"Crouching Tiger, Swimming Dragon," an op-ed in the April 11 NY Times by Nayan Chanda, former editor of Far Eastern Economic Review, notes with alarm that Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao last week signed a deal in Islamabad for construction of a deep-sea facility at Pakistan's Indian Ocean port of Gwadar. Although it is ostensibly to be built for trade, Chanda fears "a permanent Chinese naval presence near the Srait of Hormuz, through which 40 percent of the world's oil passes." It all gives the historically astute Chanda an uneasy sense of deja vu.
For a brief time in the 15th century, China had the means, but no deep-rooted rationale, for overseas expansion. The Middle Kingdom's maritime glory can be traced to the personal enthusiasm of a single ruler, the Ming emperor Yongle, who dispatched 63 vessels to the Indian Ocean in seven waves. China's first and thus far only blue-water navy consisted of multimasted ships weighing 1,500 tons – Vasco da Gama's weighed only 300 tons – and carried 27,500 men up to the Gulf and Africa's eastern shore.
"But the expeditions ended as suddenly as they had begun," Chanda notes, obviously nostalgic for this comforting imperial contraction of yestercentury. "By the time the Portugese Navy appeared in the Indian Ocean in 1497, the Chinese had already gone home."
Now, however, the strategic stakes are higher. "This time, China's thirst for energy is dictating its turn to the Indian Ocean and the Persian Gulf. Since 1993 China has been a net oil importer; as its need has grown…so has its dependence on oil from the Middle East… Many believe it is only a matter of time before the Chinese Navy, much strangthened by recent purchases of ships and technology, arrives in Gwadar… China should be left in no doubt, however, that using the Gwadar port for its military would increase tensions and weaken the energy security that it ostensibly seeks."
How come nobody ever calls upon the United States (which already has a formidable military presence in Pakistan and several other countries in the region) to emulate the imperial contraction that occured with collapse of the Ming Dynasty?