Analysis & Opinions - The New York Times

Dealing with a Chinese Monroe Doctrine

| May 2, 2012

Room for Debate Blog


This commentary appeared as part of the online debate: "Are We Headed for a Cold War With China?"

If China's economy keeps growing, intense security competition with the United States is likely. States cannot assume that others will remain benevolent, so they tend to hedge against the worst case. Beijing is already converting some of its growing wealth into greater military power and it will surely try to create a more favorable security environment in its neighborhood, just as the United States did during its own rise to power.

In the 19th century, a rising America proclaimed the "Monroe Doctrine" and gradually drove the European great powers out of the Western Hemisphere. By the same logic, a powerful China will not want the United States to have close alliances and a large military presence near its borders, and it will undoubtedly try to push U.S. forces out of the Asia-Pacific region. But the United States will not leave willingly, because Chinese dominance in Asia would leave Beijing free to meddle elsewhere.

To head this off, the United States is strengthening its existing Asian alliances and trying to forge new ones. In response, China will encourage its neighbors to distance themselves from Washington and accept Chinese "benevolent hegemony." But most of those neighbors will fear China and ally with the United States, leading China to feel encircled and providing more potential for conflict.

The good news is that Sino-American economic ties give both sides ample reason to keep the rivalry within bounds. But China is dependent on overseas markets and raw materials, unlike the autarkic Soviet Union, which will give it powerful incentives to interfere in many places around the globe and to build a blue-water navy to protect its sea lines of communication. That development will lead to more friction with the United States.

Still, war between China and America is far from inevitable. Both countries have nuclear weapons and both governments understand that a war would be catastrophic. If future leaders are prudent, the rivalry may be managed and peace preserved. But if inexperienced, reckless or over-confident leaders come to power on either side, the danger of war will rise. Unfortunately, recent history warns that the likelihood both countries will always have wise leaders is not high.

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For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M..“Dealing with a Chinese Monroe Doctrine.” The New York Times, May 2, 2012.