The American Media Sees the Cold War in the East & South China Sea

This is the first of a two-part entry on media coverage of the conflict in the East China Sea.

By Justin Burch, Ph.D. Student, Department of History

Courtesy of Reuters.

Around Thanksgiving 2013, tensions began to rise over the disputed control of a group of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The People’s Republic of China and Japan both claim the islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese refer to as the Senkaku. The islands are in the middle of one of the most trafficked air and sea trade routes and boast valuable fishing grounds, as well as potential rich reserves of oil and natural gas. However, do not let the economic possibilities of the area distract you from the real reason behind this dispute: national honor.

The latest round of tensions was sparked by the purchase of the islands by the Japanese government in 2012 from private ownership. This action upset a tenuous status quo in place since the 1970s. Perturbed by the Japanese decision, on November 23, 2013, China announced the creation of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which includes the Diaoyu/Senkaku island group. According to Beijing, all air and sea traffic moving through the area must now identify itself (and why it is there) to the Chinese. The US and Japan responded with diplomatic protests and a calculated American military foray into the area that ignored China’s demands for identification. The Diaoyu/Senkaku turmoil has brought to the forefront a number of difficult territorial disputes between China and various other countries in the region, many of which are close American allies.

china map
Courtesy of Magellan Graphix.

Island and territorial disputes in this region go back decades and even centuries. As one example: the US, China, and Taiwan nearly came to blows over the offshore islands of Quemoy and Matsu in the Taiwan Straits in 1954-55, and again in 1958. However, what is of concern is not so much the dispute itself — which is not particularly unique or alarming — but the reaction in the United States from journalists and foreign policy experts. The hyperbolic nature of the articles coming from well-respected sources in written media outlets is truly astonishing. They argue that America is either facing the next Nazi Germany or they regurgitate tired old Cold War theories about the evil Communists and how they are about to take over the world. It appears we are stuck somewhere in the 1950s with our emotional and intellectual inability to come to terms with China’s rise to global power in the twenty-first century. That this awful analysis is coming from both the political left and right among the chattering classes in Washington is particularly disturbing.

In the next two blog posts, I will examine two recent articles covering the East and South China Sea to dissect how WWII and Cold War ideology are still the dominant forms of describing and understanding current international conflicts, particularly those involving China.

First up from the left is Peter Beinart, the former editor of the liberal leaning magazine The New Republic, current Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York, and contributor to The Daily Beast. In an article for The Atlantic, Beinart makes the claim that the West and its Asian allies face a “Munich Moment” over Chinese claims in the South China Sea. Wait…What? Surely you don’t mean that Munich. The Munich that every historian, both professional and amateur, points to as the crucial moment the free world had to arrest Hitler’s expansionist ambitions and avert a world war, along with the deaths of tens of millions of human beings? Not the Munich that politicians scream about when anyone has the audacity to suggest compromise in an international dispute? Right?

Inspired by Philippine President Beigno Aquino III and his fear that Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea are a threat to his country, Beinart writes:

“The South China Sea, like the Sudetenland, is strategically valuable. The latter boasted heavy industry that proved vital to Germany’s war effort; the former contains large deposits of oil and natural gas. The Philippines enjoys a defense treaty with the United States, as Czechoslovakia did with France. Yet there’s good reason to believe that the war-weary Washington of 2014 — like the war-weary Paris of 1938 — would rather see Manila capitulate than risk world war. Above all, China today — like Germany in the 1930s — is a country converting its tremendous economic vitality into military might. It’s a country with a strong sense of historical grievance that wants to assert what it considers its natural role as the dominant power in its region. And it’s a country whose leaders are increasingly confident that the distant, status-quo powers that once held it in check can no longer do so.”

Ugh….you did mean that Munich.


Beinart goes to great lengths at the beginning of his article to describe how comparisons to Munich in 1938 are often out of place and overblown, and then proceeds to make comparisons to Munich 1938 that are out of place and overblown. Whether or not you agree with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and the decisions he made in 1938 is beside the point (I happen to hold the sympathetic view that George had little choice at that time). Hitler wrote and spoke openly about his territorial ambitions. China today has been remarkably consistent in its foreign policy. While there have been sporadic border disputes between China and India, as well as with Vietnam until the 1980s, China was not interested in taking control of whole countries and incorporating them into its territory like Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. China is not an aggressive expansionist state and there are no strong arguments that suggest it will become so in the future.

Territorial disputes in and around China have historically revolved around two main themes. The first are conflicts born as a result of national borders imposed on the country by stronger states. The second results from territory China historically once called home but was taken from her by powerful European and Japanese empires in the nineteenth to the twentieth century. While Taiwan is a constant source of international tension, Washington, Beijing, and Taipei have fallen into a relatively stable status quo in the Taiwan Straits since President Jimmy Carter recognized the People’s Republic of China in 1979. China is not going to adopt blitzkrieg in Japan or the Philippines.

The inference that China is arming at the level of Germany in the 1930s is not born out by the facts. In 1938-9, Nazi military spending consumed 57.9% of Germany’s total budget. In 2013, China only spent a paltry 5.4% of its budget on the military and defense, a significant portion of which went to internal security. China does not even pretend to keep up with the United States in defense spending in the modern era. China spent $112.2 billion on defense in 2013 while the US spent five times as much: $600.4 billion. The idea that China is a serious military threat to the US and its allies in the region now or anytime in the near future is nonsense.

Many military experts will tell you that beyond the budgetary imbalance between the two, China is thirty years behind the US technologically. The Chinese navy launched its first aircraft carrier in 2012! This aircraft carrier was discarded by and bought from that great world naval power Ukraine fourteen years ago. The US has been operating aircraft carriers for the better part of a century; the first launched in 1922. For the record, America currently has ten…with three more next generation Gerald R. Ford class super carriers on the way.

“Munich 1938” is a lazy trope to explain diplomatic confrontations which academics, journalists, and think tank policymakers should retire for good. It never holds up under scrutiny. The more difficult and dangerous analogies are processes of understanding international conflicts that operate within a Cold War construct. Michael Auslin of the conservative American Enterprise Institute argued in an article for Politico that last November was “The Day America Lost Asia.” Ugh.

The next post will tackle this disappointing return to the “Who Lost China” and “Domino Theory” debates of the 1950s.

Relevant Links:

“More War Drums”

The Chinese perspective

“China is Preparing for ‘Short and Sharp’ War”


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