Steer clear


Philippines President Benigno Aquino III is appealing to the United States and other world powers to help his country defend uninhabited islands in the South China Sea from rival Chinese claims. His argument doesn’t stand up.

Mr. Aquino compares the prospect of allowing China, the region’s big power, to take the Scarborough Shoal, a lonely reef, to European acquiescence in letting Germany under Adolf Hitler take the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938.

It’s a flawed parallel: 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 International Court of Justice could consider the case.

The Sudetenland, although inhabited by German-speakers, was indisputably part of Czechoslovakia. Germany’s claim to it was a military-based threat. It is unlikely that Hitler would have abandoned his ambitions in Europe if he had been denied the Sudetenland.

Some Americans — politicians, military officials, defense contractors — appear eager to identify new venues for battlefield entanglements. This is not what the United States needs. It should focus its attention and strength on problems at home, including infrastructure repair, education, health care, tax reform, and the state of the economy.

Mr. Aquino also would do better to concentrate on his domestic problems: political corruption, recovery from last year’s devastating typhoon, reconciliation with the country’s Muslims, and land reform — a difficult subject, given the extent of his family’s own holdings.

China and the Philippines should work out their dispute over the rocks in the South China Sea in court or through bilalteral negotiations. Americans, and their leaders, have other concerns they need to address first.