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China expects its own 'Monroe Doctrine' to be respected and enforced in the eastern Pacific

AS China becomes the world's biggest economy, it now seeks the respect for its own version of the Monroe Doctrine that confers upon the United States undisputed dominance over the Americas. This, China wants for itself in the Pacific.

Such is the conclusion of an essay in London's Economist, arguably the leading economic periodical in the Anglosphere. As early as 1823, US President James Monroe "laid out as policy that refused to "countenance any interference in the Western hemisphere by colonial powers; all incursions would be treated as acts of aggression", said the Economist essay.

"Conceptually, what China wants in East Asia seems akin to a Monroe Doctrine: a decrease in the influence of external powers that would allow it untroubled regional dominance."

The difference, the Economist said, is that the 19th-century Americas did not have any home-grown powers to challenge the United States, and most of its nations were quite content with the idea of keeping the European great powers out of the area.

Tracing China's relations with the west to Lord George Macartney’s 1793 mission to Beijing, the Economist recalled that the mission took a "very extensive selection of specimens of all the articles we make both for ornament and use". But results were disappointing when the emperor dismissed these offerings as tribute and not trade. Today, China has become what Lord Macartney hoped to find - a relatively open market that very much wants to trade.

But China wants more. "On the international stage the people and the Communist Party want a new deference and the influence that befits their nation’s stature. Thus, China wants the current dispensation to stay the same - it wants the conditions that have helped it grow to endure - but at the same time it wants it turned into something else," said the Economist.

And it is prepared to play hard ball to get it, "willing to make dangerous moves steeped as it is in a belligerent form of nationalism and ruled over by men who respond to every perceived threat and slight with pronounced self-assertion".

Today, China is building airstrips on disputed islands in the South China Sea, moving oil rigs into disputed waters, having its fishing fleets invade others' waters, and redefining its airspace without any clear programme for turning such assertion into the acknowledged status it sees as its due. This troubles neighbours, and troubles America. Shi Yinhong, of Renmin University in Beijing, one of China’s most eminent foreign-policy commentators, says that, five years ago, he was sure that China could rise peacefully.

Now, he is not so sure. In foreign affairs, China is clearer about what it is against than what it is for, the Economist said. "It vetoed the interventions Western powers sought in Syria and Darfur and has taken no position on the Russian annexation of Crimea. At the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen China made sure no deal emerged that would even suggest it might have to slow its industrial growth."

But in Asia, it is Chinese activity, not inactivity, that has people worried, and their concern is understandable. Perhaps most problematic for foreigners is China’s adherence to the "nine-dash line" an ill-defined swish of the pen around the South China Sea. Within this perimeter, China claims all the dry land and, it appears, all the water and seabed too.

By way of contrast, the rules of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) would tend to see quite a lot of those things as subject to claims from other countries.

But Wu Shicun, head of the National Institute for South China Seas Studies of Hainan, simply says UNCLOS was developed under Western guidance and that "a more just international maritime order should be guided by us". This has aroused Americans to say: "How much of the temple [of settled international relations] do they actually want to tear down?" asks Douglas Paal, a former American official now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Militarily, China’s armed forces are, if not technologically first-rate, certainly large and impressive, not least because they include a nuclear-missile force, notes the Economist.

With troops and bases in Japan and South Korea, America has been the dominant power of the western Pacific for 70 years. Its regional presence has not declined much since it won the cold war a quarter of a century ago.

It is said China’s leaders are convinced that America is determined to prevent their country from increasing its strategic and military influence in Asia - which it is trying to contain China as it once sought to contain and eventually crush the Soviet Union.

There has been a distinct clarity to China's position since Xi Jinping came to power. "It would be hard to construct a foreign policy better designed to undermine China’s long-term interests," said Brad Glosserman of the Pacific Forum CSIS, a think-tank. So when Mr Xi said, "the vast Pacific has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China," it is not so much an expression of a desire for peaceful coexistence, but a statement that the western Pacific was and is a legitimate Chinese sphere of influence.

Some, like Hugh White, professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University see trouble brewing. By stating it position so forthrightly, "China gives America a choice of deserting allies or confronting China.

China’s armed forces are much less proficient than America’s. But China enjoys the advantage of playing at home. America can dominate these seas only through naval and air operations. If Chinese anti-ship missiles present a serious threat to such operations they can greatly reduce America’s ability to project power, without putting China to the expense of developing a navy of its own.

"But China also thinks there is an asymmetry of will. It sees a war-weary America as unlikely to defend uninhabited rocks of no direct strategic importance. America may speak loudly, but its big stick will remain unwielded," said the Economist.

China’s people, on the other hand, their views shaped not just by government statements but also by national feeling that needs no encouragement, look on the projection of power in the China Seas very favourably.

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