Beyond the Chinese Monroe doctrine

Author: Amitav Acharya, American University

The escalating regional tensions over territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) have revived two crucial questions facing Asia’s strategic future: whether China is pursuing a ‘Monroe Doctrine’ over its neighbourhood, including the SCS area; and how far China’s neighbours can go in acquiescing to its rising power.

The Monroe Doctrine was first enunciated in 1823 by then-US President James Monroe as the policy of a rising US forbidding European powers to either colonise or interfere in the affairs of states in the Western Hemisphere. The essence of the Monroe Doctrine was to deny the Latin American and Caribbean region to European powers, and establish US regional hegemony.

Some see parallels between that policy and China’s rise today. The SCS is China’s backyard and, like 19th century-America, China is a rising power.

In his 2001 book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, John Mearsheimer argued: ‘A wealthy China would not be a status quo power but an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony’. Chinese military modernisation appears to be headed exactly in such a direction, developing what military analysts term ‘anti-access, area denial’ capability. In March 2010, the Commander of the US Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, warned: ‘China’s rapid and comprehensive transformation of its armed forces … challenge our freedom of action in the region,’ and ‘potentially infringe on their [US allies’] freedom of action’.

Evidence of a Chinese Monroe Doctrine can be seen from its recent actions in the SCS, as reported in recent East Asia Forum articles. But there are major differences between the two historical contexts which make the Monroe Doctrine parallel less than apt.

First, in early 19th century, there was no countervailing force, whether another regional power or an offshore balancer, available to block US regional hegemony over its backyard. The rivalry between Britain and France constrained America in the Western Hemisphere.

China today not only faces the US — an offshore, although some say a ‘resident’, balancer — but also regional balancers such as India, Japan and Russia, should it seek regional hegemony.

Second, the Monroe Doctrine came at a time of historic shift in US economic development. From December 1807 to March 1809, Congress imposed a near-total embargo on US international commerce, a policy that, along with the 1812 US–British war, helped the development of US domestic industry and lowered overall US international economic interdependence. In this climate of reduced dependence on foreign trade, US policymakers did not need to worry about damage to its economic interests if European powers cut off their trade routes to the US.

Compare this to the interdependent global economic order of today, which China depends on. According to a recent report in China Daily, over 60 per cent of China’s GDP now depends on foreign trade. Imported oil accounts for 50 per cent of its oil needs. China’s commerce, and hence prosperity, depends very much on access to sea lanes through the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Straits and other areas over which it has little control, and which are dominated by US naval power. India too has significant naval power in the Indian Ocean.

So if push comes to shove, an aggressive Chinese denial of SCS trade routes to world powers, and the resulting disruption of maritime traffic, would be immensely self-injurious to China. It would provoke countermeasures that will put in peril China’s own access to critical sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere.

Chinese leaders are not oblivious to this fact. The truth is that they may not have the option of pursuing an aggressive posture. The costs will simply be too high.

Beijing has repeatedly assured the international community that it does not intend to impede freedom of navigation in the SCS or resolve disputes with force. What Beijing has not clarified is how it might reconcile this with its policy of assertiveness — imposing fishing bans and forbidding oil explorations by other claimants who do not recognise China’s maximalist territorial claims in the area.

This leads us to the second question: how far will China’s neighbours go in accommodating its status as a rising power? In a 2004 article for International Security, I argued that China’s then much-talked-about ‘charm offensive’ will quickly unravel if and when it departs from a policy of reassurance to assert military muscle.

My position then was contrary to those who argued that China’s rise might recreate a tributary system-like regional order in East Asia — a benign version of the Monroe Doctrine, with lesser neighbours voluntarily ‘bandwagoning’ to growing Chinese power.

We are now witnessing a rapid dissipation of China’s ‘soft power’ as a result of the SCS dispute. Southeast Asian countries are also now standing up to China with US help. Though Chinese officials insist that Beijing has no intention of resolving the dispute by force, for China’s neighbours (especially Vietnam and the Philippines) China’s actions speak louder than its words. Faced with this predicament, senior Chinese political leaders should issue statements to clarify China’s intentions and policy. The task should not be left to media outlets controlled by the military, or to Chinese ‘think tank’ experts, who are often not credible to outsiders.

China does have a point when it says that since not all ASEAN member states are party to the territorial disputes in the SCS, ASEAN as a whole should not be involved as an interlocutor with China on the dispute.

But this point is valid only in so far as the issue of competing territorial claims, or even joint development, is concerned. China should indeed get serious in initiating meaningful bilateral talks with the other claimants over joint development and addressing territorial issues, as it has done with most of its neighbours with the exception of India over land borders.

But bilateralism alone will not suffice. China should remember that ASEAN — or the closely-related East Asia Summit — has the responsibility of reducing tensions and addressing threats to regional stability as a whole, and nothing challenges regional stability more at this point than the SCS dispute.

China should be willing to discuss tensions over the SCS with ASEAN with an eye to reducing tensions. An immediate meeting between China and ASEAN member states at the foreign ministers’ level would be timely and helpful in restoring China’s rapidly eroding ‘soft power’. China cannot impose a Monroe Doctrine in the region. Immediate bilateral talks with Vietnam and the Philippines and multilateral dialogue with ASEAN will dispel the perception that it is trying to do so.

The author is the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance at American University in Washington DC, a Senior Fellow of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, and a Visiting Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. This article originally appeared here in the Straits Times.