Rocky seas: Steer clear of the China-Philippines dispute

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Philippine President Benigno S. Aquino III has appealed to the United States and other powers to help his country defend uninhabited islands in the South China Sea against rival Chinese claims.

The argument he makes, unfortunately, is absurd. He contends that the world letting China, the region’s big power, take the Scarborough Shoal, a lonely reef, is akin to France and the United Kingdom letting Germany under Adolf Hitler take Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938.

The parallel put forth by Mr. Aquino is flawed. The disputed rocks, shoals and fishing grounds have no human inhabitants; they may or may not have energy resources nearby. Their ownership is disputed, which means the case could be considered by the International Court of Justice.

The Sudetenland, though inhabited by many German-speakers, was indisputably part of Czechoslovakia, and Germany’s claim to it was a military-based threat. It is unlikely that Hitler would have abandoned his ambitions in Europe if Britain and France had denied him Sudetenland.

Some people in the world — and some Americans, including certain politicians, military officials and the defense industry — have a distressing tendency to see the U.S. completion of the Iraq War and its withdrawal from Afghanistan as an opportunity to push a new conflict into their place. In that regard, potential battlefield entanglements include Iran, Syria, Russia, China and a return to Iraq or a continuation in Afghanistan.

This is not what the United States needs. It should focus its attention and strength on problems at home, including infrastructure, education, health care, tax reform and the state of the economy.

By the same token, Mr. Aquino would do better to concentrate on some of the Philippines’ domestic problems, including corruption, typhoon recovery, reconciliation with the country’s Muslims and land reform, a difficult subject for him given the extent of his family’s holdings.

China and the Philippines should work out their scrap over the South China Sea rocks in court or through negotiations. The people of the United States are not interested.

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