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China follows America's Monroe Doctrine as Obama pursues a policy of ambiguity

Officers of the Vietnamese Marine Guard monitor a Chinese coast guard vessel
REUTERS/Nguyen Minh
Officers of the Vietnamese Marine Guard monitor a Chinese coast guard vessel on the South China Sea on Thursday.

Two centuries ago, the increasingly assertive United States declared that the Western Hemisphere was off limits to the great colonial powers of Europe. As President James Monroe’s eponymous doctrine altered the nature of trans-Atlantic relations, China is essentially following the American footprints in trans-Pacific affairs with its own Ménluó (a transliteration of Monroe) Doctrine in the East and South China Seas.

Beijing’s competing claims primarily involve the Diaoyu (or Senkaku in Japan) Islands dispute with Tokyo, the Paracel (or Xisha in China, Hoang Sa in Vietnam) Archipelagos conflict with Hanoi, and finally the Scarborough Shoal clash (or Huangyan Island in China) along with the Second Thomas Shoal (known as Ren’ai in China) with Manila. This maritime territory encompasses a historical “nine-dash line” map of China.

Last month, a few days after making a strong statement about the U.S. treaty obligations to defend Japan over the Diaoyu islands, President Barack Obama reiterated at a news conference in Manila that the Philippines and Vietnam should bring the disputed claims against China before an international tribunal under the Law of the Sea treaty.

During this four-nation tour, Obama emphasized the U.S. commitment to the “rebalancing” policy in the Pacific, and said, “we don’t think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes.” As China unilaterally declared the new Air Defense Identification Zone over the parts of the East China Sea, Beijing continued to engage in the disputed fishery-rich Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines and the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig (or HD-981) near the Paracels, claimed by Vietnam.

The U.S. and its regional allies do not have a straightforward geostrategy to deter China’s assertive behavior.

Drivers of change

Despite America’s self-assured foreign policy in the 19th century, a number of Caribbean islands still continued to maintain close relations with their colonial masters over the Atlantic, but the U.S. never went to war with them. The Monroe Doctrine has had mixed results as economics triumphs over politics.

Given China’s own history, would Beijing afford to continue its proclaimed economically driven “Peaceful Rise” strategy over political identity?

After Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, President Xi Jinping is now pursuing his Chinese Dream — a strategic variation of the American Dream with Chinese characteristics — to placate the increasingly agitated, growing middle class in China. Xi has unwillingly unleashed organic processes of freedom — with the liberalization of overseas travel, studying abroad, working in infrastructure projects, and greater openness in social media like microblogs — to thrive more than ever before.

Pacific world order  

In America, a silent transformation is also taking place. As the U.S. expands its energy self-sufficiency with new sources of gas and oil, Washington’s economic interests in the oil-rich Middle East and its traditional alliances in Europe have begun to change. Given all this, Obama’s Asia “pivot” strategy is neither a pivot nor a rebalance; it is about trade, investment, and finance as epitomized by his Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Patrick Mendis
Patrick Mendis

Obama will surely use political rhetoric like his famous crossing of the “red-line” speech on Syria and his reluctant but vocal engagement over the Russian annexation of Crimea. In his view, however, America’s overarching national interests are directly related to economic and trade relations. For example, the U.S. would hardly go to war with a nation that imports the unwanted chicken feet — a delicacy in China.

In the disputed waters, American policy is a policy of ambiguity. As Washington and Manila signed a defense agreement, American rhetoric has signaled that the Philippines must find international tribunal process for conflict resolution, which essentially sent a conflicting message to Beijing. Unlike the Philippines, Washington does not have a defense treaty with Hanoi but the potential for American access to Cam Ranh Bay — a deep-water naval base — is a sensitive matter to Beijing.

New type of rebalance

Recently, however, the economically intertwined Sino-American relationship has shifted to the deepening of military-to-military relations. After Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit to the first Chinese aircraft carrier — the Liaoning — in April, General Fang Fenghui of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toured the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan earlier this month. This is an encouraging sign of mil-2-mil relations as PLA Navy Chief Admiral Wu Shengli visited the USS Carl Vinson last year.

As the Fang-Dempsey meetings took place in Washington, the HD-981 incident incited anti-Chinese protesters in Vietnam. Public protests would scarcely take place in Vietnam without the tacit approval of the communist government in Hanoi. As Washington warms up to Hanoi with the intention of military support, Sino-American military relations are also strengthening at the highest level.

Geostrategic deterrence

In all this, Obama’s rebalance strategy is not necessarily a containment policy but an expression of geostrategic deterrence and commercial advancement of mutual interdependence. Indeed, political realities and economic necessities on both sides of the Pacific are different, and alliances are constantly changing.

China needs the overseas markets and natural resources to sustain its economic growth. To maintain global superiority, American military and intelligence agencies must have expansive budgetary allocations, for which Washington needs Beijing.

These are powerful incentives; both governments in Beijing and Washington understand that a conflict or a proxy war would be counterproductive and catastrophic. Reflective — but not overconfident and reckless — leadership is needed to avoid the likelihood of human tragedies.

Patrick Mendis is a distinguished senior fellow and affiliate professor of public and international affairs at George Mason University. This article is developed from his recent book, "Peaceful War: How the Chinese Dream and American Destiny Create a Pacific New World Order." A former American diplomat, Mendis served as a military professor in Japan and South Korea. In 2013, he received the Alumnus of Notable Achievement Award from the University of Minnesota. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area, but considers Minnesota home.

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Comments (1)

China's first carrier is a

China's first carrier is a joke. You realize that the carrier build (begun in 1985--30 years ago!!), was abandoned by the Russian navy, was bought for $20 million by a travel agency to be used as a floating casino in Macao, and somehow found its way into the government's hands.

China is relying far more on its trade influence and the influence it has with the world's corporate leaders. It is those people who will moderate US and European response to any action by China.

Referring disputes to international bodies is a polite way of booting the complaint out the door. When there is an active enforcement arm of that agency, then perhaps. Otherwise, it's a filing away of the issue.