On Feb. 4, the president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III, said the West’s failure to help his country stand up to Chinese territorial claims is akin to international leaders’ acquiescence to Adolf Hitler’s demands to annex part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, an appeasement that some say laid the foundation for World War II.
“If we say yes to something we believe is wrong now, what guarantee is there that the wrong will not be further exacerbated down the line?” Aquino told the New York Times (paywall). He added, “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it—remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”
Aquino’s comment is only the latest of several Hitler comparisons that have cropped up in Asia in the last several months. Anti-government protesters in Thailand have been comparing life under exiled former prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, brother of the current head Yingluck Shinawatra, to that of the Third Reich. North Korea called Japan’s Shinzo Abe an “Asian Hitler” in an editorial on Feb. 4. Last month, Japan and China called each other the “Voldemort” of Asia, a fictional villain who is often compared to Hitler. (Bloomberg’s Matt Winkler also reportedly compared the company’s editorial practices in China to those of foreign media during the Third Reich to explain why the company was not publishing an investigative story.)
The long-running fascination with Nazi Germany in China, Thailand and elsewhere in Asia may contribute to the ease with which Hitler is invoked. Whatever the reason, by mentioning such a polarizing figure, Aquino distracts attention from the gathering danger that Asia’s territorial tensions will give way to military confrontation.
The crisis that would follow would likely be debilitating for the global economy. East Asia contributes more to global GDP than any other region, as much as as 40%, according to the World Bank. Yet almost all of the region’s largest economies face unresolved political and territorial disputes with each other. More worrying, China, Japan, South Korea and North Korea are all experiencing leadership transitions under officials who have pledged to take a harder stance when it comes to its neighbors.
A corollary of Godwin’s law holds that once a comparison to Hitler has been made during a discussion, the debate ends and that person has lost. In that sense, a lot of Asian leaders are losing right now.