James R. Holmes: Monroe Doctrines in Asia?

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James R. Holmes is a defence analyst for The Diplomat and an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College where he specializes in US, Chinese and Indian maritime strategy and US diplomatic and military history. He is co-author of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Foreign Affairs Book for 2010 and a former US Navy surface warfare officer.

Americans learn in grade school that the Monroe Doctrine was a phenomenon unique to US diplomatic history. Fashioned by Secretary of State John Quincy Adams and President James Monroe in 1823, it was in effect early America’s way of saying 'hands-off' to predatory outsiders. Latin America had largely cast off European rule early in the 19th century. US statesmen wanted to lock in these gains. They feared the European powers would attempt to reclaim lost empires in the New World, either through conquest or by creating client states.

Monroe and Adams sought to bias—or ‘shape’ in contemporary Pentagon lingo—the diplomatic environment against a return of the great powers. They put outsiders on notice that the United States regarded the security of the Americas as indivisible. That is, the US leadership would interpret any effort to subjugate any American republic as an unfriendly act toward the United States. Monroe and Adams engraved this axiom on US statecraft. It endured for a century, and arguably influences Washington’s handling of diplomatic affairs to this day.

Here endeth the history lesson (for the moment). Is the doctrine more than a distinctly US response to a specific set of circumstances? Some eminent statesmen think so. Fifty years ago, India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, explicitly paid tribute to the precepts set forth by Monroe and Adams. Nehru used the doctrine to justify forcibly ousting the Portuguese from their centuries-old enclave at Goa, and he further cited it as the precedent for a ‘broad doctrine’ of benign Indian pre-eminence in South Asia.

Monroe and Adams wield authority from beyond the grave, it seems, and in some surprising quarters. And then there’s China. China subscribes to a kind of inverse Monroe Doctrine. Chinese pundits routinely castigate the United States for trying to superimpose a latter-day Monroe Doctrine on East Asia. They see such a doctrine as a device for containing Beijing’s rightful aspirations. In the same breath, they vehemently disavow any pretensions toward a Monroe Doctrine all their own. With apologies to Shakespeare, methinks the Chinese doth protest too much. Something’s going on there as well. One need not invoke Monroe by name to think in Monrovian terms...

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