Nicholas Tarling. Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Cold War 1945-1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998. x + 488 pp. $69.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-521-63261-4.
Reviewed by Mark T. Berger (The University of New South Wales)
Published on H-Asia (March, 2001)
The 'Official Mind' of Late-Colonialism: Britain, Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia 1945-1950
The 'Official Mind' of Late-Colonialism: Britain, Decolonization and the Cold War in Southeast Asia 1945-1950
Nicholas Tarling is one of the most prominent historians of modern Southeast Asia writing in English. Based for over thirty years at the University of Auckland he has produced numerous books on the history of Southeast Asia, particularly the history of British imperialism in the region. He is also editor of The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia. His most recent book, Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Cold War 1945-1950, follows directly on from an earlier volume Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Pacific War. Like the earlier volume, this study of the period between the end of World War II and the start of the Korean War reflects a life-time of detailed archival work on British imperial policy in nineteenth and twentieth century Southeast Asia. Like much of his earlier work, it also focuses (to use Robinson and Gallagher's now famous formulation) on the "Official Mind" of British imperialism. This focus is both the main strength and the main weakness of Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Cold War 1945-1950.
Turning first to its strength. The book is well organized: each chapter focuses on a specific year, or years. Chapters are then divided into a number of sections which deal in some detail with the British government's official interaction with virtually all of the colonies and/or emergent nation-states in Southeast Asia. At the same time, relations with the United States, France and the Netherlands, as well as the Indian government, and other Commonwealth governments are central to the overall narrative. The first chapter deals with Britain's "Wartime Plans for Post-War Southeast Asia, 1942-1945". This is followed by a chapter on "Southeast Asia after the Japanese Surrender, 1945-1946" and a chapter on "The Re-establishment of Colonial Régimes in Southeast Asia, 1946". The fourth chapter is entitled "Concession and Conflict, 1947", while chapter five addresses "The Impact of Communism, 1948". The sixth and closing chapter is "Commonwealth and Colombo, 1949-1950". The overall result, as with earlier work, is a thorough and empirically rich study.
For example, the density of his description for the period 1945-1950 makes clear that the British government did not pursue a single policy in Southeast Asia, instead following "an aggregation of policies" towards both specific countries and the region. After 1945 British plans for what, as the author points out, had only recently started to be identified as Southeast Asia were only coordinated to a "limited extent". There were interdepartmental government committees put in place and "common ideas" were apparent; however, boundaries between various departments were strong and the "consultation" of one department with another over various issues was viewed at times as "an obstruction to an effective policy" (p. 45). Tarling makes what might seem to be an obvious, but is also an important point: the British government's policies towards Southeast Asia were constantly "re-shaped in response to the conditions" in the region, while the "experience in one area influenced its handling of others". British policies were also "continually re-shaped" in response to events outside Southeast Asia (p. 132).
On this latter score, the author criticises the "tendency" of both the British government and the US government to "exaggerate the role of international communism in Asia". He notes that in 1948 the rise of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) "seemed to relate to a world-wide shift in international communism"; however, "whether" this was a "cause or effect was less clear" (p. 265). For example, in the case of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), Tarling argues that "little international stimulus" was required to "prompt" the organization to launch its insurgency in 1948. In relation to the much debated question of the role of the decisions of the Calcutta Youth Conference in early 1948, Tarling argues that the shift towards armed struggle in Soviet and Cominform policy, with which the conference in Calcutta is generally associated, "spurred" the leadership of the MCP to "follow a course it was already disposed to adopt" (pp. 310-311).
The British government attempted to counter the China "threat" by encouraging a U.S.-supported regional economic development programme, which emphasized "economic development" and "good government" as the "answer to international communism". It was hoped that such a combination would not only provide a focus for the Indian and other Commonwealth governments, with a stake in Southeast Asia, but also increase the US "component" in British policy in the region (p. 316). This led to the Colombo Conference in January 1950. In Tarling's view the Colombo Conference and the resulting Colombo Plan, was "in many ways a striking success for British policy". At the conference the British government ensured that the emphasis was on economic development, technical assistance and a "regional approach", which it thought would distract attention from "political differences". What was also important, from the British government's point of view, was that the Colombo Plan "attract" U.S. "support" and facilitate the combination of US "financial resources" with "British political wisdom". To this end the US was soon made aware of the proposals which had resulted from the Colombo conference. It was only with the outbreak of the Korean war in mid-1950 that the US joined the Colombo Plan, at the same time as it became more supportive of the French government's war in Indochina, and also entered into a military assistance pact with the government of Thailand. Although the U.S. was drawn into a more significant role in Southeast Asia by 1950, in part as a result of British efforts, the ability of the British government to influence U.S. policy fell well short of earlier expectations (pp. 336-339, 342).
