Will United States’ Past be China’s Future?

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.


Image Credit: Upsideworld.org

J. Sun E.

Sun, a Filipino based in China, writes PH.CN on ProPinoy, a weekly column on Philippines-China relations, politics, history, and current events. He studied Political Science, History, and Foreign Languages in Philippines and China. Follow him on Twitter @phdotcn

  • J_ag

    “In 1902, European nations responded to a Venezuelan government debt default with military force. German, Italian and British gunboats blockaded ports, seized customs houses and bombarded a Venezuelan fort. Venezuela caved, agreeing to restructure and pay its debts. These days, when European leaders see Greece and Ireland on the brink of default, they don’t send gunboats–they send money.” – Kevin A. Hassett
    (Dec. 2010)

    Unfortunately your analogy about the rise of the reluctant American Empire in the early 19th century is wrong.

    The Spanish Empire was dying and with the loss of its American colonies the British wanted to make sure that they would control the trade of the newly emerging independent former colonies in Latin America. The U.S. wanted to insure that no European country would interfere with the new independent countries. It was an implicit agreement between the two anglo-saxon economies for their own interest.
    Please note that even the French took over Mexico during the mid 19th century.

    Please note that it was British capital that built up the American economy in the 19th century. Think railroads. The industrialization of the U.S. proceeded with earnest during and after the U.S. Civil War.

    The Southern agricultural economy wanted free trade with Europe while the North was the emerging industrial heartland.

    Industrialization required a mass market and the problems in Europe led to mass migration to the U.S. The turmoil in Europe due to the change from feudalism to capitalism all propelled by technological advances led to emergence and the expansion of the original 13 colonies to the Louisiana purchase and later to the war vs. Mexico that led to the annexation right up to California. In between that was the war against the plains Indian nations.

    The 19th century was the zenith of the British Empire. The U.S. had no navy to speak of during most of the 19th century. The built up of the U.S. navy was started only during the term of T. Roosevelt who oversaw the peace agreement between Japan and Russia. Japan had a more powerful navy then the U.S.then.

    The demise of the British Empire started after the First World War and by the end of the second they were no more. That brought forth the start of the American Empire. The Philippine revolution against Spain was one of the last uprisings against the dying Spanish empire.

    We became the sole American colony simply because the U.S. needed a commercial/ military base for future inroads into China. That to this day is still our role. We are a sham nation state.

    The U.S. is first and foremost a Commercial empire that holds its empire through the delivery almost exclusively of global public goods. Global currency to facilitate trade and military might to protect global security.

    You cannot compare the historical basis of the U.S. with a country that has had an organized state and civilization that has existed for over 2,000 years.

    They have been a top down society for eons. Combining Smith and Marx they have quickly industrialized with the State keeping command of the heights of the economy while allowing for market mechanisms in selected parts of the economy.

    Their problem and challenge for the future is how to slowly share political power with the emerging middle classes that will surely demand a voice .

    Americas empire similarly to the British Empire was initiated by the commercial classes over lesser developed economies. The Chinese do not have that kind of class sector.

    That makes their rise different and interesting.

    Get your history right..

    • UP nn grd

      Russian Empire…. top-down (like today’s China), wasn’t it?

      • J_ag

        Russia unfortunately learned how make state of the art weaponry and send men to space but forgot how to “make bread.”

        Today the only space taxi to the space station is the Russian Soyuz program.

        Apart from good Vodka , gorgeous women and the AK-47 they have nothing else to offer.

        Peter the Great loved warfare.

    • Nice history lesson in a nutshell.

  • UP nn grad

    India, Thailand, USA, Philippines, Turkey share things in common.

    Like below. Question is if China considers it a problem for their nation, too. I think the answer is yes.


    Two of the seven Marines killed in a clash with suspected Abu Sayyaf bandits in Sulu were beheaded, the spokesman for the Philippine Navy said Friday.

    Lt. Col. Omar Tonsay made the clarification amid reports that five Marines were mutilated and beheaded by the suspected bandit in a predawn attack in Patikul town on Thursday.

    “Hindi lima, two, I can confirm two, I can confirm two hacking,” said Tonsay.

    • UP nn grd

      recent china experience:


      BEIJING (AFP) – A deadly weekend attack in China’s restive Xinjiang region was masterminded by “terrorists” trained in Pakistan, the local government said Monday.

      Fourteen people were killed in two attacks at the weekend in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar, and five alleged attackers were in turn shot dead by police in the wave of violence.

  • Thanks for the thoughtful comparison of historical moments. China is an amazing country, eh? How a small group of leaders can guide such a huge ship of state through rapid modernization and the hectic and warlike global environment is excellent drama. Real time.