Philippine President Benigno Aquino, in remarks made Wednesday at a public event, compared China’s incursions into Philippine and Vietnamese land in the South China Sea to Nazi Germany’s push into the Sudetenland, calling for the United States to intervene and keep China out of their sovereign territory before it was too late.
“I’m an amateur student of history and I’m reminded of… how Germany was testing the waters and what the response were by various other European powers,” Aquino said of the South China Sea dispute. China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea for months, most recently announcing a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of two lighthouses on the territory, which all of its neighbors agree does not belong to China.
“Unfortunately, up to the annexation of the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, and eventually, the annexation of the entire country of Czechoslovakia, nobody said ‘stop,'” Aquino concluded, warning that a danger as great as Nazi Germany could emerge from a confidently belligerent China. “What if somebody said stop to Hitler at that point in time, or to Germany at that time? Could we have avoided World War II? And that is really a question that still occupies the thoughts of so many individuals,” he concluded.
Aquino used the same analogy in 2014 about the same situation, long before China had begun openly conducting groundbreaking ceremonies on the disputed Spratly Islands. At the time, Chinese state media called the analogy “very unfortunate” and a move that belied Aquino as “an amateurish politician who was ignorant of both history and reality.”
Asked at the Nikkei event what the role of the United States is in diffusion tensions half a world away, Aquino asserted that, as a superpower, any power vacuum it left could be usurped by aspiring hegemons such as China. “If there was a vacuum, if the United States, which is the superpower, says ‘We are not interested’, perhaps there is no brake to ambitions of other countries… So, I say again, America’s rebalancing sends a definite signal that we are all supposed to be living under norms that we agreed upon,” Aquino stated.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to the comments as sternly as China did in 2014, “seriously warn[ing]” the Philippines to curb their language. “Aquino is ignorant both of history and reality. China’s claim of the South China Sea islands is about protecting its sovereignty, which cannot be compared to Nazi Germany’s expansion prior to World War II,” Hua claimed, adding that the Philippine government “has in the past few years spared no effort to defame China as a bullying power on the South China issue and that is by no means an act of restraint.”
In another column on the front page of state outlet Xinhua today, the Chinese government claims that it is the Philippines, not China, which is behaving belligerently in the South China Sea. “The Philippines has illegally occupied some of China’s islands in the South China Sea since the 1970s and its stranded warship near the Ren’ai Reef has served as an installation since 1999 in an attempt to seize the reef,” the article quotes Hua as stating.
China has repeatedly claimed the Spratly Islands– and the entire South China Sea– is sovereign Chinese territory, a claim disputed by Vietnam, the Philippines, and other neighboring nations such as Malaysia and Brunei. China has refused attempts to bring the dispute to an international court.
The United States has called for China to immediately halt its construction in the islands. This week, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter urged China to begin an “immediate and lasting halt” of construction in the region, while on a visit to Vietnam where the two nations agreed on an $18 million defense grant for Vietnam to use in the South China Sea. This follows the signing of a ten-year security pact between the United States and the Philippines signed in April 2014, when President Barack Obama visited the island nation.
Chinese state media has stated in response to American dissuasion that, should the United States continue to encourage China to withdraw from the South China Sea, “war is inevitable.”