China’s Monroe Doctrine

China’s Monroe Doctrine


In 1823, U.S. President James Monroe and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams used the president’s annual message to Congress to codify a new foreign policy doctrine. The United States, they announced, was entitled to “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands and waters within a line on the map that enclosed the vast majority of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Monroe and Adams proclaimed that these claims constituted a “core interest” of the United States – an interest for which the republic was prepared to fight. It went without saying that they would brook no opposition from weak Latin American states. They further demanded that extraregional navies like Great Britain’s Royal Navy desist from operations in America’s “near seas.”

No, they didn’t.

But this is a useful thought experiment. How would a hyper-aggressive Monroe Doctrine have gone over in European capitals, let alone among island or coastal states ringing the Caribbean basin? Like a lead balloon. And that’s how China’s extraordinary claims in the Yellow, East China, and South China seas – indisputable sovereignty, core interest, and the rest – have gone over with Asian audiences outside China.

Last week at the Naval War College’s annual Current Strategy Forum, several speakers likened China’s policy in the near seas to U.S. policy in the Caribbean and Gulf during the heyday of the Monroe Doctrine. (Why hadn’t someone thought of that before?) One asked: “Why can’t China have a Monroe Doctrine?” He answered his own question: “Because it’s China!” Implication: the United States and its Asian allies deny China the special prerogatives America enjoyed during its own ascent to great sea power. To do so is apparently the height of hypocrisy, if not an exercise in threat-mongering.

The trouble with this view is that no one denies Beijing influence over its surroundings. Great powers wield such influence as a matter of course. But the kind of influence matters. China has given fellow Asian powers ample grounds to worry about how it will use the armed forces it is busily assembling.

The contrast with U.S. history is striking. Far from being a writ for American meddling, the Monroe Doctrine was popular in Latin America for decades following its inception. Why wouldn’t it be? It was a declaration that Europeans could keep their holdings in the New World but not expand them. It was a kind of ratchet. Once Latin American republics had wrested their independence from the great empires, it was permanent. Washington vowed to construe any effort to restore imperial control of American states – whether direct or by proxy – as an unfriendly act toward the United States. Few in Central or South America objected to a strong neighbor’s guaranteeing their independence against extraregional predators.

The trouble started in the 1890s, with the United States’ rise to hemispheric supremacy. Physical power tempts political leaders to use it. In 1895, the Grover Cleveland administration involved itself in a border dispute along the Venezuelan frontier. In one tart diplomatic note, Secretary of State Richard Olney informed the British government – one of the disputants – that the United States’ “fiat” was “law” throughout the Western Hemisphere.

This claim to suzerainty hardly sat well with fellow inhabitants of the hemisphere, but it only lasted a moment against the sweep of history. President Theodore Roosevelt skillfully handled relations with Caribbean and European powers. In 1904, he appended a “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine under which Washington reserved the right to intervene in quarrels between the imperial powers and Latin American governments if such quarrels threatened to breach the doctrine. Europeans had a habit of sending warships to seize Latin American customhouses when weak governments defaulted on their loans to European banks. They repaid their bankers out of the tariff revenue, governments’ primary source of income. Roosevelt objected because debt collection left outsiders in possession of American soil – soil where they might build naval bases, constituting a menace to sea lanes that would crisscross the region once a Central American canal opened.

An American College Student
February 11, 2014 at 18:10

China will never announce an equivalent to the monroe doctrine because that would alert the US that the area covered by such a zone is a no-go area. China’s plan is to engineer a confrontation while at the same time assuring the US that there would not be a confrontation, so that when the time comes the US would think the situation is less serious that it actually would be. This is so that the americans would be caught by surprise and defeated. This is why china never clearly threatens its neighbors in order for the situation to remain abiguous and muddled. If china clearly outlines its position it may very well win the dispute but it would lose its potential casus belli.

