The Munich Agreement: 3 Historical Lessons for the Taiwan Strait

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The Munich Agreement: 3 Historical Lessons for the Taiwan Strait

While parallels are often overdone, the infamous attempt to appease Nazi Germany does hold lessons for contemporary China-U.S. relations.

The Munich Agreement: 3 Historical Lessons for the Taiwan Strait

From left to right: British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Edouard Daladier, German leader Adolf Hitler, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and Italian Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano pictured before signing the Munich Agreement, Sep. 9, 1938.

Credit: German Federal Archives via Wikimedia Commons

The infamous Munich Agreement, signed in September 1938, allowed Germany to annex the Sudetenland, a region of Czechoslovakia, in response to Adolf Hitler’s territorial claims and border clashes. Initially perceived as a diplomatic success, the appeasement strategy aimed to prevent a larger European conflict, with the hope that Hitler would adhere to his promise not to expand further. However, this optimism proved short-lived as Hitler later invaded the remaining Czech territories, revealing the inherent flaws of appeasement. Ever since, the Munich Agreement has served as a cautionary tale, illustrating the consequences of accommodating aggressive powers. Instead of preventing conflict, appeasement emboldened Hitler’s ambitions, ultimately contributing to the outbreak of World War II.

Despite criticism of the Munich Agreement’s legacy, a nuanced examination can offer valuable insights for navigating today’s complex geopolitical landscape, particularly in the context of China-U.S. relations. Drawing historical analogies between superpowers like Germany and China, and analyzing strategic challenges faced by the United Kingdom and the United States, provides an opportunity to glean lessons applicable to current situations. Exploring these parallels can yield insights into potential outcomes, offering valuable considerations for maintaining stability, such as in the Taiwan Strait Three lessons derived from the Munich Agreement can be applied to the contemporary cross-strait relationship, serving as a guide for measures to ensure stability and peace.

The Historical Parallels

The two great powers of their time – the United Kingdom in the 1930s, the United States today – both faced comparable structural constraints to assertively counter aggressive actions, compelling them to adopt more passive approaches. During the 1930s, the U.K., constrained economically and militarily weakened after World War I, could not decisively confront Hitler due to the delayed completion of its Military Rearmament program. With a focus on European stability and no formal obligations to defend Czechoslovakia, the United Kingdom adopted a policy of détente, emphasizing its passivity and material constraints. 

Similarly, the United States, anticipating an economic slowdown in 2024 and having significant trade ties with China, faces economic costs in the event of armed conflict. The drain on munitions caused by the Russia-Ukraine War further hampers the United States’ ability to intervene effectively, and it has no official obligation to defend Taiwan, leading to a cautious and passive approach.

Both Germany and China, emerging powers of their respective times, sought to overcome past limitations and assert global influence. After World War I, Germany, weakened by the Treaty of Versailles, pursued aggressive rearmament to reclaim its former stature, marked by breaching the Rhineland in 1936 and subsequent aggressive foreign policies. Similarly, modern China, haunted by the “Century of Humiliation,” pursues assertive foreign policies, investing in military revitalization and aggressively pursuing its claims in disputed areas on land and at sea. Both nations aimed to rewrite their past and assert influence globally, with President Xi Jinping viewing the capture of Taiwan as crucial for national rejuvenation. Both Germany and China have pursued assertive agendas driven by a desire to assert their influence.

Taiwan and Czechoslovakia also share geostrategic parallels. Both were situated in close proximity to emerging powers of their time. The rugged border between Czechoslovakia and Germany acted as a natural barrier, hindering extensive German encroachment. However, the de facto surrender of Sudetenland provided easy access for the German military, setting the stage for the annexation of the remainder of Czechoslovakia. Similarly, Taiwan, part of the “First Island Chain,” obstructs China’s expansion into the Pacific. Unification would allow China to break out of geographical containment, providing easy access to the Pacific and strengthening its presence in the South China Sea.

Three Lessons From Munich

Given these broad parallels, the Munich Agreement holds three lessons for China-U.S. relations, particularly handling the Taiwan Strait crisis. 

