The China Sea and the “Mén luó” doctrine

Should Beijing invoke the Monroe doctrine in the China Sea, now that it dominates the region head and shoulders above the rest?

By Jean-Francois SUSBIELLE

Roman Empire

Roman Empire

In the first to fifth centuries AD of the Roman Empire, the Mediterranean on maps was simply dubbed mare nostrum (our sea) or even mare internum (internal sea).

Similarly, Chinese maps from the Ming or Qing dynasties indicated most of the China Sea a kind of mare sinicum (Chinese Sea) dominated by the then Middle kingdom.

Today, the China Sea, East and South, is the mare nostrum of many countries: basically the Asean+3 (Asean+China, Japan and South Korea) as well as Taiwan or North Korea .

It is the home of 2.2 Bn people producing a combined GDP of 14,500 Bn$, on par with the United States. The region is on track to economic and cultural integration, its population sharing such popular cultures as K-pop and Cantopop, Japanese mangas and cosplays, Taiwanese TV games, Hong Kong drama serials, across the board, fostering a feeling of community that European Union will never achieve.

In 2010, East Asia witnessed an epic event of historical proportions. For the first time in a century, China overtook Japan to become the world's second largest economy. There is no turning back. China is storming ahead, leaving Japan to bite the dust in its wake.

It is a tremendous achievement for Beijing which now sees the natural hierarchy in the region finally restored, closing a long and humiliating parenthesis – A major milestone on Deng Xiaoping’s long march towards Chinese Renaissance.

The question now for Beijing is: What next?

How to gain political advantage from the economic situation? How to restore Chinese “soft hegemony” over an ocean of vassal states?

The study of History is learning how to avoid repeating mistakes. And the first mistake would be to openly promote something reminiscent of the Co-Prosperity Sphere of Japan’s Shōwa legacy. Yet this is what is quietly in the making through China’s win-win and “peaceful rise” strategy. Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong or Singapore are positioning themselves as major design centres for China’s manufacturing might. The recent currency agreements between Beijing and Tokyo constitute a major step towards a Yuan-dominated zone. The two countries – whose annual trade amounts to 350 Bn$ – have decided to give the US dollar a miss and use the Chinese currency for their bilateral exchanges. Interestingly, the denominations Yen, Yuan and Won all trace their origins in the same Chinese character. The agreement is a major blow for the United States whose economic survival heavily relies on the dollar's international status.

Chinese Yuan might become the common currency in the China Sea

China has become the first trading partner of its neighbouring countries. The entire region enjoys healthy growth rates thanks to China’s unrelenting demand for materials.

Invoking the Monroe Doctrine

The goal for Beijing is now to establish a pax sinica (Chinese peace) in the China Sea as did the Romans in the Mediterranean and Americans throughout the post WW2 world. And the smartest way for Beijing might be to invoke the “Monroe Doctrine” to establish a win-win peaceful hegemony in the sea that bears its name.

In 1823, South America had just gained independence from European powers and the US president, James Monroe, warned that the entire American continent would be closed to any colonial interference. From Canada to Patagonia, the New world was now a US zone of influence, a mere protectorate. In return, America would not get involved in European affairs… a policy that they thankfully waived in their decisive involvement in WW1 and WW2

In 1898, the United States was increasingly impatient and pressed Spain, the last European colonial power, to leave the region. The Americans attacked Cuba, then a Spanish colony which they eventually set free, retaining only Guantanamo. Next the US Navy headed to South East Asia to strip the Spanish of their colony in the Philippines, the American forces quietly annexing Hawaii and the isle of Guam along the way.

But 2012 America is no 1898 Spain, even if both empires share similar templates. And the situation in the China Sea is marked by History and scarred by 20th century wars.

And establishing a “Mén luó” or “Monroe doctrine” in the China Sea is no easy task!

