Commentary: Remembering Aquino’s China-Nazi Germany analogy (Part 1)

First of 2 parts
FOREIGN policy decisions are often guided by historical analogies. The policy maker uses the past to diagnose the tendencies of the dynamics of present situations. As strategist Richard Rumeit put it in Good Strategy/Bad Strategy, “the guiding policy adopted is usually an approach deemed successful in some past situation.”

In choosing an analogous past event, sensitivity to difference must temper the penchant for finding similarities. It’s a desideratum former President Benigno Aquino 3rd should have known when he identified which past event to use to make sense of the South China Sea conflict.

Aquino’s interview with The New York Times in February 2014 gave us a glimpse into what guided his South China Sea policy. During that interview, he compared China to Nazi Germany. He thought that China’s territorial disputes with our country was like Nazi Germany’s disputes with Czechoslovakia over the latter’s areas populated with ethnic Germans.

These areas, which were known as Sudetenland, were leftovers of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which became border areas of Czechoslovakia. Citing the presence and in support of the autonomous movement of the huge ethnic German population, Hitler annexed Sudetenland by force and by virtue of the 1938 Munich Agreement between Germany, Great Britain, France and Italy.

The South China Sea is this century’s Sudetenland, Aquino said. If China gets to do what it wants, he surmised, the world would face another Nazi Germany. Thus, appealing for support against China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, Aquino reminded the world of what happened in Sudetenland: “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War 2.”

Aquino repeated the same historical analogy. This time he added more insult to injury. Without realizing the irony of the moment, in June 2015, he mentioned that analogy while delivering a speech before a group of businessmen in Japan, Nazi Germany’s ally in Asia.

The world should no longer tolerate Beijing’s ambition in the South China Sea, Aquino said. Continuing to do so would run the risk of repeating Czechoslovakia’s fate. “If somebody said stop to Hitler at that point in time, or to Germany at that time, would we have avoided [World War 2]?” Aquino asked.

Beijing and several pundits panned Aquino.

Hua Chunying, spokesperson of China’s foreign affairs ministry, found the statement provocative. In the Philippines, highlighting the disparate characteristics of the Sudetenland and the Spratly Islands, Manila Times columnist Rigoberto Tig­lao called Aquino’s Sudetenland comparison “ignorant.” Forbes writer Jean Pierre-Lehmann reckoned the analogy was “inappropriate, irresponsible and inflammatory.”

Quartz reporter Lily Kuo thought that the comparison distracted from recognizing how devastating to the world economy any military conflict in that region would be. Furthermore, employing the Hitler analogy precludes the possibility of debate: “…once a comparison to Hitler has been made during a discussion, the debate ends and that person has lost.”

More than closing the debate, the Hitler analogy is an invocation for an armed intervention.

Aquino was mimicking what foreign policy makers in the United States did to justify actions taken in Vietnam and Iraq. As professor of strategy Jeffrey Record noted in The Use and Abuse of History: Munich, Vietnam, and Iraq, the lessons of Sudetenland “was to move early and decisively against rising threats. The Second World War could have been avoided had the democracies been prepared to fight for Czechoslovakia in 1938; instead, they handed over vital chunks of Czech territory to Hitler, whetting his appetite for more.”

This lesson, Record argued, was used to drum up support for US war in Vietnam; a lesson that also got deployed by both Bushes to agitate support for their separate wars against Iraq. Using the lesson of Sudetenland, Aquino wanted the world to do to China what they failed to do against Nazi Germany: Stop China rather than appease it by yielding to its wishes. It’s an alluring analogy to make, but the South China Sea is not Sudetenland.

Three major aspects mark the difference. I’ll parse them in Part 2.

(Published in The Manila Times on 14 November 2017)

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