Cold War Southeast Asia
Edited by MALCOLM H. MURFETT
Singapore: Marshal Cavendish Editions, 2012. Pp. 376. Bibliography,
This refreshing and challenging collection of essays invites a reassessment of the place of Southeast Asia in the Cold War. In approaching this question, the strategies followed by the authors vary. Some pursue issues particularly illustrative of the approach taken by the great powers to Southeast Asia, often employing unusual or not previously exploited sources. Thus Brian P. Farrell, focusing on American nuclear doctrine as it was applied to the region, considers in some detail the British response to American plans. Despite some scepticism of the utility of using nuclear weapons against a concerted Chinese invasion, and having in any case few forces of their own to contribute, the British nevertheless cooperated in the development of 'Plan 4' for collateral reasons:
The British decision to pledge nuclear weapons to Plan 4 was a
calculated risk, hoping to reap some political benefits without
having to pay any military price. The prizes were information about
American plans and intentions, and influence over American policy;
the risk was to commit the UK to a conflict it might not support,
by pledging forces it might not be able to deploy, to reinforce an
ally upon whom it depended. (p. 121)
In this case the Cold War seems certainly to have been a key determinant of British policy towards Southeast Asia. The book contains other similarly focused studies. Mining an archive of training papers produced by US military officers, Brian M. Linn explores the conceptions of Southeast Asia held by the coming generation of military leaders, in whose analyses Cold War assumptions were powerful but not always determining. Sutayut Osornprasop approaches the question of Thailand's position by way of Bangkok's policy of countering the communist movement in Laos, where Thai irregulars were active participants for 15 years.
In addition to these issue-oriented pieces there are competent survey chapters of specific countries, including Bruce Lockhart on Cambodia and Laos, Ricardo T. Jose on the Philippines, and Tan Tai Yong on Singapore. A model of clarity as well as of documentary grasp is the chapter by the editor on the British military commitment to Malaysia and Singapore.
One of the consistent themes in the book is the extent to which this period in Southeast Asia's history cannot be reduced to the machinations of external powers. Of all Southeast Asian nations, this generalisation might be thought to apply especially to Indonesia, usually held to be the core or essential nation of the region, its distinctiveness and independence reflected not least in its prominent membership during these years of the non-aligned movement. Indeed, in the book's chapter on Indonesia, this distinctiveness is represented as an objective which transcended regime type: 'in terms of his envisioned regional order, Soeharto was not fundamentally different from Sukarno: he sought to reduce the influence of extra-regional powers and at the same time enhance the ability of the regional members to be masters in their own house'. (p. 310)
It is remarkable therefore that the chapter's author, Dewi Anwar Fortuna, in her overview of the Soeharto era, should characterise its policies as largely the reflection of external influences. …