The Treasure Fleets and Ming Foreign Policy
A Chinese proverb says, "He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount." Considering the danger one would encounter in such a predicament, the proverb speaks volumes to the wisdom of not crossing a potentially lethal enemy. Foreign policy relations can be a very tricky process of maneuver and counter-maneuver, and, at times, very dangerous. Suppose, for example, that a nation finds itself in the less than perfect position of being forced to either pay tribute to a superior power, or face elimination or subjugation by that superior power. Which is the preferable fate? Generally, when facing a similar situation, nations surrounding Ming China preferred to pay tribute to the Emperor of Heaven, and spare bringing down the tiger's fury. In such a way, surrounding nations came into the orbit of Chinese suzerainty, locked into a tradition of paying tribute to the emperor. To not pay the tribute would be a tremendous disrespect, likely with severe consequences. Chinese foreign policy, then, could be realistically simplified to either complying with or resisting the will of the emperor.
The will of the emperor, though, during the reign of Zhu Di (1402-1424 C.E.), was not merely to achieve political and military dominance over his neighbors. As asserted in Louise Levathes' 1994 novel When China Ruled the Sea, Zhu Di, known as the Yongle Emperor, had ambitions other than these. Zhu Di was greatly interested in establishing commercial ties with foreign lands, to increase the overall prosperity of China through trade. To this end, Zhu Di sent out six massive treasure fleets during the twenty-two years of his reign, with one more fleet voyaging during the reign of his grandson, Zhu Zhanji, in 1432. These treasure fleets were truly effective in their propagation of the emperor's wishes, involving foreign policy. Along with huge, goods carrying vessels, the treasure fleets consisted of hundreds of warships. With such a powerful force as he had amassed, including the capability to defeat any possible naval opponent, Zhu Di could greatly influence international trade, as well as international affairs in general.
Among the first instances Levathes relates involving China's direct involvement in the internal affairs of another country, other than through war, is the installation and recognition of the Kingdom of Malacca in 1405. Formerly, the Malaccans had been forced to pay annual tribute to Siam, or else face devastating consequences. With the Yongle Emperor's acknowledgement of Malacca as a kingdom, though, Siam could not continue to threaten the Malaccans, as this would be a sign of impertinence to the superiority of the Yongle Emperor. To behave thus would certainly bring disastrous dividends that the Siamese grudgingly acknowledged, not the least of which happened to be the possibility of losing trade rights with China. Recognizing the suzerainty of China, Malacca received trading rights and the emperor's favor, including military protection.
An important result of the successive treasure fleet voyages was an increased awareness and acknowledgement of China's power, internationally. As evidence, with the completion of the voyages, an inevitable stream of tribute would flow into the capital, as nearly every nation with which the Chinese came into contact with sent some form of gift or another to the emperor. Along with countless gifts of gold and silver, tribute came in the forms of precious stones, pearls, fabrics, horses, elephants, giraffes, and many others. Collecting tribute was not just a means of bringing additional wealth into the state's coffers. As flattering as all these gifts must have been to Zhu Di, he had an ulterior motive in expecting them: "[Zhu Di] reasoned that the sole purpose of tribute trade was to keep his neighbors in check." By expecting an expensive assortment of gifts, Zhu Di was simultaneous enriching China and using up valuable resources and material wealth from his subordinate tribute states. Together, these two effects significantly strengthened China's position in the international community. Of course, failing to pay the expected tribute could always mean the end of trade with China, a devastating blow to dependent economies much worse than the cost of the tribute, as well as a possible visit by Chinese forces, possibly via the great war-machine itself, the treasure fleet.
Even possessing a military juggernaut like the fleet, one would not necessarily assume that the emperor would use it to impose his will, without provocation. Indeed, such was the advice of Zhu Di's own father Zhu Yuanzhang, who wrote in the Zu xun lu, or "Ancestral injunctions," against using military power "without reason," as it could unnecessarily cause "a loss of life." Ambitious as he was, Zhu Di proceeded to become involved in military matters that were seemingly less than necessary. Although this did not become too problematic during his reign, in the future, a weakened Ming Dynasty would not hold up as well to such action. Scarcely 200 years after the voyages of the treasure fleets, incessant war with the Mongols would eventually culminate in the collapse of the Ming. For the time being, though, Zhu Di did not allow such concerns as loss of life to impede his efforts to promote Chinese dominance.
At the same time the Yongle Emperor was busy fighting on one front, he was seeking to improve diplomatic relations on other fronts. With both Tibet and Korea, Zhu Di successfully improved relations, while achieving a less stellar performance with the Mongol Timurids, who promptly invaded with an army of 200,000 men. The campaign quickly faded out, fortunately for the Ming, and relations eventually improved between the two sides. Usually, though, Zhu Di did not have such troublesome relations with his neighbors, as most usually capitulated to Chinese dominance. The Japanese had done so, along with the previously mentioned Malaccans. Again, the most common form of acceptance of the Chinese superiority was through the payment of tribute. Levathes is consistent with this point, reasserting it frequently throughout the book; with each instance the payment of tribute is an acknowledgement of submission. Such was the goal of Zhu Di's foreign policy.
During the various voyages, Zheng He, Zhu Di's eunuch captain, erected several stone tablets commemorating friendship with particular groups. With these tablets, Zhu Di exalted the importance of relations between China and its dependent states, asserting his wish that "all distant countries and foreign domains each achieve its proper place under heaven." The message is clear, as "under heaven" clearly refers to China, in the ideology of the Middle Kingdom under heaven. Tablets were erected at Cochin, Malacca, and other places, each to declare the status of a dependent state under China's protection. The purpose of promoting Cochin's position was to undermine the strong power of Calicut, the traditional trading power in the Indian Ocean. With Cochin serving as protected competition, Zhu Di would be able to have a greater influence in the Indian Ocean trade networks. This was the same rationale that had driven Zhu Di to recognize the Malaccans earlier. With an ally in the area around the Strait of Malacca, China would be more able to keep both Siam and Java from developing a stranglehold on the Strait, which would have certainly embattled Chinese efforts at western trade. Zhu Di's massive fleet helped to enforce his agenda.
A number of factors contributed to the end of the voyages of the great treasure fleet. In 1415, the need to construct these large ships decreased, as the opening of the Grand Canal eventually did away with the need to transport grain by sea from the south to the north. Levathes cites several other factors, including inflation, loss of prestige, and ineffective collection of tribute. Furthermore, the money needed to finance the expensive treasure fleet expeditions became impossible to raise, as the tax base shrank incredibly. Finally, Levathes says, increased Mongol activity along the Great Wall necessitated the primary focus of defense toward the frontiers, away from the sea. Into history faded the great accomplishments of the treasure fleets, and with this passing, so, too, went a great instrument of enforcing imperial foreign policy. China's enemies had found a way to dismount the raging tiger. They had waited for it to grow tired and weak.