(Editor's note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series in which journalist Anthony C. LoBaido documents the recent maneuverings of Mainland China, along with her two erstwhile Asia allies, Myanmar – formerly Burma – and North Korea. From Korea to Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Namibia and even to Portugal, LoBaido has traveled the world in the footsteps of Zheng He, following the advancing global arc of China. LoBaido examines ancient versus modern diplomacy and alliances, trade and various other elements of low-intensity colonization. Read Part 2.)
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Is history cyclical or linear? For the major leaders of the Pacific Rim nations in the second decade of the 21st century, the answers are elusive, ever-shifting and fluid. Like water, they always seem to find the path of least resistance. The right way of doing things is the hardest. The wrong way is the easiest. And so humanity must navigate not only crooked rivers, but also crooked men.
The great navigators in Asia these days are Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar, who is now being likened to Nelson Mandela, and Park Geun-Hye, the first female president in South Korea's history. (Her father was once the ruling general presiding over South Korea as a "benevolent" dictator.) They are following in the footsteps of Asia's greatest navigator – mariner and explorer Gen. Zheng He.
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Topping them all is Xi Jinping, China's new leader, whose late father was one of the top leaders of the communist revolution in China back in the 1930s and 1940s. Xi Jinping is already demonstrating the acumen of Zheng He in a vast array of ways: Chinese-language training for American students, gas and oil projects in Southeast Africa, special forces training in China for Thailand's most elite soldiers, proposing to have China's elite young people work alongside Russia's young elites, as well as trying to secure China's first Atlantic military base in the Azores, which are owned by Portugal.
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Xi Jinping's bold actions clearly show there's an unfolding plan for advancing China's global reach so as to be commensurate with its rising economic power. There are various cards China can, and will, play. There's the issue of China holding a share of America's huge debt. There's China's ability to take out U.S. aircraft carriers with its DF 21-F ship-killing cruise missiles. Then there's China's desire to set up ports, and perhaps naval air stations, in the Burma Archipelago and off the coast of Pakistan in Gwadar as part of their "String of Pearls" to protect the Middle East oil shipping lanes.
Where will all of this lead humanity in the ensuing years and decades: Peace or World War III?
Ghosts of Zheng He
Long ago, Zheng He (1371-1433) and his renowned "Treasure Fleet" ruled the seas. In fact, before Christopher Columbus set sail in what would be considered tiny ships by comparison, Zheng He, a seven-foot-tall Muslim eunuch, commanded a naval empire spanning the seas from Southeast Asia to Sri Lanka, into Arabia and as far away as Africa.
The world was China's for the taking. But then the emperor turned inward, burned the Treasure Fleet, and China sank into stagnation. The many innovations that had captivated Marco Polo during his visit to the Orient suddenly stopped.
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Back then, Europe was relatively poor and possessed no maritime routes to the Orient. There was no Suez Canal, no British Empire and no British East India Company. Asia was rich. (Perhaps this is the natural order, and what we are seeing in the 21st century is Asia's reemergence as the preeminent demographic and economic powerhouse of the world.)
Zheng He's Treasure Fleet featured ships that were up to 600 feet long, had nine masts, four decks and could hold between 500 and 1,000 sailors. The cargo hulls were massive. Marco Polo and Niccolo Da Conti described such ships in detail. Some weighed 2,000 tons. Manning the ships were cartographers, navigators, doctors, deckhands, sailors, soldiers, translators and other linguists, as well as journalist Gong Zhen. Every July 11 in China is "Maritime Day," which celebrates Zheng He and his very first voyage. These days, a children's cartoon about his adventures is broadcast to many countries around the world from Thailand to Cuba.
Zheng He left his mark in many parts of the world, including Galle, Sri Lanka, which had also been visited by King Solomon's minions. Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, is well known for its elephants, beautiful lush landscape, attractive women and gems. The totem markings Zheng He left behind in Sri Lanka praise the Buddha in three languages: Persian, Tamil and Chinese. Zheng He was fond of Persia because he was himself descended from a Persian – Sayyid Aijal Shams al-Din Omar – an administrator with the Mongol Empire. Zhen He's grandfather and great-grandfather both made pilgrimages to Mecca and were bold travelers.
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Before becoming a sailor, Zheng He had fought against the Mongols as a foot soldier. In fact, he was directly involved in a rout and surrender by the Mongols in 1390 under the command of China's future emperor, Zhu Di. Eventually the emperor wished to enforce a Sino Empire of trade and tribute across the Indian Ocean that would be focused mainly on development and reciprocity, yet would be readily backed up by operational combat military forces if need be. The Indian Ocean Basin was to become a Chinese lake. (There are those historians who still claim these voyages were initially launched merely to track down the previous emperor, who had somehow escaped from China.)
