The Arc of Containment

The Arc of Containment

Britain, the United States and Anti Communism i n Southeast Asia

by Wen Qing Ngoei

(Ithaca: Cornel University Press, 2019).


At 270 pages, “The Arc of Containment: is a long read. But it is worth it.

The author gave his best effort to revisit the roles of Britain and the United States with a fine comb tooth.

It succeeded in no uncertain manner, precisely due to Wen Qing’s careful attention to the literature, not as a political scientist per se, but rather as a historian who was inspired by Mark Bradley, the editor of Cornel University Press on Asian scholarahip and Cold War.

From the word get-go, Wen Qing led the way to dispell the myth that it was the French’s fiasco in Dien Bien Phu in 1953, marked by their defeat then, that enhanced the UnitednStates’ interest in Southeast Asia to carry the military, or if one may, the civilizing mission forward.

Wen Qing’s well finessed historical scholarahip that this was not necessarily the case proven important. The US did not take from where the French laid off but worked assiduously with the British, who had lost several important colonies in 7 months, among them Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan and Myanmar.

In his briefing to President John Kennedy, for example, prior to handing over his officer to him, President Dwight Eisenhower did as much as he can, to explain to President Kennedy, that “Laos” was at the top of the US’ strategic priority in Southeast Asia.

This point is well emphasized by fhe scholarship of Josh Kurtlanzick at the Council for Foreign Relations too.

The “Arc of Containment” oddly enough did not start by referring to the X “Long Telegram” of the late George Kennan.

Rather, the author’s point was to explain that both Britain and the US worked hand-in-gloves to defend the likes of Thailand, Malaya, subsequently, Malaysia when it expanded to included Singapore in 1963; before the latter withdrew from the Federation of Malaysia in 1965 to go it alone as an independent.republic.

That allowed Britain and the US to enhance their sense of importance, and presence,.with the top post colonial leaders working closely with the likes of Tunku Abdul Rahman of Malaya (later Malaysia); Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and President Suharto of Indonesia.

Thailand, too, served as a bulwark against the further expansion of northern Vietnam.

The key to the scholarship of Wee Weng, at the Singapore Management University, was a talent to explain dense events in clear prose, backed again and again, by well researched sources.

What is interesting is the manner, by which he rolled out five chapters of the book. How, for example, did British colonialism inspire the staying power of the United States in Southeast Asia ?

Nor did Wee Weng side step the issue if all of these geographical pieces could “cohere,” at all; granted that each of them has had a substantial ethnic Chinese population to boot They were either left to their own devices, Creaolized, or, permitted to stay in these countries under heavy local suspicions,.that they were the proverbial fifth column, especially given rheir dream to return to mother China too.

Wouldn’t they become the potential Communist sympathizerrs or enemies that would undermine the effort of the British and the US to keep the “Arc of Containment” in one sweep ?

Events in 1965, resulting in the pogroms of ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, yet again in 1998, the latter, after the end of the Cold War, shows that this was not an easy question or policy dilemma to answer.

Be that as it may, Wee Weng correctly pointed out that the Communists had penetrated the teachers unions, the labor unions and various social movement.

It is fortunate that while China aspires to export its ideology of Maoism abroad, China was in the throes of Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Between 1950-1970s, Beijing or Chairman Mao, paid scant, if not, tangential interest to Southeast Asia.

Be that as it may, due to the threat of Communism, it was enough to conclude that each of these countries, namely Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, would deign to ignore the insousiance of the mainland China.

This was largely due to the threat of Communism coming from Vietnam or Viet Kong.

This book review cannot do justice to the details and rich bibliography of the books, all of which are important to understand how Cold War began in Southeast Asia, and the extent to which the US and Britain were jointly dedicated, to protecting this region, invariably, as a sphere of their influence.

But judging from the extent to which Britain and US had embraced the cause of the Hong Kong protests against China last year, the “Arc of Containment” is not geographically fixed to the south.

But it could potentially be omni-directional, as and when the US and Britain could find various mechanisms, including the Quads, perhaps the Quads Plus, and more Malabar Exercises with India, indeed more freedom of navigation initiatives with Australia and Britain, to keep the South China Sea, and West Pacific, perennially open.

In all, this is a swift and well written book, with clear prose, and solid sources, based on elegant look into the personality of each decision makers such as the likes of those who formed the Bandung Declaration in 1955.

But it is definitely a book on anti-Communism, indeed, how the likes of Tan Cheng Lok of Malaysia encouraged more Chinese to stay loyal to Malaya, even to block Guoming Dang to be in MCA, lest MCA is seen as a bastion of anti China- members.

Surprisingly, for those who are well versed with Southeast Asian history, things such as coups and CIA contractors are not new.

But top US and British decision makers’ influence to cut them some slack, to shape South East Asia—-before passing these missions to their trusted “Lieutenants,”——to form the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEN) since August 8 1967.