China’s Monroe Doctrine?

China’s recently announced Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which covers a large part of the East China Sea, has roiled the already-tense situation in the area.  The defense zone, which includes islands disputed by both Japan and South Korea, is the latest in a series of aggressive actions by Beijing to try and convert its growing economic power into strategic influence in its neighborhood.  Among other things, the policy demands that foreign aircraft file flight plans and stay in radio contact with Chinese officials, and warns that the Chinese military will take “emergency defensive measures” against aircraft that refuse to comply. While Beijing’s declaration of the zone does not equate to unilaterally expanding its airspace, it does represent an attempt to shift the status-quo in the region, with China seeking to legitimize its claims to disputed territory as well as develop tools to force acquiescence from other states.

Given the high stakes in East Asia, and the frenzied jockeying for position that has been occurring in the region since President Obama announced the US pivot to Asia in 2009, the ADIZ has fed fears that slowly but surely China is pushing the US out of the area. Washington’s confused response to the ADIZ provocation didn’t help matters: it flew two B-52s unannounced through the zone the day after Beijing put it in place but also directed US commercial airlines to abide by the new regulations. But while the ADIZ and Washington’s response have set off alarms in the region, the big fear is whether Beijing will take the ADIZ and it’s push for strategic dominance in Asia to the next logical step: declaring its own version of the Monroe Doctrine.

According to Foreign Policy associate editor Isaac Stone Fish, Chinese leaders, especially new president Xi Jingping, have decided the United States offers the best model for China’s development into a superpower.  He says,

For years, Beijing’s elite officials have been debating how to learn from other great powers. In 2006, for example, the release of the 12-part documentary series “The Rise of the Great Nations,” about how countries like Portugal, Russia, and the United States built their empires, stirred wide debate on how China should act as it rises. The conclusion Xi seems to have drawn is that the United States is China’s best model.

Consequently,

Since taking office in November 2012, Xi has instituted a number of policies that demonstrate a solidification of control of the Communist Party and a streamlining of China’s bureaucracy. But, in doing so he’s liberally borrowing from the U.S. government’s institutional hierarchy and best practices, implementing a series of institutional changes that could be called American reform with Chinese characteristics. And for those concerned about a rising China challenging the United States, this is worrisome indeed.

If, as Fish declares, China’s leaders are modeling their actions off the United States’ historical experience, then the importance of the Monroe Doctrine to U.S. success won’t be lost on them.  Although issued more than a full century before the U.S. became the most powerful nation on earth, the Monroe Doctrine nevertheless laid the groundwork for the United States’ march toward superpower status.  This is because the Monroe Doctrine established the principle of American hegemony in the Western Hemisphere- a principle that slowly became an unquestioned fact.

Hemispheric hegemony has been a powerful asset for American foreign policy.  John Quincy Adams – one of America’s first grand strategists – famously explained his vision for the future of American power when he stated, “the United States and North America are identical.”[i]  To Adams, America’s expansion from 13 states along the eastern coast to a continental nation was a preordained conclusion; nothing would deter history’s natural course.  “From the time when we became an independent people,” declared Adams, “it was as much a law of nature that this should become our pretension as that the Mississippi should flow to the sea.”[ii] Territorial expansion, Adams concluded, would further America’s commercial and military power, allowing it to achieve the greatness for which it was destined.  Among his many achievements directed toward this goal, it was Adam’s drafting of the Monroe Doctrine that solidified hegemony in the Hemisphere as a core principle of American foreign policy.  This in turn, has allowed the United States to go from a great power, as Adams envisioned, to a global superpower; by keeping rival powers out of its backyard, the United States has had greater freedom to act abroad without fear for the immediate security of its homeland.

In view of the Monroe Doctrine’s importance to U.S. power, it is safe to assume Beijing will attempt to replicate it much as it is replicating other significant U.S. policies.  Noted scholar John J. Mearsheimer predicted such a move in his 2001 book The Tragedy of Great Power Politics.  He stated,

For sound strategic reasons, it [China] would surely pursue regional hegemony, just as the United States did in the Western Hemisphere during the nineteenth century. So we would expect China to attempt to dominate Japan and Korea, as well as other regional actors, by building military forces that are so powerful that those other states would not dare challenge it. We would also expect China to develop its own version of the Monroe Doctrine, directed at the United States. Just as the United States made it clear to distant great powers that they were not allowed to meddle in the Western Hemisphere, China will make it clear that American interference in Asia is unacceptable. [iii]

Such a declaration could be the definitive moment of the 21st century.  It would, in an instant, force Washington to make up its mind on how it will manage China.  Does the U.S. concede to Beijing’s demands and limit its involvement in Asia to purely commercial issues, or does it defy China’s ultimatum and risk a costly war it might not win.  It’s a decision many in Washington and allied capitols around the world hope U.S. policymakers never have to confront.  This is why the announcement of the ADIZ and the United States’ response has rattled the region so much.  In a way, it’s a test-drive for how the U.S. would respond to a Monroe Doctrine declaration by Beijing.  So far, it’s handled the test by trying to make all parties happy – a time-saving, but impossible task.  When the real moment comes, it won’t be afforded this flexibility.  Washington will have to choose, and either way, it will be a history-making decision.


[i].  William Earl Weeks, John Quincy Adams and American Global Empire (Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992), 169.

[ii].  Ibid.

[iii]. John J. Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2001), 401.

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