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NOT LONG AGO, I WAS INVITED TO GIVE A TALK AT A leading Australian university on the impact of the end of the British Empire in Malaya and Singapore on Australia’s regional interests during the early Cold War. One of the chief aims of my talk was to show the extent to which Australia’s regional foreign and defence policies were affected by growing concerns about the interplay between the decolonisation of British Southeast Asia and the regional Cold War. One fundamental concern—one shared by many policymakers in Canberra and other Western capitals—was that the rapid collapse of Europe’s colonial order in Southeast Asia might produce a politico-strategic vacuum likely to be filled by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Soviet Union. A further disturbing factor—one that also weighed heavily on the Australian “official mind”—was the prospect of new but weak postcolonial Asian states becoming the target of communist subversion and destabilisation. If this occurred, as I told my audience, Australia would then be faced with a significant problem—that of being confronted with an increasingly hostile regional environment. Hence, the Australian government’s decision in the mid-1950s to deploy a small military contingent to Malaya and Singapore and to join, alongside the United States and Britain, the Southeast Asian Treaty Organisation (SEATO).

On ending my talk, I thought I had made an excellent job of conveying Canberra’s grave concerns about Southeast Asia’s political situation and explaining why these concerns were justified. To my surprise, in the ensuing discussion, the audience reacted with scepticism to my claim that the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, either through penetration or subversion, was a threat not only to Australia’s regional interests but also to the security of several Southeast Asian countries. On second thought, however, I should not have been that surprised. Since my arrival in Australia more than ten years ago, I have had plenty of opportunities to appreciate the remarkable degree of scepticism that exists in Australian departments of International Relations (IR) with regard to the challenge posed by international communism to the West, its regional allies and the Southeast Asian neutrals during the Cold War. It is as if most IR scholars nowadays tend to discount the Soviet and the Chinese threat—to paraphrase one of America’s leading Cold War historians—“as a little more than a red herring conjured up” by Western politicians to gain support for their domestic and external Cold War policies.[1] I do not know whether such a widespread scepticism can be attributed to IR being nowadays so far removed from the study of political and diplomatic history that the past—to borrow a famous aphorism from British novelist L.P. Hartley— is very much a “foreign country”; or whether the left-leaning character of most IR departments in Australia predisposes scholars to underestimate the challenge posed by communism.

Whatever the case may be, the publication of Ang Cheng Guan’s Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretative History could not be timelier for this excellent work of historical scholarship will no doubt improve our understanding of the complexities of the Cold War in Southeast Asia and raise our awareness of the threat posed by communism to regional stability. In this context, Ang’s crucial contribution to the existing historiography on the Cold War in Southeast Asia is to focus on regional actors (or, as he says, to put them “to the forefront of events”) and regional perspectives (p. 2). His work, therefore, is very much “an account of the international politics of the region seen from within rather than without” (p. 194). As he rightly points out, while there is a vast body of historical literature focussing on the role played and the policies pursued by major powers in Southeast Asia during the Cold War, much less exists on how Southeast Asian nations coped with growing Cold War tensions as well as the threat of communist penetration and subversion. In this context, Ang is right to remark that although recent Cold War Studies have moved away from military and diplomatic history and increasingly focussed on the cultural and social dimensions of the Cold War, politics remains very much “central for a proper understanding of the Cold War period” in Southeast Asia (p. 194).Like him, I somewhat regret the fact that “writing political and diplomatic history is not very fashionable nowadays” (p. 3). I, therefore, applaud him for writing what is an illuminating (and much-needed) international history of the Southeast Asian Cold War.

As one would expect, Ang’s substantial narrative focuses on the period from 1945 to the end of the Cold War. However, unlike many Cold War scholars who adopt the years immediately following the Second World War as the starting point for their narratives, he goes back to the interwar period. In his Chapter 1, he examines “the contests between the communists and the non- and/or the anticommunist governments in Southeast Asia” (p. 11). Citing approvingly Anthony Best, from whom one has to understand how the non-communist world perceived the Soviet Union and the threat posed by the Comintern before 1945 to fully appreciate the Soviet challenge to the West after the Second World War, Ang provides us with a timely and thorough account of the genesis of various communist parties in Southeast Asia, their links (or the lack of them) with Moscow and the role played by the Chinese Communist Party in promoting communism across the region.[2] In doing so, he helps us understand why communism, an ideology “originating from Karl Marx’s understanding of and solution to the European working-class experience in the nineteenth century,” made inroads into Southeast Asia by appealing to sections of the local population (pp. 13-14). In this context, Ang argues that while regional communist parties had the greatest appeal where “they were perceived to be fighting for independence” and “‘their nationalist’ purpose was clear and unmistakable,” such an appeal would not have been able to sustain itself over time without the concurrence of two intervening factors: one was its egalitarian message coupled with its promise of making profoundly unequal societies more equitable; the other was the example provided by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which appeared to offer a compelling and well-defined path to radical socio-political change.

