The early 19th century saw the rise of the United States of America as an emerging global superpower. America’s economic growth and influence were quickly outpacing that of its European counterparts. The United States saw that in order to sustain its growth and influence it had to forbid Britain, Spain, France, and other European powers to interfere with the affairs of continental America. US President James Monroe enunciated the now famous “Monroe Doctrine”, the US government essentially made it a policy to deny European powers to gain access to Latin America and the Caribbean Sea. The American hemisphere belongs to the United States. With the United States free to flex its muscle in its neighboring territory it contributed in transforming itself into becoming the world’s sole superpower in less than a century. It also led to American colonization and imperialism in the 20th century.
Fast forward to the early part of the 21st century, China has become the second largest economy in the world next only to America in less than three decades. Its apparent political stability, consistent economic development, and immense global influence has led many political economists to predict that China would eclipse America as the world’s premier superpower in several decades. It also led some to speculate that in order for China to sustain its vigor it has to take steps that might be detrimental to its neighboring countries, such as my home country, the Philippines. Pundits are saying that China is preparing itself to become East Asia’s hegemon, following in some fashion what pre-war Japan did.
Will America’s Past be China’s Future? Is China pursuing a Monroe policy (doctrine) over East Asian region and the South China Sea?
One would fail but notice some parallels between early 18th century United States and early 21st century China. China is today’s emerging global superpower challenging existing superpowers, in the same way that United States was two centuries ago. China needed regional influence, another term for regional hegemony, in the same way that United States needed it two hundred years ago. China needs essential resources within their area of interest to sustain its massive and intense economic activity, in the same way that United States needed it on its early stages to global might.
The evidence for a Chinese Monroe Doctrine can be seen from its recent actions in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia and its territorial disputes with Japan, extending its naval deployments into the region, getting into diplomatic word war with Japan and my home country Philippines, building military-civilian complex on the disputed islands in South China Sea, placing new markers on disputed territories, imposing a fishing ban in waters claimed by other countries, generally discouraging oil explorations in disputed territories without the permission of Beijing, and explicitly forewarning non-claimant countries especially the United States to avoid interfering with the South China Sea disputes.
However, Prof. Amitav Acharya argued that taking a closer look at China’s foreign policy in early 21st century and America’s early 19th century foreign policy makes it clear that there are major differences between the two historical contexts.
First, in the 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, the two European powers that theoretically might have posed a counterweight, constrained them in the Western Hemisphere. China today not only faces the United States – an offshore, although some say a ‘resident’, balancer – but also regional balancers such as India, Japan and Russia, should it seek regional hegemony of the kind the US wa
s able to achieve in the 19th century.
Second, the Monroe Doctrine came at a time of a historic shift in US economic development. From December 1807 to March 1809, Congress had imposed a near total embargo on US international commerce, a policy that, along with the 1812 US-British war, not only helped the development of US domestic industry, but also lowered overall US international economic interdependence. In this climate of reduced dependence on foreign trade, US policymakers had less to worry about with regard to the damage to its economic interests that European powers, retaliating against their exclusion from the Americas, might have caused the US by cutting off its trade routes. Compare this to China’s dependence on commerce today. According to a recent report in China Daily, over 60 per cent of China’s gross domestic product now depends on foreign trade. Imported oil accounts for 50 per cent of its oil needs. China’s economy operates within a much more interdependent global economic order than was the case for the US in the 19th century. China’s commerce and hence prosperity depends very much on access to sea lanes through the Indian Ocean, the Malacca Strait 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, Prof. Acharya pointed out that an aggressive Chinese denial of South China Sea trade routes to world powers, and the disruption of maritime traffic the resulting conflict might cause, would be immensely self-injurious to China. It would provoke countermeasures that will put in peril China’s own access to the critical sea lanes in the Indian Ocean and elsewhere. Chinese leaders are not oblivious to this fact of life. The truth is that they may not have the option of pursuing an aggressive posture. The costs will simply be too high.
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