China’s New Vassal
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For THREE decades now, Southeast Asia has been the scene and cockpit of struggles among great powers. Can it now be moved away from this status- unenviable and totally unwanted by its peoples? Can one outline a picture of conditions there that meets the desires of Southeast Asians and is at the same time compatible with the basic interests of all the major powers? Are such conditions more realizable now than ever before? If so, how can one move from here to there, and in particular how, if they were made the ultimate goal, would this affect the play of the hand (in all quarters) in bringing the war in Indo-China to a conclusion?
This is the broad and proper way to frame the problem. Indeed, it is the one that fits any thoughtful definition of U.S. national interests. What we care about, and should have always defined as our objective, can be simply stated as "conditions for lasting peace" there-or for that matter anywhere else in the world. This real goal should be seen affirmatively and above all in terms of the aspirations of the 250 million people whose hopes and fears, however inarticulate and vague, define the true tides of the future.
Before trying to outline "conditions for lasting peace" in Southeast Asia, and certainly before making any judgment as to the possibility of attaining them, let us look at what has happened there in the last five years. The picture is wholly different from what it was in the spring and summer of 1965, when the culminating series of major American decisions in Vietnam was taken.
Then, the great-power forces within the area were seen in starkly bipolar terms: the "East Wind" of China was blowing strongly and thrustingly versus a "West Wind" which was pretty much American alone. Indonesia was tilted far to the left, almost wholly aligned with China, and engaged in a struggle against Malaysia and Singapore in which the British and Commonwealth defenders could only hope to lose slowly. Then, if ever, a Hanoi takeover of South Vietnam seemed likely, in conjunction with other trends, to make probable not only North Vietnamese domination in the Indochina area but a wave of Chinese expansion into the rest of Southeast Asia.
The United States, with these wider stakes much in mind, decided, with the support of others, to stand in defense of South Vietnam. Indonesia went through a miraculous (and tragically bloody) change; and China, after a dramatic series of reverses worldwide in 1965, entered upon the cultural revolution in early 1966. Leave it to historians to trace the connections, if any, between these events. Suffice it to say that they changed the practical and psychological climate of Southeast Asia dramatically in a short space of time. In Indonesia, confrontation with neighboring states and snarling at "neo-colonialism" were replaced by peace within a new multilateral framework that included debt forgiveness from abroad and foreign aid. By 1967, internal chaos had eroded China's prestige and greatly reduced the pressures from the north, at least for the time being. To the American public, any major Chinese threat came to seem so remote that by late 1967 a reference to its long-term aspects by Secretary Rusk (in terms familiar to President Kennedy) was criticized as extremism and the invention of a new rationale.
The stakes were changing, and as early as 1966 one thoughtful American, George Kennan, had suggested that the change in Indonesia alone had removed one strong argument for the United States to stick it out in Vietnam. The point was not lost within the Administration, and if the South Vietnamese political troubles of the spring of 1966 had not been speedily redressed, it is just possible that it would have had real weight. Thereafter, and through 1967, there was no thought of change; the Southeast Asian picture appeared to Washington to be brightening steadily on almost every front although formidable costs were multiplying at home.
March of 1968 brought a turning point both in Southeast Asia and in American policy and politics. Not only the outcome in Vietnam but the willingness of the United States to remain engaged in Southeast Asia were suddenly seen to be in grave doubt. This is not to say that the promising elements of 1965-67 had disappeared. Economic growth of individual nations, regional coöperation and multilateral aid continued, and still continue. Indonesia and Thailand, in particular, have taken the lead in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the first grouping in this area for political and economic coöperation.
Nor are the changes that have occurred in the great-power situation seen as deeply threatening, at least as yet. The United States, scarred by the Vietnam experience, is determined to be less deeply involved in the area in the future, and China, though partially recovered from the cultural revolution, is still pre-occupied by internal problems and by friction on its northern borders. Both have been cut down to size, and as "great powers" no longer stand alone. The immense growth in Japan's presence and effort is accompanied by its proclaimed intent to play "the leading role" in foreign aid; and with the lesser spread of Soviet economic activity there has come talk of security pacts and evidence of a naval presence in the Indian Ocean. In itself, the idea that there may now be four great powers concerned with the area, and that there is no clearcut alignment even among these four, is wholly welcome. The same is true of the increased presence and interest of Australia and New Zealand, and the slowly growing economic activity of West European nations.
