Features | Security | East Asia

America’s ‘Munich Moment’?

Comparisons between East Asia and 1930s Europe aren’t uncommon. So, is the Obama administration really appeasing China?

James R. Holmes

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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Another way of looking at the South China Sea, then, is this: has Beijing built up a similarly unambiguous record of aggression, rendering any compromise between the United States and China a sellout of friendly Southeast Asian governments—a result Washington ought to foresee and avert? Maybe, but it’s worth recalling that even Chamberlain’s successor Winston Churchill was generous in retrospect. In his eulogy for Chamberlain, Churchill cautioned against judging a case such as Munich ‘apart from its circumstances.’ He observed that leaders:

‘Who are prone by temperament and character to seek sharp and clear-cut solutions of difficult and obscure problems, who are ready to fight whenever some challenge comes from a foreign power, have not always been right. On the other hand, those whose inclination is to bow their heads, to seek patiently and faithfully for peaceful compromise, are not always wrong. On the contrary, in the majority of instances, they may be right, not only morally but from a practical standpoint…How many wars have been precipitated by firebrands!’

During a postwar tenure as prime minister, furthermore, Churchill maintained that ‘To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.’ These aren’t the words of a statesman who automatically rejected compromise, even with a prospective antagonist like a Hitler, a Joseph Stalin, or a Nikita Khruschev. Reducing international controversies to Munich can oversimplify—and mislead. Is it better for Washington to jaw-jaw, or has the time come to stand up to Beijing on behalf of friendly Southeast Asian governments?

Third, the Western powers sacrificed the vital interests of a third party without consulting it. The Munich conference excluded President Edvard Beneš of Czechoslovakia, whose country was the primary stakeholder in the dispute. By giving away the Sudetenland, the conference effectively consented to the demolition of the Czech economy, industry, and natural defenses. If the Munich analogy fits, then the United States and China will decide the future of the South China Sea without asking Southeast Asian governments’ consent. If Obama plays the role of Chamberlain, he will choose unwisely—emboldening Beijing to wrest new concessions from Asian governments.

Historical analogies are always imperfect. That holds true here. It remains to be seen whether the South China Sea, a maritime thoroughfare where Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other dignitaries have repeatedly declared a US national interest, ranks as a lesser objective for Washington. Just one indicator that’s not the case: the 2007 US Maritime Strategy, the guiding document for US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard efforts, declares in effect that the United States will remain the leading sea power in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean for the foreseeable future. If Washington is serious about this, it can hardly relegate Southeast Asia—the seam between the two oceans—to afterthought status. In Chamberlain’s terminology, the South China Sea may be a faraway expanse, while Americans may take little interest in regional affairs. They can hardly look on indifferently.

Would concessions egg China on, encouraging it to aggrandize itself further at its neighbors’ expense? This is a central question for China watchers. Settling matters along its maritime periphery—the South China Sea, Taiwan, the Senkaku/Diaoyai Islands dispute, and the like—on its terms could satisfy Beijing. And indeed, these controversies all fall within China’s historic periphery, where China believes it must get its way. But it’s also possible that these would be appetizers, as the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia were for Nazi Germany. Whether China would be a sated power or would search out for additional tasty treats remains unclear.

And finally, it’s doubtful that Washington would cut the Southeast Asian governments out of discussions of their own future. Indeed, the traditional US stance on maritime territorial claims is to take no stance. The United States mainly insists that the parties resolve their differences without resort to arms, and that whichever power wins out in imbroglios over nautical sovereignty and jurisdiction uphold free navigation through regional waters and skies. The Obama administration, like Chamberlain’s government, may embroil itself more deeply in Southeast Asian affairs. That it would appoint itself the spokesman for Asian governments appears farfetched.

Whether Sen. Webb’s historical parallel is apt, then, is in the eye of the beholder. Munich offers an excellent yardstick by which to track US-China relations, regardless of whether the analogy makes a precise fit. Webb’s brand of blunt talk about the region, furthermore, will serve US and regional interests well. Being candid with oneself and friends about dicey topics is important. It’s even more important with prospective competitors like China.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.