“Don’t mention the war!” bellows Basil Faulty, the half-mad hotelier, to his wife after a German foursome checks into his English country inn. It is an iconic scene from the classic 1970’s sit-com “Faulty Towers,” an inspired send-up of the European reflex to avoid references to German war guilt for the sake of post-war comity.
Judging by recent remarks from Asian leaders, such sensitivity is a thing of the past. Once verboten in diplomatic circles, equating geopolitical rivals with warmongering German dictators is now de rigueur. Last week, Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III lamented to the The New York Times how the free world was not standing up to what he described as Chinese maritime aggression in Southeast Asia. “At what point do you say ‘enough is enough,’?” he asked. “Well, the world has to say it - remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”
Whoa! Someone should remind Aquino about the protocols of diplomacy in this, the smoldering ashes of the unipolar world. Traditionally, imperial America demands at least a morsel of diplomacy before it tears into its next quagmire. (Even George W. Bush, on the eve of his 2003 invasion of Iraq, appealed to the United Nations for its imprimatur, however unsuccessfully.) Aquino, it seems, would just as soon skip the appetizer and head straight to the main course. After all, what better way to war-cloud prospects for peace than to liken Chinese leader Xi Jinping to Adolf Hitler?
Aquino’s interview, which provoked a strong rebuke from Beijing, was not an isolated attempt to tar China with a peculiarly Teutonic adventurism. Throughout Southeast Asia, anti-China protests have compared Beijing to Berlin under the Nazis; in Davos, Switzerland last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe implied that Edwardian-era Germany - then an emerging power not unlike China today - plunged Europe into conflict with its imperial ambition. (Not to be outdone, North Korea - China’s plucky, if thoroughly deranged ally - responded by calling Abe an “Asian Hitler.”)
Needless to say, bickering over Asia’s maritime borders is reduced to a geopolitical hemorrhoid when measured against the prevailing perils of 1914 and 1939. Comparing the Chinese regime or any other government, however authoritarian, to the Nazis is absurdly disproportionate and morally offensive, trivializing as it does the victims of Wilhelmine and Hitlerian aggression. It is a pity the U.S. government, which rightly sanctions regimes that traffic in Holocaust denial - and which until recently claimed neutrality in Asia’s territorial disputes - does not also denounce those who debase the magnitude of Nazi evil with such cavalier associations.
Of course, there is more at work here than tasteless metaphor. For a century, America’s allies have employed demagogic cant to lure Washington into fighting their battles, often with great success.
In 1918, after Russian communists toppled the tsar, enemies of Vladimir Lenin set up offices in Washington to promote their cause. With the help of a trove of “secret” documents, they managed to convince U.S. President Woodrow Wilson that the Bolsheviks were stooges of imperial Germany. The archive was later revealed to be counterfeit, but not before Wilson deployed thousands of American troops to Russia’s northern coast, part of a punitive expedition that remains one of the most disastrous campaigns in U.S. military history.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the so-called “China Lobby,” a cabal of conservative politicians, pundits and publishers, promoted China’s right-wing Nationalist Party and its struggle against China’s communist revolutionaries and a Sino-Soviet “bloc” that never existed. Their red-baiting tactics helped maneuver the U.S. into a war with China on the Korean peninsula and proxy guerrilla conflict in Indochina, delaying Sino-American rapprochement by nearly two decades.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, eastern Europeans governments allied with U.S. defense contractors to expand the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to Russia’s doorstep. The ostensible motivation behind the policy - to keep then-impoverished and toothless Moscow at bay - has freighted U.S.-Russian relations ever since and nearly ensnared Washington in a 2008 war between Georgia on one side and Russia and its proxy South Ossetia on the other.
With Beijing responding in kind to the U.S.-led arms buildup in Asia and with competing claims on strategic waterways escalating in pitch, it is no wonder China’s neighbors are dealing the Nazi card. With Communism all but dead and buried, how else to adequately caricature the aggressor in their appeals for American intervention? It is instructive, however, to consider what cards they aren‘t playing.
Asia has played host to no shortage of western hegemons having their way with the region. Consider, for example, “French” Indonesia, “British” Malay, and the “Dutch” Indies. For that matter, if Aquino really wanted to bring home the danger of “appeasing” aggression he could have cited the U.S. invasion of his own country in 1899 followed by three years of war that led to nearly a quarter-million Filipino casualties. He could also have raised Japan’s military dominance of Asia - beginning with victory in its war with Russia in 1905, which allowed it a springboard in Manchuria and Korea from which to terrorize the entire region for the next four decades. It wasn’t until the late 1930s, when Japan began horning in on western concessions in China that the U.S., with help from fellow imperial powers Britain and the Netherlands, stood up to Tokyo.
Of course it would never do to offend the world’s greatest Pacific power and its most important regional ally when pandering for their support. Thus Aquino’s course conflation of Beijing as 1930s Berlin. Get used to such nonsense, as it appears to be working. As the Financial Times reported yesterday, senior Obama administration officials have recently “placed the blame for tensions in [Asia] solely on China and warned that the U.S. could move more forces to the western Pacific” should China refuse to back down. As the impetus behind Washington’s hardened line the article cited “several Asian governments” who have “complained privately” that America is insufficiently attentive to their concerns.
Allies uber alles!