chapter  1
5 Pages

Everything old is new again

Naval historian Paul Kennedy calls attention to a curious disjunction between Western and Asian thought about the sea. Or rather, he unearths the latest in a series of coincidences and discontinuities involving Western and Asian sea power. Fifteenth-century China provided the setting for one such quirk of fate. The Ming Dynasty dismantled Adm. Zheng He’s “treasure fleet,” the world’s most formidable navy, after the fleet had completed seven triumphal voyages of diplomacy, trade, and exploration in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Some combination of imperial succession, factional strife at court, and nomadic threats along the northern frontier of the empire prompted this conscious reversal of China’s maritime fortunes.1 The Dragon Throne ordained an end to seafaring pursuits, ultimately outlawing the construction of oceangoing vessels. Kennedy might have added that India had likewise abandoned the sea, and it did so a century before Zheng He’s day. In an effort to halt the outflow of human capital, Hindu rulers forbade their subjects to sail beyond the immediate environs of the subcontinent. Retired Indian Adm. Rakesh Chopra declares that by the fourteenth century:

Quasi-religious orders prohibited Indians from making voyages overseas ostensibly to stem the brain drain of Indian mathematicians and philosophers migrating to Baghdad, the silicon valley of the times. Seaborne trade passed into the hands of the Arabs. . . . Shipping was scrapped except for coastal forces to police adjoining seas and suppress piracy.2