1 I can see how that would have been an annoying post to lose due to a network hiccup!

Posted by: Pixy Misa at Mon Oct 28 18:55:30 2019 (PiXy!)

2 I spent two and a half years in Panama just as we were firing up the process of shutting down and handing over most of the facilities and infrastructure.  Up until we really started shutting things down and moving out, the Panamanians didn't seem to believe we would really follow through and do it.  And when we did, there was a lot of dismay at the loss of what wasn't really much of a cash injection into their economy.  It wasn't long before the Chinese moved in, and I've seen photos that family and friends have sent back from the area or from canal transits.  The Chinese did exactly as described here, big investments in the port facilities, roads related to their operations, etc.  They established a "Chinese enclave" where most of their workers and such live, and built a whole new, fully modern set of roads and bridges to get to that location.  I understand that they included some schools, and basically bought out the administration of the few local schools, hospitals and such in the area.
The result is a fair amount of "wow, the gringos never did this much for us" but also a fair amount of grumbling from the poor who are just as poor as ever, and see even less chance of that changing.  And any of the upper/commercial class who didn't get a rickshaw of cash are quite upset. 

Posted by: David at Mon Oct 28 21:43:38 2019 (wXI5i)

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