By: Samuel Loh, Oxford 2022
The escalating competition between the US and China has raised important, but not necessarily new, questions about how American policymakers should envision Southeast Asia’s role in this struggle of veritable world giants. Southeast Asian countries have generally signaled their discomfort with China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy in their neighborhood, whether on a bilateral level or through their regional grouping, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But, however congruent it might seem, alignment of American and Southeast Asian interests on key issues such as the South China Sea disputes or the penetration of Chinese political and economic influence along the Lower Mekong should not be taken for granted. More importantly, the region’s desire for limited strategic partnerships, with goals well-defined and commitments modestly-bound, should not be mistaken for the more ambitious, indeed unrealistic, idea of a regional anti-China league.
In this regard, America’s much-maligned Cold War experience in Southeast Asia offers a number of critical insights for the contemporary US-China rivalry. Grander ideas of inducing or even engineering a pro-American (or at the very least, pro-Western) bloc in the region are, after all, not novel. In the wake of the Second World War and with the brooding onset of global ideological conflict not far off, American planners in the late 1940s saw Southeast Asia as an indispensable element of a strategic ‘great crescent’, stretching from the Kurile Islands to as far as Iran. The region’s abundant natural resources, populous consumer markets, and strategic location along major east-west trade routes would help secure Japan’s recovery as a major Asian industrial power friendly to American interests, with the broader goal of keeping communism hemmed in within the confines of the Eurasian landmass. In the 1950s, at America’s behest, this line of thinking led to the founding of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) as NATO’s analogue in Asia, the latest product of the Truman administration’s global ‘containment’ effort. Throughout the 1960s, as Washington found itself increasingly embroiled in the war in Vietnam, Southeast Asian countries such as Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and the Philippines made not-insignificant contributions to the war effort, some sending their own to fight alongside American troops, in some part out of a common anxiety towards the prospect of North Vietnamese expansionism and, by extension, the designs of its patrons, that is either the Soviet Union or communist Beijing at various points in time.
By some measures, the ‘great crescent’ was achieved. The US’ disastrous record in Vietnam has distracted scholars and political commentators alike from the important fact that communism was never able to establish itself as firmly as it did in Indochina in wider Southeast Asia. Between 1948 to 1958, British forces defeated a poorly-organized but protracted uprising by the Malayan Communist Party, the remnants of which fled to and ultimately remained in hiding in the border regions of southern Thailand until the party’s final dissolution in 1989. In 1957, Malaysia achieved independence under the leadership of UMNO, whose strongly anti-communist outlook was compounded by deep-seated suspicions towards the region’s sizeable Chinese diaspora. In the Philippines, the US had ensured a peaceful handover of power in 1946 to local elites who retained close political ties to Washington. In 1953, through a combination of military tactics and modest political reforms, the nascent Magsaysay administration defeated the communist Hukbalahap movement, from which time on the communist presence in the Philippines remained negligible. The communist PKI in Indonesia, despite making considerable electoral gains in the 1950s and early 1960s, was also crushed in 1965-66 by military hardliners, giving rise to the staunchly anti-communist and Western-leaning Suharto who remained in power for the next three decades. Likewise, communist stirrings in Burma and Thailand were quickly put down as US-leaning juntas tightened their grip.
By and large, however, US policy was never able to forge regional anti-communist solidarity to the extent it desired. It might be said that America’s protracted campaign in Vietnam would not have gone on for as long as it did if not for the fact that the South, for all its weaknesses, remained a staunchly anti-communist ally. In contrast, most of the rest of Southeast Asia generally proved disinclined towards any kind of enthusiastic anti-Soviet or anti-Chinese crusading, even as they continued to accept generous American developmental aid and assistance. It is true that ASEAN’s founders shared a common wariness against communist influence from both Hanoi and Beijing, but that wariness was very often grounded in far more pragmatic terms, such as preserving domestic stability and ensuring continued access to capitalist markets, rather than a closing of ideological ranks with the US-led liberal-capitalist democratic order. In any case, Southeast Asia’s cautious approach towards North Vietnam and China rarely translated into firm support for America’s more ambitious goals of worldwide containment. Burma, having benefited from the largesse of all three Cold War giants—the US, Soviet Union, and China—declared in 1962 that it would pursue a ‘Burmese way to socialism’, effectively withdrawing from the international system until the late 1980s. Similarly, in the Philippines, in exchange for promises to negotiate extensions on the Subic Bay lease and the dispatch of token forces to Vietnam, Marcos continued to extract huge sums in US cash and credit throughout his long tenure. Despite Washington’s frequent overtures, there is no denying Southeast Asia’s preference in carving for itself a path forward independent of the East-West conflict.
