Thursday, May 8, 2014
• China’s Monroe Doctrine By Roger Cohen
HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — In the new edition of his classic “The Tragedy of Great Power Politics,” John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago makes a powerful case for the inevitability of war in Asia as China rises:
“My argument in a nutshell is that if China continues to grow economically, it will attempt to dominate Asia the way the United States dominates the Western Hemisphere. The United States, however, will go to enormous lengths to prevent China from achieving regional hegemony. Most of Beijing’s neighbors, including India, Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Russia and Vietnam, will join with the United States to contain Chinese power. The result will be an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.”
This is the core strategic question of the 21st century. History is not rich in peaceful transitions of power from one hegemon to another.
China needs resources.
It will seek them near and far — and find America in its path.
As with the Soviet Union, but without the ideological conflict, the issue will be whether the evident potential for a conflagration can be finessed through alliances or forestalled through the specter of mutual assured destruction. The seeds of conflict are evident. On his recent visit to Asia, President Obama made clear how the tensions between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands could draw in the United States.
His declaration that the Japan-administered rocks in the East China Sea “fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security” incensed China, which claims the islands. Mind your own business and get over the Cold War was the essence of the Chinese message to Washington. Vietnam and China also have maritime conflicts that have flared in recent days as a result of a Chinese decision to place an oil rig in the South China Sea.
Chinese ships escorting the rig rammed and fired water cannons at Vietnamese vessels attempting to stop the move in potentially oil- and gas-rich waters claimed by Hanoi.
The U.S. response in support of Vietnam, its erstwhile enemy turned pivot-to-Asia partner, was firm: “China’s decision to introduce an oil rig accompanied by numerous government vessels for the first time in waters disputed with Vietnam is provocative and raises tensions,” Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, said in a statement. “This unilateral action appears to be part of a broader pattern of Chinese behavior to advance its claims over disputed territory in a manner that undermines peace and stability in the region.” China is asserting sovereignty in the South China Sea, angering the Philippines and Vietnam.
Its actions appear to vindicate Mearsheimer, who writes that a more powerful China can “be expected to try to push the United States out of the Asia-Pacific region, much as the United States pushed the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere in the nineteenth century. We should expect China to devise its own version of the Monroe Doctrine” — the 19th century keep-out-of-this-hemisphere message of the United States to Europe. The push here in Vietnam to hedge against China by strengthening ties with the United States is evident. The “comprehensive partnership” announced last year indicates how far the wounds of war have healed. Cooperation extends across trade, investment, education (Vietnam is the eighth-largest provider of foreign students to the United States) and defense areas.
The proposed trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership in which Vietnam would be a participant (but not China) is luring manufacturing investment from China.
So are lower wages. A joint U.S. exercise with the Vietnamese navy was recently conducted.
Vietnam looks at virtually everything through the lens of relations with China. The fraternity of one-party communist systems is seen as insufficient insurance against vassal state status. France and the United States were latecomers to this corner of Southeast Asia.
The Vietnamese creation story is one of a 1,000-year struggle to free itself from Chinese rule. So Vietnam looks to the United States as its offshore balancer. Other smaller Asian nations will do the same as China rises. These American alliances, if firm, could be powerful deterrents to war.
Economic interdependence, which did not exist during the Cold War standoff, could also prevent conflict. Competitive cooperation is a possible scenario. The Chinese seem bent on peaceful development, at least for now; harmony is at the core of the national vocabulary.
But then Deng Xiaoping famously counseled: “Hide our capacities and bide our time.”
The Vietnamese pivot to the United States demonstrates how real its fears of China are. The little naval battle being fought around a Chinese rig suggests they have cause. The Mearsheimer prediction is not inevitable, as he acknowledges, but it is plausible.
American retrenchment would make it more so.
Rising hegemons seize on weakness when they see it. Deterrence is far preferable to war.