Understand China's Foreign Policy, Know Zheng He

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in ,,, at 3/04/2010 12:42:00 AM

This is an addendum to a recent post I've made concerning my views on how China should curry favour with ASEAN. While performing research on China's diplomatic outreach to Southeast Asia, I've been struck by the constant allusion of Chinese officials to the historical figure of Zheng He. The renowned Muslim admiral helmed the famous treasure ships that explored Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and East Africa in the 15th century. Well before Columbus accidentally happened upon the New World in the 85-foot Santa Maria in 1492, Zheng He's seven voyages between 1405 and 1433 featured 400-foot junks that manifested China's comparative might before Western interlopers. Along the way, Zheng He established a tributary system centred on the Middle Kingdom. (PBS has a fine online feature about Admiral Zheng He's voyages.)

Especially since 2005--the 600th anniversary of Zheng He's maiden voyage to parts (somewhat) unknown--Chinese official history has resurrected Zheng He as a metaphor for China's current "peaceful rise" after being under the white man's thumb for a couple of centuries. That is, while Zheng He had an overwhelming advantage as evidenced by his mighty vessels (just as China now has in the economic realm over its Southeast Asian neighbours), he never did what Western navigators and others who followed in his wake did. That is, Zheng He never did establish colonies, take other peoples as slaves, spread disease, pillage entire cities, or otherwise commit atrocities in the name of God, the White Man's Burden, or co-prosperity.

For instance, look at this speech I've excerpted by PRC State Councilor Dai Bingguo before the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta earlier this year. I don't make this stuff up for the narrative fits to a "T":
Some friends may say, yes you are a developing country, but you are so big, your economy is so large and grows so fast. That is somewhat fearful. Indeed, China is a big country, and with rapid economic growth. When people associate it with the behavior of some big countries in history, it is natural that they may feel a bit worried. But I want to assure you that China is not to be feared. It is a reliable neighbour and friend for you.

Let's look at China's history. Does China have the tradition and culture of aggression and expansion? I have noted many people across the world say "no". China did not seek expansion or hegemony even at the time when it was the most powerful country in the world with 30% of the global GDP a few hundred years ago. Many of you know about Zheng He's voyages to the Western Seas. Leading the most powerful fleet in the world, Zheng He made seven voyages to the Western Seas, bringing there porcelain, silk and tea, rather than bloodshed, plundering or colonialism. They also brought those countries tranquillity and well-being by helping them fight pirates. To this day, Zheng He is still remembered as an envoy of friendship and peace, and his merits are widely recognized by people of Southeast Asia, including Indonesia.
While the analogy may stumble on a few points, he did establish nominal suzerainty over many important trading posts after all, it's certainly a mark of how far the Chinese have come in terms of diplomatic sophistication in recent years compared to certain others. In contrast, what can the Yanks say to Southeast Asia at the current time? Do as we say, not as we do? Somehow, a venerated navigator--and a multicultural Muslim one at that--would tend to trump a bunch of hypocritical white guys in PR terms. Needless to say, Obama and Co. have their work cut out for them if they think they can dislodge China's influence in its own backyard. Certainly, the tide of history is not going in their favour as Sammy embarks on the comfortable path to ruin.

There's another good YouTube video on Zheng He's legacy where the commentator says all that needs to be said about him: the perfect figure for China's modern day spirit of openness and engagement with the outside world.