Such increasingly neutralist tendencies often frustrated US officials whose approach to the region was still very much inspired by ideas of the anti-communist ‘great crescent’. SEATO remained largely toothless, wracked by internal disputes, and never lived up to its expectations of an ‘Asian NATO’, an idea which was viewed with great suspicion by the region’s nationalist leaders, who saw it as yet another neo-colonial construct. SEATO’s vision was comprehensively challenged, first by the compelling alternative put forward by the 1955 Bandung Conference, which attempted to persuade Afro-Asian nations of the merits of ‘neutralism’ and ‘peaceful co-existence’ with all superpowers, the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement in 1961, and then finally ASEAN’s growing confidence in insulating itself, through regional integration, from the unfolding dynamics of the Cold War. In 1971, its founding members declared the Southeast Asian ‘Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality’ (ZOPFAN), with stipulations against bilateral alliances with major powers and the housing of foreign military forces on domestic territory. Looking to prevent itself from falling under the persistent shadow of a nuclear confrontation, as was the European continent at the time, the 1971 agreement also established the basis for the Southeast Asian ‘nuclear-weapon-free zone’ (NWFZ). Of course, the extent to which ASEAN has truly managed to break free from the strictures of great power politics has been rightly contested. The NWFZ, for example, was only ratified in 1995, long after the most intense of global East-West pressures had subsided. Nevertheless, ASEAN’s attempts at neutrality conveyed a powerful signal of Southeast Asia’s intended place in the Cold War—that is, as far as possible, outside of it.
Ideas like the ‘great crescent’ and SEATO might have sounded feasible, if not certainly alluring, to American policymakers debating in the 1940s and perhaps even the 1950s, but by the 1960s the reality of Southeast Asian geopolitics had become radically different. The region had freed itself from the shackles of Western colonialism, new states had been born, and latent ethnic and religious divisions, some dating back centuries, had begun to re-emerge once again. With no Southeast Asian Marshall Plan or Dodge Line, no preponderance of force in the region, there could be no inducing—whether by economic or military means—the same degree of foreign policy uniformity which the Americans enjoyed in western Europe and the Soviets in the east, at least in the earlier stages of the Cold War. In fact, just as Europeans themselves on either side of the Iron Curtain began to militate against the logic of bipolarity in the 1970s, fearing that it was their home countries which were to be the likeliest battleground of a nuclear conflict, so too had the peoples of Southeast Asia, through initiatives like ZOPFAN and NWFZ, sought to carve for themselves a more independent path.
The Southeast Asia of today is as diverse as it has ever been, if not more so. It is peopled by various ethnicities, some indigenous but many migrant-descendent. Since the end of the imperial age, the region now features all manner of political cultures, government systems, and models of civil participation. Whereas in the past its commercial linkages lay predominantly with Western industrialized economies, now they are spread more widely across the globe, including with the booming Chinese market. Despite Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines taking firm positions against China, particularly over their contested territories in the South China Sea, American planners should not assume that grievances such as these can be feasibly mobilized into a second ‘great crescent’ or, worse still, a SEATO 2.0. Furthermore, ASEAN’s modest achievements in the realm of regional integration as well as in mollifying historical intra-region tensions (for example, border clashes between Thailand and Myanmar) should not be taken as evidence that the region can be homogenized and then dealt with by outside forces as though a single, collective and cohesive unit. For instance, in 2012, Cambodia took the unprecedented step of scuttling a joint statement that conflicted with Beijing’s position on the South China Sea.
Although under the Trump administration the US had downgraded its delegation at high-level engagements with ASEAN in 2019 and 2020, it is likely that the new administration will take a more active approach. US policy towards Southeast Asia must look to be one of moderate and realistic expectations. It should not expect to find a new generation of cold warriors, if it can be said that it even ever did before. During the height of the Cold War, with multiple presidents from Eisenhower to Nixon staking their own and the nation’s credibility, American foreign policy in Southeast Asia increasingly fixated on Vietnam at the expense of understanding the nuances and complexities of the wider region. The more the US committed to Vietnam, the more difficult it was to extricate itself, and as a result the more important and captivating Vietnam became in the minds of American officials. Success in Vietnam and success in Southeast Asia became one and the same. Much as the region then was understood through the focal lens of the Vietnam War, US policy today must avoid viewing Southeast Asia exclusively through the lens of the US-China rivalry.
While the US continues to engage with Southeast Asia through regional institutions like ASEAN, it should be acutely sensitive to the variegated needs of individual countries and the unique circumstances they face amidst China’s growing role in the region. Above all, it should seek common ground where it exists, but recognize that to expect a second ‘great crescent’ is anachronistic and likely to make cooperation harder rather than easier.
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