“An Historical Analysis of China’s Approach to the Sea” is Claudia Zanardi’s entry to the 2014 Alan Villiers Memorial Lecture Postgraduate Student Essay Contest. Claudia is a PhD Student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.
Nowadays, China’s self-representation is shifting from continental to maritime and is mirrored by the development of a new maritime Security space. For a country like China which has historically conceived the defence of its territory as land-bases, this unprecedented focus on maritime security is a watershed. This reflects China’s new development of its security space. Traditionally, ‘[Chinese emperors] had never attributed the same attention to the exploitation and the management of the sea than to the land’ because the empire’s defence consisted in the defence of the territorial frontiers while ‘the sea was considered as a great natural wall.’i In ancient China within the Tianxia (all under Heaven) system and the tributary system, sea-going was different from the Western approach to the sea. Even during the early Ming Dynasty, which developed an impressive fleet, the mission assigned to the so-called ‘Treasure Fleet’ lead by Adm. Zheng He was to show off the greatness of China to new and remote tributary countries. In any cases, this never resulted brought to the creation of an empire such as the British empire in the Eighteen century.
The Notion of Maritime Space in Western Countries and in China
Since ancient times, the territory under the Emperor (Tian Xia) was traditionally not clearly delimited. Although frontiers were known and treaties or physical demarcations existed, they had a different meaning than in European nation states. Calanca notes the existence of two kinds of limits since the Shang dynasty (1570/1047 BCE) and the West Zhou (1047 -771 BCE). A first kind of limits was within the Empire, notably between the dominion of the emperor and the vassals’ dominions. A second type of limits was between the whole Empire and the barbarians (generally called the ‘four barbarians,’ si yi) settled out of the empire and considered as uncivilised.ii These treaties and demarcations related to the land while the sea/ocean (hai) was considered as a sort of natural border. The absence of fortifications all along the Chinese coastline greatly contrasted with the European case. In the Middle Kingdom, for centuries there was no threat coming from the seas; fortifications were not standing along the coastline to deter enemies because the main Chinese strategy to fight them was to withdraw several kilometres inland to lure the enemy within the imperial territory. The major goal was to push them (e.g. pirates) to confront the Imperial forces from a disadvantaged position. Hence, the approach to the sea was more defensive than active.
The oceans were perceived as something distant and uninteresting. According to Lixin Sun of Beijing Normal University’s School of History : ‘The ancient Chinese always had a complex psychic relation to the vast ocean: longing but disdaining.’iii The sea was considered as a sort of Great Wall (the correct translation is the Long Wall, C hang Cheng) which provided China with a secure east-side and the oceans were a non-space or a mental map. Nevertheless, the fact that even the seas were Tian Xia made them implicitly under the Emperor’s control. By contrast, China’s natural system of inner waters was crucial to ensure field irrigation, inner trade and communications but also logistic at war. Its further improvements through the construction of a great network of interconnected canals constituted a fundamental instrument of control of the vast Empire. Therefore, what traditionally matters in China was the inner waters system. This was true at a much lesser extent in the case of coastal navigation which was left to the provincial control. However, the controls of the sea never overcome this function, not even during Zhen He’s voyages.
The Chinese Neglect of the Sea as Strategic Space
Some maritime developments happened during the Reigns of Wu (222-280 BCE), the Qin (221-206/7 BCE), the Han (202 BCE -220 AD), the Tang (618-907 AD), the Song (906-1279 AD), the Yuan (1271-1368 AD) and early Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. Since ancient times and as in other parts of the world, cartography was a strategic activity and a powerful instrument to justify one country’s territorial claims over new territories. Special envoys were sent far from the capital to map unknown lands and armies were both a source of new maps and a recipient for maps for fighting wars. Regarding the coastal and maritime space, this was especially true during the early Ming dynasty which used its naval power as a political tool to expand China’s influence far from its shores (Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet voyages).