Zheng He's first voyage left port in July of 1405 with 317 ships and a crew of just less than 30,000 men. He sailed to Brunei, Thailand, India, Arabia, the Horn of Africa, Somalia and other outposts. He fought a war in Sri Lanka against the Kingdom of Kotte. On one of his returning voyages, he brought back diplomats from no less than 30 countries, each of whom would pay tribute to the Chinese emperor. King Vira Alakeshwara of Sri Lanka was one of those on board, and he had to apologize to the emperor in person for his martial actions back on Ceylon. The Treasure Fleet also returned with silver, silk, porcelain, gold, ivory, camels and giraffes.
Just how far did the Treasure Fleet get? Author Gavin Menzies has put forth a theory that Zheng He's fleets made it around Cape Town, South Africa, and might have discovered America before Christopher Columbus. Menzies relies on information given by cartographer and Venetian monk Fra Mauro and a map dating back to 1459 as the basis of his maverick theories.
China coveting American air base
Whether that's true or not, we do know the Ghost of Zheng He is indeed rising via control of the Panama Canal through a Chinese front company, the quest for ports in California and the Bahamas, a space-tracking facility in Namibia, another space-tracking facility in Australia and now by approaching Portugal about setting up China's first Atlantic base. The latter is finally causing alarm in the West.
The resurrection of Zheng He in popular Chinese culture may hold relevance today, as China is expanding her influence into Africa – though checked by the U.S., NATO and the West in Libya and Mali – South America and elsewhere.
The most profound example of this is China's rabid desire to take over the American Air Base at Lajes in the Azores. This is a concrete, strategic rationality that would give Mainland China her first Atlantic base on Terciera Island, which is controlled by Portugal. China's leaders arrived with a delegation in the Azores as 2012 wound to a close, seeking to strike a deal. The runway at Lajes is almost 11,000 feet long. It is possible China could use this base to station bombers and strike at enemy targets in the U.S. and Europe, and as far away as Buenos Aires as the U.K. did with a daring bombing mission during the Falklands War.
Lajes is closer to New York (2,300 miles) than the distance from San Diego to the Hawaiian islands. If the U.S. closes the 65th Air Base Wing, an important outpost during World War II that was used to hunt Nazi U-boats and a strategic base used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it may well be lost to China. One solution could be moving the headquarters of Africom to the island.
Diplomacy and colonization
Yet Zheng He did much more than merely set up military outposts. His diplomatic corps was first rate. Following in the steps of Zheng He's foreign diplomacy acumen, China's Xi Jinping will appoint two key leaders to help mend relations with Japan and the U.S. The first is Yang Jiechi, the state councilor in charge of China's foreign ministry. The second is Wang Yi, the new foreign minister. Wang Yi's job will be to keep America at bay, out of the Pacific region, and give China more time to cement her geostrategic position in Asia and around the world until China is ready to directly fight and win an all-out war with the United States – or until the time when America has experienced a "soft landing" like the old USSR and can't stand up to China.
Yang Jeichi will try to mend fences with Japan, which has recently discovered a massive underwater cache of rare earth metals that has forced China to immediately reassess relations vis-à-vis the various territorial disputes between the two nations. As most people know, China and other nations in Asia have not forgiven Japan's brutal occupation of their lands before and during World War II.
For his part, Wang Yi has been in charge of China's Taiwan Affairs Office and made headway into forging better relations with Taiwan. For now, China will stay out of the way of the Middle East and North Africa follies, even though China imports half of its oil from that region. In theory, if China can import the lion's share of its energy needs directly from Canada, California and the Dakotas (and via pipelines from Iran, Myanmar and Russia), regional posturing by China's navy between the oil lanes of Middle East and the Malacca Straits will become muted.
America is approaching energy self-sufficiency, and this means the U.S. won't have to remain as heavily involved in the Middle East as in previous decades. Yet China's support for Shiite Iran means it cannot replace the United States in the Middle East as a friend of the Gulf State monarchies. Thus the "Malacca Dilemma" continues. India, Indonesia, South Korea, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and Turkey might have to form some kind of alliance to police the Middle East oil shipping lanes if the United States becomes unwilling or unable to do so.