First, appeasement failed. In 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain pursued appeasement to quell Germany’s expansionist ambitions, but this approach proved shortsighted. Overlooking events like the remilitarization of the Rhineland and Anschluss, Chamberlain underestimated Germany’s territorial goals and the strategic value of Sudetenland’s terrain and military industries in containing aggression. The surrender of Sudetenland not only granted Germany unrestricted access across a mountainous natural border but also opened the door to crucial military industries, significantly bolstering the Nazi war machine. Consequently, appeasement inadvertently fueled Germany’s appetite for further conquest, ultimately contributing to the escalation toward World War II.

Taiwan holds immense strategic significance in curbing Chinese influence in the Pacific and South China Seas. As China adopts an increasingly aggressive stance in the South China Sea, annexing Taiwan would provide Beijing with formidable naval bases, potentially emboldening China to exert a more forceful presence in the region and escalating conflicts with neighboring countries like the Philippines. Taiwan’s control over vital sea routes and resources, particularly in critical industries like TSMC, which dominates 65 percent of the global semiconductor market, would grant China unprecedented leverage in a technology-dependent world. 

Preserving Taiwan’s territorial integrity thus becomes imperative for stability, maintaining a global balance of power, and avoiding the risk of a “Thucydides Trap between the United States and China. 

The second lesson is that ambiguity equates to passivity. Recognizing Taiwan’s strategic importance requires a departure from appeasement toward China, while outright confrontation poses risks. The United States’ “strategic ambiguity” policy, introduced in the 1970s, aims to navigate this balance, introducing uncertainties into China’s calculations while avoiding a firm commitment to defend Taiwan. However, China’s recent assertiveness and refusal to forswear the use of force in annexing Taiwan reveal the limitations of ambiguity, indicating a lack of deterrence. Ambiguity, coupled with past instances where Western responses appeared inconsistent, such as the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, the lack of cohesion from the West on the Israel-Gaza conflict, and the lack of Western troops supporting Ukraine, has raised doubts about the United States’ commitment to Taiwan.

Complicating matters, the belief in the United States that China is unlikely to take Taiwan by force introduces a perilous element of complacency. This line of thinking creates an opportunity for China, especially given existing challenges such as the $19 billion backlog in U.S. weapons owed to Taiwan. China perceives the United States’ reliance on strategic ambiguity as a sign of complacency and passivity, reinforced by its substantial coastal military buildup. These developments signal increased boldness in China’s ambition to unify Taiwan and assert itself in the South China Sea, necessitating a careful reassessment of strategic ambiguity. 

The parallels with the United Kingdom’s response to Germany’s remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936 underscore the dangers of passivity, as it emboldened Hitler to pursue further expansions, leading to the outbreak of World War II. Similarly, maintaining ambiguity now risks demonstrating passivity and encouraging China to escalate tensions in the region.

The third lesson highlights the need for inclusive containment. The Treaty of Versailles, with its harsh reparations and territorial adjustments, severely weakened Germany in the mid-20th century, fostering widespread discontent and hyperinflation. Hitler skillfully weaponized this discontent, leveraging nationalist sentiments to rise to power and fuel aggression. Similarly, China faces economic challenges and societal issues, such as youth unemployment and a housing crisis, which could stir discontent. The United States’ adversarial stance, evident in the trade war and strategic containment, has the potential to further inflame nationalist sentiments in China, inadvertently encouraging more assertive global actions.

Effective deterrence against China’s ambitions doesn’t necessitate adversarial strategies. Learning from history, isolation can inadvertently fuel aggression, as seen in the rise of the Nazi war machine. A more effective approach involves a long-term strategy that maintains deterrence while deepening China’s integration into the global economy. Creating a trade-friendly environment fosters interdependence, strategically elevating the stakes for China and turning interdependence into a potent deterrent. This approach not only supports global economic stability but also raises the living standards of the Chinese populace, making it challenging to manipulate discontent and nationalist sentiments for aggressive agendas.