When Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III recently compared China’s territorial ambitions to that of the Third Reich, Beijing was incensed, dismissing his analogy as “amateurish.” But there is a kernel of truth to it: Like Czechoslovakia in the late 1930s, the Philippines is under immense pressure to surrender territory to a powerful neighbour. Without the support of the international community, it has pretty much zero hope of resisting.
To that end, Mr. Aquino has called on the world to back his efforts to settle it by law, rather than force. The Philippines filed its case with a UN arbitration tribunal, which has agreed to a hearing at The Hague in March. China has refused to take part.
The international community should be calling on China to participate. The tribunal offers a credible forum where territorial disputes can be settled peacefully. The alternative is the status quo, which increasingly looks like a slow march toward conflict.
The dispute centres on rocks, shoals and fishing grounds in the South China Sea. In 2012, The U.S. brokered a deal that required both countries to withdraw from one particular reef – the Scarborough Shoal – to allow space for mediation. The Philippines kept up its end of the bargain. China did not.
China’s actions are hardly a one-off. There is a disturbing pattern of behaviour when it comes to its dealings with maritime neighbours: a unilateral declaration of sovereignty over territory followed by veiled threats to use force if there is pushback. Last year, the U.S. called Beijing’s bluff, dispatching B-52 bombers over a group of disputed islands claimed by Japan in the East China Sea, after China declared an air-defence zone over them. It’s a game of chicken that could end very badly.
Mr. Aquino isn’t the only one drawing disquieting comparisons. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan stirred controversy in Davos last month when he remarked that the insecure, rising power of a century ago – Germany – went to war against its neighbours in 1914, in spite of strong economic ties.
Some of Beijing’s claims may even be legitimate. But that’s not for China to decide. It should be up to the courts.