The posture of the US and the “West” to Chinese hints and exercises has been couched in terms of the preservation of liberty, democracy, and opposition to international aggression, leveraging the rebuff of Putin in Ukraine, and with relatively little mention of our dependence on the world’s dominant microchip manufacturers based in Taiwan.
In 1823, a different President (James Monroe) proclaimed a “doctrine” of a US sphere of influence over the Western hemisphere. He was especially concerned with Spanish efforts to reassert control over its recently rebellious colonies occupying the majority of the hemisphere south and west of the US border (roughly a line from Miami to New Orleans to Denver in current terms). This was a political gesture, since the US had no capability to project military power outside its boundaries at the time. Over the balance of the 19C, the “Doctrine” was restated and expanded (e.g., the “Roosevelt (Teddy) corollary”), usually in alignment with the expansion of US military and commercial power. During the Cold War of the later 20C, it was revived (aka the “Truman Doctrine”) with an eye towards Moscow’s promotion of world revolution. It provided a fig leaf of rationale for dozens of US military interventions across the 19C and 20C.
While the Monroe Doctrine claimed a foundation, too, in democracy and liberty, it was often described in more “realpolitik” terms as a type of “cordon sanitaire” (or protective belt) to keep other global powers well away from our shores. Indeed, recognition of various great powers’ spheres of influence was a well-established diplomatic practice to prevent the “big boys” from bumping into each other by ensuring that their informal imperial areas did not become a flash point for conflict.
While there are examples from the Congress of Vienna (1815) to the Versailles Peace Conference (1919), perhaps the most famous and long-lasting example was that accorded to the Soviet Union in the aftermath of WWII. Churchill agreed (and FDR acquiesced) in Soviet control over most of central Europe. The US understood that support for liberal and democratic governments in these countries was futile, given the presence of the Red Army and the general weariness following the War. Realpolitik trumped idealism.
A similar story played out at the end of the 20C when the US acquiesced in the Chinese take-over of Hong Kong from the erstwhile British hegemon; even if China had to wait until its own economic and financial system was strong enough to stand on its own, making Hong Kong’s nominal independence expendable.
So, what is the basis for the US to deny China the right to a protected zone?
Before you answer that, give some thought to a scenario where the Confederacy had holed up in Southern Florida after losing at Appomattox in 1865. What if President Grant started some table pounding about “finishing” the Civil War and some (literal) saber-rattling about launching an expedition to preserve American “national integrity”? How would our (the “Union”) position compare with what China is saying now? Is their moral stance based on Chinese “national integrity” and a rejection of the exploitative economic model of unbridled capitalism all that different from what would have come ringing out of the North back then?
Generally, the US has a robust history of holding others to standards to which we might aspire but far too often fail to meet: very few war crime trials for the Allies in WWII, we get really angry when some “radical muslims” kill about 3,000 Americans, so we proceed to kill some multiple of that (just in terms of innocents/collaterals) in retaliation, and our extensive list of “interventions” around the world in the last 100+ years which is hard to distinguish in some ways from other countries’ “aggressions” (beyond our vastly better PR). We’re very good at self-satisfied justifications, colored by myopia, and a refusal to consider others’ epistemologies.
We heard similar outcries over allegations of Russian “interference” in our elections in 2016 and 2020. It’s almost as if we forgot the actions of the CIA and diplomatic/propaganda efforts with regard to democratic processes in dozens of countries in Latin America, Africa, and Europe. Most other former imperial powers have comparable lists and we all are conveniently self-righteous when the shoe is on the other foot.
In other words, there’s been an awful lot of “how dare they…[do to us what we did to them]” going on. As global power shifts, and the 200+ year dominance of the West draws to a close, it would be good if we had a bit more humility about our aims, practices, and effects. It’s OK to play global power politics, let’s just not pretend that there is an automatic congruence between our past actions and our current posturing or between what we say and what we do.