America's 'Munich moment'?

Updated: 2011-07-18 13:46


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It seems unlikely the United States will appoint itself spokesperson for Asian governments in the South China Sea, according to James Holmes, associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College, in an article on the website of The Diplomat on July 17, 2011.

Holmes quoted Senator James Webb of Virginia as saying that the US is 'approaching a Munich moment with China' in the South China Sea and Southeast Asian countries, like helpless Czechoslovakia, are unable to prevent great powers from bartering away their vital interests and ultimately even their national existence.

But it is probably not an apt metaphor for US conduct regarding the maritime disputes roiling the South China Sea, Holmes opined. First, it remains to be seen whether the South China Sea ranks as a priority for Washington, said Holmes. As fighting for Czechoslovakia was almost 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. But would Americans fight to defend such claims, or are they, like Czech sovereignty for the Western powers in 1938, a secondary affair?"

Second, reducing international controversies to Munich can oversimplify and mislead, said Holmes. Actually, during a postwar tenure as prime minister, Churchill maintained that "To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war". Holmes asked, "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, if the Munich analogy fits, then the United States and China will decide the future of the South China Sea without asking for the consent of Southeast Asian governments. "If Obama plays the role of Chamberlain, he will choose unwisely—emboldening Beijing to wrest new concessions from Asian governments."

And finally, it's doubtful that Washington would exclude the Southeast Asian governments from discussions of their own future, said Holmes. "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."