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The Ming Dynasty was the ruling dynasty in China from 1368 - 1644. Early in this period, the emperor commissioned a naval fleet numbering some 317 ships. This armada conducted a number of ocean voyages to coastal territories around the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, and beyond. These expeditions would be remembered as the Ming Treasure Voyages, and were meant to project China's power and wealth to the world. This would bring many nations into their sphere of influence and made them the greatest naval power at the time. Unfortunately, these voyages would be brought to an end due to politics within the government, and the armada would be broken down to scraps.

During this period, Europe was still recovering from the plague, which had devastated the continent and left millions dead. They wouldn't have been able to pose a threat to a beefed up China at the time. The armada did not seek territory or have any desire to conquer other nations.

In this scenario, I would like to change that by giving China a desire for global conquest. They seek to become the first superpower and expand their territory into other countries. This would prevent the rise of the British Empire and its other contemporaries in Europe.

Could this naval armada help China conquer Europe and become the 1st colonial power in the world?

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  • $\begingroup$ China already was a great colonial power. The Chinese emperors already ruled over a very very large empire. They still do. They had no appetite for more territory. Not to mention that attempting to conquer England or France or the Netherlands etc. would have resulted in a humiliating defeat -- the fleet was indeed large, for a fleet, but there was no way for China to resupply it and the total manpower was utterly insufficient to make war to the European powers. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 4 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ I disagree with the close votes. @Incognito is asking if the fleet would have been enough to conquer Europe if China had the desire to do so. Pointing out that China didn't want to do this, is true historically but this is an alternate history question. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 4 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ How would the armada have reached Europe? The Suez canal didn't exist yet. You can't go around from the north. Their only option was to go around Africa. A long and dangerous journey. The trading that already existed between Europe and China required stretches by land. Short enough to be workable with, say, wagonloads. Not short enough to bring ships. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 4 at 18:23
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No, because by 1300 China already had several conquest phases. It wasn't new.

Most successfully, the Han dynasty:

  • Vietnam 111 BC - 980 AD
  • Korea 108 BC - 313 AD

But there were others before the Mongols:

  • Invasion of Central Asia 751 AD

And, of course, there were the Mongols:

  • Invasions of Japan 1274 AD, 1281 AD
  • Invasions of Burma 1277-1302 AD

Centuries before 1300 all of China's neighbors understood Chinese power quite well, including its weaknesses and how to maintain their independence.

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It isn't about the armada. It is about the mindset.

The Chinese used their armada to collect tribute and to give gifts in return. At least that is how the Chinese records would interpret it, the "vassal" nations would beg to differ.

They would have had to make the decision to send soldiers and bureaucrats (to Asia, Africa, and possibly Europe) or colonists and bureaucrats (to the Americas) to become a colonial power. Or they would have had to make the decision to send merchants, and perhaps secure a few "treaty ports" by military force, to become a mercantile power. But the merchant option was not really in the Chinese mindset at the time.

That leaves colonies. Perhaps their ships could have crossed the Pacific. I guess epidemics would have killed many of the native people, so the Chinese would have had to ship farmers and loggers and miners there.

Or they could have tried conquest in Asia, but then why use ships instead of marching by land?

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One often overlooked details about the Chinese fleet was that many of its ships were too big to be suitable for oceanic voyages. Because they were made out of wood, rough seas would cause their larger ships to crack in half whereas the smaller European vessels could bob on individual waves. This meant that there is a lot less certainty about if one of their fleets would arrive to a distant location intact and on time, and in war, lack of certainty is far more dangerous than lack of firepower. A good leader can make a plan about how to win with a smaller force, but no plan, no matter how good, will work if you show up to battle and half your assets just aren't there.

What ships they did have that were small enough for long ranged military campaigns had to be kept with their larger ships as escorts because the treasure ships simply were not maneuverable enough for battle without them; so, they would have needed to do a major overhaul of their entire naval doctrine to even begin to consider a war on Europe.

In short, the answer is probably no, China's fleet never had the ability to make them a global power.

