Kai He And Huiyun Feng For The Straits Times

Worry for Asia is not a Chinese Monroe Doctrine

Members of the Chinese PLA honour guard stand behind a string to ensure that they are in a straight line before a welcoming ceremony for Germany's Chancellor Merkel outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Members of the Chinese PLA honour guard stand behind a string to ensure that they are in a straight line before a welcoming ceremony for Germany's Chancellor Merkel outside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.  -- PHOTO: REUTERS

The Monroe Doctrine is gaining popularity in both scholarly and policy discourses on Asian security. Specifically, scholars and pundits are warning that China will adopt its own Monroe Doctrine to dominate Asia and "kick America out".

The Monroe Doctrine was first announced by US president James Monroe in 1823. It warned European powers not to interfere in the Americas, and respect the Western Hemisphere as the United States' sphere of interest.

In recent months, China appears to have been following a similar policy. It has simultaneously faced stand-offs in the East China Sea and South China Sea, engaged the US and Russia geopolitically, and showed a tough stand towards Hong Kong.

It seems that a new Cold War between China and the United States is looming in the Pacific region. However, the assertion of a Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine is mistaken.

There are two reasons for this.

First, China does not have the capabilities to dominate Asia. China's military spending is still less than one-third of the US'.

Although the World Bank predicted that China's gross domestic product in purchasing power parity will surpass that of the United States by the end of this year, the Chinese government has denied the validity of this forecast. On soft power, despite some praise of the "Chinese model", China remains far behind in making its cultural and political values welcome around the world.

In fact, China still has a long way to go to catch up with the United States in all dimensions of power.

Even if China could match American power, it still could not lead or dominate Asia given the impact of globalisation and economic interdependence. No nation can independently address many non-traditional security threats and challenges, such as terrorism and drug trafficking. Like the US, it will have to collaborate with other nations and institutions.

Second, China has never intended to dominate the region. Chinese President Xi Jinping promoted a "China Dream" for national rejuvenation, not an "Asian Dream". The reference point for Mr Xi and other Chinese leaders is the "hundred years of humiliation" since the Opium War and not the "tributary system" of the Middle Kingdom. No Chinese leader wants to rebuild the Sino-centric order because China has been socialised into the international community, respecting state sovereignty and the principle of non-interference in internal affairs.

There is no denying that China is becoming stronger. However, a strong China does not necessary entail aggressiveness and dominance. What China wants is respect and an appropriate status in the international system.

If China is not setting up its own Monroe Doctrine, then, why the diplomatic and territorial troubles now?

There are two possible explanations. First, China's foreign policy is still going through some strategic adjustments. China is searching for a grand strategy to behave like a great power in world politics.

Consequently, there is a learning process or even a learning curve for Chinese policymakers to overcome. China has a complicated political system and the difficulties in coordination within the bureaucratic system may at least partially explain China's surprising and even unwise decision to take on almost all its maritime challenges at the same time.

Second, China's assertiveness may be part of the "bargaining process" between China and the outside world.

With growing power, China, by nature, will need to bargain for a new position, a new status, or a new term with the outside world, especially the United States.

The current turbulence in China's bilateral relations with other countries may be a normal part of that bargaining process in which both sides at the table intend to test the bottom line of the other.

The United States launched a "pivot to Asia", later termed "rebalancing", to show its commitment and test China's intentions. China tried to set a new status quo in the East China Sea and South China Sea to demonstrate its own resolve in territorial disputes. Understandably both sides at the negotiation table intend to maximise their own interests.

Asian countries should not exaggerate the threats associated with China. As Joseph Nye Jr once wisely warned about the self-fulfilling prophecy, "if you treat China as an enemy, it will become one".

Asian countries should continue to engage China as before. They should let Chinese leaders know that the international community welcomes a strong and responsible China, not an arrogant Middle Kingdom. They should encourage China to continuously participate in multilateral institutions.

Asean can play a significant role in welcoming China into the rule-based and norm-oriented community.

Last, but not least, other Asian countries should prepare for a world without a Pax Americana. With continual defence budgetary cuts, the United States will need its Asian allies to share its defence burden in the region.

The immediate concern for Asia is not a Chinese Monroe Doctrine but, rather, Washington's return to a version of the 1969 Nixon Doctrine, in which the US supplies arms but not military forces to its allies.

It is time for Asian countries to think about a regional solution for a post-American era.


The writers are associate professors of political science at Utah State University and currently visiting fellows with the China Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.