As is clear the book provides a detailed exploration of the "official mind" of British imperialism in late-colonial and early Cold War Southeast Asia. The author also ties this complex tale together with an overarching argument about the way in which the post-1945 British government had to "balance" its "interests" in Southeast Asia and beyond. Tarling emphasizes the interaction between the British concern for good relations with the major Western European governments and the United States, as well as with colonies and the emerging nations in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. He argues that Britain attempted to "retain a European presence" in Southeast Asia, but previous experience also encouraged British officials to realize that the achievement of this goal involved "coming to terms with nationalism". Furthermore, while, Britain "hoped" to play a role in ensuring that Southeast Asia emerged as "a zone of peace and prosperity in itself", it also wanted it to be "an exemplar to other regions". Tarling says that this was in contrast to US policy which had no particular interest in the retention of European influence in the region prior to 1950, nor any regional conception of Southeast Asia. As has already been noted, the author emphasizes that Britain, was aware that in order to achieve its post-1945 goals U.S. assistance was required, in Southeast Asia and the Middle East as well as Europe (pp. 410-411).
As is also emphasized, the case for, and the receipt of this, assistance were both conditioned by the onset of the Cold War. Although British imperial policy had been influenced for many years by a "distrust of international communism", Tarling argues that the anticommunism that increasingly guided the US was viewed by the British government as "impatient and unsubtle". While, the early hope that British diplomacy could be united with US resources proved "too ambitious", the outbreak of the Korean war "did not dislodge" Britain's effort to accommodate nationalism and regionalism" in Southeast Asia, nor its efforts to ensure that independent India remained a "source for British policy". Tarling clearly sympathises with the British diplomats and officials who sought to ensure that Britain played as much of a role as possible in the transition from colonialism to nation-states in Southeast Asia. He concludes that, in contrast to earlier decades, Southeast Asia has now "emerged as a zone of peace, of stability, and of prosperity", arguing that this situation is not only a result of the significant, "albeit painful exertion of US power" and the "investment of the Japanese", but that it also "owes something to the British statesmanship of the post-war period, which conceived of and worked towards a region in which East and West collaborated" (pp. 411-412).
Tarling's view that Southeast Asia by the end of the 1990s had "emerged as a zone of peace, of stability, and of prosperity", and that British statesmen of the late-colonial and early Cold War period (along with the U.S. government and Japanese investors) deserve some credit for this outcome, is contentious. First of all, even if this statement was accurate before mid-1997 (and it can be presumed that the book went to press before the onset of the Asian financial crisis), it has been overtaken by events. In the wake of the Asian financial crisis, Southeast Asia hardly appears to be a zone of peace, stability and prosperity. However, even before 1997, viewing Southeast Asia as a zone of peace, stability and prosperity entailed a selective definition of 'Southeast Asia' and a selective reading of the region's post-1945 history. Burma can hardly be included in such an assessment, while it is not clear that Cambodia, or Laos (or even Vietnam) are prosperous or even particularly stable, even if the former constituent elements of French Indochina are no longer torn by the war, which the U.S. played a large role in starting and prolonging, as they were in previous decades. There were already signs of instability in many parts of Indonesia before the financial crisis triggered the wider political and social crises into which the former Dutch colony has now plunged. The 'stability' imposed during the Suharto years contributed significantly to post-Suharto instability. Nor does the Philippines fit this generalisation. In fact the image of Southeast Asia as a stable, prosperous and peaceful region by the 1980s and 1990s was always centred on Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand (with Indonesia being included in the early 1990s by influential observers such as the World Bank on the relatively superficial basis of impressive economic growth rates). Certainly relative to the period stretching from the 1940s to the 1970s, parts of Southeast Asia in the 1990s may be viewed as peaceful, prosperous and stable, but not the region as a whole.
