China, Russia and the Sinatra doctrine

Beijing and Moscow are pushing for a reordering of world affairs based on ‘spheres of influence’


or centuries European navies roamed the world’s seas – to explore, to trade, to establish empires and to wage war. So it will be quite a moment when the Chinese navy appears in the Mediterranean next spring, on joint exercises with the Russians. This plan to hold naval exercises was announced in Beijing last week, after a Russian-Chinese meeting devoted to military co-operation between the two countries.

The Chinese will doubtless enjoy the symbolism of floating their boats in the traditional heartland of European civilisation. But, beyond symbolism, Russia and China are also making an important statement about world affairs. Both nations object to western military operations close to their borders. China complains about US naval patrols just off its coast; Russia rails against the expansion of Nato. By staging joint exercises in the Mediterranean, the Chinese and Russians would send a deliberate message: if Nato can patrol near their frontiers, they too can patrol in Nato’s heartland.

Behind this muscle-flexing, however, the Russians and Chinese are pushing for a broader reordering of world affairs, based around the idea of “spheres of influence”. Both China and Russia believe that they should have veto rights about what goes on in their immediate neighbourhoods. Russia argues that it is unacceptable that Ukraine – a country ruled from Moscow for centuries – should now join the western alliance. The Putin government’s aspiration for a “Eurasian Union” also seems intended to re-establish a Russian zone of influence over much of the former Soviet Union – which could then counterbalance the EU.

Until recently, China relied primarily on its economic might to spread its influence throughout Asia. But Beijing has now also become more directly assertive on security matters. It is pursuing its territorial disputes with neighbours such as Vietnam and Japan with increased energy. Last year Beijing also declared an “air defence identification zone” in the East China Sea – insisting that foreign aircraft declare themselves to the Chinese authorities.

There are some in the west who suggest that – on grounds of pragmatism and in the interests of peace – Russia and China should be tacitly granted these “spheres of influence”. In a recent interview with Der Spiegel, Henry Kissinger made it clear that he regarded it as reasonable to tell Ukraine that it is not free to decide its own future.

The Obama administration, however, has explicitly set itself against this idea. Tony Blinken, US deputy national security adviser, has said of Russia’s aspirations: “We continue to reject the notion of a sphere of influence. We continue to stand by the right of sovereign democracies to choose their own alliances.”

As Mr Blinken’s statement makes clear, the Americans believe that the argument about spheres of influence is about the defence of a fundamental principle. If undemocratic countries, such as Russia and China, are conceded a sphere of influence in their neighbourhoods, they are implicitly granted a veto over the policies pursued by nominally independent nations. Russia can forbid Ukraine from joining Nato or the EU. China can force Vietnam, the Philippines – or even Japan – to pay tribute.

As far as the Russians and Chinese are concerned, however, this is an argument that is fundamentally about power – and all US talk about “principle” is simply hypocrisy. After all, ever since the Monroe Doctrine was announced in 1823, America has proclaimed its intention to keep outsiders away from its own hemisphere. In recent decades, it has intervened militarily in Grenada, Panama and Haiti. Even more recently – as the Russians never tire of pointing out – the US has led military interventions far from home, in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria.

Indeed, as Moscow sees it, America’s global military reach is so pervasive that Washington has got used to treating the whole world as its “sphere of influence”. There are US troops in Japan and South Korea, US naval and air force bases in Bahrain and Qatar, and Nato bases all over Europe – to name just a few of America’s most high-profile global commitments.

The American response is to point out that the US global military presence is built around alliances between willing partners. Indeed, in an effort to underline the idea that America now genuinely repudiates the idea of spheres of influence, John Kerry, the US secretary of state, even declared last year that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is dead”. Henceforth, it seems, America will endorse what a Soviet spokesman once called “the Sinatra doctrine” – the idea that all nations can do it their way.

It will not be hard for the governments in Moscow and Beijing to point to continuing inconsistencies in America’s rejection of spheres of influence. But the US argument still rests on a basic truth. There is a vast difference between a sphere of influence based on willing consent and one that is constructed around intimidation and force.

It seems to be almost a rule that the closer a country is to any putative Russian or Chinese sphere of influence, the more eager it is to cement an alliance with the US. From Poland to Japan – and points in-between – America’s allies need little persuasion to shelter under the US security umbrella.

The arrival of the Chinese navy in the Mediterranean next year may only add to the persuasive pull of Nato.


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