April 17, 2014 at 13:58

I wonder why it was always China or Russia or Iran or some other party who plan to do evil thing. Ridiculous paranoia, isn’t it. Apart from giving the ‘good guys’ credential, what is the benefit to be super evil anyway?
For those who study Chinese long history would definitely see a pattern in their defense policy.
Why in the past China built ridiculously expensive great wall? It was only to protect themselves from the constant harassment of the Hun. Some dynasty built great army that made Roman looked like municipalities militia, to safe guard the Silk Road. But they did not conquer Central Asia along the silk road.
In 1500, Ming Dynasty admiral Chengho commanded great fleets swapping through South East Asia to Arabia without any worthy rivals. They could easily conquered the world. But they did not conquer a single country. They were still remembered with reverence to this day for their deeds combating pirates and making shipping lanes safe.
Chinese military doctrine today is very logical to us in South East Asia. They had just emerged from constant harassment from Western powers who came from the sea. Just like the Hun, the American constantly is constantly harrasing and ridiculing China. The only logical course of action is to build up defense. And if we learn about Chinese history, it would be a ridiculously expensive Great Wall or Great Army on the sea capable of defeating US Navy, the Hun of the Sea.
If the US Navy is not in the area, surely we will ask why the naval build up.
Someday, if the Chinese manage to defeat US Navy, well, great, big news. Then, so what? All change will only he dominant power in the region. It is not the end of the world.
Should we be afraid? The answer is no. We have been living along side China for centuries. We had never been colonized by China even once. The only invasion by China in a millenia was when the Chinese under Mongol invade Java in 1300s, and they left after they got what they want. On the contrary, we had been colonized by the West numerous times till the end of WW2. So, by looking history, who should we be wary? The sheep in wolf clothing or the wolf in sheep clothing?

Liu C.Y
December 9, 2013 at 09:32

This article is teeming with patriotic bias, where the author not only exaggerates my home to look like a barbaric, undiplomatic and selfish power but also puffs America with the makeup of a “perfect” and “idealistic” role model for China (and also hinting to other nations) in this situation, no offense dear citizens of the U.S. In some areas, yes, America is better than China, and we have much to learn from each other, but one must realize that we have only sprouted out of the ashes of the Cultural Revolution 60 years ago, whereas America has had around 200 from the Civil War. We have less experience than America, but that does not mean that we need to be spoon fed, as the article secretly hints. That’s an insult. On a separate note, negatively highlighting China’s pride in this article was quite hurtful to me as a reader. I can’t help but notice the ironic amount of patriotic pride the author has for America, and how this article is slightly influenced by pride instead of reality. If it is actually accurate, I would not be making an effort to point things out. All in all, I won’t be making much of a comment on the material, as it can be touchy, but I am a bit disappointed by “The Diplomat” for this rather ironically “undiplomatic” article.

February 2, 2014 at 05:38

The Monroe Doctrine was the political ideology behind U.S. Imperialism in Latin America, rationalizing hundreds of the U.S. Military Interventions and the CIA covert operations throughout the region. To equate China’s legal claims to both the North and South China Seas with the Monroe Doctrine is to assume that China wants to emulate U.S. Imperialism.

This is a false analogy as there is very little evidence in China’s history to assert the hysterical claims that China has imperialistic ambitions in the region.

bob day
February 4, 2014 at 14:50

sf theres plenty of evidence of chinas evil ambitions senkaku scarborough shoal .spratlys 9 dash line scam etc.

February 5, 2014 at 15:07

@bob day:

Both the PRC (China) and the ROC (Taiwan) have the EXACT same claims on the disputed islands in the North and South China Seas. In fact, the “nine-dash-line” of the PRC (China) was based on the original “eleven-dash-line” of the ROC (Taiwan). But I don’t hear anybody calling the ROC (Taiwan) “expansionist”, “imperialist”, “aggressive”. do I?

on day
February 4, 2014 at 14:46

liu china’s stolen islands and reefs antput a city up “Sansha “they make threats and act like a spoiled baby who cant get its way. they deserve to be chastised

October 19, 2012 at 10:01

For any Chinese reading this, the Monroe's doctrine was not a good thing for Latin America, United States had at that time the strength to force it's will on the Latin American nations but was still to weak to stop the Europeans from interfering if they feel like it. Examples include the Pastry War in which France blockaded all of Mexico's major ports and the territorial dispute between England and Venezuela for a chunk of present day Guyana. Not only that, but United States didn't mind attacking other countries or supporting separatist within those countries to secure complete control over key areas like the vast territories of California and Texas, or the strategical Panama. The only reason their country isn't bigger that it currently is was that the average American citizen of the early 19th century was against annexing areas that already had a large non-White population, if you don't believe me google: "All Mexico Movement".
The only times when Latin America and United States actually had positive and constructive relations were during the era of the Good Neighbor policy and the period after the Cold War-era and before the 9/11.

August 30, 2012 at 20:09

I recommend Americans to read about the Annexation of the Kingdom of Hawaii, US annexation of Panama, Guam, California etc before coming to conclusions. All these occured AFTER the monroe doctrine, all in the name of good old "Liberty" "Peace" and "Justice". Now look at Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Vietnam, Korea and you will know why so many countries hate us Americans.
We have to stop listening to bullshit from our media and start reading history ourselves from different perspectives. Stop being so lazy as to be spoon-fed selective history !

D. Advocate
August 23, 2012 at 00:03

CORRECTION: "sort" should be replaced by "sought"

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