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(under UGC-CARE, Arts & Humanities Citation Index)
ISSN 2582-2241




ANG CHENG GUAN HAS MADE A VALIANT EFFORT TO produce a narrative on the international and political history of Southeast Asia during much of the twentieth century. The endeavour is timely. It is also to be welcomed. A number of works have been published on the experiences of the individual Southeast Asian states during the Cold War. Much of that literature has focused on the conflict in Indochina [1] .

A comparatively smaller number examine developments in other parts of mainland and maritime Southeast Asia.[2] Not many studies, however, have offered a grand overview of how the global cold war affected the peoples and states in the subregion.[3] Based on a broad range of published works and supplemented by a variety of primary sources, Ang’s Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretive History offers that much needed survey of the subject. Although some readers will find parts of the book tough going, it is a laudable work that deserves to be engaged.

In writing the book, Ang seeks to accomplish two key objectives. The first is to synthesise the latest scholarship, and offer a meaningful narrative of how the cold war influenced or shaped developments in Southeast Asia. The second is to highlight the central roles that local actors played in Southeast Asian domestic and regional politics during the twentieth century. Ang focuses on how they transformed their political environments and dealt with their ideological adversaries. He also describes how they manoeuvred and managed their countries’ relationships with regional neighbours and the great powers (p. 2). That history, Ang submits, will equip readers with the perspective to better comprehend the contemporary international politics of Southeast Asia.

To those ends, Ang has crafted six main chapters of the text describing the history of the subregion from 1919 through the early 1990s. He recounts the birth of the Southeast Asian communist parties; their relationships with the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Communist Party of China; the varied effects that World War II had on the European empires in the subregion; the formation of the People’s Republic of China and its impact on political developments in Southeast Asia; the processes and outcomes of the Geneva, Manila, and Bandung conferences convened during the mid-1950s; the bearing that the Sino-Soviet split had on the attitudes and activities of the Southeast Asian communist parties; the nonviolent and violent clashes among anti-communists, communists, and non-communists across the area; and the course and aftermath of the Second and Third Indochina Wars. The main text ends with the normalisation of ties between Beijing and the Southeast Asian states.

With the exception of the chapter on the regional conferences, Ang adopts in the main a systematic country-by-country approach to describe what the leaders respectively did to domestic foes or challengers. He also narrates how the Southeast Asians interacted with the Cold War powers. Much of the material will be familiar to specialists. Ang, in fact, liberally quotes their findings throughout the text. By the end of the book, non-specialists will be familiar with the litany of names associated with the scholarship of Southeast Asia and the Cold War in Asia. If Ang’s intent was to induce general readers as well as students to satiate their curiosity and explore the works of the scholars for themselves, he most likely succeeded.

Still, the book’s contentions, where they are plainly spelt out or can be roughly discerned, are limited in scope. Ang has opted not to build a cumulative case for a grand argument about Southeast Asia’s experiences with the Cold War. He offers, instead, a series of points about the issues that he discusses in the respective chapters. They comprise the following: The hostility between Southeast Asian communists and non-communists, and their antagonism toward the colonial powers preceded the post-World War II conflict between Moscow and Washington. The clashes intensified and became more violent during the 1950s when other powers intervened in the anti-colonial politics of the subregion. The People’s Republic of China was initially the main external power championing the communist cause in Southeast Asia. The Soviet Union began to play a larger role, especially in Vietnam, following the Sino-Soviet split. From the other ideological camp, the United States and its allies such as Australia intervened to shore up their interests in the subregion. As the non-communist states in Southeast Asia won their independence during the 1960s, however, they overcame their reservations about their perceived ideological foes and took steps to engage countries such as China. Finally, the Sino-American rapprochement, China’s invasion of Vietnam, and Beijing’s decision to stop backing the Southeast Asian communist parties during the 1970s and 1980s eventually paved the way for the end of Southeast Asia’s Cold War.