The idea of China sending emissaries from the East to the West is not new. The very first was Raban Sauma. He was something akin to "Marco Polo in Reverse." In 1288, Raban Sauma journeyed from China to the Vatican, where he met with the pope. He arrived 50 years after the Mongols had been turned back at the gates of Vienna in Austria. His mission to form an alliance with the Catholic Church and Europe in the Middle East with the Mongols failed. He was sent (in 1287) by the Mongol ruler of Iran to visit the kings of England and France. But when the pope and the other leaders would not sign on, Sauma returned to Baghdad. Had his mission succeeded, Europeans would have ruled the Holy Land and probably not been driven to find maritime routes to the New World, India, around Cape Town and other nether reaches of the world as defined by Columbus, Magellan's crew and Capt. James Cook.
In terms of linguists, Zheng He's Treasure Fleet had plenty of them. Apparently now China is prepared to send Chinese language teachers to the United States (especially to the broke school districts short of funds) for total immersion lessons. (In terms of sending the Chinese language teachers to the United States, are they planning on owning us?)
Additionally, wealthy Chinese women are now birthing their babies at a California hotel, as a new "elite" of overseas Chinese is taking root on U.S. shores and the low-intensity colonization accelerates.
Establishment of Chinese cities on U.S. soil in Idaho and the Rust Belt has also been widely reported. Mike Belle, the mayor of Toledo, Ohio, is one of the main cheerleaders for this endeavor, claiming Toledo is quite close, relatively speaking, to the major cities of the Rust Belt. This strategic location will not be lost on China's strategic thinkers and de facto empire builders.
A look inside China's master plan
Gathering more technology from the U.S. (military and dual-use), selling more goods to the U.S., gaining access to more territory, as well as establishing additional bilateral trade relations and influence overseas will be China's plan for the next few decades. These aforementioned diplomats and technocrats will try to appease rising nationalism inside China, while at the same time addressing localized issues overseas like hiring more native African workers on China's Africa-based projects (China already has a million Chinese workers on site in Africa), and launching a high-speed rail in Thailand that will run from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, just as a start.
This is a part of China's "rope-a-dope" strategy in meeting the strategic challenge America's "Pacific Pivot" has thrust upon Beijing. China's ruling Communist Party must continue to foster national pride and meet expectations of China's "rising arc to greatness." This might include ancillary cultural preening through a Chinese space station, space-based weapons and financing the overseas adventures of America's military so as to degrade the military capabilities of the U.S.
China is willing to sacrifice North Africa for advances in the Azores, South America and Southern Africa. Most recently, China has turned a hungry eye toward the natural gas deposits linked to Mozambique and Tanzania. As noted, as China is pushed out of North Africa by the West's involvement in Libya and Mali, she'll cement her alliance with the fellow BRICS nations and may eventually try to set up an alternate supranational institution to rival the IMF and World Bank. This could be accomplished with the help of Russia, India, Brazil and South Africa.
China will try to exploit the idea that America is trying to "contain" her ascendance. Alliances between America, South Korea, Japan, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Thailand, Australia and New Zealand won't be formally pressured. Yet China will exploit the vulgarity of American popular culture/soft power, the Iraq war, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the systemic failure of Wall Street to its advantage, as Asians are conservative and family oriented.
Culturally, Lindsey Lohan and Dennis Rodman terrify Asian parents, which is why North Korea allowed its leader to meet with Rodman in person – perhaps as a way to show off the very worst America has to offer. (Poor Dennis Rodman does have good qualities. He used to be a janitor at the Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport, where this writer met him in person. He also paid for the late James Byrd's funeral as well. When he arrived in North Korea, some locals called him a "monster.")
Another area North Korea and China covet is cyberspace. China has been accused of hacking into important American institutions.
Moreover, China has heard outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta offer a paean for "rule of law, open access for all to the global commons of sea, air, space and cyberspace, unimpeded economic development and commerce, and resolving conflict without the use of force." Yet when Google chairman Eric Schmidt decided to embark upon a visit to North Korea as a private citizen, this attempt at cyber diplomacy was met with consternation by the U.S. State Department. America's foreign policy elites felt a visit by Schmidt would confuse U.S. allies regarding the foreign policy stance of America in relation to North Korea.
State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said, "We don't think the timing of the visit is helpful and they are well aware of our views." North Koreans need permission from the government to use the Internet, and even their elites are restricted. Only a tiny percentage of North Korea's top echelon of leaders can go online. In terms of sanctions, importing goods from North Korea to the U.S. is prohibited, but Americans can visit North Korea and American goods, especially luxury goods, are allowed. North Korea's missile and nuclear tests, drug running, missile exports, counterfeiting of U.S. currency and bellicose war threats to destroy New York and Washington, D.C., don't help matters.
