OIKUMENE EURASIA: A Blog Concerning Asia, Europe, and the Middle East

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Historical Naval Conceptions, East and West

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As everyone knows, Europe and Western civilization came to dominate the world after 1500. One of the primary reasons for this was because Europeans almost completely dominated the world’s oceans and trade at a certain point. The European concept of Naval power is markedly different than the non-European one. Beginning with the ancient Greeks, Europeans have developed a mastery over naval strategy like no other civilization has. Regarding the non-European, and since I am focusing on Asia,  let us say the Asian naval conception, John Keay, a historian writes

While maritime trade was a lifeline for coastal Indian states by 1498, the idea that the sea could be political, a strategic commodity in its own right dominated by a state rather than by commercial competition, was a relatively new concept for Indians.

Of all the major regions in the world, Europe has the longest coastline. Its coastline is punctuated with inlets and bays, and there are many options to develop a mercantile economy. With the breakup of the Roman Empire into numerous states competing with each other for trade and military domination, sea power acquired a level of conceptualization in Europe than it did in Asia. It is also very expensive to maintain a navy. Armies could easily be raised in traditional societies and supplemented with mercenaries and by handing weapons to peasants. The state did not need to invest in the creation of people for the army, since people were born naturally. On the other hand, navies are expensive primarily because their basic component, the ship, needs to be built and maintained, which requires labor and manpower. Money was not easy to come by until modern times. Most states raised revenue through a combination of plunder and tax farming. In pre-bureaucratic pre-nation-state settings, control over territory was often lose and it was hard to extract taxes effectively. Effective administration greatly began to increase revenue in Europe, where states were better organized then elsewhere, due to a variety of reasons. Thus, as a result of their administrative systems and maritime traditions, Europeans were able to utilize and dominate the sea in a way other were not, let alone conceive of, since they never developed the sustained experience to even conceive of the sea in this manner.

By the way, the exact opposite is true of overall trade over water. It is far cheaper to transport goods over water than land because they can be transported in bulk and are not subject to terrain difficulties and do not need roads specially built to enable movement. A caravan of 500 camels could only transport as much as a third or half of the goods carried by a regular Byzantine merchant sailing ship.


In states that saw the sea as only a means of commerce and had other, land based worries, investing in a navy was a waste of time and money. This applied to most Asian states, except a few maritime states in Southeast Asia and Japan but even in those places, since cultural norms were imported from India and China, navies primarily served to guard the coasts and transport troops for land conquests. It is notable to note that the Chinese did not even know of Taiwan until fairly late in their history, perhaps the 12th century. Much has been made of the Chinese voyages of Admiral Zheng He, between 1405 and 1433. It is often argued that had the Chinese sustained voyaging, they might have ended up in the position Europeans did later on. I differ. The Ming Dynasty, like all Chinese states was heavily focused on its land frontiers. Even during the voyages, private shipping was discouraged and it was clear that Zheng He’s large fleet was the pet project primarily of the Yongle Emperor. The fleet was sent to demonstrate China’s glory to other nations and collect tribute and beyond that, it did not attempt to control the seas like a European fleet might have. Its purpose was totally different and upon achieving its purpose  it was irrelevant. With increased conflict with northern tribes, it was an extravagant waste, nor did the Chinese see it necessary to control the seas. They were more interested in strategic control over the trade routes running through Xinjiang. China was not trying to use the sea in the way Europeans would later use it, so the persistence of their naval activities might not have amounted to anything unless there was a conceptual change in their thinking, which is doubtful giving the military priorities of the time. There are different types of states and they cannot be expected to act the same way because they are based on different principles of state organization.


However, today, Asians states have adopted the conceptualization of naval power derived from the European one. Having all become nation-states on a model that originated in Europe, it is reasonable that the principle of sovereign control over their territories, including their waters, is one that Asian countries have accepted. It is important to understand that this transformation in understanding of naval power is related to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea today. Sea borders are unclear and are not demarcated because the idea that the sea could be controlled as territory is new and nobody thought to do so in the past.  It is unclear how ancient hazy principles of suzerainty over small bits of territory can be translated into modern sovereignty terminology.


Written by Akhipill

December 18, 2012 at 9:32 PM

Posted in Uncategorized

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