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.