As a student of history, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III gets a failing mark.
Recently, President Aquino compared China’s conduct of foreign relations on the simmering South China dispute with Hitler’s acquisition of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938. Aquino said the Sudetenland “was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”
Aquino’s statement was only partly correct insofar as the European powers at that time, Great Britain and France, agreed to let Czechoslovakia give up the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany in order to avert another war in the continent. This was against the position of the US commission to the Paris Peace Conference which unanimously supported the unity of Czech lands, including the area of the Sudetenland that was occupied by ethnic Germans. Of course, Hitler eventually invaded and annexed Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich.
But where is the parallel between Hitler’s Sudetenland with China and the South China Sea dispute that President Aquino was alluding to?
The Sudetenland was inhabited by German-speaking ethnic groups and was driven by local nationalist sentiment to join the German republic. There was an impulse in the Sudetenland to rejoin Germany, unlike the islands and various rock formations in the South China Sea which are largely uninhabited by any distinct population or ethnic group. In fact, after the Second World War, hundreds of thousands of ethnic-speaking Germans escaped Sudetenland and resettled in West Germany. On the other hand, most of the islands being claimed by the Philippines, China and four other Asian countries remain submerged under water during high tide and are practically uninhabitable by people.
The South China dispute is a territorial conflict among several Asian countries which claim competing sovereignty over islands and rock formations, primarily because of their potential rich oil and mineral deposits. No claimant country is eager about going to war for the sole reason of asserting sovereignty rights. The dispute could be considered a flashpoint for a wider armed conflict, but that’s all there is to it—not necessarily an impetus for war.
Comparing China with Hitler’s aggressiveness in acquiring the Sudetenland is obviously inflammatory and contrary to negotiating a settlement through diplomacy. President Aquino is simply fanning the flames and outrage against China’s aggressiveness in the South China Sea. Again, as a loyal American boy himself, Aquino is serving the interests of the United States for being the spokesperson for containing China’s rising hegemony in Asia and the Pacific.
President Aquino is emboldened by a mistaken belief in the illusion that the Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the United States will save him from his belligerent rhetoric against China. This defence agreement is a moribund instrument, signed by the two countries at the height of the Cold War in 1951, for the sole purpose of limiting the spread of communism in Asia. But with the fall of the Soviet Union and the decline of the threat of communism in the 1990s, the menace of communism has totally receded, even in the face of the local communist-inspired insurrection by the New People’s Army (NPA).
Like the former US bases in the Philippines, the Mutual Defence Treaty between the Philippines and the United States serves only as a magnet to foreign aggression. Instead of seeking accommodation and modus vivendi, President Aquino has been animated by the US commitments expressed in this 1950s vintage Cold War origin security treaty, which is backed by US-Philippines joint military exercises under the US Visiting Forces Agreement.
During her visit to Manila on November 11, 2011, former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared on the 60th anniversary of the Mutual Defence Treaty that “the US will always be in the corner of the Philippines. We will always stand and fight with you to achieve the future we seek.”
It was the most gratuitous, yet unconstructive declaration by the former Secretary of State, that could be deemed provocative and ill-conceived given the practice of the United States not to take sides and be involved in regional conflicts in Asia and the Pacific.
|Former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her visit to the Philippines|
which coincided with the 60th anniversary of the nations' Mutual Defence Treaty.
But the US mutual obligation under the treaty in the event of a foreign invasion is more illusory than real. Reading the fine print of the 1951 Mutual Defence Treaty would show that it is not automatic for the United States to come to the defence of the Philippines in case of hostilities with China. Under Article IV of the treaty, in case of an armed attack in the Pacific, both parties must act in accordance with their constitutional processes before introducing their armies into any hostility. Thus, the treaty is not “self-executing” or binding on the United States unless its Congress enacts an implementing law to commit the US military.
Besides, the treaty expressly refers to an armed attack in the Pacific, and the South China Sea, arguably, is not part of the Pacific.
President Aquino would not have the audacity to rile China with his blunt, careless, and undiplomatic statements if not for the mirage of the US military coming to defend the Philippines in case of war. This is also true in the case of Japan. The Japan-China dispute would probably not have escalated to its current level by Japan provoking nationalization of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, if not for assurances of applicability of the U.S. defense commitment to the disputed islands.
North Korea’s provocative development of nuclear weapons and other acts of belligerence are also clear examples of how these US defence treaties operate in escalating conflict rather than promoting détente. The presence of U.S. forces on the Korean Peninsula serves in limiting China’s willingness and ability to exert pressure on North Korea to denuclearize.
At present, US servicemen join the Armed Forces of the Philippines on a rotating basis throughout the year, not only in military exercises but also in the latter’s campaigns against NPA and Muslim secessionist rebels. The U.S. also maintains some 28,500 servicemen and women in South Korea and some 34,000 uniformed personnel plus dependents in Japan. Two major U.S. air force bases and the Futenma Marine Air Base occupy a large part of Okinawa. The U.S. Seventh Fleet is also headquartered in Yokosuka, Japan.
To the eyes of any intelligent observer, the presence of U.S. military in Asia and the Pacific has therefore become more of an attraction for foreign aggression and an irresponsible shield used by leaders of these countries in promoting belligerence and a rationale for going to war.
The alliances built by the United States with the Philippines, Japan, and Korea clearly represent a dangerous remnant of the Second World War, and particularly the Cold War that has long since ceased to be justifiable under any reasonable scenarios. All countries in the region would probably enjoy greater stability and security if these alliances were dismantled and U.S. military forces withdrawn.
These mutual defence commitments, and the ongoing negotiations between the United States and the Philippines in Washington for a new military framework agreement, are stoking the bluster in President Noynoy Aquino’s immature broadsides against China, even to the extent of misinterpreting history. While the Aquino government has been proclaiming the need for a rules-based and peaceful settlement of the South China Sea dispute, it continues to undermine this process by unnecessarily portraying China as a bully and Hitler-like in dealing with its smaller and less powerful neighbours.