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AS a guide for his foreign policy on China, President Benigno Aquino 3rd used the Sudetenland as an analogy. He wanted the world to act against China before it turns into an unstoppable Nazi Germany. As I mentioned in the first part of this column, it’s an alluring analogy to make, but the South China Sea is not Sudetenland. Three major aspects mark the difference.
First, the Sudetenland crisis and the South China Sea conflict are consequences of two different structural changes. Sudetenland was a leftover of a collapsed empire that got incorporated into a newly formed state. The crisis was precipitated by the ethnic Germans inhabiting Sudetenland who wanted to join Germany.
On the other hand, the South China Sea and the disputed Spratly Islands were not part of any empire. The sea was a shared resource and functioned as a sea lane of communication facilitating trade among the pre-colonial polities in East Asia and as their common fishing grounds. Meanwhile, the islands were mainly seen as dangerous routes ships must avoid.
The South China Sea conflict was precipitated by introduction of new forms of ideas. The European powers introduced the concept of territorial sovereignty in the region. This structural change introduced by European colonialism produced territorial states. After decolonisation, the newly-created states and China raced to incorporate into their territories the uninhabited islands of the Spratly archipelago.
The introduction of the concept of the 200-mile exclusive economic zone in the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) complicated the conflict by giving the parties a new set of fangs to assert their respective claims, as Yann-huei Song and Stein Tønnesson noted in The Impact of the Law of the Sea Convention on Conflict and Conflict Management in the South China Sea.
The culmination of this new battle is the “lawfare” of the Philippines against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which decided, among other matters, that the nine-dash line basis of China’s claims is not compatible with Unclos..
Second, the Sudetenland was inhabited by Germans, while none of the islands of the disputed Spratly archipelago have any inhabitants. The presence of ethnic Germans in Sudetenland was an important factor for Nazi Germany’s decision to annex that region. Led by Konrad Henlein and Karl Frank, the Sudeten-German Homeland Front (Sudetendeutsche Heimatsfront, or SHF) organised to demand autonomy from the Czechoslovakian government. SHF officials even got elected to the Czechoslovakian parliament, providing them a more powerful platform to press their demands for autonomy, as narrated by Josef Pfitzner in Sudeten German History.
Nazi Germany supported SHF’s aspirations and saw themselves as “the ‘protectors’ of the German-speaking minorities outside its boundaries, progressively [turning]the ethnic problem of Czechoslovakia from a domestic into an international one,” international relations professor Giovanni Capoccia noted in Defending Democracy: Reactions to Extremism in Interwar Europe.
When negotiations for autonomy of Sudetenland broke down, Hitler accused the Czech government of committing atrocities against the Sudeten Germans; he ordered his army to prepare for invading Czechoslovakia in order to protect the ethnic Germans in Sudetenland. The United Kingdom, France, and Italy intervened to keep the peace. In September 1938, the Munich Agreement was signed, allowing German to annex Sudetenland. This is not the case with the South China Sea and the disputed islands.
The South China Sea and the islands of the Spratly Archipelago are uninhabited. Certainly, there are no Filipinos or Chinese in those islands wanting to gain independence from a country.
And third, the intention of China and Nazi Germany are different. After Nazi Germany annexed Sudetenland, Hitler went on to invade Czechoslovakia and used it as a launching pad to do the same to Poland.
Though there are talks about China wanting to be the predominant power in East Asia, what China allegedly desires is far from what Nazi Germany did. Nazi Germany proceeded to actually colonize other countries after it succeeded in annexing Sudetenland. At the most extreme, the prediction is that the South China Sea will become “virtually a Chinese lake, as the Caribbean or the Gulf of Mexico is for the United States today,” as predicted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Given this, China is not following the footsteps of Nazi Germany but that of the United States. The talks about the South China Sea being a ‘Chinese lake’ is not novel.
In Contest for the South China Sea, the seminal text on the South China Sea conflict, Marwyn S. Samuels already alluded to the Sea as a ‘Chinese lake.’ However, Samuels did not christen the Sea as such to characterize Chinese aspirations. He used it to describe what the Sea was probably like before the European colonisers came. “For approximately five hundred years, from the late tenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries, the South China Sea experienced an expansive Chinese maritime presence…Though hardly the exclusive preserve of Chinese shipping, it became a veritable Chinese lake.”
None of this is akin to Nazi Germany annexing Sudetenland. The ‘Chinese Lake’ points to possible Chinese aspiration to relive the time when it was the predominant maritime power rather than incorporate the whole area to the exclusion of other powers.