Asia in flux

Chinese behaviour in Asian seas driven by Monroe Doctrine of its own

Patrick Mendis says as China flexes its muscles according to a Monroe Doctrine of its own, the US response has been a policy of ambiguity. However, both understand the danger of conflict

Two centuries ago, the increasingly assertive United States declared that the Western hemisphere was off limits to the great colonial powers of Europe. Just as president James Monroe's eponymous doctrine altered the nature of transatlantic relations, so today China is essentially following the American footprints in transpacific affairs with its own Menluo (a transliteration of Monroe) Doctrine in the East and South China seas.

Beijing's competing claims primarily involve the Diaoyu (or Senkaku in Japan) Islands dispute with Tokyo; the Paracel (or Xisha in China, Hoang Sa in Vietnam) archipelagos with Hanoi; and finally the Scarborough Shoal clash (or Huangyan Island in China), along with the Second Thomas Shoal (known as Renai in China), with Manila. This maritime territory encompasses a historical "nine-dash line" map of China.

Last month, a few days after making a strong statement about the US treaty obligations to defend Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, President Barack Obama reiterated at a news conference in Manila that the Philippines and Vietnam should bring the disputed claims against China before an international tribunal under the UN Law of the Sea Treaty.

During his four-nation tour in Asia, Obama emphasised the US commitment to the "rebalancing" policy in the Pacific, saying "we don't think that coercion and intimidation is the way to manage these disputes".

On its part, China unilaterally declared an air defence identification zone over parts of the East China Sea last November. Since then, it has clashed with its neighbours over the disputed fishery-rich Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines, and an oil rig near the Paracels claimed by Vietnam.

The US and its regional allies do not have a straightforward geostrategy to deter China's assertive behaviour.

Despite America's self-assured foreign policy in the 19th century, for example, a number of Caribbean islands still continued to maintain close relations with their colonial masters over the Atlantic, but the US never went to war with them. The Monroe Doctrine has had mixed results as economics triumphs over politics.

Given China's own history, could Beijing afford to continue its proclaimed economically driven "peaceful rise" strategy over political identity?

President Xi Jinping is now pursuing his Chinese Dream - a strategic variation of the American Dream with Chinese characteristics - to placate the increasingly agitated growing middle class. Xi has unwillingly unleashed organic processes of freedom - with the liberalisation of overseas travel, studying abroad, working in infrastructure projects, and greater openness in social media like microblogs.

In America, a silent transformation is also taking place. As the US expands its energy self-sufficiency with new sources of gas and oil, Washington's economic interests in the oil-rich Middle East and its traditional alliances in Europe have begun to change. Given all this, Obama's Asia "pivot" strategy is neither a pivot nor a rebalance; it is about trade, investment and finance, as epitomised by his Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Obama will surely use political rhetoric, like his famous "crossing of the red line" speech on Syria and his reluctant but vocal engagement over the Russian annexation of Crimea. In his view, however, America's overarching national interests are directly related to economic and trade relations. For example, the US would hardly go to war with a nation that imports unwanted chicken feet.

In the disputed waters, American policy is one of ambiguity. As Washington and Manila signed a defence agreement, American rhetoric has signalled that the Philippines must find an international tribunal process for conflict resolution, which essentially sent a conflicting message to Beijing.

Unlike the Philippines, Washington does not have a defence treaty with Hanoi but the potential for American access to Cam Ranh Bay - a deep-water naval base - is a sensitive matter to Beijing.

Recently, however, the economically intertwined Sino-American relationship has shifted to the deepening of military-to-military relations.

Following Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel's visit to the first Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, in April, General Fang Fenghui of the People's Liberation Army toured the nuclear-powered USS Ronald Reagan this month. This is an encouraging sign.

As meetings between Fang and his US counterpart, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, took place in Washington, the oil rig incident incited anti-Chinese protesters in Vietnam. Public protests would hardly take place in Vietnam without the tacit approval of the communist government in Hanoi.

In all this, Obama's rebalance strategy is not necessarily a containment policy but an expression of geostrategic deterrence and commercial advancement of mutual interdependence. Indeed, political realities and economic necessities on both sides of the Pacific are different, and alliances are constantly changing.

China needs the overseas markets and natural resources to sustain its economic growth. To maintain global superiority, American military and intelligence agencies must have expansive budgetary allocations, for which Washington needs Beijing.

These are powerful incentives; both governments in Beijing and Washington understand that a conflict or a proxy war would be counterproductive and catastrophic. Reflective - but not overconfident and reckless - leadership is needed to avoid the likelihood of human tragedies.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Asia in flux