JAKARTA — He studied law under Thomas Jefferson, served as Secretary of State and Secretary of War under John Adams, elected President of the United States in 1816, and was so fondly hailed that his eight years as Chief Executive were dubbed the “era of good feelings.”
The question is not why James Monroe is remembered by history — but rather, why he is being thrust once more into the spotlight, during this era of decidedly less-than-good feelings. The answer: China.
Last week, China sent its first-ever aircraft carrier to sea — yet another move in a year that has seen Beijing establish a much more combative stance in the South China Sea, alarming the United States and its regional allies. Meanwhile, locals are wondering: is this the beginning of China’s version of the Monroe Doctrine?
The famous policy articulated by Monroe in 1823 declared that any effort to subjugate any republic in the Western Hemisphere by any outsiders would be interpreted as a hostile act toward the U.S., and responded to in kind. The Monroe Doctrine sought to keep foreign powers out of the waters surrounding America; the “Mao Doctrine” seems designed to deny U.S. naval access to Asian waters. The danger, of course, is that if Chinese aggression sparks any conflict with U.S. allies, the U.S. will be forced to respond.
“The Chinese want to play the game that they aren’t threatening and there’s no need for the U.S. to remain,” Bambang Harimurti, the editor-in-chief of Tempo Magazine, tells me. “But once they are strong enough they will be aggressive. In China’s constitution, it says these waters are theirs.” Adds Adam Schwarz, an Indonesian historian and a McKinsey & Company strategist, “It’s hard to see a scenario where it’s in China’s benefit to escalate this further, because the U.S. would be asked to come help the Philippines and Vietnam. But look at China’s actions recently: this is their version of the Monroe Doctrine.”
China has done much to undo a decade’s worth of good neighbor diplomacy in Asia. In Pakistan this year, China began building two nuclear reactors, which will allow Pakistan — the world’s number one nuclear proliferator — to build 24 nuclear weapons each year; in Myanmar, China’s hand is evident in the renewed civil war in the northern Kachin State; in North Korea, it refused to condemn Pyongyang’s murder of South Korean civilians and soldiers; in the territory around India, China’s “String of Pearls” policy supports new ports in Myanmar, Bangladesh and Pakistan; after Japan agreed to Beijing’s demands to release a Chinese fishing captain arrested for ramming a Japanese ship, China suspended diplomatic relations.
“All of Southeast Asia has a fear of the giant to the north,” the former chief of Indonesia’s Special Forces, Lt. Gen. (ret) Prabowo Subianto, says to me. “I asked a senior Malaysian official, what will Malaysia do if China occupies the South China Sea? He said, ‘what can we do?’”
Last year, Beijing laid claim — for the first time in two centuries — to the entire South China Sea, including islands in the territorial waters of five other nations, as a “core national interest.” Washington saw this as a naked power grab at the region’s shipping lanes, one of the most heavily traveled waterways in the world. In March, two Chinese patrol boats were accused of intimidating a Filipino exploration ship searching for oil within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone. In May, a Vietnam vessel searching for oil was damaged by three Chinese surveillance vessels.
Some believe the presence of oil under these waters is the real prize: one Chinese estimate puts the possible oil reserves as high as 213 billion barrels — 10 times the proven reserves of the U.S. Others believe the South China Sea is integral to its nuclear submarine strategy. Having quadrupled its military expenditures in recent years — the new aircraft carrier is the first of four — the South China Sea is integral to China’s intentions to develop a blue-water navy. “But,” as Anies Baswedan, the President of Paramadina University tells me, “this is, above all, is a challenge to the unity of ASEAN.”
If this is China’s Mao Doctrine, then the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, needs its NATO or “SEATO”. The question is: will this bring the 10-member association closer together, or drive them apart? At its meeting last month in Bali, Ted Osius, the U.S. Chief of Mission in Jakarta, tells me that “ASEAN officials spent 70 percent of their time focused on the South China Sea” — and reached agreement on a Code of Conduct with China, with a follow-up meeting planned for October. For a Chinese government that prefers bilateral agreements to split ASEAN members, the joint stand in Bali communicated a strong message: ASEAN will stand as one.
What can the US do? Continue to support the work of ASEAN. Make the South China Seas a focus of the recently initiated talks between the US and Chinese militaries. And maybe even help ASEAN members build up their own navies.
For a nation that suffered endless invasions and offenses from 1840 to the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the new swagger is also about something else, as former Indonesian Minister of Defense Juwono Sudarsono tells me: “pride.” In truth, the Mao Doctrine is making real an influence in the region that Mao’s China itself never achieved — something James Monroe himself would have understood.