Over 60,000 US military men are stationed in dozens of bases in what China wishes to call its “internal sea”. As a result of Japan’s surrender on August 15th, 1945, some 35,000 American troops are still stationed in the Land of the Rising Sun, and Yokosuka is home to the 7th fleet. Then the Korean War (1950-1953) brought in another 28,000 US servicemen in the region. Not to mention Philippines (a former US colony) and Thailand (an ally in the Vietnam war) who both enjoy “major non-Nato ally” status, or Taiwan whose security is guaranteed by the United States .

Main US bases in Japan - in Okinawa - in South Korea

It will require a fair touch of skill

The task is not easy, but not impossible. It will require from Beijing a good dose of patience, diplomacy, tact – and a fresh stock of pandas for local zoos.

On the one hand, regional countries are worried at China’s military build-up and new assertive stances. But on the other hand, the whole region is prone to latent and powerful anti-western and anti-colonial feelings. It is Beijing’s challenge to make its “peaceful rise” benign while encouraging a western-free China Sea.

The fate of US Okinawa’s Futenma base is a good barometer to measure American popularity in the Nippon archipelago. Should a local woman be assaulted by a US marine, the whole of Japan will urge for the base to be transferred far away to the island of Guam. But should North Korea launch a missile or perform a nuclear test, or should a naval incident involve China around the Senkaku islands, then a prudent Japan would welcome the US base in Henoko, North of Okinawa. Is Japan – now playing second fiddle in the region – ready to become a zokkoku or “vassal state” to China after being zokkoku to America?

Pyongyang’s Kim dynasty serves Beijing’s interests as it freezes the prospect of an American-led reunification of the peninsula. But it also serves Washington, for North Korea is what best justifies US military presence in the region.

North Korea missile threat

In Taiwan, whose economic integration with China cannot be reversed, it will take Beijing's velvet gloves of “panda diplomacy” to make a “one country, three systems” scheme somehow acceptable to Taipei.

Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou wins reelection over DPP candidate

In all instances, Beijing needs to apply a magic touch to play the situation to its advantage.

But tact and subtlety is precisely what was missing in China's dealing with its U-shaped territorial claim in South China Sea. For many ASEAN countries, primarily Vietnam and the Philippines, Beijing has crossed the thin red line. America’s involvement in the region is now dearly welcome, as is India’s presence in oil and gas exploration around disputed Spratly and Paracels islands.

China's territorial claims vs UN Law of the Sea Convention EEZ

Unpredictable 2012

Beijing may have had it easy up till now with Barak Obama and Hillary Clinton. American diplomacy was opportunist at most, banking on Beijing’s mistakes and menacing stance in the South China Sea. But that alone was not enough for Washington to dissimulate the painful vacuum of its strategic thinking, its obvious failure to define a doctrine for the region and the world.

It might not be the same after 2012 elections. A weakening America, stripped of its industrial base, indebted and struck by deficits, might find no other escape than a confrontation with China. Republican candidate Mitt Romney’s first decision in the White house would be to name China a “currency manipulator.”

America can no longer elude the primary question: “what are we still doing in the China Sea? Implementing a containment strategy to derail China’s rise? Or just providing mercenary troops to protect regional countries?”

Symmetrically, Beijing is also short of a long term doctrine with Deng Xiaoping's legacy stopping at “Tao Guang Yang Hui” of “Hide your strength” and does not address today’s challenges. China is at the mercy of a new Junichiro Koizumi (Japan) – Chen Shui-bian (Taiwan) a defiant and provocative duet that would hurl it further away from its goal of deploying a “Monroe Doctrine” in the sea that bears its name.

The upcoming Xi-Li leadership in Beijing will have no choice but to invent a brand new doctrine in the face of an unpredictable and increasingly irrational Western world.

Unpredictable and irrational: the two words Chinese think-tanks loathe.

US President Barack Obama with Xi Jinping, China's President in waiting

Copyright JF SUSBIELLE – 2012 Mail to: contact@susbielle.com

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