Diplomats and leaders should avoid unwise rhetoric in tense times

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 3:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 February, 2014, 3:41am

An internet adage known as Godwin's Law contends that the longer an online discussion goes on, the higher the probability a comparison will be made with Hitler or Nazis. It also applies to Asia now that Philippine President Benigno Aquino has added to decades of rhetoric over the South China Sea by comparing China to Nazi Germany in its actions over disputed territory. Beijing was understandably angry, one state media commentary referring to him as an amateurish politician ignorant of history. As insensitive as his remark was, though, it was not unexpected as increasingly loose-lipped leaders and diplomats in the region raise tensions.

Aquino's remarks came amid tit-for-tat official statements and commentaries between the governments of the region and the US. Beijing and Tokyo have been particularly vociferous, waging public relations campaigns promoting their agendas in speeches, statements and dozens of opinion articles in the international media. At the World Economic Forum in Davos last month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterised Beijing's actions as being akin to those of Germany towards Britain prior to the first world war. There has also been an element of fantasy, with China's ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming , portraying Abe's visit to a controversial war shrine in terms of author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter stories.

Liu wrote that the young wizard Potter's arch-nemesis, Lord Voldemort, "dies because the seven horcruxes, which contain parts of his soul, have been destroyed", and that "if militarism is like the haunting Voldemort of Japan, the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo is a kind of horcrux, representing the darkest parts of that nation's soul". The correlation was imaginative but framed a complicated mix of territorial disputes, history, military ambitions and nationalism as a simplistic struggle against forces of evil. Similarly, off-handed and unthinking remarks that raise the spectre of the despised Nazi leader Adolf Hitler or suggest war-like attitudes are undiplomatic in the extreme. Leaders and diplomats should instead speak with a sense of responsibility and dignity.

There is every reason for such care: while no government would be foolhardy enough to turn to a military option, there is a growing risk from the increasing number of naval vessels and air force jets supporting interests and maritime claims. Rhetoric can push nations into unwanted circumstances. Accidents are best avoided with cool heads and diplomacy.