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The beginnings of a ‘Cold War’ in Southeast Asia: British and Australian perceptions

  • Geoff Wade

Abstract

The questions of how and when the Cold War manifested itself in Southeast Asia are here examined through the perceptions of Britain and Australia to regional and global events from 1945 to 1950. Both had major stakes in the eventual results of the local contentions in Southeast Asia, as well as in the global effects of great power rivalry. Yet even for these powers, determining when they believed the Cold War came to Southeast Asia is dependent on the definition adopted. By 1946, there was already recognition of entrenched ideological conflict in Southeast Asia, and that this threatened Western interests. In 1947, there was recognition of connections between the local communist parties and the ‘global designs’ of the Soviet Union. In 1948, there was the outbreak of armed violence in Burma, Malaya and Indonesia, though there was no evidence of direct Soviet involvement in these. Ultimately, however, it was the establishment of the PRC in 1949 (as a major regional communist power), in tandem with plans by non-communist states to coordinate policy against communism, which was seen as marking the arrival of fully-fledged Cold War in Southeast Asia.

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1 Odd Westad, Arne, The global Cold War: Third World interventions and the making of our times (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

2 Ibid., p. 4.

3 Ibid., p. 396.

4 ‘Post-war settlement in the Far East; Minute by G.E.J. Gent of a meeting of Ministers on 10 Sept to discuss the joint CO-FO memorandum’, CO 825/35/4 No. 53 (11 Sept. 1942), in Malaya (3 parts), British documents on the end of empire, ed. A.J. Stockwell (London: HMSO, 1995), Part 1, p. 25.

5 Hack, Karl, Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia: Britain, Malaya and Singapore 1941–1968 (Richmond: Curzon, 2001), p. 58.

6 Secret Memo No. 7 from H.A. Stokes. Office of the Australian Commissioner for Malaya, Singapore, to External Affairs Canberra (6 Aug. 1946). NAA A1838 413/2/1/6 ‘BTSEA – Governor General Malaya Status, Functions Etc.’.

7 While the generally posited reason for the reversal of the Malayan Union plans is Malay opposition to the plans (see for example, Simandjuntak, B., Malayan federalism 1945–1963: A study of federal problems in a plural society (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1969), pp. 42–5), Karl Hack notes ‘Other possible factors are: doubts about overseas Chinese loyalties, the apparent unwillingness of the MPAJA to disarm, or the realisation that the Chinese were unlikely to volunteer in numbers as infantry.’ See Hack, Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia, p. 152, n. 22.

8 HQ Malaya Command, ‘Weekly Intelligence Review (No. 17) on local reactions to White Paper’ (23 Feb. 1946), Stockwell, Malaya, Document 72, p. 198.

9 Hack, Defence and decolonisation in Southeast Asia, pp. 109–10.

10 Extract from UK Despatch F.12910/12653/23, Mr Roberts to Mr Bevin, dated Moscow, 30 Aug. 1946. NAA A1838 3004/12/5 Part 1 ‘South East Asia - USSR - Representation policy & interests – General’.

11 Secret Memo No. 7 from H.A. Stokes. Office of the Australian Commissioner for Malaya, Singapore, to External Affairs Canberra (6 Aug. 1946). NAA A1838 413/2/1/6 ‘BTSEA – Governor General Malaya: Status, Functions Etc’.

12 NAA A1838 413/2/1/6 ‘BTSEA – Governor General Malaya: Status, Functions Etc’. Also CAB 21/1954 (17 June 1946). See Stockwell, Malaya, vol. 1, Document 95.

13 Lord Killearn to Mr Bevin, ‘South-East Asia: Growing communist strength’ (No. 163 Secret) (24 July). NAA A1838 383/5/1 Southeast Asia: Communism in South East Asia.

14 Secret Despatch No. 87 (F. 18057/87/61) from Lord Killearn to Mr Attlee, dated Singapore 4 Dec. 1946. ‘Soviet activities in South-East Asia’, NAA A1838 3004/12/5 Part 1 ‘South East Asia – USSR – Representation policy & interests – General’.

15 ‘Communism in South East Asia (Top Secret)’ SF. 50/1/1 in NAA A1838 383/5/1 ‘South East Asia – Communism in South East Asia’.

