Last Friday, I had the privilege of discussing India and China with University of Southern Mississippi studentsin Fort Walton Beach, Florida, near my hometown of Pensacola. The conference room overlooked the Gulf of Mexico on a dazzling autumn day. The site was fitting. An emerging strain in Western commentary on Asia holds that the United States, China, and other seafaring states should strike up a ‘modus vivendi,’ or diplomatic arrangement, governing maritime endeavours in the Western Pacific and the China seas.
Veteran China analyst Michael Swaine sees direct US-China talks as the best avenue to a modus vivendi in the Taiwan Strait. University of Pennsylvania historian Walter McDougall, whose many works include a rollicking history of the North Pacific, says he hopes a robust US naval build-up will ‘push the status quo powers and rising power (China), not toward confrontation, but toward accommodation’ of a kind last seen during the interwar years, a heyday of naval arms control.
And he’s right. There’s no reason—in principle—that stakeholders in Asia can’t fashion some sort of understanding. They would be remiss not to make the attempt. Nevertheless, historical precedent suggests that the prospects for a modus vivendi vis-à-vis Beijing are mixed, the pitfalls many. Just over a century ago, the Gulf and Caribbean Sea—‘America’s Mediterranean,’ as geopolitical thinker Nicholas Spykman phrased it—constituted the scene for one of the more famous modus vivendis in US diplomatic history. Another took shape in Northeast Asia. It’s worth looking back to look ahead.
In 1905, the Theodore Roosevelt administration hammered out an arrangement with the Dominican Republic to resolve a debt dispute between the enfeebled state and its European creditors. Wracked by civil war, Santo Domingo had defaulted on its loans, and the great powers were making threatening noises. Why did Washington inject itself into this arcane controversy? Because Caribbean governments often failed to repay loans taken out in European banks. When one did, it was common practice for the bankers to appeal to their home government for redress. If the defaulting government could not or would not repay its debt, the European government sent the navy to seize its customs facilities and repay the bank from the duties levied on imports and exports.
Forcible debt collection wasn’t the problem for TR. He objected vehemently to European navies’ occupying the territory on which customhouses stood. Strategically placed islands or coastal seaports could be converted into naval stations along sea lanes leading to the isthmian canal then being developed. This would violate the Monroe Doctrine, which forbade new European territorial holdings in the New World. It would imperil transoceanic shipping bound to or from the Panama Canal. In short, US statesmen fretted that Europeans might do in the Western Hemisphere what they were doing in Asia and Africa: wresting control of strategic locations from their inhabitants. In 1897, for instance, the Kaiser’s Germany used the murder of two missionaries in Kiaochow as an excuse to wring a 99-year lease of the port from China’s Qing Dynasty. Kiaochow soon became part of Germany’s ‘place in the sun’ of empire.
To justify interfering in Santo Domingo, President Roosevelt proclaimed that the United States would exercise ‘an international police power’ in southern waters. His ‘Roosevelt Corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine purported to deny outsiders any pretext for breaching the doctrine. Washington reserved the right to intervene when it appeared the great powers might exploit debt collection to acquire territory in the Americas. As historian Thomas Bailey puts it, the Dominican government ‘rather resignedly invited the Yankee big brother to step in’ and manage its finances to forestall European naval action. When the US Senate balked at approving a US-Dominican treaty to that effect, TR negotiated an executive agreement with the Dominicans. A US customs official administered the modus vivendi, dividing the tariff proceeds between the government and its creditors. The Senate approved an accord in 1907 that largely codified the arrangement.
The United States and Japan also worked out a grand modus vivendi during the Roosevelt presidency, delineating their prerogatives in the Asia-Pacific region. A 1905 ‘agreed memorandum,’ the ‘Taft-Katsura Agreement,’ acknowledged Japanese ‘suzerainty’ over the Korean Peninsula. Administration officials justified this as bowing to the inevitable; neither Americans nor their elected representatives were prepared to fight for Korea. The 1907-1908 ‘Gentlemen’s Agreement’ curtailed the flow of Japanese labourers to the US west coast in exchange for a halt to formal discrimination against Japanese schoolchildren in San Francisco. And in 1908, Washington and Tokyo concluded the ‘Root-Takahira Agreement’ committing them to preserve the status quo in the Pacific, respect each other’s territorial possessions, uphold the ‘Open Door’ to China, and support the ‘independence and integrity of China’.
Fast forward to today. It’s entirely correct for Washington and other stakeholders to explore an arrangement with Beijing that preserves freedom of the seas while acknowledging China’s stature as a leading sea power. In the best case, China’s navy could help police the Asian seas, relieving some of the burden on a US Navy that finds itself under increasing strain from tight budgets, soaring shipbuilding costs, and extravagant operational demands. But the age of Theodore Roosevelt hints at the difficulty of informal deal-making in the Asia-Pacific. First, the negotiating geometry promises to be intricate. US diplomats can’t cut third parties out of the process the way TR did when negotiating with the Dominicans and Japanese. The lacklustre progress of the ‘six-party talks’ on North Korea, the ASEAN-China ‘Declaration of Conduct’ for the South China Sea and other broad-based East Asian forums is less than heartening.
Second, a modus vivendi must not sacrifice the interests of third parties for the sake of partnership. As McDougall observes, Tokyo enjoyed ‘a sort of Japanese Monroe Doctrine’ from its triumph in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 until the late 1930s. Few would cite the Taft-Katsura Agreement as an illustrious chapter in US diplomatic history, since it consigned Korea to Japanese supremacy. The United States must not repeat its mistake. US alliances would suffer if Washington appeared to acquiesce in a Chinese Monroe Doctrine for the sake of partnership with Beijing. And third, informal arrangements are perishable. The US-Dominican modus vivendi endured in part because the parties wrote it into treaty law. In 1943, Walter Lippmann castigated US administrations for ‘monstrous imprudence’ for letting the US Navy atrophy, and with it the national power necessary to enforce a grand bargain with Japan. No diplomatic understanding is self-executing.
Thankfully, senior US officials appear mindful of this. Partnership with China is important, but it isn’t all-important. Any East Asian modus vivendi must preserve the rules of liberal trade and commerce as they currently stand. Freedom of navigation through the global ‘commons’—the ‘connective tissue’ that binds the system together—must remain non-negotiable for the United States and its allies as they parley with China.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the Naval War College and co-author of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.