Dragon at Sea: A Brief History of Chinese Navies

The strategic arena of East Asia.

SINCE THE END OF THE COLD WAR, American naval supremacy has been unchallenged throughout the world. Even during that massive, global struggle, the Soviet Navy never came close to rivaling the power projection capabilities of the United States (of course, this was never their intent).

With the dawning of the twenty-first century, however, many commentators are declaring it to be “China’s Century,” during which the People’s Republic will finally assume its rightful place as a counterweight to the United States. Despite the financial crisis currently engulfing the world, the U.S.-China trade deficit reached record levels in 2008, with $266 billion against the United States. If the economic sphere were a battlefield, China would surely be winning.

Yet, the crucial trade arena formed by the South China Sea, East China Sea, Yellow Sea, and Western Pacific Rim has gone largely ignored in China as an area of vital strategic importance. Half of the largest container lines in the world are owned and based in Asia, and one-third of the world’s shipping is owned by Asian nations.[1]

It would make sense, then, for China to possess and deploy a strong navy. Since the Communist victory over the Kuomintang (KMT) in 1949, maritime power has been neglected, but the last decade has seen an ascendant navalist faction in the upper echelons of the Politburo. China has now embarked upon a major program of modernizing the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), and while American superiority in the region is likely to remain for the near future, the rise of the PLAN will pose significant challenges to the United States Navy in decades to come.

While recent history would indicate otherwise, China has a long and storied naval heritage.

The geography of China and its coastlines does not lend itself as a ‘safe’ place in which to practice saltwater sailing. The East China Sea was “fairly kind to sailing ships” except for during typhoon season, and the Taiwan Strait remains the most dangerous stretch of water in the world for reasons beyond that of security. Much of the Chinese coast is too jagged and rocky to permit mooring, and natural harbors are few and far between.

An unspecified port of the Song Dynasty era.

Ancient China was primarily a sedentary, agricultural society, and seamanship was limited to riverine navigation.[2] In 1135, the northern nomadic peoples conquered many of the regional capitals, and established a new capital at Hangzhou on the Chinese coast south of the Yangtze River. This was the first major seaport in China, but despite its prestige as both imperial capital and port city, the move to Hangzhou “did not form new values; it created no new set of attitudes about the ocean.”[3]

During Mongol rule in the thirteenth century, a number of seaborne invasions were launched against Java, Japan, and Vietnam. The numbers involved were huge: the expedition against Japan in 1274 consisted of 900 ships and 250,000 soldiers; the subsequent invasion in 1281 was 4,400 ships strong.[4]

Nevertheless, the idea of a standing navy never quite took in imperial China. Even some of the most fabulous successes of the Ming dynasty, led by the eunuch admiral Zheng He, were not enough to warrant continued exploration.

Zheng He, the eunuch admiral.

Zheng’s expeditions were impressive for their day; while the Portuguese were timidly exploring the eastern coast of Africa in 50-ton caravels, Zheng He’s fleet of 3,800 ships included some 400 massive “floating fortresses” displacing 1,500 tons each. At the height of his voyages between 1413 and 1415, Zheng reached as far west as Mogadishu on the Horn of Africa and Jedda in what is now Saudi Arabia. Theodore Cook, Jr. postulates that Zheng He had both the means and the skill to have reached the west coast of North America or even Brazil by way of the Cape of Good Hope, and was limited only by the Ming court.

Almost overnight though, the great Chinese fleets were permanently docked; within a century the fleet was a tenth of its former size and it was made a capital offense to go to sea in ship with more than two masts.[5]

By the end of the fifteenth century, the Ming dynasty was unable to protect its own sea commerce from the predations of Japanese pirates and other raiders, but as they posed no threat to continued imperial rule, the loss of a few merchantmen was dismissed as a slight inconvenience. The Ming dynasty turned inwards, and Chinese maritime power languished for another four hundred years.

The contraction of the Chinese state, primarily due to Mongol invasion.

