Book Review: When China Ruled the Seas

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. Pp 10-252. 

Lousie Levathes presents readers with an era of China’s naval power in its golden age.  Levathes is a Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University and was a staff writer for National Geographic for ten years.  In the book, she describes the seven voyages of Muslim, Eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. He was the trading emissary and admiral of the Ming dynasty between 1405-1433. The aim of the book is to examine how and why the massive, complex treasure fleet appeared, operated and then disappeared within the span of a lifetime. It also explores why the Ming retreated into the modern Western stereotype of landlocked and reclusive. Finally, Levathes seeks to elaborate on the context which China understands itself both during the Ming Dynasty and how that translates into the modern era. (Levathes 21)    

The book’s eleven chapters are ten to twenty pages each.  It has a smooth narrative flow which is easy for the uninitiated to read.  Levathes uses three firsthand accounts of the voyages of Zeng He, several contemporary sources to corroborate events and many secondary records written within 200 years of the events.  This book provides an excellent resource guide for jumping into further reading about Chinese Naval Power in the Ming Dynasty.  

The first chapter sets the foundational framework of the early seafaring Yi people.  Next, chapter two provides the context of Confucianism and its implications within the elite ruling class.  It is this tension between the dominant doctrines of Confucianism which espoused the priority of agriculture, austerity and caring for the people juxtaposed with the allure and risk of trade, tribute and the wealth it brings.  This conflict factors heavily into the following chapters especially as the Ming are justifying abandoning the practice altogether.  

In chapters three through eight, Levathes develops the princeling Zhu Di, and his usurpation of the Ming Empire in 1402.  Zheng He follows as she discusses the strong bond of loyalty that the two build from an early age.  After hearing rumors of the deposed emperor alive overseas, Zhu Di justified the construction of a naval fleet to his academic Confucian advisors which, incidentally, happen to have enormous capacity for trade.  After discussing the shipyard process for the vessels, Levathes moves to the voyages themselves highlighting in narrative detail the adventures to Calicut, Ceylon, Malacca, Japan and the Persian Gulf.   

In chapters nine through eleven, Levathes covers the death of the emperor Zhu Di and the rise of his grandson, Zhu Zhanji who engaged Zheng He to re-establish China’s dominance in the international marketplace. Zhu Zhanji died unexpectedly of a short illness in 1435 and by 1437, his successor had halted all shipyard construction.  This was the end of the great Chinese treasure fleets.  The final chapter provides historical and political context to the events around Zheng He’s voyages and the rise and fall of the Ming international presence. 

Levathes does an excellent job describing how Zheng He and his fleets dominated the Pacific.  What is curious is how the political forces that Zhu Di and Zhu Zhanji encountered are so similar modern China’s today.  China’s land is vast and fleets are expensive.  External influence can create political chaos and division. It takes strong authority to manage both and Levathes provides an excellent window into the Chinese thought process, even today. 

Response to Russel Clark’s Interview on Real Vision 29MAY2020

Original Interview can be found here

I read through this and thought his analysis was good. Here are my thoughts in response.  China has a long memory, they remember the Silk Road days and are seeking to overlay a trade network that reduces the tyranny of distance for overland trade.  

From my own studies, I think you also have to look at what made Rome great.  The Roman road system provided enormous interconnectivity throughout the peninsula as well as the European continent.  Its primary use was not economic but military.  The legions securing access to resources, not trade by itself, is what kept Rome great.  Once Rome secured the Med militarily, they ran a packet line of ships from Egypt’s breadbasket to Rome which sustained the capital well beyond what its local resources could provide. The economic benefit was a boon.  As I hear more and more about China’s inland infrastructure, I think the trade is valid. However, I see a military infrastructure being built out.

Since I was introduced to general geo-political theory on China by Zeihan, I’m somewhat hopelessly anchored there.  Looking seaward, China’s in a rough neighborhood. Controlling Formosa is an imperative because it functions like a barrier island for mainland China from the sea.  Regaining it will be hard, amphibious landings are expensive and China has no sustained experience in expeditionary warfare or military logistics outside of the mainland.  Japan had been at war for years (in China) before it attacked Pearl Harbor.  The Japanese were good at it by then.  Russell discusses Chinese trade with neighboring countries but seems to not account for the historical bad blood between many of these sovereigns. Old habits die hard. 

I think he’s right that China is offering an attractive alternative currency, trade system and technology to their neighbors.  Since this is a primarily economic discussion, he doesn’t say much about the role of the politics and ideology when it comes to international trade.  