More specifically, any and all foibles of the United States government and its positions will be ruthlessly turned around against the U.S. to China's advantage. China will probably try to disrupt America's "Trans Pacific Partnership" and steer Taiwan and South Korea, as well as Japan, more into its own orbit. These are some of the largest economies on Earth. If Japan, South Korea and Taiwan don't believe America can back up its "Pacific Pivot," and that America is in terminal economic, cultural, spiritual, political and monetary decline, then chances are they will try to cut a better deal with Beijing.
China understands that domestic politics in South Korea, North Korea and Taiwan drive a great deal of the heated rhetoric in those countries. Working behind the scenes and offering access to her markets, investment capital and the third carrot of rapprochement will help China peddle her own soft power. While North Korea seeks to maintain an aura of permanent crisis in order to rally the masses, China will eventually demand more normalized behavior from the state actors on her borders, including Myanmar's ruling elites and the hereditary Stalinist dictatorship in Pyongyang. For now, China will remain in North Korea's corner and continue to use North Korea as a junkyard dog to distract and tie down American forces.
Hu Jintao will be remembered as a moderate leader in the face of what China will next unveil to the world. China's current generation does not remember the Cultural Revolution (President Xi Jinping's father was purged during the crackdowns of the 1960s), the Great Leap Forward, famine and the hard times of Mao. They have known only prosperity and thus harbor only grand ambitions. Meeting those ambitions, protecting the people from disasters like the SARS virus and even everyday pollution will be the greatest challenges, along with the gap between urban and rural dwellers. Will China become more open, cosmopolitan, outward looking and willing to compromise, or more xenophobic? These are salient questions worthy of great introspection.
Will the dearth of females because of the abortion genocide of baby girls upset the social and economic order in the future? China will also see that the falling populations in Japan, the high abortion rate and low birthrate in South Korea (the lowest birthrate of any industrialized nation), will eventually hurt the economies of those countries as fewer young people will be available to economically support retirees.
Regardless, Chinese Premier and Princeling Xi Jinping is no doubt formulating a strategy that is forward thinking and will contain plans for the next several generations as opposed to the next election cycle. Xi Jinping was named president by the Chinese parliament in a vote by 3,000 delegates held in the Great Hall of the People just four months after he was placed in charge of the Communist Party. In this "democratic vote," Xi Jinping received 2,952 votes, with one vote against and three abstaining for a record 99.86 percent total. Xi has vowed to address corruption, continue economic reforms and increase the might of China's armed forces.
Perhaps most vital of all, he claims to be willing to tackle China's pollution problems, which are probably the greatest time bomb in terms of anti-Communist Party fervor. Before becoming president and the leader of the Communist Party, Xi was also the head of the Central Military Commission. Not since Chairman Mao has one man commanded such power in China. It is not surprising that Xi Jinping is the son of one of the most celebrated generals in the history of the nation. His relationship with the People's Liberation Army is extremely close. He has openly told China's armed forces to be "combat ready." In terms of the broad strategic architecture of China re-emerging to once again capture the reach and grandeur of Zheng He, Xi Jinping is the driving architect.
China's aforementioned "String of Pearls," meaning the ports of call from Myanmar to Gwadar off the coast of Pakistan to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, are no doubt a part of trying to ease the "Malacca Dilemma" that China faces. They are too dependent on Middle Eastern oil coming through the Malacca Straits. On the other hand, China fears that Pakistan cannot control its own territory in the "Wild West" and other parts of that nation, and that Pakistan will merely try to use China as a counter-weight to its main rival, India. Oil and India occupy the Chinese mind.
Xi Jinping was a serving military officer from 1979 until 1982. He worked for the government in Zhejiang and Fujian provinces, as well as in Shanghai. As noted, his father, Xi Zhongxun, was a top revolutionary leader during the Communists' assent to power in China back in the 1930s and 1940s. His father also later served as China's vice premier. Yet his father notably was purged during the 1960s, and during that time the son was sent away to the countryside. There, Xi Jinping lived out several brutal years before being "restored" to Beijing and studying at the elite Qinghua University. As the leader of the nation's 2.3 million People's Liberation Army, Xi Jinping has also either served on and or led various defense-industry committees. Wen Jibao and Hu Jintao probably didn't see Xi Jinping as the favorite in the running to take over the country. Yet considering his many talents and pedigree, perhaps they should have.
