At an ocean research center on Hainan Island off China’s southern coast, officials routinely usher visitors into a darkened screening room to watch a lavishly produced People’s Liberation Army video about China’s ambitions to reassert itself as a great maritime power.
As enormous, new naval vessels plow through high seas, a deep male voice intones: “China’s oceanic and overseas interests are developing rapidly. Our land is vast, but we will not yield a single inch to foreigners.”
The 2015 video is one of many signs that China is seeking to emulate the United States’ 19th-century policy of taking exclusive control of security in the Western Hemisphere by excluding foreign powers from the region. Without officially saying so, China hopes to impose a modern version of the Monroe Doctrine on its surrounding oceans.
As formulated in 1823 by John Quincy Adams, then secretary of state to President James Monroe, the Monroe Doctrine said the United States would not accept further colonization by European powers of countries in the Western Hemisphere. Over the succeeding decades, the doctrine came to be interpreted more broadly, culminating with the idea in the early 20th century that the United States regarded the Americas as its exclusive sphere of interest, meaning that it reserved the right to intervene in neighboring countries and would not allow European nations to project power in the región.
What China’s leaders have said amounts to easily decipherable code language for their own version of this policy. On the one hand, they say Asia should be governed by Asians. On the other hand, they say that since time immemorial the South China Sea has belonged to and has been controlled by China. This means that “outside” powers should butt out, leaving China with its disproportionate size, wealth and might to reign supreme over its entire neighborhood.
Beijing has backed up its coded language with actions that have agitated its neighbors. It has built up military outposts on islets in disputed waters in the South China Sea, while dismissing other countries’ territorial concerns out of hand and ignoring international law. Theses actions have confronted the United States Navy with the choice between somehow enforcing longstanding international law governing maritime territorial claims and conduct or accepting Chinese control of these seas as a fait accompli.
The Trump administration has chosen to resume the Obama administration’s freedom-of-navigation patrols through the international waters now claimed by China. The stage is set for continuing tension in one of the globe’s most important waterways between the two most powerful countries.
Beijing’s efforts to control the surrounding seas are as much about nationalism and political legitimacy at home as they are about its ambitions for geopolitical power.
Chinese nationalism, a remarkably recent creation, was born in the later part of the 19th century, near the midpoint of a 100-year period when China was preyed upon first by Western powers and then by Japan — what China now calls its Century of Humiliation.
Back then, China was searching for ways to restore its greatness, an effort that continues to this day, and saw in the Monroe Doctrine a vehicle for doing so. In the early 20th century, as the Qing Empire’s demise brought a close to dynastic rule, leading intellectuals like Liang Qichao drew heavily on the American precedent to try to give purpose to a newly formed, modern Chinese identity.
For this first group of nationalist thinkers, a central priority to be passed down to future generations was the resumption of China’s prerogatives within its region under the tribute system of China-dominated trade relationships with its neighbors and the “recovery” of territories lost to Western or Japanese imperialism.
For two decades, the Nationalist President Chiang Kai-shek wrote above each entry in his personal diary: “Avenge humiliation,” once adding that only when all the lands controlled by ancient dynasties were won back would the “descendants of the Yellow Emperor,” or in other words the Chinese people, be freed from shame.
The so-called nine-dash line, a cartographic feature that droops like a cow’s tongue from China’s southern coast to enclose nearly the entire South China Sea, illustrating Beijing’s extraordinarily broad claims to the region, derives from that era’s Map of National Humiliation, once used in children’s textbooks. The nine-dash line is now printed in the passports of Chinese citizens and stamped on globes manufactured in China and sold in American stores.
Never mind that many of China’s territorial claims have scant basis in history. Today, President Xi Jinping is as much prisoner to this logic as his early-20th-century predecessors were and possibly even more so.
China’s Communist Party can no longer rely on Marxist or Maoist ideology to bind its citizenry. With the steep economic growth of recent decades in increasing doubt, what remains is a yearning to fulfill hopes of restored rights and resumed greatness unstintingly promoted through teaching and propaganda. And this will make compromise with neighbors seem dangerously akin to betrayal.
Howard W. French is the author of Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. He is a professor at the Columbia University school of journalism and a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times.