On the whole, save in Burma, the statesmen of Southeast Asia want more rather than fewer ties with the developed countries. The cry of "neo- colonialism" finds little echo today. To be sure, there remain basic concerns regarding the West. One grievance turns on the terms of trade for Southeast Asia's primary and industrial products; if allowed to become worse, this could fester into a really sharp antagonism. But the bogey of a new Western or American economic "imperialism" is largely a figment of the imagination of the New Left in the United States; one does not encounter it to any significant extent in Southeast Asia. Nor would the facts as to the scale and nature of U.S. economic activity in the area support it; and, most crucially, the host countries truly control the terms of access, in no small part because the developed countries are in competition with each other. (If the Philippines is cited as an exception, I would comment that the sooner the U.S.-Philippine relationship changes the better; and indeed, the United States has shown itself prepared to abandon its favored position at any time.) Ironically, over the next decade, the nearest to a single controlling economic position could become that of the U.S.S.R. as a buyer of Malaysian rubber.
In short, Southeast Asia has come a long way since 1965-and even more strikingly since 1955 and 1960. True, hardly any Southeast Asian nation appears to have found an enduring political form of government. On the whole, governments are generally more responsive than before, and no longer depend on the charisma of first-generation post-colonial leaders. But the combination of a firm structure and an institutional and personal base to run it exists almost nowhere save perhaps in Singapore.
Also true, as George Thomson[i] has pointed out, most boundaries in Southeast Asia are colonial in origin, which can produce claims like that made by the Philippines on the Malaysian territory of Sabah. Also, the sense of national identity is frequently weak, and not felt by minorities or tribal groups. But this is hardly unique. Further, local historical rivalries are still much alive, though muted compared to a decade ago.
All this indicates that substantial degrees of change are inevitable in Southeast Asia in the 25 years ahead, and human experience indicates that outbreaks of violence will not be avoided. Realistic "conditions for lasting peace" do not mean a static absence of change or an end to violence. They can mean only that violence is limited, above all that it does not engage the forces or the decisive supporting weight of major powers.
What the last five to ten years have shown in Southeast Asia has been, in an underlying sense: that the individual nations have enough cohesion to stand on their own feet; that, though they face major problems, they can progress economically; that they have developed a new degree of "area spirit" and the beginnings of regional organization (as shown by ASEAN especially); and that they need ties to the great powers, though they do not wish to be a cockpit for any struggles among them.
The period has done even more than that, however. It also has shown that the real estate of the Southeast Asia mainland is not militarily crucial to any great nation, or vitally threatening to any other. This must affect particularly the Chinese view of an American presence there. There was a time when eminent commentators thought that China's concern on this point constituted the whole essence of the Vietnam problem. I doubt if anyone in Peking thinks that today. I am inclined to think that, though they might never admit it, Mao and his colleagues have been impressed during the last five years by America's evident desire to avoid war with China; the whole experience is one of the elements that may make an easing of tension and growth of communication now possible. But in any event Peking must know both that American bases in Southeast Asia never really added to any threat to China-and that such bases are now to be reduced if not eliminated. It was always true that none of the four great powers could get at the vitals of any of the others via the geography of Southeast Asia. The truth may now be more deeply felt.
The economic resources of Southeast Asia are likewise important to all the powers but vital to none. Its export markets and import supplies have become much more healthily diversified in the last decade, as world trade has expanded. Again, realization of the facts has probably changed even more than the facts themselves. Who today thinks that the area could serve as the rice bowl of China? Or that Japan (much less the United States) would be "vitally" affected by the loss of investment opportunities, export markets or access to resources there?