The Ming dynasty, the late Qing dynasty increasingly looked at the sea not only because of the harshening of the piracy issue but also because of the growing population which was putting pressure on lands. The massive migrations towards the south enhanced the importance of coastal areas; for instance, once neglected because far from the shore and populated by aggressive barbarians, Taiwan became more attractive for settlement.iv The demographic pressure became so strong during the Eighteen century, that the Qing favoured the island’s agricultural exploitation whose strategic importance arose from the necessity of easing the mainland’s demographic pressure. Hence, strengthening the southern borders through colonisation (yimin shibian) had a crucial stabilising function for the Empire.v
Nevertheless, ‘maritime issues […] existed to defend the frontiers and were of the competence of provincial authorities, only in charge of the repression of the pirates […] these attacks were a problem of mere local police and not of the relations among states.’vi Hence, the Empire reacted by moving the coastal population towards the interior, closing the ports to forbid any trade to cut pirates’ revenues and push them to go inland. In his book ‘New Record of Effective Techniques’ (jixiao xin shu), General Qi Jiguang (1528-1588 AD) detailed China’s coastal defence against pirates. Pirates were mainly Japanese often colluding with Chinese and Vietnamese. Although they created problems along the coasts, they never challenged the survival of the Middle Kingdom. Niquet stresses that ‘by dealing extensively with maritime strategy and coastal defence, [Qi Jiguang’s] writings mirror the Ming’s interests in the sea [affairs].’vii Nevertheless, the Ming’s efforts at sea lacked any hint of projecting power and sea expeditions were abandoned under the claim that they were too expensive.
Because in the pre-Opium wars periods, the threats to the survival of the Empire usually came from northern nomadic tribes, the perception of the ocean as a ‘Long sea wall’ became so deeply rooted in Chinese mentality, that even in modern China strategists and politicians failed to understand the strategic role that it could play. As a PLA officer explained that the Chinese civilisation is rooted in the farming culture and originated inland. Subsequently, the consolidation of the land around the fertile core of the Yangzi River represented the major goal for the survival of the Middle Kingdom. The ocean mainly viewed as a natural barrier and the Si Hai (Four Seas) that encircled China became a sort of mental map of the Chinese to identify their maritime boundaries. As in the territorial borders, the notion of Hai Nei (within the Seas) was domestic while Hai Wai (overseas) identified everything extraterritorial.viii
In the 1830s, the security priority was ‘West Asia’, where Xinjiang (East Turkmenistan) was in rebellion and ‘Beijing’s strategists were turned towards West, leaving the sea beyond them, hidden from their view and absent from their worry. Except from the pirates’ incursions, the sea had never been a problem.’ix When the foreign powers presence increased, the Qing dynasty tried to accommodate with the increasing requests of the ‘new barbarians’ but as their demands became overwhelming and the Court considered how to respond to the foreign threat coming from the sea, there was no useful institution within the empire. Eventually, the Opium Wars saw the imposition of the so-called Unequal Treaties’ which allowed foreigners concessions on China’s soil. As a result, not only the Chinese space was disrupted but even the Chinese conception of time was challenged and in 1884, the Greenwich meridian was chosen as the universal reference to the time and the longitude which serves for maps and navigation.x
Chinese Reformists and the Need for a Powerful Navy
During the Ming dynasty, Wei Yuan (1794-1856), counsellor (muyu) to the Governor of Canton Lin Zexu was a reformer in favour of the creation of a strong navy to counter European powers. He was the first to assess the consequences of the foreign powers’ presence in China and in Asia’s maritime space in his book Haiguo tuzhi (Illustrated Geography of Maritime Nations, 1843). Since it remained long time the only source describing the world maritime powers, his book was used to teach Chinese bureaucrats and ‘contributed to [develop] a new thinking on Chinese naval policy.’xi As he was the first Chinese who theorised China’s coastal defence, his influence survived the end of the first attempt to establish a modern Imperial navy and it can be traced in the thinking of the leaders of the First Republic. However, strategist of Imperial China but also of Republican and Communist China did not see the potential of the oceans neither for their security nor for their economy. For these reasons, China differs from the Great Britain, the US or Japan which came to consider the seas as a source of power and multi-layered interests. China’s conception of space related to land and the continent. As put it by Jung-Pang Lo, ‘China was a naval power during the late Sung, Yuan and early Ming periods’ but its strategic thinking was turned inland and China never became a sea power.xii
After the Opium Wars (1841), the Qing Dynasty decided to create a navy capable of defending the territory from foreign attacks from the sea.xiii The so-called Self-strengthening movement (yangwu yundong or ziqiang yundong, 1861-1894) was led by Chinese officials who prompted the adoption of Western technologies and weapons to defeat the Westerners themselves. Despite recognising the need for building a strong navy, the maritime space and islands along the coasts were never considered as strategic assets to ensure the defence of the Empire.
