A South Korean Navy lieutenant approached me after my panel at Tufts University’s Sino-American Seminar earlier this month, at which I gave a rundown on the US force posture in Asia. His question: will China keep inveighing against US military operations in the Yellow Sea should tensions between North and South Korea subside? My answer: yes. Chinese aims at sea transcend any immediate contingency, on the Korean Peninsula or elsewhere in the Yellow, East China, or South China seas. Beijing is trying to establish a track record for opposing military activities it deems objectionable, in hopes that foreign navies will cease such activities along the Chinese maritime periphery.
This isn’t solely a legal question. Commentary on Chinese aspirations in the ‘near seas’ typically dwells on the legal dimension, and understandably so. Many seafaring states fear that Beijing wants to turn its exclusive economic zone into sovereign waters, in effect rewriting the rules of the international system to grant China a maritime preserve along its coastlines. Freedom of navigation would suffer. Such efforts to reinterpret the law of the sea certainly bear watching—and, if they persist, challenging—in the name of freedom of the seas. Surveillance, aircraft-carrier flight operations, and similar activities are clearly aboveboard, as Chinese interlocutors grudgingly admit when pressed.
But there is precedent for a rising power claiming special prerogatives in its near seas as a matter of policy, not law per se. Look no further than US history. I refer of course to the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 policy statement by which the United States forbade European empires to reassert control of newly independent Latin American states, either direct or indirect. When President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams announced their hands-off policy, the United States had little capacity to make good on it. Only a handful of frigates and lesser craft comprised the US Navy. But over time, as US national power surged, Washington built a navy strong enough to enforce the doctrine.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
No European statesman accepted the Monroe Doctrine as law—Otto von Bismarck dismissed it as ‘insolent dogma,’ while Lord Salisbury reminded Washington that international law is not made through unilateral fiat—but Europeans ultimately had to concede that a well-armed, locally dominant United States could get its way in the New World. Realities of power prevailed. Why construct pricey fleets to challenge the United States in its own backyard? Weak powers, then, can lay down principles. And when they become strong, they can demand that others abide by these principles, agree with them or not. ‘The Monroe Doctrine is as strong as the United States Navy, and no stronger,’ vouched President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.
True enough. Even Great Britain, which ruled the waves, ultimately withdrew its North American fleet to home waters, grudgingly acquiescing in local US supremacy. And over time—if consistently upheld by the government that declared it, and if no one mounts serious opposition to it—a policy like the Monroe Doctrine can acquire a kind of quasi-legal standing. Indeed, at the Paris Peace Conference that formally terminated World War I, US delegates managed to incorporate the doctrine into the League of Nations Covenant. Article 21 of the Covenant declares that ‘Nothing in this Covenant shall be deemed to affect the validity of international engagements, such as treaties of arbitration or regional understandings like the Monroe Doctrine, for securing the maintenance of peace.’
Declining to challenge a unilateral policy, then, is tantamount to consenting to it. Which brings us back to China. China appears to be playing the role of the United States sometime in the nineteenth century, when Washington insisted on its hands-off policy but had not yet built a navy strong enough to enforce it. Similarly, by consistently lodging complaints about US Navy aircraft-carrier deployments to the Yellow Sea or maritime surveillance in the South China Sea, Beijing is establishing a track record of objecting to military activities in the near seas. As Chinese sea power matures, the Chinese leadership may assume a more forceful stance, just as the United States did by the 1890s.
Does this add up to a Chinese Monroe Doctrine for maritime Asia? Not necessarily. But if its build-up of maritime strength—manifest in a powerful fleet supported by shore-based aircraft and missiles—bears fruit, China may ultimately get its way in the near seas. And it may do so even without carrying the day in legal forums. Consequently, the United States and fellow seafaring states like Japan and South Korea must keep conducting lawful operations in the near seas while voicing opposition to Chinese policy. Otherwise they may appear to acquiesce in Chinese primacy in these waters.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.