His comment that empires fail very slowly and then fail quickly is accurate.  The Romans, Byzantines, Turks, French, British, etc. all had long runs that degraded for a while then when caput pretty quickly. These were all massive expeditionary empires which reigned internationally.  They held territory and defended it diplomatically, economically, and militarily for centuries.  China controls no land militarily outside of its own borders.  What he doesn’t mention is how quickly the countries ruled by strongmen or ideologies have failed in history.  Particularly when those institutions are atheist and actively anti-religious.  The best example of ideological failure that I can think of is the dechristianization of France during French Revolution.  If citizens didn’t comply with the revolution, they were beheaded.  Eventually the fury consumed Robespierre himself.  People are sinful and self-interested which quickly becomes a wicked combination.  The basis of the French revolution was an enlightenment informed replacement for the Gospel which sought to govern.  Lenin and Stalin found similar fates.  Anti-Religious governments become embalmed in their own greed and lust for power and are incapable of metabolizing shifts in thought and ideology.  In simple engineering terms, the stiffer a material is, the more likely it is to shear in catastrophic failure.

Chinese ideology is becoming less flexible.  The Deng Xiaoping days of openness and rule by committee seem to have passed.  Xi Jinping appears to have consolidated power as a shrewd and ruthless strongman. Robespierre, Stalin, would have salivated over Xi’s oppression technologies and capabilities. Without technology and the ability to stabilize the countryside, the PRC doesn’t last very long.  The Gulag Archipelago was a catalyst that tore down the Soviet Regime.  Its only a matter of time before it happens again.  Look at Nazi Germany, this was racial supremacy at its worst in the European continent.  The Han Chinese are no different.  The longer they drink their own bathwater of their own Heavenly Destiny to rule, the more agitated their own citizens will get (like the Uighers, Mongols, etc.—don’t poke the Mongols BTW)  Additionally, their neighbors will do what they can to destabilize an ascendant China who has a supremacy complex.   

In my opinion, whenever the fall happens, it will be swift. 

Or this could all be heresy.

The “Thucydides Trap” Squared

Perhaps we are too prone to paradigms and stereotypes. Perhaps there’s a “Thucydides Trap” Trap where we fool ourselves into believing that the paradigm’s course is terminal when the ascendancy of the rising power may look and talk like a duck, but it doesn’t really walk like a duck. 

From reading Peter Zeihan, George Friedman, and their analysts we know that China has major debt problems, orders of magnitude beyond the United States.  Their economy is export led.  They lack the agricultural and energy resources to sustain themselves.  The southern coast likes making money through trade, and Beijing, to the north, is the driver of the authoritarian ideology.

Ruling authorities based on ideology do not endure the loss of face associated with the public dissent of free ideas and the free markets that accompany them. This dissent presents an existential threat to the ruling ideology. When this happened in France (Vive Le Revolution!), Robespierre reigned in terror under the banner of ideology until his own head found its way to the guillotine basket.  Ideology above the well-being of its citizens yields terror.  (Uighurs, Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution in China, the Khmer Rouge, Red Terror and Stalinist Famines, the Holocaust, Ethiopian Red Terror, etc.)

From a military standpoint, China is not the Germany of WWI or WWII or Japan of WWII.  The military and economic position are fundamentally different. I believe it is possible that we are dealing with a paper Dragon like the USSR’s paper Bear. The People’s Liberation Army may have tanks, aircraft, and ships but too few trained operators, none with combat experience and no culture as an expeditionary conflict nation. Their latest tactical exploits have either been Hong Kong related or beating Indian soldiers with clubs and sticks in a mountainside melee.

One of Peter Zeihan’s fundamental theses is that the Bretton-Woods act established a security agreement that guaranteed the safety of non-Soviet countries. As incentive to sign the agreement, it gave them access to the largest and only market who was prepared to consume. China was admitted to the trade agreement and flourished because of American consumption and investment. America is now losing interest in maintaining this system, and with the dams and levees of the security alliance removed, the tides of history are about to come roaring back in.

My own extrapolation is that now that the Cold War is 30 years over, the new strategy is beginning to look like the United States investing in its own neighborhood. It is offering its market to different countries under new terms to stabilize the western hemisphere.

Economically, one of the things that John McCreary of Nightwatch taught is that in an insurgency, the stronger power funds both sides of the conflict.  China’s growth over the last 40 years appears to have been funded primarily by American consumption and investment. A simple yet effective strategy to winning the Great Power Competition is for the U.S. to stop funding the other side of the conflict. They need our dollars more than we need their imports. 

Unlike the American experience, where our growth was funded by European exports, the Chinese do not possess the resources to be self-sustaining. As Zeihan is fond of saying, their One Child policy…worked. So, the potential for a consumption led recovery of their economy with a burden of aging demographic is unlikely. The Americans sustained growth in the 20th Century by being the last man standing after the last Great Power Competitions of WWI and WWII with natural resources, energy, manufacturing, a population boom to drive consumption and the best technology in the world at our disposal.