One of the primary reasons for ending the voyages was the threat of invasion in the north and west. The probing attacks of a weakened Mongol Empire and other Asian aggressors led the Chinese to focus on their land defenses, which has resulted in a largely army-oriented military. PLAN Captain Xu Qi compares this (PDF) to the position of Germany, which in the nineteenth century was lagging behind Great Britain in terms of development. Xu writes that “Germany, which although a nation proximate to the sea, with its location in Central Europe—unlike the maritime powers—more easily got caught up in two-front wars.” Explaining the analogous position that China has found itself in, Xu quotes Friedrich Engels:

First, Germany’s geographic position is disadvantageous, because it is too far from the world trade thoroughfare of the Atlantic Ocean. The second reason is that from the sixteenth century until the present, Germany has been drawn continuously into wars, all of which were fought on its own territory.

China, faced with external threats on virtually every side of its frontiers, opted to defend against those and not the more nebulous and occasional threats from the sea.

Even when China decided to undertake a program of naval construction in the nineteenth century, that navy was intended for coastal (brown-water) defense only—nothing in the way of power projection. Furthermore, the early Chinese steam navy was always meant to be used internally to “quell domestic unrest,” and further hampering any universal doctrine was the “fear of putting too much power into a single naval organization” which led to a divided navy whose fleets fought amongst themselves. Primarily organized for the purposes of suppressing the Taiping Rebellion, the temporary fleet was scrapped in 1863.

Not long after, the Chinese made another attempt at a navy. By 1884, Li Hongzhang had managed to create four modern fleets based on three approaches: indigenous production, purchases abroad, and the reverse engineering of foreign systems.

The Beiyang Fleet in Weihaiwei, c. 1870

The Beiyang Fleet, far and away the most powerful, was led by two 7,500-ton German-built battleships. Put to the test in August 1884 against the French, who were attempting to colonize Vietnam, the Fujian Fleet based out of Fuzhou failed miserably. The local French fleet sank every one of the Fujian ships in their harbor. Li’s attempt at creating a naval establishment, while appearing “successful…on paper,” improved the situation little.

At the Battle of the Yalu River, fought against the Japanese in 1894, the Beiyang Fleet was defeated, and subsequently made port in Weihaiwei. The Japanese landed troops in January, and turned the captured coastal defenses on the Chinese ships in harbor, utterly destroying the entire fleet. None of the other Chinese fleets bothered to assist.[6]

China had the equipment and certainly the manpower to float a modern navy, but completely absent from the picture was any semblance of training or coherent doctrine. Throughout the Republican Era, China’s maritime adventures were mostly limited to gunboats and riverine skirmishes.

As the Chinese Civil War climaxed in the years after World War II, the KMT centralized the various fleets, only to be reminded of their rationale for separating them in the first place. In 1949, the fleet’s flagship Chongqing defected to the Communists, precipitating a mass defection of the bulk of the fleet in the ensuing months. Thus, when the People’s Republic of China was proclaimed on October 1, 1949, it already had the foundations of a navy in place.


[1]. Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea: China’s Navy Enters the Twenty-First Century (Annapolis, Md.: US Naval Institute Press, 2001), 8. Cole’s work is a fantastic compendium of Chinese naval history and modernization, and is probably the most complete work produced on the PLAN within the last two decades. Owing to the lack of sources available, I have drawn heavily upon his facts, figures, and quotes—though not necessarily his conclusions—and any appearance of intellectual theft is my fault alone.

[2]. John Curtis Perry, “Imperial China and the Sea,” Asia Looks Seaward: Power and Maritime Strategy, Toshi Yoshihara and James R. Holmes, eds. (Westport, Conn.: Praeger Security International, 2008), 23.

[3]. Perry, “Imperial China and the Sea,” 25.

[4]. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, 3.

[5]. Theodore F. Cook, Jr., “The Chinese Discovery of the New World, 15th Century: What the Expeditions of a Eunuch Admiral Might Have Led to,” What If? 2: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, Robert Cowley, ed. (New York: Berkley, 2002), 85-104.

[6]. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea, 5-6.

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