Ang Cheng Guan deserves credit for writing the book. The chapters bring out well the chronological sense of how the conflicts in Southeast Asia unfolded. Ang particularly advances a persuasive case for starting the narrative in the late 1910s. He rightly follows Erez Manela in showing how the so-termed Wilsonian Moment generated momentous political reverberations across Asia.[4] U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s proclamation, supporting the notion that people had a right to self-determination, inspired many across the colonial world. It was thus a significant letdown when Wilson ultimately decided to stand alongside the European empires and qualify the idea that he supported the political aspirations of the colonised. Those who were, nevertheless, inspired to rid their societies of imperialism formed anti-colonial groups. A significant number established communist parties, believing that Marx’s and Lenin’s ideas possessed greater explanatory power for their predicament. The communists also seemed to offer a better alternative blueprint on how to build a fairer and more just society. As Ang astutely points out, the Southeast Asian world was ideologically polarised before World War II. After the war, the ideological divisions, the forced and voluntary retreat of the European empires, and the external powers’ interventions in Southeast Asia created a combustible mix that engulfed the subregion in significant tumult and violence. Southeast Asia’s Cold War brings that history to the fore, and offers readers a learned perspective on how postwar Southeast Asian developments unfolded.

Despite its merits, the book would have benefitted from addressing several issues. First, for a volume touting itself as an interpretive historical work, Southeast Asia’s Cold War regrettably does not make a grand claim about the subregion’s experiences with the global conflict. Ang has certainly produced a scholarly volume that makes for stimulating comparative possibilities. He could have exploited his vast reading of the literature, which includes notable works such as Arne Westad’s The Global Cold War, to furnish his interpretations and views on the nature of the clashes and politics in Southeast Asia. How unique indeed was Southeast Asia’s Cold War? To what extent did developments in the subregion differ from what was happening in Africa, Latin America, South Asia, and the Middle East, and why?

Ang additionally could have helped readers develop a comparative perspective of the subregion’s history. Did the Cold War affect differently the American, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese in their retreat from their respective empires? Were there discernible differences between mainland and maritime Southeast Asia’s Cold War? What challenges did those states bordering the People’s Republic of China confront? What instruments of statecraft and strategies were they compelled to employ to preserve their national interests? Did their strategies differ from those adopted by the other Southeast Asian states to deal with the Cold War powers? Answers to all these questions would add significant analytical value to the study.

Second, the book missed the opportunity to propose a new term to describe the international history of twentieth-century Southeast Asia. Ang treats the Cold War straightforwardly as an “international contest between the United States on the one side and the Soviet Union and China on the other” (p. 9). The great power competition in the global north significantly did not turn hot and result in direct clashes between the opposing nuclear-armed actors. The hostilities between the adversarial ideological groups in Southeast Asia, however, were anything but cold. They fought wars. The incarcerations, sociopolitical turmoil, and violent conflicts between domestic rivals devastated many lives. The mass killings in Cambodia and Indonesia led to the death of millions of people. It seems the term “Cold War” does not fully capture analytically and historically the developments in Southeast Asia. A work of synthesis like Ang’s should have offered its reflections on the subject and helped provoke a debate about it.

Third, the book’s narrative can be rather diffuse and conversational. Despite the statements of purpose in the chapter introductions, the main arguments of the text are not always easily determinable. Considerable concentration is necessary to absorb the description of each country’s dealings with domestic, regional, and international challenges. Considerable focus is also needed to discern the key contentions. Even then, Ang’s decision to stick closely to a chronological narrative leads at times to disjointed discussions. There are instances where evaluations of the significance of a historical episode are postponed to another section of the chapter, the next chapter, or not undertaken at all. The narrative would have flowed better if such analytical breaks were bridged.

Thus, for example, Ang examines on pages 91 and 92 the attempts by the great powers to court Burma during the 1950s. The Soviets cultivated the Southeast Asian country by purchasing its excess rice supplies. The Chinese bought the natural resources the Burmese produced. The Americans had to circumvent U.S. trade restrictions in order to compete with the communists and undertake a trade deal with Burma. Ang does not inform his readers, however, what positive or negative outcomes resulted from those economic transactions. Also missing is how the Burmese responded to the Soviet, Chinese, and American economic initiatives. The next moment readers encounter Burma in the chapter is on page 110. The discussion turns to, among other things, Ne Win’s belief in economic self-reliance for Burma and his cautious views of foreign assistance. Information, though, is not furnished on what results obtained from the earlier Soviet, Chinese, and American attempts to economically engage the Burmese. Neither are readers enlightened on whether the great powers’ trade diplomacy and follow-on demands, if any, shaped Ne Win’s thinking on economics, trade, and Burmese interactions with the outside world. A great deal could have been gained if the earlier discussion had pressed on to evaluate such matters. The Burmese response to the Cold War powers’ economic projects could have historical significance as part of a wider pattern of behavior among likeminded Southeast Asians.