Most recently, even the geographic importance of Southeast Asia may have been exaggerated. One tends to think of the Straits of Malacca as "vital." At least, it has been argued, hostile control of the whole Indonesian archipelago would be a drastic threat to Australia and New Zealand and would face Japan with an economic stranglehold on its oil supplies. As for the United States, even though it needs the route less, its interests would be seriously affected through the damage to its Pacific partners. And, no doubt, someone in Peking has drawn equally grave pictures of China fenced in from access to the southern seas. But is it so? Not in the view of some in Japan who have lately drawn up realistic assessments of what the cost would be of using the Sunda Strait, or even going clean around Indonesia. Painful and inconvenient it would be, but it can be done. After all, the world has adjusted to the closing of Suez.
The point of these changed perceptions is not that Southeast Asia has suddenly become unimportant, but rather that no great power really need fear another there. As Washington calculations from the 1950s on were based far less on any affirmative U.S. needs in the area than on what Chinese "control" of it would mean, so China must in turn have thought what U.S. "control" would mean. It was the interaction of these two sets of fears that made the situation acutely bipolar and explosive. Now, the degree of realistic concern as to what "worst cases" could mean must be less, so that there should be correspondingly less drive and reciprocal fear.
What, then, are the "conditions for lasting peace" that respond to the desires of Southeast Asians, while at the same time being compatible with the interests and interactions of the great powers?
First and foremost, the preservation of the independence of the individual nations.
Second, a continued and in many instances improved rate of economic progress. The economic success stories of the past decade-in Thailand, Malaysia, perhaps Singapore most notably-need to continue and to be joined by others. To be sure, what is progress for some may be a problem for others, as in the case of the "miracle rice" that has been of dramatic help to the Philippines and now Indonesia, but with at least temporary harm to the export markets of Thailand and Burma. There is already a need for major diversification and innovation, and most basically of all, to improve the worldwide terms of trade. The recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) resolution, promising reduced tariffs in the developed world, could mean much in Southeast Asia, though it will not solve the problem of free market pricing in key commodities. Only world pooling arrangements could do this, and these do not seem in the cards.
Third, the fullest possible coöperation among the Southeast Asian nations. One of ASEAN's prime virtues is that it is open-ended, and of course also without ideological coloring. The Asian Development Bank and the regional economic projects originated in the Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE) are likewise practical and wise. For the moment, more is probably not needed; to develop to the full the projects that are now practicable and the sharing of experience in such fields as population control will be a considerable task. It is not in the nature of the economies of the area, essentially not complementary to one another, that anything in the way of a common market for the area could develop. What is essential is the experience of working and thinking together.
From this may emerge a fourth key element-what for lack of a better term might be called a "common law of change" in Southeast Asia. Something of this sort seems already to have happened in Africa (in the Congo and Biafra), and may be emerging in Latin America. What it means simply is that the nations of an area are the initial judges of whether change and the use of violence or force of any kind are or are not fair and tolerable-and thus are, or are not, to be opposed or supported by others in the area, or by outside nations in a pinch. This could-and should-mean that the area would take an attitude of laissez-faire toward many of the changes of government that appear possible, on any broad projection, over the next 25 years; conversely, it could mean a loud protest if there is offensive military action or interference by a great power or a neighbor. In between, an area grouping could enter a neutral judgment on a border dispute while seeking to arbitrate it (as ASEAN has in effect done on Sabah). Though Southeast Asians lack the voting weight of other less-populous areas in the United Nations, one ventures to think that the clear and strong verdict of a local jury would gain wide support, perhaps in the future as a basis for action.
One must add a fifth condition-correct behavior by the great powers. One would like to say that this should consist of a guarantee among interested outside powers that they will not interfere by military or subversive means in the area, and acting on the finding of the local jury, will join together against either an outside power or a local nation that does interfere. This is, of course, far simpler to state than to achieve, even if the will and trust were there. They are not there. Yet this solution must be saved as a goal.
