I’ve been an admirer of Sen. James Webb of Virginia since the late 1980s, when I was a newly commissioned US Navy officer and he served as secretary of the navy. Alongside his accomplishments as a policymaker and a lawmaker, Webb is a decorated US Marine veteran of Vietnam, a novelist and historian of considerable note, and a fellow descendant of Scots-Irish immigrants who helped settle the American South. What’s not to like? So when the senator opines that the United States is ‘approaching a Munich moment with China’ in the South China Sea, it’s worth taking his words seriously.
He levels an incendiary charge. If this is a Munich moment in the making, who are the protagonists? Webb seemingly casts China in the part of Nazi Germany, an aggressive, acquisitive power bent on increasing its geopolitical sway at small states’ expense. This makes President Hu Jintao the counterpart to German dictator Adolf Hitler. President Barack Obama plays the part of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who traded away much of Czechoslovakia in 1938 in the hope of slaking Hitler’s land hunger. Chamberlain returned home to riotous applause, proclaiming that the West had negotiated ‘peace in our time.’ British and French statesmen were also playing for time in case peace proved evanescent. By granting Hitler’s demands for ethnically German territories, they gained a respite to rebuild their armed forces for the coming European war. Southeast Asian countries are helpless Czechoslovakia, unable to prevent great powers from bartering away its vital interests—ultimately even its national existence. Webb’s casting choices can please none of the players in the unfolding South China Sea drama.
‘Munich’ is shorthand for ‘appeasement,’ a concept that took on malodorous connotations following 1938. It’s worth pointing out, however, that appeasement is routine diplomatic intercourse in normal times. Countries compromise all the time, as they should. Is Munich—whose infamy connotes give-and-take with predators—an apt metaphor for US conduct vis-à-vis the maritime disputes roiling the South China Sea?
Let’s deconstruct the analogy to develop some parameters for thinking about Southeast Asian events. First, Czechoslovakia was a secondary object for the appeasers. The threat to peace arose, in Chamberlain’s words, from ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.’ Fighting for Czechoslovakia verged on unthinkable for Britain and France. Americans seldom follow Southeast Asian politics, despite the importance of this maritime crossroads to US and global commerce. Filipino leaders maintain that the 1951 security treaty between Manila and Washington covers maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Would Americans fight to defend such claims, or are they, like Czech sovereignty for the Western powers in 1938, a secondary affair?
Second, the Anglo-French delegates offered a land-hungry aggressor this secondary object to purchase temporary peace. Hitler had started amassing a track record for aggression. In 1936, for example, German troops remilitarized the Rhineland. Berlin thereby started undoing the Versailles Treaty, the accord that terminated World War I, while imposing burdensome provisions on defeated Germany. In early 1938, Hitler pressured Austria into accepting an Anschluss, or union in a greater German empire. At Munich, then, French and British leaders offered concessions that whetted a predator’s appetite for further territory. Having traded away the Sudetenland, the largely German-speaking industrial district of Czechoslovakia—and home to mountains shielding the republic from invasion—London and Paris nullified Prague’s ability to resist German demands. German forces occupied the rest of Czechoslovakia soon after.