Among the Chinese reformers who acknowledged the importance for China to reform by adopting Western superior techniques and weapons, Li Hongzhang (1823-1901) and Shen Baozhen (1820-1879) advocated the adoption of a coastal defence. However, they failed to fully grasp the oceans’ great economic and military value’ and any attempt to establish a powerful navy ended with the defeat of the Qing fleet against France (1884) and Japan (1894) when the Beiyang (northern seas) fleet which had been built over the self-strengthening movement was completely destroyed.xiv
Even Chang Kai-sheck perpetrated the traditional notion of the sea lacking any strategic relevance. It was only in 1949 than the Commandment of the East Fleet was established; in 1952, it was the turn of the first air-force division (Shanghai) and of the first operational submersible force.xv The attempt to take Taiwan after the establishment of the PRC resulted in a major blow: the lack of funding coupled with security threats in other theatres kept the navy underfunded. In fact, Mao decided to give priority to more urgent security issues (e.g. Korean War, Indochina) and at the end of the 1950s, the Sino-Russian split further deprived the PLA of technical assistance and military aid to develop a national navy. Mao Zedong adopted the traditional defensive reflex when he felt a likely Soviet menace from the sea and thus moved all strategic industries within China (Third Front).
Debates on the necessity to build a strong navy resurged only after the poor performance of the PLA during the short Sino-Vietnamese War (1979) over maritime disputes and because of China’s opening up and coastal economic development bringing new security needs. Hence, Deng Xiaoping modified Mao’s defence centred doctrine (People’s War) and introduced the concept of ‘active defence’ with a more efficient navy at its core. His successor, Jiang Zemin, called the East China Fleet for ‘strengthening the build-up of the navy and the protection of our homeland’s sovereignty over the sea.1’ ln 2004, Hu Jintao attributed new historical missions to the PLA which put the Navy as the guarantor of China’s new ‘core interests’ which include the maritime territories disputed with other Asian neighbours. Finally, Xi Jinxing proposed a new maritime Silk Road recalling the one under the Tang dynasty. This crescendo shows that the Chinese leaders have finally grasped the strategic importance of the sea.
Reinterpreting History: the Middle Kingdom as a Maritime Power
At the Shangri-La Dialogue 2014, Lt. Gen. Wang Guanzhong declared that:
‘ China’s sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the South China Sea were established through the long process of historical development […] It can be traced back to over 2,000 years ago, of the Han Dynasty, when China started discovering and gradually maturing its administration over the South China Sea, especially the Nansha Islands (Spratly) and related area.’xvi
The PRC has paid huge efforts in funding historical and geographical research to better support its position; for instance, it has created a research centre on borders’ history and geography (1983).xvii An increasing number of publications detail China’s maritime tradition since ancient times. As a result, this has engendered a growing cacophony of often incompatible historical funding. For example, some Chinese scholars argue that the Chinese historical discovery and geographical description of the Diaoyu islands happened in 1372.xviii Others claim that since 1556 they were part of the Ming dynasty’s maritime defence and later of the Qing dynasty or that in 1893 Empress Cixi attributed the islands to an alchemist to reward his work on rare medical herbs on those islands.xix Not only in mainland China, but also in the West, scholars have been paying more attention to track China’s supposedly lost maritime tradition. However, although proofs exist of the Chinese maritime capabilities especially since the Song Dynasty (927-1160 AD) China has never made a strategic use of its maritime knowledge. An exception may have been Admiral Zheng He’s six voyages which were consciously used as diplomatic tools to show off the strength of the Empire farther than the borders of the tributary system.