The plain truth is that no security arrangement or combination of security arrangements can be designed in Southeast Asia that remotely covers conceivable forms of aggression. New direct pacts between any regional group and any outside group (on the SEATO model) are out of the question, whether with European, Pacific or northeast Asian outside membership. Any purely regional security grouping would require a build-up of military capabilities that would be diversionary from the main economic and social effort vital for independence and true "security." This is, I believe, the strong feeling of the most regionally minded Southeast Asian leaders. From this standpoint, the remaining outside commitments in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore are transitional remnants, of crucial importance in getting through the next five to ten years, but not destined to last.
If a great-power guarantee is unrealistic, and other approaches to security are divisive, what contribution are the great powers required to make on behalf of peace?
Twofold, I think. First, a self-imposed "common law of behavior" comparable to Southeast Asia's own "common law of change." Such a code of conduct would at a minimum bar the obvious forms of aggression and pressure-cum- subversion. ideally, it should in the long run exclude any form of political pressure or manipulation.
The second element might be described as "balance," were it not that in international affairs this has come too often to connote a see-saw with two ends, on which parties of somewhat fixed weights take their stand. Obviously, such a "balance" is far from being the situation of the four powers concerned, now or into the future. The most friendly pair, Japan and the United States, are likely to remain close partners in their broad views and, one hopes, in foreign aid; yet they are bound to assume different security roles and to deal with China quite differently for a time. Similarly, the most opposed pair of the four, China and the Soviet Union, will be (I venture) dancing to Hanoi's tune together, at least in terms of aid, for some time to come.
Rather, the requirement is "equilibrium"-and the fluid equilibrium of the gyroscope at that, for it must allow for major changes in the next 30 years. The absolute requirement is that no power, or any combination of powers, should threaten to dominate. The ideal, beyond that minimum, would be that no one great power should reach a position in any crucial sphere- whether military, economic, or political-where its mere size and presence, even within the code of conduct, are disruptive.
These conditions of peace add up to a truly neutral Southeast Asia. One would even use the word "neutralization" if it had not been booby-trapped by de Gaulle in 1963 so that it appeared to mean acceptance not only of predominant North Vietnamese influence in all of Indochina but of ultimate Chinese dominance in the rest of Southeast Asia. The objective is simple- that the area should develop as it sees fit, with such help as it desires from outside nations but with interference from none, and that it would accept the correlative obligation of not aligning itself.
How near, one asks, are both the Southeast Asian nations themselves and the external powers concerned with the area to behaving in accordance with these conditions?
For the Southeast Asian nations, the answer is surely that they are very close indeed. The kind of posture here described can be found over and over again in the statements of the leaders of Indonesia in particular, but with a high degree of concurrence among the other ASEAN nations also. Burma remains silent, but the central concept of neutrality has always guided her policy. Even among the nations caught up in the vortex of the war in Indochina, it has remained the stated posture of Laos and Cambodia, and the goal of South Vietnam. Thailand, which might once have been considered the most "aligned" of the mainland Southeast Asian nations, has in effect adopted a second string to its bow and is prepared to replace the first just as soon as possible.
Similarly, much of the behavior of external powers in Southeast Asia now fits largely into this pattern. The multilateral framework of aid to Indonesia is a vivid example, and it is of some note that every effort has been made for some time to keep the door open for Soviet participation within that framework. Similarly, the World Bank, perhaps conscious that it might at some point be accused of being an "aligned" agency, has recently reiterated its willingness to accept Soviet and East European membership.
As for the Soviet Union's own behavior, there has been a slowly emerging trend to treat Southeast Asia in the same manner as it deals with India and Pakistan and with the same basic fear of Chinese expansion as a major factor. In addition to their need for rubber, the Soviets have a natural interest in the free movement of their commercial shipping through the southern seas, and as time goes on this interest is bound to be reflected in some naval activity. Unless these activities lead to political meddling or a big flexing of naval muscle (to what real gain one finds it hard to see), Soviet behavior should not present a great problem. The Soviet relationship to North Vietnam could become the most important element, and it is too early to say how this will take shape over time.