Fourth, and finally, the book should have been better edited and fact-checked. If the editorial decision was to go with An Interpretive History as the study’s subtitle, amendments should have been made to the text indicating that the alternate title is no longer an “international history” (p. 5). Woodrow Wilson, who passed on in March 1921, supported the passage of the Jones Act (which granted the Philippines a degree of political autonomy) in August 1916 rather than 1923 (p. 20). Members of the Malayan Communist Party murdered the high commissioner of Britain in Malaya, Henry Gurney, in 1951 rather than 1961 (p. 66). And the Communist Party of the Philippines should have been abbreviated as CPP rather than CCP (Ang, 94 and 157). These issues do not detract from the substance of the book. But they do distract. They could be easily rectified if plans are afoot to issue a paperback version of the work.

Overall, although Ang Cheng Guan could have been bolder in dealing with the broader significance of his study, Southeast Asia’s Cold War remains an impressive and useful survey of the international history of Southeast Asia between 1919 and the early 1990s. Commanding the vast literature on the subject, Ang describes well the diplomatic and state-building challenges that confronted the states in Southeast Asia. The book situates the subregion’s history in a wider international context, offering an insightful account of how the global Cold War shaped interstate relations in Asia. The work further furnishes readers with the historical perspective to comprehend the state-building processes in Southeast Asia. The volume undoubtedly makes a welcome contribution to the international history of the subregion. It will appeal to readers seeking historical perspective on the contemporary international politics of Asia.

S.R. Joey Long is Associate Professor of History at the National University of Singapore. His main fields of interest are the international history of post-World War II Southeast Asia, the history of American foreign relations with Asia, the transnational history of Singapore, and Asia-Pacific security. He has published on those subjects in journals such as Contemporary Southeast Asia, Diplomatic History, European Journal of International Relations, and Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, as well as several edited volumes. He is also the author of Safe for Decolonization: The Eisenhower Administration, Britain, and Singapore (Kent State University Press, 2011). The fellowships and awards received by him include a Fulbright Grant and the Lawrence Gelfand-Armin Rappaport Fellowship from the Society for Historians of
American Foreign Relations.


[1] The literature is vast and continues to grow. For a bibliography of works, see Edwin E. Moise, “Vietnam War Bibliography,” accessed June 15, 2018, http://edmoise.sites.clemson.edu/bibliography.html.

[2] See, for example, Kenton Clymer, A Delicate Relationship: The United States and Burma/Myanmar since 1945 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015); Seth Jacobs, The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012); Matthew Jones, Conflict and Confrontation in Southeast Asia 1961-1965: Britain, the United States, Indonesia, and the Creation of Malaysia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Hong Liu, China and the Shaping of Indonesia, 1949-1965 (Singapore: NUS Press, 2011); S.R. Joey Long, Safe for Decolonization: The Eisenhower Administration, Britain, and Singapore (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2011); Alfred W. McCoy, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); Matthew Phillips, Thailand in the Cold War (London: Routledge, 2015); and William J. Rust, Eisenhower and Cambodia: Diplomacy, Covert Action, and the Origins of the Second Indochina War (Lexington, KS: University Press of Kentucky, 2016).

[3] Some notable ones are Tony Day and Maya H.T. Liem, eds., Cultures at War: The Cold War and Cultural Expression in Southeast Asia (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2010); Christopher E. Goscha and Christian F. Ostermann, eds., Connecting Histories: Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia, 1945-1962 (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009); Albert Lau, ed., Southeast Asia and the Cold War (London: Routledge, 2012); and Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

[4] Erez Manela, The Wilsonian Moment: Self-Determination and the International Origins of Anticolonial Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).