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  • $\begingroup$ So far this is the only one I've upvoted because you're actually answering the question. The question isn't would China want to do this but could they do it given the desire. $\endgroup$ – Cyn says make Monica whole Jan 5 at 18:20
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China could conquer Europe if they spent time and effort developing their navy, but they probably would not. The reason for this is that Europe, before the industrial revolution at least, did not really have all that much in terms of resources China didn't already have easy access to. All they really would have gotten out of it was some extra gold and silver. However, I could see China becoming by far the world's dominant power if they did some of the following things:

  • Taking advantage of Japan's Sengoku Jidai period to conquer the disunited islands. Not only would China have just removed the power that would eventually humiliated it from play, but it also would have a good jumping off point for potential exploration of Polynesia or the west coast of the Americas.
  • Take control of major trading posts in Southeast Asia (and maybe even the entirety of Indonesia if they get lucky and beat the Portuguese to it)
  • Be the first major power to discover Australia (if they manage to colonize an entire continent before the world even knows it exists, China will be unstoppable in the Pacific)
  • Beat Spain to the west coast of North America and set up a colony running from Kamloops, BC in the north to La Paz, Mexico in the south. If they take control of California, the Pacific Northwest, Southern BC, and Baja California, they can use this area to make a fortune trading with the Spanish (or Aztecs if the Spanish never conquered them in this timeline)
  • If they wanted to, they could probably use the thousands of islands of Oceania as trading posts or stopping points for ships crossing the Pacific.
  • If they wanted to, China could even set up a colony in what is now east Africa. It would have provided them both with access to Indian Ocean trade and an opportunity to stick it to the Portuguese.
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  • $\begingroup$ "China could conquer Europe": I would really like to read a book explaining how a medieval empire would go trying to project naval force overseas to conquer a bunch of heavily armed kingdoms 15,000 miles distant from its shores. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jan 6 at 5:49
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I would like to turn the issue upside down.

I am aware the main question might be on the capability of the fleet... But others have already answered in this regards. I would like to add more on the issue of the overall socio-political framework for colonialist expansion at sea... As you seem to be interested in motivations and desire for conquest. Also, you mention the Armada was scrapped for political reasons. Well, what follows is an alternate scenario in which China not only keeps fleets like these but does also carry out research in the field of military tech.

According to some historians, the reasons for European colonialism have to be found in

  1. Competition between states

  2. Fail-safe scenarios for the nobility, which does not risk the throne in waging border wars

  3. Subsequent spike in military spending

  4. Subsequent spike in warfare among European countries

The offshoot of this is:

A. More spending on military research

B. Betterment of the taxation system in order to improve tax revenue

C. Incentives to private industry and commerce

D. Competition between the nobles as per who spends more money in science etc.

So, if you factor these in, the issue is not much whether the fleet itself was suitable, but whether entire countries had the desire to colonise the world.

Even the technological edge is something that became more apparent later on. Europe took over most of the world before the industrial age. Late Renaissance technologies were sparse, but strategical.

This is the way I see a colonialist China:

  1. Not one China, but MANY Chinas. Competition sparks the search for resources. If China challenges Europe, you should conceive of it as being divided into 4 or 5 major States and not as a single entity. Hence, what you are looking for is an East Asian invasion rather than a China-only expansion.

  2. It is paramount China has better technologies... So you need to have them improve their vessels, navigation system, and the like. Same goes for military advancements. China spent a lot of revenue on horse archers because of the obvious threat from the North (after all, Northern Asian populations had already conquered the world... But on horse!). You need now to ease down the pressure coming from the steppes, in order to give your countries some room to develop as maritime powers.

  3. Also, although the above points are meant to trigger Chinese States into increasing their military spending, you also need to make China a little poorer than Europe. Leaders in China need to be bad leaders, not good leaders who care for the people or look for balance. Literally reverse the relation: it is not Europeans who come back to Italy with tales about the fabled riches of China... Now it is the Chinese who need to be fascinated with Europe. We have examples of visitors and diplomats (Rabban Sauma anyone?), but their relevance and popularity in China was not nearly as big as that of European merchants in Europe.

  4. Make sure China has increased its tax revenue (counterintuitive for a country based on bureaucracy, but fact is the ratio of tax revenue was actually lower than that of Europe... Even at the peak of the Chinese empire).

  5. Give some of your Chinese States access to financial tools. They had paper currency already... Why not boosting their financial capabilities even more? They will eventually lead to better abilities to invest.

  6. Private investments will lead to the creation of Companies. Yes: not your ordinary East India Company, but the Chinese equivalent of it will do the trick. Think of your Chinese nationals as colonialist qua members of private enterprises, as strong as the countries that host them. Have them start with trad e posts and then increase the entire thing with some good old gunboat diplomacy.

  7. To spice things up, have your Chinese colonialist states struggle between each other to settle disputes on some shared religious framework. Division shall be enough to have them quarrel continuously, but the religion shall also be homogeneous enough to make them look like a single entity from without. Also, such religion should focus a lot on proselitism and rewards in the afterlife... So to motivate people to travel and die.

  8. Finally, you need your Chinese dudes to be already set up for good in India.

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