The use of history by the PRC but also by other Asian states to support their maritime claims has become a sort of ‘war of archives which often forges proofs to the service of the state instead of clarifying the issues in an objective manner. Gipouloux traces back to the Song period a Chinese strategic dilemma which has been constantly repeating until the end of the Twenty Century: the trade-off between securing the north and consolidating the south. The second option prevailed only in a few historical periods such as the Song or the late Ming dynasties when the strong immigration toward South-East Asia enhanced the strategic importance of the south and coastal areas. By contrast, the late Ming dynasty, imposed the first strategic option: they adopted very strict measures such as prohibiting going at sea or ‘the policy of ‘Moving the Community,’ relocating coastal residents and burning boats and ships for navigating within 30 miles from the coast,’ dismantled the fleets and closed the sea to the trade. This ‘suppression of coastal areas and the closed-door policy became the basic national policy.’xx
In the mid of the Seventeenth Century, the Jurchen’s tribes in the North, better known as the Manchus, took over the Ming dynasty and started the Qing dynasty. The resistance they found came from the South where loyalists to the Ming dynasty had retreated and the last bastion of resistance had to be defeated in Taiwan. The south was also experiencing foreign incursions (from pirates but also because of the presence of Portuguese and Dutch) and increasing trade flux that the government could not control properly.xxi The same measures adopted by the late Ming dynasty were taken to contrast Western intrusions during the late Qing Dynasty. As Russia was threatening China from the north-east, once again the debate between protecting the north versus consolidating the south resurged, but it was considered that the threat posed by the north and west borders (Russia and Xinjiang) was as important as the ‘new Barbarians’ threat from the sea.xxii Unable to prioritise the threat, the Qing dynasty decided to defend both, the North West and the south: as a result, not enough resources were allocated to the two fronts at the same time.
Sun Yat-sen was much more aware of the importance of the ocean as the gate to protect China’s territory. The island of Hainan was even considered as a strategic point to ensure defence and ‘he set the development of the naval and maritime industry at the height of national politics and strategy.’xxiii After the founding of the PRC (1949), Beijing never stopped declaring these treaties unequal (bu pingdeng tiaoyue) and making claims over Taiwan as well as vague statements on unclear maritime claims. The priority was to consolidate the new state-nation weakened by the war against the Japanese occupation and the civil war against the Nationalists (Guomintang). Its maritime power was extremely limited: its first marine division was established only in 1954 and ‘deployed to fight in the battle for Yijiangshan Island during the first Taiwan Strait Crisis.’xxiv The Communists conquered Hainan from the Kuomintang just because it was near the mainland’s shore while any attempt to conquest Taiwan failed due to the Communist naval weakness.
Any effort to develop the navy after the Korean War stopped with the Sino-Soviet split at the end of the 1950s. The marine divisions were dissolved and transferred under the Arm. This changed only after the evidence of major shortage during the struggle with Vietnam over the Paracel in 1974 but it was only in 1980 than ‘a marine brigade was formed in Ding’an county, Hainan and later relocated to the Zhejiang.’xxv Therefore, the challenges and military limitations of the new Communist China pushed Beijing to keep a low profile on territorial claims. It was only when a UN report identified resources in the East China Sea (1969) that Beijing modified its stance on the Diaoyu. However, the first to react was Taiwan and it took China two years to declare that the Diaoyu were under its sovereignty.
