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.
By stepping in to administer debt repayment, Washington denied Europeans any excuse for seizing territory – the kind of excuse they had parleyed into ownership of major tracts of Asia and Africa. So long as U.S. leaders applied the Roosevelt Corollary with self-restraint – as TR did, intervening only in Santo Domingo, and even there on a very small scale – it aroused few misgivings. It helped matters that the administration went out of its way to acknowledge Latin American countries as equals. U.S. diplomats arranged for the southern republics to be invited to the 1907 Hague Peace Conference, formally affirming that they were the sovereign equals of established states. Roosevelt repeatedly assured the “big three” – Argentina, Brazil, and Chile – that he considered them co-guarantors of the Monroe Doctrine.
He also dispatched Secretary of State Elihu Root to barnstorm South America in 1906. By most accounts, Root ably explained the doctrine and its corollary. Argentina’s Foreign Minister Luis Drago characterized the Monroe Doctrine as “the traditional policy [by which] the United States without accentuating superiority or seeking preponderance condemned the oppression of the nations of this part of the world and the control of their destinies by the great Powers of Europe.” Brazil convened a Pan-American Conference at Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian officials named the majestic edifice where the conference met “Palácio Monroe.”
Nor was the buoyant response confined to officialdom. Indeed, historian Frederick Marks reports that “enthusiastic students had to be dissuaded from unharnessing the horses pulling Root’s carriage so that they themselves might draw it through the streets of Rio.” The story was much the same in Buenos Aires and Lima. Statesmen and crowds showered accolades on TR during his post-presidential tour of South America in 1913.
But principles can be abused. Applied too promiscuously – as TR’s successors did – the corollary morphed into a convenient pretext for the United States to intrude in Latin American affairs, even when there was no real prospect of Europeans’ grabbing American territory. By 1929, recalls historian Samuel Flagg Bemis, the U.S. State Department compiled “an exegesis of the Monroe Doctrine, the so-called Clark Memorandum, which had the effect of pruning the ‘Roosevelt corollary’” from Monroe’s and Adams’s precepts. The doctrine’s injunction against external interference in the Americas would stand. After the Clark Memorandum, interventionism under TR’s banner would not.
As it turns out, then, China’s policy in the near seas today bears scant resemblance to U.S. policy in the Caribbean and Gulf in the age of the Monroe Doctrine. For one thing, Washington never asserted title to the Caribbean the way Beijing claims the South China Sea. For another, America never sought to restrict naval activities in its near seas, whereas China opposes such things as routine aircraft carrier operations in the Yellow Sea. It cites the flimsy pretext that such operations place U.S. warplanes in striking range of the capital city. Beijing also wants to forbid longstanding, clearly lawful practices like aerial surveillance in international airspace. And just last week, reports Indian pundit C. Raja Mohan, a Chinese warship “escorted” an Indian Navy flotilla in international waters in the South China Sea. According to Mohan – and I agree – the message is, “nice to see you here, but you are in our territorial waters and within them there is no right to ‘freedom of navigation’ for military vessels. You are here at our sufferance.”
In effect, China has vaulted past the most bellicose, most meddlesome interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine and Roosevelt Corollary. Pushback from fellow regional powers is both predictable and warranted. They should push back – just as Latin Americans pushed back against the interventionism of Theodore Roosevelt’s successors, William Howard Taft and Woodrow Wilson.
U.S. officials ultimately found the wisdom and flexibility to repudiate the Roosevelt Corollary, doing away with a policy that blackened America’s good name among its southern neighbors. Another President Roosevelt, Franklin Delano, replaced it with a “Good Neighbor” policy that served the U.S. and common interests far better. Popular opinion had little stake in the corollary, so any objections were muted. By contrast, Chinese leaders have depicted their policy in the near seas as a matter of sovereignty – something no nation, and certainly not one as prideful as China, lightly surrenders. In so doing, they may have painted themselves into a corner. Public sentiment will judge their deeds against their words. If they compromise now, then by the standard they have set, they will have forfeited sovereignty over waters that have belonged to China since antiquity. Would a vociferously nationalist populace tolerate such a betrayal? Doubtful.
In short, Beijing is making a mess for itself that will take a long time to clean up – and there’s no Elihu Root or FDR around to do the cleaning. In the United States, our Latin American friends still give us an earful about past interventionism from time to time. China should expect no less from its neighbors.
James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. He is writing a history of the U.S. Asiatic Fleet. The views voiced here are his alone.