Moving to the post-1945 era, Ang examines, in Chapter 2, the central role played by the People’s Republic of China in fostering communism across the region. As he rightly notes, “it was Communist China more than the Soviet Union that fuelled the Cold War in Southeast Asia” (p. 52). Aware of Stalin’s preoccupation with the consolidation of communist gains in Eastern Europe and keen on making the PRC the main revolutionary hub in East Asia, Mao Zedong’s Communist Party of China (CPC) actively sought to play a leading role in providing advice and assistance to Southeast Asian communist parties. Chinese efforts to develop communist networks in the region could not but raise serious alarm among regional non-communist elites and in Western capitals. By showing how the emergence of a large communist state on the northern rim of Southeast Asia affected the internal politics of the colonial and postcolonial states of this region, Ang provides a compelling analysis of how the Cold War spread to Southeast Asia in the early 1950s. That said, the PRC’s role in the Southeast Asian Cold War is also the key theme of the following two chapters. In Chapter 3, Ang succinctly recounts the events that led to the Geneva Conference on Indochina (May-June 1954), the Manila Conference (September 1954) establishing the SEATO, and the Bandung Conference (April 1955), which appeared, at least for a brief moment, to raise hopes for a reduction of regional tensions. In doing so, he also establishes the significance and impact of these three conferences on regional security as well as on the external alignments pursued by Southeast Asian states during this phase of the Cold War.

If both the United States and the PRC inevitably set out the broad parameters within which regional states were constrained to operate, they were not devoid of agency. While some chose to align themselves with the two opposing camps, others sought to avoid taking sides. The strength of Ang’s analysis lies in reminding us that far from being mere pawns on a Southeast Asian chessboard, Southeast Asian nations were in fact “very much in control of their respective destinies, although not always completely” (p. 196). Caught between doubts about America’s long-term commitment to regional security, on the one side, and fears about China’s regional role and its enduring links with regional communist parties, on the other, non-communist nations had to chart their careful approach to regional politics.

If, following the Bandung Conference, Southeast Asian states had generally welcomed the commitment of the Chinese premier and foreign minister, Zhou Enlai, to peaceful coexistence as a harbinger of a more moderate Chinese approach to regional affairs, their hopes of “normalising” China (and socialising it to the established international rules) were soon shattered by Mao’s return to a much more militant and radical line after 1957. The impact on their foreign and domestic policies of China’s return to a stridently revolutionary line, its growing political and ideological rift with the Soviet Union and its worsening confrontation with the United States form the central theme of both Chapters 4 and 5 (which focus respectively on the 1955-65 and 1965-75 period). As Ang points out, although they had no option but to adjust to these external factors, Southeast Asian states were, nonetheless, able to exploit them to maintain their power of agency. While, for instance, the North Vietnamese leadership managed to take advantage of Sino-Soviet competition in Southeast Asia to bring about the reunification of the country under communist rule, other regional players took heart from growing American involvement in Vietnam and moved decisively to crackdown on their communists.

In the end, it was the unexpected rapprochement between the PRC and the United States in the early 1970s that was to change the course of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. Here, as elsewhere in the book, Ang deals with Southeast Asian responses to political change at both the international and regional levels convincingly and exhaustively. In a nutshell, he should be congratulated for producing such an exciting book and for making another significant contribution to the study of the Cold War in Southeast Asia.

Southeast Asia’s Cold War: An Interpretative History follows in the footsteps of his earlier Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War, which I found extremely helpful in explaining the attitudes and perceptions of various Southeast Asian nations towards one of the major regional Cold War crises—the Vietnam War.[3]

Andrea Benvenuti is a Senior Lecturer in international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. Educated at Florence University, Monash University and Oxford University, he currently teaches twentieth-century diplomacy at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. His research interests lie in the field of post-1945 international history with a strong focus on the Cold War. He recently published Cold War and Decolonisation: Australia’s Policy towards Britain’s End of Empire in Southeast Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017). He is currently working on a co-authored book on the impact of Western power on the shaping of the Asian regional system (1900-1989) and a single-authored book on the Western alliance and the challenge of Afro-Asianism and non-alignment in Asia.


[1] See Robert J. McMahon, “The Illusion of Vulnerability: American Reassessments of the Soviet Threat, 1955-1956,” International History Review 18. 3 (1996): 593.

[2] Anthony Best, “‘We are Virtually at War with Russia’: Britain and the Cold War in East Asia, 1923-40,” Cold War History 12. 2 (2012): 206.

[3] Ang Cheng Guan, Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War (London: Routledge, 2011).