On a subsequent visit to Nanjing, I visited the Zheng He Memorial Shipyard. Here, in the central Gulou district of what was once the Ming Dynasty’s capital along the Yangtze River, lie the Treasure Boat Factory Ruins. A world-leading shipyard six centuries ago, they produced many vessels for the maiden fleet of Zheng He, a Chinese Columbus who made seven Indian Ocean voyages from 1405-33, reaching as far as Mecca, Mogadishu, and Mombasa. In a testament to the scale of the enterprise, this included Zheng’s flagship vessel, which may have been as long as 136-meters (448-feet). A smaller replica welcomes visitors today. Walking its expansive if creaky decks one sunny afternoon, I could not avoid the questions that informed the CMSI conference: To what extent, and to what end, is China going to sea? Is China once again poised to engage in world-class shipbuilding? And if so, what use will Beijing make of this historic opportunity?
Whatever the ultimate answers, the U.S. Navy must understand its Chinese counterpart, and where it is heading. Assessing what ships China can supply its navy and other maritime forces with, today and in the future, can help to point the way.
Dr. Andrew S. Erickson, Professor of Strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute at the Naval War College, blogs at www.andrewerickson.com. The views expressed here are his own personal perspectives and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Navy or any other organization of the U.S. government. An edited, updated version of the CMSI conference proceedings will be published by Naval Institute Press in early 2017.