A militaristic view of Zheng He’s voyages


  • Nation
  • Monday, 25 Jul 2005

FOR some years now, Washington has eyed Beijing’s rising fortunes both as an inevitable economic rival and a prospective military challenge. While economic rivalry is far more likely, the military angle is useful in recruiting fearful allies to the US side. 

Last week, the Pentagon released its annual report on China’s military forces and caused an immediate ruckus.  

This year’s report paints China in more threatening hues than before, indicating US anxieties perhaps more than any definite Chinese military posture. 

Yet Washington’s bluff is revealed in such lines from the report as: “Over the long term, if trends persist, the People’s Liberation Army’s capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries in the region.”  

Three key elements are contained in this sentence. 

Firstly, any change in China’s military capability will be “over the long term.”  

Secondly, since the People’s Liberation Army’s current posture is defensive and legitimate, “if trends persist” would mean only more of the same. 

MAKING A POINT: Dr Wade speaking on ‘The Zheng HeAnniversary: Reassessing, Commemorating and Utilisingthe Eunuch Voyages’ recently.

Thirdly, those forces that might feel threatened in some distant future would be aggressors undermining China’s security or unitary statehood, provoking Beijing’s defensive reaction. 

That is no justification for casting Beijing as a potential aggressor.  

But this does not stop some from giving Chinese symbols and icons a negative slant or at least undermine China’s current message of peace. 

On Thursday, Australian researcher Dr Geoff Wade delivered a talk on “The Zheng He Anniversary: Reassessing, Commemorating and Utilising the Eunuch Voyages” at The Asian Centre for Media Studies in Menara Star. 

Dr Wade surveyed how different interests were using Admiral Zheng He’s voyages for their own ends, from selling tourism venues to marketing jetliners.  

His main target, however, was Beijing’s use of the Ming voyages as a symbol of China’s peaceful rise. 

Wade’s approach was to offer a dichotomy – Zheng He came to Malacca 600 years ago either as a friendly ambassador or as an aggressive militarist.  

But why such a narrow choice of options, especially when historical records are ambiguous or non-existent? 

A third option Dr Wade would not consider was that Zheng He came as a friendly official.  

Since China then was a major regional maritime power, he could have represented China as the status quo hegemony. 

The situation is similar to the post-1945 US Pacific Fleet, making occasional port calls for supplies and viewed as a friendly hegemony helping maintain the regional order.  

If China was such a regional power at the time, notions of an aggressor role do not arise. 

Yet when this was put to Dr Wade, he immediately associated China only with the US forces of Iraq and Guantanamo Bay, with all the negative implications there. 

He then denounced other studies with a different conclusion, calling them fiction.  

Yet Dr Wade favourably cited two Chinese novels in support of his arguments, which being novels, were no less fictitious. 

When asked, Dr Wade said there must have been some historical basis to the novels.  

But the same could also be said of the serious works he attacked, besides novels often being adventure-oriented nationalist expressions quite removed from political reality. 

Dr Wade’s selective reading seemed to baffle the audience. 

What he did not make explicit, however, was that while the novels he favourably cited suggest Zheng He’s voyages as military in nature, the other works he disparaged depict the admiral as more of a friendly visitor. 

When asked further why historical records in Asia did not find Zheng He’s voyages to be aggressive, Dr Wade merely said local historians at the time might have been afraid to do so. 

However, this supposed fear did not stop locals from recording the aggression of invading European and Japanese forces.  

Moreover, Dr Wade was in effect taking the absence of evidence of Chinese aggression as proof of Chinese aggression. 

If that sounds familiar, it is the kind of argument used by the United States to justify the invasion of Iraq.  

Looking for a pretext for war, US officials said “the absence of proof of weapons of mass destruction is not proof of (their) absence.” 

When pressed, Dr Wade admitted that he probably overstated his case but only in trying to neutralise the use of Zheng He as a symbol of China’s peaceful re-emergence.  

He did not concede that he was no less a propagandist than Beijing. 

Neither did he admit that his view of Ming aggression through Zheng He comprised as many surmises as the other works he criticised.  

A problem with Dr Wade the historian was that while he delved beyond history into strategic studies, he lacked the background and vocabulary for it. 

The precise nature of Zheng He’s voyages may be no more than academic today.  

It has no necessary bearing on modern China or any presumption of its intent, whether peaceful or otherwise. 

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