The idea that Southeast Asia has now become a zone of peace, prosperity and stability and that this flows in part from the efforts of British diplomats and colonial officials is connected to what this reviewer regards as the main weakness of the book. This is the way in which the author's tight focus on the "official mind" of British imperialism in Southeast Asia between 1945-1950 leads to the neglect of the wider forces at work in the rise of nationalism, decolonization and nation building in the early Cold War era. The highly contingent process of creating nation-states out of the complex and variegated former Western European and U.S. colonies in Southeast Asia (Thailand, which was never formally colonized of course, being the one exception to formal colonial rule in the region) was at once both stabilising and destabilising. For example, the instability of countries such as Burma and Indonesia is directly linked to way in which the sovereign territory of these new nations was taken to be coterminous with most of their former colonial boundaries. With decolonisation, the nationalist movements in the region turned the former colonial states into the institutional and territorial embodiment of the new nations and the many contradictions of the new nation-states were contained but not erased by institutions, boundaries and practices grounded in the colonial era. Challenges to nation-states whose legitimacy and sovereignty rests on the boundaries drawn in the colonial era continue to emerge and following decolonization national elites in Southeast Asia have conjured with the threat of 'instability' to justify the maintenance of often authoritarian political structures which are implicated in the very instability they seek to prevent.
At the same time, although decolonization was generally supported by the British and the U.S. governments as a means for stabilising the region, the process was also resisted and destabilised, especially by the Dutch government in the 1940s and the French Government up to 1954, but also by the British and the U.S. government, if the particular type of nation-state (such as a Vietnam under Ho Chi Minh) was viewed as unacceptable. Apart from Ho's Vietnam, the U.S., at least, also sought to help breakup Indonesia in the late 1950s because Sukarno was seen to be aligning himself with 'international communism'. Furthermore, the British government and the U.S. government overlooked the instability inherent in many of the new nations, while the legitimacy of these nations has been reinforced by British and U.S. officials who have accepted implicitly or explicitly that national elites speak for all the people who live within the boundaries of the various nation-states of Southeast Asia even when there is considerable evidence to the contrary. Peace, stability and prosperity in Indonesia or Burma, to take the most extreme examples, as well as in Southeast Asia more generally, may only be possible following a searching and critical re-examination of the national boundaries and administrative arrangements arrived at in the late-colonial and early Cold War era. Despite these criticisms this is an impressive piece of research and an invaluable study of a crucial period in the history of post-1945 Southeast Asia. It can be recommended to all those interested in the modern history of the region, the history of British policy in this period, or the history of the Cold War in Southeast Asia.
. Nicholas Tarling, Anglo-Dutch rivalry in the Malay world, 1780-1824 [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1962]. Nicholas Tarling, Piracy and politics in the Malay world : a study of British imperialism in nineteenth-century South-east Asia [Melbourne: Cheshire, 1963]. Nicholas Tarling, Southeast Asia: past and present [Melbourne: Cheshire, 1966]. Nicholas Tarling, British policy in the Malay Peninsula and Archipelago, 1824-1871 [Singapore : Oxford University Press, 1969]. Nicholas Tarling, Britain, the Brookes and Brunei [London: Oxford University Press, 1971]. Nicholas Tarling, The fourth Anglo-Burmese war : Britain and the independence of Burma [Gaya: Centre for South East Asian Studies, 1987]. Nicholas Tarling, The fall of Imperial Britain in South-East Asia [Singapore: Oxford University Press, 1993]. Nicholas Tarling, Nations and States in Southeast Asia [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998].
. Nicholas Tarling, ed., The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia two volumes [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992].
. Nicholas Tarling, Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Pacific War [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996]. Tarling is currently working on a third volume which carries the story into the 1950s. Meanwhile, two more general works by Tarling are due to appear later this year. Nicholas Tarling, Southeast Asia: A Modern History [Singapore: Oxford University Press, 2001]. (forthcoming). Nicholas Tarling, Imperalism in Southeast Asia: A Fleeting Passing Phase [London: Routledge, 2001]. (forthcoming).
. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher (with Alice Denny), Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism [London: Macmillan, second edition 1981; first published 1961].
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-asia.
Mark T. Berger. Review of Tarling, Nicholas, Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Cold War 1945-1950.
H-Asia, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 2001 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at firstname.lastname@example.org.