This article has shown how China’s perception of its maritime space has been evolving over the centuries. Modern China greatly differs from ancient China in its perception of the seas and consequently, think the seas in a very diverse way. Far from looking inward, Beijing has recognised the strategic nature of the maritime space and tries to re-occupy it; but the maritime space in the Twenty-first century is also a new source of identity for modern China, an unprecedented maritime identity which the leadership has been trying to cultivate at home.
1 # Jiang’s note addressed to the East China Fleet of October 21, 1996 at the 8 th CPC Congress of the Navy, quoted by Yang, B. ‘Vu de Beijing: l’évolution de la conception maritime de la Chine depuis les années 1950.’ 59
i# Yang, B. ‘Vu de Beijing : l’évolution de la conception maritime de la Chine depuis les années 1950,’ in Terrains, B. La Chine et la mer. Sécurité et coopération régionale en Asie orientale (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2011)
ii# Calanca, P. & Wildt F. ‘Les Frontières : quelques termes-clés’, Extrême-Orient, Extrême-Occident , 28, 2006. 17-56
iii# Sun, L. ‘Chinese Maritime Concepts,’ Asia European Journal , 8, 2010. 327
iv# Allee, M. A. Law and Local Society in Late Imperial China , Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1994
v# Colin, S. La Chine et ses frontières (Colin. Paris, 2011) 60
vi# Fairbank, J. K. La Grande Révolution chinoise. 1800-1989 (Flammarion, Paris ) 131
vii# Niquet, V. Les Fondements de la stratégie maritime chinoise , (Economica. Paris ) 40
viii# Sun, L. ‘Chinese Maritime Concepts’, Asia Europe Journal , 8, 2010. 329
ix# Fairbank, op. cit. 132
x# Foucher, M. La Bataille des cartes. Analyse critique des visions du monde (Françoise Bourin Ed., Paris, 2011) 15
xi# Cornet, C. ‘Wei Yuan et la conception chinoise du monde maritime,’ in L’Evolution de la pensée navale , http://www.institut-strategie.fr/PN1_CORNETWEIY.html, Commission d’histoire maritime, FEDN, 41, May 1991. Accessed 15 June 2014
xii# Lo, J-P. ‘The Emergence of China as a Sea Power during the Late Sung and Early Yuan Periods,’ The Far Eastern Quarterly , 14 (4) Special Number on Chinese History & Society, August 1955) 489
xiii# Li, Y. Zou chu wan Qing: she wai ren wu ji Zhongguo de shi jie guan nian zhi yan jiu (Beijing daxue chubanshe, Beijing, 2005) 237, 240
xiv# Sun, L. op . cit. 327
xv# Yang, B. op . cit. . 57
xvi# ‘Chinese General Reiterates Principles for Solving Island Disputes,’ http://www.english.sina.com/china/p/2014/0602/705864.html. Xinhua , 3 June 2014, Accessed 21 May 2014
xvii# Colin, S. op. cit. 6
xviii# Tianying, W. ‘jiawu zhanqian diaoyu lieyu guishu kao (An Examination of the Ownership of the Diaoyu Islets before the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War), (zhongguo shehui kexue chubanshe, Beijing, 1994)
xix# Tao, C. ‘The Sino-Japanese Dispute Over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands and the Las of Territorial Acquisition,’ Virginia Journal of International Law , 14 (2), Winter 1974. 248-60
xx# Sun, L. op. cit. 320, 327
xxi# Gipouloux, F. ‘Mondialisation, Méditerranée asiatiques et tradition maritime chinoise,’ in Tertrais, H. (ed.) La Chine et la mer. Sécurité et coopération régionale et Asie orientale et du Sud-Est (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2011) 68
xxii# Hsu, I. C. Y., ‘The Great Policy Debate in China 1874: Maritime vs Frontier Defence, Harward Journal for Asiatic Studies , 25 (1965) 212-228
xxiii# Sun, L. op. cit. 333
xxiv# Blasko, D. ‘China’s Marine: Less Is More,’ ChinaBrief , 10 (24), 3 (December 2010)