H-Diplo Article Review 765 on “‘A Wide Anticommunist Arc’: Britain, ASEAN, and Nixon’s Triangular Diplomacy.”

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Article Review

No. 765

8 May 2018




Article Review Editors: Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse

Web and Production Editor: George Fujii


Wen-Qing Ngoei. “‘A Wide Anticommunist Arc’: Britain, ASEAN, and Nixon’s Triangular Diplomacy.” Diplomatic History 41:5 (November 2017): 903-932. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhx033.


URL: http://tiny.cc/AR765


Review by Robert Rakove, Stanford University




In an ambitious, strongly argued article—drawn from his upcoming book, to be published next year by Cornell University Press—Wen-Qing Ngoei makes a powerful argument for the salience of small and medium powers—specifically Southeast Asian governments—in laying the groundwork for President Richard Nixon’s triangular diplomacy, and the subsequent emergence of the détente system. Consequently, he also challenges much of the current scholarship on the origins of détente, written by historians Odd Arne Westad, Chen Jian, and Jeremi Suri, among others, while adding to a recent outpouring on the region during the Vietnam era.[1]


“A Wide Anticommunist Arc” works along three parallel tracks, depicting the emergence of three localized associations or initiatives: the Five-Power Defense Agreement (FPDA), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the latter’s little known Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) initiative. Taken together, this trifecta acted well in advance of President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, containing China, excluding the Soviet Union, and turning the preponderance of Southeast Asia into an effective “neocolonial system” for the United States (904). Effectively barred from the region, the two Communist powers were each obligated to deal in earnest with the Nixon administration, thereby paving the way for the emergence of the détente era.


Accounts of the British retreat from positions east of Suez usually stress the consternation it evoked in Washington, particularly over the possible emergence of a power vacuum in the Persian Gulf region—leading to a dangerous reliance on Iran and its ruler.[2] In Southeast Asia, by this telling, the transition between British and U.S. hegemony was more orderly, facilitated by a British-designed collective security organization, the FPDA. Notionally tying together Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Malaysia, and Singapore, the FPDA was in fact intended to elicit military commitments from the ANZUS powers to the defense of Malaysia and Singapore. British involvement in the FPDA was ultimately limited by budgetary exigencies, yet the Edward Heath government’s expansion of a joint military exercise, Bersatu Padu (“Complete Unity” in Malay) had an unexpected, beneficial effect. Soviet leaders were “so impressed” that they came to believe that Britain would never withdraw from the region (907, 914).


Yet this is only part of the regional response chronicled by Ngoei. The 1967 formation of ASEAN—the most familiar part of this story—brought together a group of avowedly anticommunist states, intent on resisting the expansion of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) into the region. The ASEAN five—Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and the Philippines—each supported the U.S. war in Vietnam, while suppressing domestic Communists and shunning Beijing. Notionally neutral, ASEAN facilitated the emergence of a highly effective regional anticommunist network.[3] Effectively barred from the region, the People’s Republic took notice. Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai decried his government’s exclusion from the South China Sea. By Ngoei’s reckoning, this constituted an overlooked third motivation for Chairman Mao Zedong to accept Nixon’s visit in January 1972—alongside the better-known factors of the disastrous Cultural Revolution and Sino-Soviet border conflict.


Thirdly, and finally, the ASEAN states offered Mao and Nixon a scheme that would effectively maintain U.S. hegemony in the area, without excluding the PRC. Malaysia, in particular, promoted the ZOPFAN concept, which promised the neutralization of Southeast Asia. Zhou appears to have taken particular notice, describing ZOPFAN as a “good tendency” in a conversation with Kissinger (924). He pushed successfully for the inclusion of ZOPFAN-like provisions in the Shanghai Communique, which concluded Nixon’s 1972 visit.


I am impressed by the range of this article, and especially by the argument about ZOPFAN and its influence on the Shanghai Communique. An article of this scope must, necessarily, raise questions for further study. Many, one hopes, will be addressed in Ngoei’s forthcoming book. Further research in Moscow and Beijing will be needed, however, to support some strands of the argument: those related to Soviet and Chinese decisionmaking.


To begin with, Ngoei contends that the FPDA “frustrated Soviet hopes of capitalizing on Britain’s retreat from Singapore and the United States’ anticipated exit from Vietnam (904).” One may wonder, however, how robust those hopes were in the first place. Much remains to be written on Soviet policy toward Southeast Asia in the mid-Cold War, but several inferences can still be drawn from recent work, and from broader overviews of Khrushchev and Brezhnev-era statecraft.


Any consideration of the prospects for the expansion of Soviet influence in Southeast Asia in the late 1960s has to reckon with the conjoined legacies of neglect and folly. “Laos, Vietnam, all Southeast Asia,” Soviet General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev reportedly exclaimed to a visiting U.S. delegation in April 1963. “You and the Chinese can fight over it. I give up. We give up. We don’t want any of it.”[4] Even allowing for his theatricality (and penchant for overstatement), the outburst contained more than a little truth. By Ilya Gaiduk’s assessment, Indochinese problems only drew Khrushchev’s attention inasmuch as they complicated his diplomacy toward the United States.[5] He had made a more substantial commitment to Sukarno’s Indonesia, but the mercurial strongman’s campaign against Malaysia, and increasing affinity for the PRC, rendered that investment precarious – even before the horrific events of 1965-1966. Khrushchev’s successors had precious little to show afterward for their (increasingly tepid) support of Sukarno, who had succeeded in antagonizing many of his neighbors.[6] Nor was Moscow’s ever-deepening commitment to North Vietnam likely to endear it to noncommunist regimes in the area with a vested stake in the U.S. war effort.[7]


In short, while the FPDA appears to have facilitated a more orderly power transition, without additional evidence, this reviewer is inclined to doubt that the Soviet Union enjoyed meaningful prospects in Southeast Asia, outside of the former Indochina – or that it believed it did. The Indonesian debacle was too recent. Khrushchev’s successor, Leonid Brezhnev could very well propose a regional collective security system to Southeast Asian governments, but he had little to lose by trying at that point. Was he surprised when they turned him down (913)?