The big questions, as Southeast Asians see them, concern the behavior of the other three "great powers" in the new situation. They are different questions for each. Will China once again threaten pressure and subversion? Will Japan refrain from throwing its new economic weight about, and particularly from assuming a military role at some point? And will the United States remain engaged, in the new low security posture prescribed by the Nixon Doctrine, but with major activity in trade, investment and aid throughout the area?
Of course, the three questions are intertwined. In fact, they simply summarize the requirement of "equilibrium." For if the United States does remain substantially engaged, China is seen as much less likely to be tempted to interfere or Japan ever to assume anything resembling its former wartime image.
As Japan's economic interest in Southeast Asia grows, and its concern for maintaining free transit routes develops, it should become in these respects the leader there of the four great powers-by reason of geography and Japanese economic capacity. The Japanese undoubtedly do not want to see their constructive economic role lead on to excessive leverage in individual countries, political intervention or a significant Japanese military role or presence-and they know well that Southeast Asians fear such an evolution. Yet the pressures in these directions could become great if the United States pulls out and the Chinese threat remains.
Can China, with its deep historical and cultural ties to Southeast Asia, accept and live within the kind of blueprint here described? Any present answer must be uncertain so long as Mao's successor is not determined. One could find hope-or threat?-in the apparent return to quiet realism in Chinese foreign policy over the past year. Plainly, Peking is once again seriously concerned with Southeast Asia, as shown by active propaganda in Thailand and Malaysia, the building of new roads in northern Laos and the welcome given Prince Sihanouk as a guest. One is inclined to see in this a return simply to the old probing for weakness and readiness to act on opportunities rather than intentions to take initiatives. The real test will come over time and the answer will be known by a gradual trend in behavior rather than by any paper signed at a conference. Apart from internal preoccupations and border concerns, one element affecting China's decision will be the true nonalignment or nonhostility of the Southeast Asian nations, and a realization that peaceful ties are possible. An even greater factor will be that the other three great powers should not appear to be ganging up against her. And the greatest factor of all will be that Southeast Asia does not present a picture of weakness that tempts Peking to action.
China will bulk large in any event. Given these basic elements, one can be hopeful that China would accept and live with a new Southeast Asia that was public park rather than private preserve.
The most important question today in Southeast Asian minds is whether the United States will play its part. It will be little comfort if the 1950-62 period of the cold war (United States versus China and the Soviet Union), and the ensuing period of Sino-American rivalry (involving much less ideology) were now to be replaced by acute conflict in the area among any combination of China, Japan and the Soviet Union.
From a purely American standpoint, the suggested blueprint is wholly compatible with our national interests. But how much does it mean to the United States to help it come about and then to preserve it? Is it "vital" (worth fighting about), of great importance (worth a high priority in effort and attention), or merely desirable (worth some modest effort) ? We have asked ourselves this question too little over the last 20 years, and not merely in this area.
Free economic access is a part of our interest, somewhat greater than it has been but, as always, essentially secondary. We can find substitutes for all we now get from Southeast Asia.
Of greater importance is our indirect interest-that Japan should have strong and mutually beneficial ties in the area. Assuming that our partnership with Japan is the cornerstone of a realistic East Asian policy, anything that affects Japan seriously or drives her inward is of real concern to us as well. This applies as much to a Japan that is excluded as to a Japan that thrusts out.
Broader still, we have a national interest that any major area in the developing world should move ahead in accordance with its own capacities. What failure to help achieve this would mean might not become clear for a generation. Both in principle and through years of association, we should care about Southeast Asians in the most basic sense, for their national independence and their progress.
All of these together would argue for a significant effort, though not for new commitments that carry any combat obligation. They certainly should warrant continuation of economic aid, mostly multilateral, and of the role we already play in meeting possible nuclear blackmail, under the U.N. resolution that followed the nonproliferation treaty.
But one must take the discussion a step further, if one is to derive any help from it on the importance of getting from here to there. Agree, to start with, that the word "vital" as used in the past (within the Executive Branch or in the Tonkin Gulf Resolution of the Congress) was in some part rhetoric, and for the rest represented a fear of Chinese domination over most of the area to such an extent that the whole balance of power in East Asia would be changed. Historians will argue how far that fear had foundation in 1965. As of 1970, it is surely less substantial, both because the area is stronger and because countervailing great-power weight is now present, albeit still weakly.
