Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Twitter

The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy (NSS) describes China as an adversary. The People’s Republic of China now accuses the US of having a Cold War mindset.

If only that were so. The Cold War was settled with relatively little bloodletting and ended with the democracies and their notions of human freedom on top.

But rather than the Cold War era, it’s now more like the 1930s.

After the PRC seized Philippine maritime territory at Scarborough Shoal in 2012 with American acquiescence, Philippine President Benigno Aquino likened it to Nazi Germany being allowed to grab the Sudetenland region of Czechoslovakia in 1938 – and seizing the rest of the country six months later. 

Western commentators dismissed Aquino’s comparison. One key difference was the Sudetenland had a significant local population, unlike Scarborough Shoal. 

And while historical analogies are never perfect, maybe Aquino was on to something.

In both cases, an aggressive hyper-nationalistic dictatorship fuelled by historical resentment and using the threat of violence demands and takes territory that belongs to others.

They claim to be recovering lost territories – and reversing, in one case the Versailles Treaty and the other a ‘‘century of humiliation’’.

In both nations, opposition to the regime is ruthlessly suppressed, while one establishes an Aryan mythology and the other a xenophobic version of its culture – with western ideas, Christianity, and Santa Claus as mortal enemies.

Moreover, when Hitler demanded the Sudetenland, the countries that could have stopped him backed down – just as the US did when the Scarborough Shoal standoff erupted in 2012.

Takeover of Scarborough Shoal a defining event

There are always reasons to appease the aggressor. Anything is better than war – and a little piece of territory isn’t so important. We mustn’t provoke them. Give them what they want and they’ll be satisfied. They have an argument, you know. They won’t dare try anything more since that would be suicidal. And mutual economic ties will keep things from getting out of hand.

Although US strategy has consistently accommodated China since Nixon and Kissinger established relations, Scarborough Shoal was the defining event. It showed the PRC that the US would make no serious challenge – and if the Americans wouldn’t, nobody else would either.

From then onwards the PRC island building and militarization of the South China Sea picked up steam. China now has de facto control of an ocean area larger than the Mediterranean Sea and historically ‘‘open seas’’ or belonging to other nations.

Doubts about US commitment to its allies 

Scarborough Shoal also demoralized a longstanding ally – and raised wider doubts about US commitment to allies – and American willingness and ability to stand up to the PRC. The Sudetenland betrayal had similar effects, differing only in the specifics.

The Philippines sued at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, and the court’s ruling obliterated the Chinese position. The PRC just ignored the ruling and suffered no ill consequences – and the Obama administration politely declined to even raise the matter with Beijing.  Neville Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement got similar respect.

As with Germany and the Sudetenland, the PRC considers Scarborough Shoal an appetizer.

What’s next for China?

One gets the impression that in its quest for ‘lebensraum’ – territory that a state or nation believes is needed for its natural development – the PRC will claim anywhere a Chinese person laid eyes on – or the Chinese Communist Party says they have, in the last 5,000 years.     

More specifically, China claims Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea – and the entire Ryukyu chain. And in recent years Chinese military, coast guard, and maritime militia activities in the region have ramped up – soon to overmatch Japanese defense capabilities.

But it’s Taiwan that might be the equivalent of ‘‘the rest of Czechoslovakia.’’  The PRC says it will bring Taiwan to heel one way or another – through smothering intimidation and isolation, or by force – and sooner rather than later.  It recently told Taiwan to get used to the PLA Air Force flying around the island. 

The US, Japan, India, Australia, and other responsible nations are still collectively stronger both militarily and economically – as the Western allies were after Sudetenland. But they are having trouble getting their collective acts together. Domestic businesses dazzled by the China market don’t help.

As with Germany in the 1930s, plenty of American and other nations’ companies are urging their governments not to rock the boat – no matter how unpleasant the regime. Seeing Mr Trump bringing Goldman Sachs and other companies along on his recent trip to China was dispiriting. It suggests a schizophrenic approach to the PRC – given the comparatively hard-nosed nature of the National Security Strategy.

The similarities continue. Germany used the German diaspora to concoct its claim to the Sudetenland. China makes a similar argument with Taiwan. And beyond that, overseas Chinese can be leveraged with some imagination and sophistry. The Chinese Communist Party has been suborning them for years. It’s not farfetched to imagine the PLA – using its emerging overseas bases and expeditionary forces – someday moving in to ‘protect’ local Chinese populations or businesses.

One wishes Washington had given the lessons of the 1930s more respect at Scarborough Shoal – and paid attention to President Aquino. 

The recent film, Darkest Hour, about Winston Churchill and events in Europe in the late 1930s – is a moving story in its own right, but seems uncomfortably familiar to those who follow Asia.

And it also offers guidance for today’s policymakers. Look at how the Western democracies handled the Sudetenland affair and its aftermath in 1938 – and just do the opposite.

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