This is not to suggest that Ngoei omits discussion of either Indonesia or Moscow’s weak regional hand. He describes “an underlying sense of inferiority on the Kremlin’s part” and the effective decimation of “most of the Southeast Asian groups carrying the communist bloc’s ideological convictions” including the destruction of the Communist Party of Indonesia (913). Cast against this disheartening backdrop, however, Bersatu Padu and the emergence of the FPDA appear more as insult than injury. The sometime suggestion that Southeast Asian factors motivated the Soviet response to Nixon’s triangular diplomacy is similarly a step too far (904, 931).


Yet more attention is paid to Chinese responses to ASEAN, and Ngoei’s suggestion that ZOPFAN influenced Zhou and the Shanghai Communique strikes me as this article’s most important contribution. One can see a Chinese embrace of ZOPFAN as presaging the renewed diplomatic offensive in the 1970s described by Jeremy Friedman.[8] I am persuaded that we should take Southeast Asia, as a region, seriously, as we grapple with China’s response to Nixon—the question is, again, what weight we should accord it.


China’s sense of encirclement in 1969 is perhaps too easily reduced to the litany of unfriendly large powers surrounding and confronting it: the Soviet Union, Japan, India, and—from afar—the United States. Mao and Zhou were surely vexed by the PRC’s marginalization in an area of traditional influence, and thus Ngoei’s argument for considering China’s southern flank is well taken.


Still, one is uncertain how much significance should be granted to Southeast Asian concerns, in comparison with other issues. The evidentiary linchpin for this argument appears to be Zhou’s remark to Kissinger that “the institutions for [containing China] in Southeast Asia are more numerous than in any other area in the world (923).” Yet can we accord this factor the same magnitude as the 1969 war scare with the Soviet Union, which drove Mao to place the country on a wartime footing?[9] Finally, acknowledging Zhou’s influence on the opening of relations with the United States, any accounting must still surely grapple with the motivations of Mao. Otherwise, the (familiar) standard narrative will remain convincing, if somewhat complicated by the addition of Southeast Asian factors.


“A Wide Anti-Communist Arc” gives scholars of the Cold War considerable cause to look forward to publication of Ngoei’s book next year. A preoccupation with the Vietnam War has, to date, limited broader regional studies of the Cold War in Southeast Asia. The remarkable emergence of ASEAN remains an understudied event, and Ngoei has much to contribute to our understanding of it, and its broader implications. His caution against treating the emergence of détente solely as a great power affair is well founded, even if the relative role of Southeast Asian factors remains open to debate.


Robert Rakove is a lecturer in International Relations at Stanford University. He received his doctorate in History from the University of Virginia and is the author of Kennedy, Johnson, and the Nonaligned World (Cambridge University Press, 2012). He is presently at work on a history of the Afghan-American relationship in the decades preceding the Soviet invasion.


© 2018 The Authors | Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License




[1] Jeremi Suri, Power and Protest: Global Revolution and the Rise of Detente (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Jian Chen, Mao’s China and the Cold War (Chapel Hill: The University Of North Carolina Press, 2001); Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire: China and the World since 1750 (New York: Basic Books, 2012). Robert J. McMahon, The Limits of Empire: The United States and Southeast Asia since World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999) remains the standard overview of U.S. policy in the region. Major recent works include Daniel Chua, US-Singapore Relations, 1965-1975: Strategic Non-Alignment in the Cold War (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017); Cheng Guan Ang, Southeast Asia and the Vietnam War (London: Routledge, 2011); Joey S. R. Long, Safe for Decolonization: The Eisenhower Administration, Britain, and Singapore (Kent: Kent State University Press, 2011).

[2] W. Taylor Fain, American Ascendance and British Retreat in the Persian Gulf Region (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 161-180; Roham Alvandi, Nixon, Kissinger, and the Shah: The United States and Iran in the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 33-37.

[3] Two parallels come to mind: the interwar regional policing network established by European and American colonial regimes in the region; and, a few years later, Operation Condor. On the former, see Anne L. Foster, Projections of Power: The United States and Europe in Colonial Southeast Asia, 1919-1941 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 15-42.

[4] Quoted in Lawrence Freedman, Kennedy’s Wars: Berlin, Cuba, Laos, and Vietnam (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 355.

[5] Ilya V. Gaiduk, Confronting Vietnam: Soviet Policy toward the Indochina Conflict, 1954-1963 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).

[6] Ragna Boden’s superb survey of this ill-fated aid relationship, although it concludes in 1965, suggests why Moscow regarded the region warily by the late 1960s. Sukarno’s government received a staggering 21% of all aid sent to non-socialist countries, and one-third of all Asian aid. Among postcolonial states, only Egypt received more assistance. See Ragna Boden, “Cold War Economics: Soviet Aid to Indonesia,” Journal of Cold War Studies 10:3 (July 2008): 110-128.

[7] I am indebted to Joseph Torigian for raising this point.

[8] Jeremy Friedman, Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Split and the Third World (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 180–214.

[9] Yang Kuisong, “The Sino-Soviet Border Clash of 1969: From Zhenbao Island to Sino-American Rapprochement,” Cold War History 1:1 (August 2000): 21-52.