China flexes its muscle in the Pacific

Just as Imperial Japan did in the 1930s, China is developing and asserting its own version of the Monroe Doctrine in Asia, so it may enjoy the same continental hegemony America does. The new reality is reflected in the South China Sea. China maintains that it has sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea. The United States should respond by fostering closer ties with its allies in the region.

Beijing continues to militarize artificial islands in the South China Sea. It was reported earlier this month that China had installed antiship cruise missiles and surfaceto- air missile systems for purely defensive reasons on fortified outposts in the hotly contested waters of the South China Sea. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei are also contesting at least part of the chain of islands, reefs and their surrounding waters in the South China Sea.

Each year, a third of the world’s shipping passes through the South China Sea, carrying around $3.4 trillion in trade. In 2016, 21 percent of all global trade passed through it. Any conflict in the South China Sea would likely have serious consequences for global commerce.

Following the logic of the Monroe Doctrine, which opposed European colonialism in the Americas, Communist Party leadership believes China’s security would be better served by muscling the American military out of the Asia-Pacific region.

After all, the Chinese remember what happened in the century between the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the end of World War II, when the United States and European powers took advantage of a weak China. The current generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders are so bitter about the 100 years of humiliation that they can taste it.

In 1823, President James Monroe, on the occasion of his annual message to Congress, wrote “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.”

The United States put European nations on notice that it would consider any foreign challenge to the sovereignty of existing American nations an unfriendly act.

The Monroe Doctrine, sweeping in scope, proclaiming hegemony over an entire hemisphere, was an expression of a growing spirit of nationalism in the United States in the 1820s. In short, it warned everybody to stay out of the Americas; this is a United States preserve.

China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea echoes the Monroe Doctrine. It wants to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. Why should anyone expect China to act differently than the United States?

China’s actions are not catching the United States at its best. The U. S. has been busy chasing bad guys in the Greater Middle East. Is it too late to contain and deter China as it did with the Soviet Union in the Cold War? Or is China just too big and powerful? It should be remembered that the United States did not have deep economic relationships with the Soviet Union, so Cold War-era policymakers did not have to contend with powerful American multinational corporations’ economic interests as they managed foreign relations. Lawmakers in Washington, special interest groups, and the business elite eat at the same table.

China’s moves in the South China Sea can be regarded as a threat. But it is also represents an opportunity to deepen relationships with American allies in Asia and leverage their resources to serve as an effective counterweight to China’s moves before China absorbs these countries into its economic orbit. The President may want to reconsider his decision to withdraw the United States from leadership of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Keeping America secure means having partners and allies to magnify US power and extend US influence.

This approach merits consideration as long as the United States can avoid its usual perfection of getting things wrong when it comes to foreign affairs.

Originally Published: April 19, 2018