16 Appendix A: ‘Communism and its bearing on the colonies’ (27 May 1947) in ‘Communism in South East Asia (Top Secret)’ SF. 50/1/1 NAA A1838 383/5/1 ‘South East Asia – Communism in South East Asia’.

17 Memorandum by Chief of the Division of Northern European Affairs (Cumming) and the Chief of the Division of Southeast Asian Affairs (Moffat) in United States' State Department, 17 Apr. 1947, Foreign relations of the United States 1947, vol. VI, Far East, pp. 917–8.

18 Lord Killearn to Mr Bevin, ‘South-East Asia: Growing communist strength’ (No. 163 Secret) (24 July 1947). NAA A1838 383/5/1 ‘Southeast Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

21 Memorandum Australian Embassy Washington to External Affairs Canberra (27 Oct. 1947). NAA A1838 383/5/1 ‘South East Asia – Communism in South East Asia’.

22 See reports from UPI despatch of 16 Nov. 1947, Reuters despatch of 23 Nov., and Akahata (Red Flag, JCP journal) of 6 Dec. 1947.

23 Memorandum (No. 27) from Australian legation Nanking to External Affairs Canberra (16 Jan. 1948). NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1 ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’. See also Confidential memorandum entitled ‘Far Eastern Cominform’, dated 25 Feb. 1948 in same file.

24 Telegram from chargé in the Soviet Union (Durbrow) to the Secretary of State, 2 Dec. 1947, Foreign relations of the United States 1947, vol. VI, Far East, p. 583.

26 Tarling, Nicholas, Britain, Southeast Asia and the onset of the Cold War, 1945–1950 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 263.

27 Departmental Despatch (8/48) from Australian Commissioner for Malaya in Singapore to External Affairs in Canberra ‘Communism in South-East Asia’ (28 Jan. 1948). NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1 ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

28 The Statesman (New Delhi), 28 Feb. 1948; and People's Age (New Delhi), 29 Feb. 1948.

29 ‘Australia worried over situation in Malaya’, Ceylon Observer, 24 July 1948.

30 ‘Australia has vital interests in Malaya’, Melbourne Age, 7 July 1948.

31 ‘Communist warfare against British in Malaya; Burma Republic endangered by Reds’. AAP-Reuters, Canberra Times (Canberra), 21 June 1948.

32 NAA, A6126/25 Brotherton, Alexander (aka Brotherton, Archibald aka Van Tan).

33 Percy Spender (Liberal Party) went on to become Minister for External Affairs under Robert Menzies (1949–51).

34 ‘Spender warns on Malaya’, Daily Telegraph, 16 July 1948.

35 ‘P.M.'s views resented’, Daily Telegraph, 4 Sept. 1948.

36 Ministerial Despatch (no. 13) from Australian Embassy Nanking to Minister for External Affairs Canberra (17 July 1948) ‘Interview with U.S.A. Ambassador’, NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1, ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

37 Press Release of Department of State (Sept. 16, 1948), NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1, ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

38 Straits Times, 13 Aug. 1948.

39 Memo (No. 138) from O.N. Smyth to Mr McIntyre (25 Oct. 1948), ‘Malayan Communist Party and the political theories of the Chinese communists’, NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1, ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

40 Memo (No. 375/48) from Australian Embassy Moscow to External Affairs Canberra (16 Nov. 1948), NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1, ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

41 ‘Communist strategy in South East Asia’ (Nov. 1948).

42 NAA A1838 3004/12/5 Part 1, ‘South East Asia – USSR – Representation policy & interests – General’.

43 Tarling, Britain, Southeast Asia and the onset of the Cold War, pp. 270–2.

44 Foreign Office to British High Commission Rangoon, Jan. 15 1949, FO 371/76003.

45 FO 371/76003, ‘Communism in South East Asia’, f. 34.

46 ‘Reds predict Asian alliance: Counter to communism’, Daily Telegraph, 25 Jan. 1949.

47 Top-secret message to Sir W. Strang, Permanent Under-Secretary of the Foreign Office (29 Mar. 1949), FO 371/76031 – ‘Combating communism in South East Asia: Proposed South East Asian regional cooperation’, f. 3.

48 ‘Real blow to Communists’, South China Morning Post, 19 Feb. 1949. NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 1, ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

49 Malcolm MacDonald to M.E. Dening (head of Southeast Asia section at Foreign Office) (3 Feb. 1949), FO 371/76031 – ‘Combating communism in South East Asia: Proposed South East Asian regional cooperation’, f. 22.