Is it "vital," still, to avoid any form of Chinese domination in Southeast Asia? Perhaps it may be nearly "vital" that the United States should not have to decide. It is hard to imagine a more damaging situation than one in which the United States had to choose between acting with force ("commitment" or no) in Southeast Asia, and seeing a major country there taken over by external communist power with Peking heavily involved. If the former were the choice, the extent of last spring's outburst in the United States over the action taken in Cambodia tells us what might happen. However, if we simply stood aside, at any time in the next three to five years, there might be an equally great outcry and sense of national failure in a very large part of the American public.
So it may be, it seems to me, that the United States has a very great national interest in seeing Southeast Asia move on to the new basis as rapidly and completely as possible. One could put this in the form of a paradox: the United States should be "vitally" concerned to see that Southeast Asia now becomes an area where not the United States, nor China, nor any other great power, regards its interests there as "vital."
How does all this relate to the handling by the United States of the war in Indochina? Perhaps not very much, in view of other overriding domestic factors and the simple fact that our capacity to help militarily in South Vietnam is rapidly running its course. Over the past year, Hanoi has used its inner lines of communication to make gains in Laos. Having put pressures on Cambodia that, in fact though not in intent, contributed largely to Sihanouk's downfall, it has now established a strong position in Cambodia. The war has become more difficult and more indivisible. Both sides may be under strain, and it is just possible that Hanoi may be ready to negotiate seriously. Fundamentally, the United States is strategically on the defensive, and the outcome hinges on local strength and will in South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
As they assess what the possible outcomes would mean for them, thoughtful Southeast Asians do not think or feel like "dominoes." They know that the United States has done a great deal, some would say too much. The real question for most is whether the United States, after Vietnam, will remain active in the area as a whole; those who sense the realities of American public opinion are aware that Americans could reach a point of disgust about Southeast Asia by staying too long in Vietnam.
This said, a precipitate withdrawal from Vietnam (or, in my own view, fixing unilaterally a date for withdrawal) would be regarded as a sure sign the United States was pulling out of the whole area. Southeast Asians would then act in ways likely to affect the American public and Congress so as to make that result even more likely. Once the fabric of reciprocal confidence, already strained, was really broken, there would almost certainly be a vicious downward spiral on both sides.
This can be avoided even under adverse outcomes in the countries of Indochina if the United States has played its hand reasonably well in the intervening period. The outcome in Indochina-which is Hanoi's show still- can be contained in terms of its effect in Southeast Asia, but not by pulling out regardless of consequences. If the independence of the countries of Indochina can be preserved, the sooner they are fitted into the new pattern for Southeast Asia the better. A wider Indochina conference must think in these terms, whoever attends.
In the meantime, steps such as Mr. Nixon's indication that a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam will indeed be "total" are in the right direction. Moreover, the intervention undertaken by predominantly Southeast Asian nations, under Indonesian leadership, through the Djakarta conference of last spring remains a highly significant move despite its limited results. The grouping itself may be fragile, since Japan, one of the participants, belongs to the category of "great" rather than "local" powers. But the conference marked a first step toward establishing participation by the area in the Indochina situation, and it should certainly be a major goal of the peacekeeping provisions of any settlement of the situation to provide a role for Southeast Asian nations-perhaps even the sole role. That would be a long step indeed toward meeting the requirement of a "common law of change."
Foreign policy in the American democracy tends to swing between extremes-to prefer the simplification of slogans, tug-of-war not cat's cradle. It prefers to reject, rather than amend, directions that have led to trouble; it finds it hard to qualify, or be selective, or to take account of timing and transition. So it will not be easy to move with the new tides in Southeast Asia, and to do our part in channeling them toward peace. It may not be a catchy slogan, but perhaps we can take comfort in the simple but neglected notion of doing what the area itself wants.
[i] "The New World of Asia," Foreign Affairs, October 1969.