Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Beginnings of a 'Cold War' in Southeast Asia: British and Australian Perceptions

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Beginnings of a 'Cold War' in Southeast Asia: British and Australian Perceptions

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

When did the 'Cold War' begin in Southeast Asia and how was this beginning manifested? As with all other investigations, definitions are key. The 'Cold War' itself remains an enigmatic category. The global contention between the superpowers constituted by the Soviet Union and the United States seems to be an accepted generic aspect of the Cold War. Was this the only, or a necessary, aspect of the 'Cold War' as manifested or created in Southeast Asia? Odd Arne Westad suggests that it was at least the major aspect. To his well-known work The global Cold War, (1) Westad assigns the subtitle 'Third World interventions and the making of our times', suggesting that a key element of the Cold War was great power rivalry through intervention in Third World countries. It is of course Westad's aim to take the history of the Cold War beyond that of the usual Euro-American great power rivalries and to examine how this global contention through the second half of the twentieth century was to be manifested in the less powerful polities of the globe, but the structure is still premised on bipolar rivalry between the superpowers. He suggests both that 'the United States and the Soviet Union were driven to intervene in the Third World by the ideologies inherent in their politics', (2) and that 'the Cold War was a continuation of colonialism through slightly different means'. (3)

But there are of course other angles from which to view the political events which marked the period of contention we know as the Cold War. In the study below, the views of two of the lesser global players in the Cold War period--Great Britain and its appendage (which grew increasingly independent during this period) Australia--will be examined as to what sort of 'Cold War' they observed and participated in in Southeast Asia during the period 1945 to 1950. This is a region where, during this period, American involvement was fairly minimal, and the degree of Soviet 'intervention' remains moot. It is hoped therefore to observe how the beginnings of the Cold War in Southeast Asia were manifested without discrete superpower involvement.

When and how, then, did Great Britain and Australia (only beginning post-WWII to play any substantial role in international affairs) view the 'Cold War' and its relationship with the armed violence occurring throughout Southeast Asia during the period 1945-50? And how did this affect the policies of Great Britain, which was committed to decolonising its Southeast Asian territories, and Australia, which was stepping into the breech left by this decolonisation through new engagement with the region, in some respects as the representative of Western interests?

2. British and Australian views of the Cold War in Southeast Asia

The Japanese occupation of British territories and other parts of Southeast Asia from December 1941 to August 1945 saw the representatives of 'Western' interests either driven away from Southeast Asia or incarcerated therein. It was not long after the beginning of the Japanese occupation, however, that the British began planning for the post-war reoccupation of the territories they had controlled pre-war. Less than a year into the Pacific War there were cabinet level discussions on post-hostilities arrangements, with it being recorded in September 1942, following a British cabinet meeting that: 'Mr Eden said that the special features of the Far East was that besides the British there was a group of the leading countries in the Far East: The United States, China, Holland and to some extent Russia; whereas they had no such interest, for instance in Africa.' 'Mr Eden stressed that our aim was to secure collective defence in the Far East.' (4) Here then, when Mr Eden spoke in 1942 of collective defence arrangement in post-war Asia, Russia was mentioned simply as a country which had some interests in the Far East, but with no implication of Soviet threat to, or rivalry with, Western powers in the area. …

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