50 Letter from MacDonald to Foreign Office (22 Mar. 1949), FO 371/76031 – ‘Combating communism in South East Asia: Proposed South East Asian regional cooperation’, f. 92.

51 Letter from Malcolm MacDonald to Sir William Strang (3 Apr. 1949), FO 371/76031 – ‘Combating communism in South East Asia: Proposed South East Asian regional cooperation’, f. 48.

52 Australian House of Representatives Hansard, 15 Mar. 1949, FO 371/76004 [f. 35].

53 Top Secret Despatch 11/49 Australian Embassy Nanking to H.V. Evatt, in NAA A4145/RC2, ‘Communism in China (particularly SE Asia) and affiliations of Chinese Communist Party’.

54 ‘Communism in the Far East’, JIC (FE) (49) 9 (Final) (1 April 1949), NAA A1838 383/5/1 Part 2, ‘South East Asia: Communism in South East Asia’.

55 FO 371/76003, ‘Communism in South East Asia’.

56 See CO 537/2651 ‘Security Arrangements – Far East: Communism in South East Asia’.

57 R.H. Scott of Foreign Office to Bangkok (5 May 1949) FO 371/76004, ‘Communism in South East Asia’.

58 Memorandum by the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Kennan) submitted to Under Secretary of State (Webb) and Deputy Under Secretary of State (Rusk), ‘Suggested course of action in East and South Asia’, Foreign Relations of the United States 1949, vol. VII, The Far East and Australasia, pp. 1147–51.

59 Letter from Commissioner-General's Office at Phoenix Park Singapore to the South East Asia Department, Foreign Office, 11 Feb. 1949. FO 371/76003, ‘Communism in South East Asia’.

60 O.H. Morris of Colonial Office to R.H. Scott of the Foreign Office, noting concerns in Pan-Malayan Review, no. 21 (12 Oct. 1949). FO 371/76005, ‘Communism in South East Asia’.

61 FO 371/76005, ‘Communism in South East Asia’.

62 ‘Coordination of communist strategy in South East Asia’ (SEA/9/1949). FO 371/76004 [f. 77 onwards].

63 The report further expands this statement noting that the return to India from Moscow in late 1947 of S.A. Dange of the Communist Party of India was a key factor in the changes which took place in the party, the Central Committee of which went on to approve a paper ‘On the Present Policy and Tasks of the Communist Party of India’, which urged reorientation of the party. The party then ‘engaged in disorder’ and was banned by the West Bengal government, but the party still shifted its headquarters from Bombay to Calcutta (which the FO report notes is closer to Southeast Asia).

64 ‘Coordination of communist strategy in South East Asia’ (SEA/9/1949). FO 371/76004 [f. 77 onwards].

65 FO 371/76005, ‘Communism in South East Asia’.

66 Telegram New York UK delegation to the United Nations to Foreign Office (26 Nov. 1949), in DO 35/2962 ‘Communism – Measures taken to combat the spread of communism in South East Asia’, ff. 51–2.

67 Including the states of what we today call Southeast Asia.

68 A Report to the President by the National Security Council (NSC 48/2), ‘The position of the United States with respect to Asia’ (30 Dec. 1949), Foreign Relations of the United States 1949, vol. VII, The Far East and Australasia, pp. 1215–20. My thanks to Karl Hack for drawing my attention to this document.

69 Telegram from Colombo to Foreign Office. DO 35/2962 ‘Communism – Measures taken to combat the spread of communism in South East Asia’, f. 31.

70 Eric John Harrison (1892–1974) Australian Minister of Defence was resident in Britain from April 1950 until March 1951.

71 NAA A11536/1 Top Secret – In CFCs [Cable File Copies], London, 1948 to 1950, 23 Dec. 1950.

Geoff Wade is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore. He is a historian with interests in diverse aspects of China-Southeast Asian interactions through time and comparative historiography. Correspondence in connection with this paper should be addressed to: . The author wishes to thank an anonymous JSEAS referee for providing useful suggestions in terms of reorienting some arguments within the article.

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The beginnings of a ‘Cold War’ in Southeast Asia: British and Australian perceptions

  • Geoff Wade

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