Chinese naval expansion and the new industrial development of China. How these are inter-related

Dr. Jerry Voorhis

If the Chinese make good their claim to both the Paracel and Spratly islands, it will be the greatest example of  Chinese maritime expansion in history. During the late 14th and early 15th centuries (1368-1450) China expanded overseas, but this only involved exploration and tribute collecting, not permanent settlement.
 
In these early exploration voyages, Chinese ships sailed as far as the southern tip of Africa, exploring the coasts of East Africa, India, and Indonesia. HOWEVER, THIS maritime expansion was soon halted by the Ming emperors, who concentrated on building up China’s northern defenses against possible Mongol or Manchu invaders. It was under the Mings that the most impressive expansion and improvement of the Great Wall took place. Overseas expansion was looked upon as a frivolous expense.
 
All the way up to the mid-19th century China was a self-sufficient, self-contained and introspective society. She had everything she needed during the pre-industrial period, silk, porcelain, rice, spices, furniture, herbs, fruits, tea, vegetables, and even building materials were abundant in China.
 
During this period Europeans and other traders had to scramble or try hard to find something the Chinese might want that they could not get in their own country or in areas that were close to China, like Indonesia with its spices.  About the only European products which the Chinese would accept in trade were gold and silver and very expensive Flemish tapestries. One reason for the infamous trade in opium during the early 19th century was a desire, on the part of the British to produce a product that would induce the Chinese to pay for in gold and silver so the British could buy Chinese silk, tea and porcelain. The opium was then grown in India and sold to an increasingly addicted Chinese population, despite the strong opposition of the Chinese imperial government.
This opium traffic marks the beginning of the infamous international drug trade that still plagues today’s world.
 
In this pre-industrial period (for China), the Chinese did not need a navy. As a result naval construction and technology were neglected by the Manchu government.  As a consequence, foreign powers took advantage of this naval vacuum. Britain defeated China in the opium war (1839-43), and as a result she received a lease on Hong Kong which soon became an English crown colony on the South China coast.  Several centuries earlier, the Portuguese also took advantage of Chinese naval weakness, and they established a major trading post and naval base in Macao which, like Hong Kong, is on the South China coast.

Subsequent wars and naval defeats for China resulted in the opening up of treaty ports throughout China, huge foreign (British, French, German, Japanese) trading centers and settlements in major Chinese cities like Shanghai, and foreign gunboats patrolling not just the coast of China, but her rivers as well. During the nineteen twenties and thirties British, American, Japanese and other foreign gunboats, or naval war vessels patrolled the Yangtze river regularly. One US gunboat, the USS Panay was sunk in the Yangtze by Japanese bombers at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese war in 1937.
 
During World War II, the Chinese coast and rivers were completely dominated by the Japanese navy. Japan took Taiwan away from China as early as 1895.
 
Since 1990, China has been able to move away from her vast internal problems and conflict with her immediate neighbors like India, Russia (Soviet Union) and Vietnam to concentrate on two things: industrial growth and raising her standard of living, and overseas or naval expansion. These two latter-day goals are interrelated.
 
China is no longer land-oriented and self-sufficient. She is increasingly dependent on the outside world for what she needs. To feed her burgeoning, rapidly expanding steel industry, China is importing increasing amounts of iron-ore from Australia, Canada and the United States. The previously depressed iron mining Mesabi region of northern Minnesota has undergone an economic recovery due to Chinese demand for taconite, a low grade form of iron-ore that exists in abundance in northern Minnesota.  Chinese interests are exploring the possibility of mining bauxite in Viet-Nam, Australia and
other areas. China imports large amounts of petroleum (oil) from the Middle East and other parts of the world like Latin America. The bauxite feeds China’s burgeoning aluminum industry--necessary for the production of kitchenware and aircraft, the petroleum feeds the insatiable and growing demand for private motor cars, trucks and buses which are increasing in China by leaps and bounds. Finally China imports increasing amounts of Japanese, European and other automobiles, motorbikes, radios, television sets and other manufactured goods. China is becoming the world’s workshop and her demand for raw materials from the outside world is exploding.
 
China just acquired control over Hong-Kong and Macao, so there are no longer any foreign enclaves on the Chinese coast. Trade between Taiwan and China is increasing. So it is no surprise that China has expanded into Malaysia.
 
The Paracel and Spratly islands
 
The Paracels contain valuable deposits of oil and natural gas.  The Spratlys, located 900 miles off the Chinese coast and only 300 or 50 miles from Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia can serve as a strategic naval base giving China control over the entire South China sea. The Japanese used the Spratlys as strategic submarine base during World War II.
 
In order to deal with the Chinese challenge in the area of the Spratlys and Paracels, it will be important for ASEAN countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam to present a united front both in the United Nations and the World Court in the Hague. They should insist on the international character and importance of these islands strategically, economically and culturally. This common front should avoid naval or military confrontation given China’s past history of naval defeat and humiliation, this approach would only aggravate the Chinese, and it would ultimately backfire. It might even produce a nuclear conflict.

What is needed is steady but firm diplomatic, and economic pressure on China to renounce exclusive claims which she might have in regard to these highly strategic islands. A boycott of Chinese products could be very effective if it is done in connection with a movement to internationalize the Paracels and Spratlys and ultimately tie them into the phenomenon of China’s new industrialization and her new-found affluence.  Also, her previous history and sensitivity toward reminders of her past naval weakness must be taken into account.