April 27, 2009 11:55
In 1424, the Chinese Ming Dynasty decided to disband its navy, which stood at the pinnacle of world power. China's navy at that time was second-to-none. Zheng He, a eunuch of Muslim descent in the Chinese royal court, embarked on a maiden voyage to India in 1405, bringing with him 28,000 crew members aboard 317 vessels. Christopher Columbus, who embarked on a voyage to the American continent 87 years later, brought with him just 150 crew members aboard four vessels. Zheng also brought 180 Chinese doctors and pharmacists. Chinese vessels at that time were typically 120 m long, double the size of the legendary Spanish galleons that ruled the oceans 100 years later.
After the death of the Yongle Emperor, Chinese emperors voluntarily destroyed the world's greatest navy. People who built ships with more than two masts were executed, while in 1551, an edict was issued banning all sailing vessels from venturing into the open sea. It wasn't until almost 400 years later that Chinese vessels appeared again on the open seas to attend the first World Fair in London in 1851.
China began to rebuild its navy during the end of the 19th century, when it was being attacked by western imperial powers, including England and France. Under the leadership of Li Hongzhang, China created the Beiyang Fleet in 1871. China purchased two 7,300 ton vessels from Germany and built the fleet of 78 warships. But in September of 1894, the Beiyang Fleet was defeated by the Japanese armada off the coast of Korea's Chungcheong Province during the Sino-Japanese War.
U.S. political scientist Fareed Zakaria referred to China's abandonment of its navy in the early 15th century as "Asia's tragedy." Yet China on Thursday held a naval review at its port in Qingdao, Shandong Province to mark the 60th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army navy, with officials representing 29 countries attending. Four nuclear-powered submarines and 25 destroyers and convoys touted the might of the Chinese navy, but the PLA's state-of-the-art submarines were not revealed to the public. Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie announced his country would also seek to possess an aircraft carrier. It looks like we will soon see China's navy traverse the Indian and Pacific oceans as if they were its own.
Alarmed by China, Japan has begun deploying quasi-aircraft carriers, which are supposedly banned by its constitution. We are about to see renewed competition in the oceans of East Asia, like in the late 19th century. Napoleon once advised others to leave China alone in its slumber, because "When China wakes up, the whole world will be shaken." Now China has awoken from its slumber and is stretching and yawning. How will Korea respond as the world watches?
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