Currently, the most commanding presence in this Great Power Competition is not any general or head of state, but Robert Lighthizer, the U.S. Trade Representative.  By re-tooling the NAFTA into the USMCA, he has set the precedent for the re-engagement of the Monroe Doctrine and a migration from Roosevelt’s “Big Stick” policing policy to what I will call Lighthizer’s “Light Saber”. The Light Saber cuts through all the cultural and political fluff and requires treaty signatories to codify the terms of their compliance in their own sovereign legislation. Otherwise, no trade. Yes, Mexico and Canada must pass and enforce U.S. prescribed laws on their own books to participate in the treaty. USMCA went into effect 1 July 2020 with all sides complying.

The Monroe Doctrine now has a functioning framework for a multinational trade partnership requiring governments to align with U.S. Trade Interests. From a security standpoint this quite logical. We shorten the supply lines, and we co-locate production and consumption. We improve the standard of living of the nations to our south. So, if we stabilize Mexico and send them dollars to grow their economy, then the human migration and narcotics problems in the United States can slow down. The next target is likely the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. From a strategic security standpoint, the Northern Triangle countries are next because they are our buffer’s buffer.

Along with sanctions, the USMCA begins the process of de-funding the Chinese, and their American trading partners who have made a killing offshoring jobs from the U.S. to China. American industry is in a lurch right now trying to revive the infrastructure of Chinese imports. It appears, though, that the ship has sailed with the takeover of Hong Kong as Beijing pivots from 1 country 2 systems to 1 country 1 system.

We are experiencing the growing pains of de-China-ization and Corona Virus at the same time. Some hands will fold, but new players will come to the table with new money. So, if China is de-funded and cannot import materials for energy and food supply and cannot trade, then there is high potential for civil unrest.  As we know from Chinese history, listless, idle Chinese workers like to get sporty.  Xi is aware of this and appears to be accelerating the speed of authoritarian rule for the survival of the Party and its ideology. China is an ancient culture and plays the long game, and its collective mindset is bigger than Xi or Deng or Mao, but rather operates as trans generationally Chinese. This is counter-intuitive to western and entrepreneurial minds (like my own). Victor Davis Hanson discusses the western vs eastern mentalities in his books The Western Way of War and Culture and Carnage. In this cultural context, the Chinese people think less of “self” and more of themselves as an extension of their culture or nation–“another link in the chain”, perhaps. Old grudges die hard because they are recorded not individually but corporately and culturally. Because of this, China is not going to “go gentle into that good night” and let the system which gave it prosperity and technology die.  Rather, it will “rage against the dying of the light.”

The Chinese security, influence and propaganda machines are marvels of modernity. Their reach and impact are vast. They are masters at manipulating media and opinion to their demands (so are the Russians, by the way.) American’s view war as a digital concept: on or off. China subscribes to a range of diplomacy and military operations other than war. They use an analog spectrum of influence and low intensity incursions that strive to achieve Sun Tzu’s goal: “to subdue an enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”

In the absence American trade and security, China’s neighborhood gets rough quick. The Chinese dragon can roar and claw and breath fire where it can at the U.S. until the Rising Sun Battle Flag flies again. The Massacre at Nanjing was only 90 years ago. The U.S.S.R. and China were shooting at each other in a border dispute as recently as 1969. Uniformed soldiers from India and China were playing “red rover” and pushing each other off of cliffs in 2020. There are more than a few nations that are more than a little opinionated about China’s influence and policies. With the departure of the Americans, their new imperative will be playing a good offense as the best defense.

My perception is that we are about to see history repeat itself, but not in Thucydides’ paradigm. I think we will see China go down swinging and lighting fires where it can. Ultimately it will shut itself off from its western trading partners and continue to clamp down hard on its own internal unrest. Lack of food, trade and energy will foment unrest from its people which will be subjected to more and more authoritarian measures to “act right.” Whether it is an internal event such as another Long March or a secession of the trading provinces or another Japanese or Russian conquest. My suspicion is that something will give in the governance of China as we know it. It seems to be just a matter of time.

So, the Thucydides Trap can be a Trap unto itself; if the rising power is not actually as rising or powerful as it seems. The Danger in the Trap squared is that the tail can wag the dog if we are not careful and nuanced in our analysis, decisions and military strategy. It is important that we not let the popularity if this concept develop enough gravity of its own that it sucks us in. War with China does not need to become a self fulfilling prophecy.  Communist regimes have a history of putting on airs and so far, none has survived more than 100 years.  If the Soviet Union is any indicator, the last years of the Paper Bear were more paper than bear. Conflict with China may be pending, but it is our responsibility to be the cooler head. Don’t take the bait of another unrestricted war until the situation demands an overwhelming and violent response on our terms with a clear political endgame.

The above writing is my opinion and is not academically researched, although I do read heavily from Peter Zeihan’s book series, George Friedman’s analysis and spent a decade reading the late John McCreary’s daily threat assessment. So, if something sounds familiar, its because those influences run deep, but I want to give credit where it is due.  I appreciate perspective from Andrea Cameron, Daniel Keller, and Samantha Clayton as they helped me hone some of my thinking. As always, I am interested in deliberate criticism to challenge my thinking.