Imperialism in Southeast Asia: A Fleeting Passing Phase

Imperialism in Southeast Asia: A Fleeting Passing Phase

Imperialism in Southeast Asia: A Fleeting Passing Phase

Imperialism in Southeast Asia: A Fleeting Passing Phase


Focusing on Southeast Asia, Nicholas Tarling looks at past, recent and present examples of imperialism, and provides a comparative study of differing experiences. This is an incisive text about the mechanisms of empire building.


This book is concerned not with any one country’s ‘imperialism’ in Southeast Asia, but with that of all the countries that might be called ‘imperialist’: Britain, France, Spain, the Netherlands, and the US. That makes it easier to explain the phenomenon, in so far as it was a question of rivalry. It also facilitates comparison. ‘Imperialisms’ had elements in common, but also differed, as did the territories in which they operated.

The book is novel in another sense. General studies of imperialism have rarely included Southeast Asia. The present survey may therefore add to the wider theoretical and historiographical debate.

The author chooses a definition of ‘imperialism’ that stresses the establishment of political control and a periodisation that concentrates on the years 1870-1914. Doing so does not exclude other possibilities, but suggests that they, too, need to be the subject of definition and analysis.

The book considers not only the establishment of control in the chosen period but also the attempts to re-establish control after the overthrow of the imperial regimes in the Second World War. The comparison helps in explaining the phenomenon, and in assessing the relative significance of economic and political factors, which has been the concern of so much of the debate.

Southeast Asia became a region of independent states. To some extent, the author argues, the imperial ventures were attempts at state-building, and he considers the legacy of ‘imperialism’ in that light.

His approach also reflects another contemporary concern, with ‘globalisation’ and with the relationship of the state to that process. The period on which he has focused may also be seen as a phase of ‘globalisation’. The way states handled it - both promoting it and restraining it - offers comparisons, if not lessons. Hobson wrote of ‘conspiracy’. We contemplate ‘corruption’.

The author is grateful for the support of the New Zealand Asia Institute at The University of Auckland and of its director, Dr Chris Tremewan. He is grateful, too, to Dr Brook Barrington, who read and commented on the manuscript.

Auckland, 2000

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