Thailand special forces train in China
Another echo of Zheng He comes through the inroads China's military forces have made in Thailand, one of the United States' most important foreign allies since World War II. Although the U.S. military comes to Thailand for the "Cobra Gold" exercise and considers Thailand to be a trusted and valued ally, this did not stop Xi Jingping's elite troops from training in Thailand. From Oct. 26, 2010, to Nov. 14, 2010, operation "Blue Assault" unfolded as a joint training exercise in Thailand's Chon Buri Province. It was the first time ever that Chinese marines had trained overseas with foreign marines. "Blue Assault" came on the heels of Thailand's special forces training in Guilin alongside Chinese special forces in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region of the PRC. In fact, almost every year since 2007, China's special forces have been training alongside Thailand's special forces, leading one to ask what kind of special bonds have been forged?
Yet China and Thailand have maintained long-standing military ties. For example, China used Thailand to resupply the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after Vietnam invaded Cambodia in 1979. Soon after, China invaded Vietnam and was quickly routed and withdrew. In 1987, Thailand purchased 400 armored personnel carriers from Beijing and scores of tanks. Then Thailand ordered the bulk of its Royal Thai Navy fleet from China, including four frigates.
Echoing Zheng He, China's naval grasp has once again reached Somalia in Africa, where it has carried out anti-piracy maneuvers. And in a parallel theme, China also conducted joint training operations with India's navy in November 2003, as well as with Pakistan's navy in October 2003.
It should also be mentioned that China does not want to antagonize India, as India and China have fought several border wars. The year 1962 brought one such battle to the forefront. On Jan. 26, 2013, at the Republic Day Parade in New Delhi, India rolled out a new Agni V intercontinental ballistic missile with a range of 5,000 kilometers, meaning it can hit Mainland China, and even Europe for that matter. Agni I and II were created to hit Pakistan. But Agni V shows India has, indeed, traveled far since first exploding a nuclear weapon in the Rajasthan Desert in 1974. India also has plans for outer space – a mission to the moon. Xi Jinping will navigate such issues relating to India during the next 10 years of his rule. He has a five-year term. Yet barring a terrible turn of fortune, he will be rubber stamped for another five-year term for stability's sake.
Spy games and nuclear war
While many around the world wish for peace, the cat-and-mouse games of spying and seeking an edge in war – even nuclear war – and the jockeying for strategic advantage, continue.
For example, the New York Post recently ran a Kafkaesque article from the AP detailing how a 59-year-old U.S. nuclear weapons expert was lured by an attractive female Chinese spy.
According to the March 19, 2013, article:
"A civilian defense contractor who works in intelligence at the U.S. Pacific Command has been charged with giving national security secrets to a 27-year-old Chinese woman he was dating, according to a criminal complaint. Benjamin Pierce Bishop, 59, is accused of sending the woman an email last May with information on existing war plans, nuclear weapons and U.S. relations with international partners, according to the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Honolulu. The complaint alleged Bishop told the woman over the telephone in September about the deployment of U.S. strategic nuclear systems and about the ability of the U.S. to detect other nations' low- and medium-range ballistic missiles."
More troubling is the work of a Georgetown University professor and his students, who have studied China's nuclear weapons program, albeit through the eyes of a Chinese TV drama about elite forces controlling that nation's nuclear weapons stockpile. Only a handful of experts in the U.S. bother to study China's nuclear weapons capability, underground bunkers and war preparations. Perhaps the U.S. Congress and Senate will hold hearings on this issue? For now, a top U.S. military leader has stated that the greatest threat to America is not the nuclear missiles and warheads of Russia and China, but climate change. Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III made world headlines with this notion.
In response to this ambiguity, the U.S. still wants to decrease its nuclear weapons stockpile. Already the U.S. relies on aging and decaying nuclear weapons. Without live tests, it must rely on computer modeling. But is it legal or illegal for President Obama to disarm and weaken the nuclear weapons stockpile without Senate approval? The Senate, if not greeted with a formal treaty on this issue as required by the U.S. Constitution, could tie it up in court. And pursuing additional nuclear reductions could violate the 1961 Arms Control and Disarmament Act, a piece of law that seeks resolute congressional approval for nuclear-weapons disarmament.
Chances are that the Democratic Party in the United States won't allow the nuclear weapons deterrent to be renewed and reinvigorated – perhaps not. A robust national debate is required.