s European naval powers decline rapidly and theU.S. Navy diminishes quantitatively, China isgoing to sea. This ends a great historical trend thatbegan six centuries ago, in which China withdrewinward and European naval expansion spread Western in-fluence worldwide.Now, for the first time in history, a robust and enduringdebate pervades Beijing: Is China a continental power, amaritime power, or both? To what extent will its persist-ing political and strategic geography and the continentaliststrategic culture it helped to form constrain its develop-ment as a maritime power?
The ancient Persians lacked a maritime tradition, buttheir leaders were open to new ideas. Initially viewing thesea as a barrier, they came to see itas a communications highway anddeveloped extensive naval experi-ence.
By devoting major financialresources, they were subsequentlyable to build the first truly sub-stantial navy in history. The scaleand economic dynamism of theseefforts suggest parallels to China.The Ottoman Empire had signifi-cant resources but also insuperablecontinentalist limitations. Ottomanland frontiers continued to posea threat, consuming attention andresources. Ottoman use of oaredgalleys to transport ground forceswas suitable for the Mediterranean,but not for the much larger and lessland-constrained Indian Ocean. Un-able to keep up with economic glo-balization, the Ottomans forfeitedtheir chance to dominate the firstglobal market.As the center of naval competitionmoved into the Atlantic and beyondduring the modern era, several majorcontinental powers made earnest at-tempts at maritime transformation,with limited success. France, for ex-ample, made four major attempts atmaritime transformation and failedeach time. Weakness and disorga-nization in the central governmentwere chronic problems; anti-com-mercial and anti-imperial attitudes were widespread amongthe elite; a weak financial system hobbled naval construc-tion and supply; and relations between the navy and thearmy were consistently poor or nonexistent.The French case may be particularly relevant to China.It suggests that internal consolidation is a prerequisite formaritime focus. Like France, China enjoys good ports andready access to the sea, but also an inland capital anda system of inland waterways that lessened the nation’sdependence on seagoing commerce. Like France, Chinahas three relatively distinct maritime frontiers, and a his-tory of suboptimal coordination between fleets stationedin each, facilitating defeat in battle. Both nations share ahistory of fitful naval development together with skepti-cism or outright hostility toward naval power or maritimeexpansion among important elements of their elites. Themost compelling explanation for thatcontinentalism: long-standing elite
YellowSeaSea of Japan
Manila-Lin Feng Affair (1574-75) Sino-Dutch War (1623-24) Sino-Portuguese War (1521-22) Annam Invasion (1406) Fort Zeelandia/Anping (1624-62) Zhu Yuanzhang’s Conquest of the Southeast Coast (1367-68) Counter-piracy Operations (1540-80s) Zheng Chenggong’s Northern Offensive (1658-59) Battle of Noryang (1598) Chen Xun’s Counter-piracy Operations (1406) Battle of Lake Poyang (1363) Battle of Qutang Gorge (1371)
EastChinaSeaPACIFICOCEAN SouthChinaSea LingayenGulf Gulf of Tonkin
Battle of Penghu (1683)
Liaodong Peninsula Early Ming frontier Later Ming boundary
H u a n g R i v e r
W e i R i v e r
Y a n g z i R i ve r
X i R i v e r
Imperial frontierImperial boundaryProvincial boundaryGreat WallCanalRiver
Naval Operations of theMing Dynasty, 1360-1683
Note: Imperial and provincial boundaries are approximationsonly, particularly in the northeast.
China’s emergence as a powerful maritimeentity is, in fact, a re-emergence. Decadesbefore the explorations of Columbus, 15th-century Admiral Zheng He commandedthe largest wooden ships in history onfar-ranging voyages for the greater glory ofMing emperors.