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Zheng He Goes Traveling—Again

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A Usable Seafaring Past?

Prompted by its real and growing dependence on foreign supplies of oil, natural gas, and other commodities—supplies transported predominantly by sea—China has turned its gaze to the seas for the first time in centuries. As it does so, leaders in Beijing are busily fashioning what the historian Henry Steele Commager would call a “usable past” to justify an increasingly ambitious maritime strategy to China’s traditionally land-oriented populace and to ease worries such a strategy might arouse in Asian capitals. Commager explains how early Americans, starting anew in the Western Hemisphere, went about creating a historical narrative of their own. They crafted a heroic past, deliberately stimulating an American nationalism to bind the new republic together. And they did so quickly. “Nothing,” writes Commager, “is more impressive than the speed and the lavishness with which Americans provided themselves with a usable past,” which found expression in history, legends, and heroes, not to mention cultural artifacts such as paintings and patriotic ballads. (note 1)

In order to rally the Chinese populace behind seagoing pursuits, China’s maritime-oriented leadership must work some cultural alchemy similar to that of Commager’s founding Americans. The Chinese have regarded their nation as a purely continental power for centuries. (note 2) Mao Zedong was famously dismissive toward the seas, exhorting the nation to continue thinking of itself in land-based terms. (note 3) For Mao, control of the waters immediately adjacent to Chinese shores was enough. During the Deng Xiaoping era, China’s most senior military officer, Adm. Liu Huaqing, urged Beijing to break with its Mao-inspired tradition of coastal defense. Liu, who commanded the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) throughout much of the 1980s, espoused a more assertive “offshore active defense” strategy designed to give China control of East Asian waterways, along with critical geographic nodes such as the island chains that roughly parallel China’s coastline. Ultimately, around 2050, the PLA Navy would take its station as a blue-water force on par with the US Navy, putting to sea aircraft carriers and a full panoply of naval weaponry. (note 4)