THE spread of the European war to Asia has torn the whole region from Hong Kong to India from the political moorings of at least the past fifty years. Hong Kong, Indo-China, Thailand, Burma, the Philippines, the Netherlands East Indies, British Malaya and British and Dutch Borneo -- all are now held, as it were, in escrow, to be distributed according as the war goes. The process of distribution will be one of the difficult tasks confronting the makers of the peace.[i] It will be the more difficult in that obviously something more will be required than a mere restitution of territory to the victors and the restoration of the status quo ante 1939. Excepting only Thailand, each of the territories in question is a colonial possession and not a part of the metropolitan area of any of the contending states. Excepting Thailand, no one of them is inhabited by the people of the states which will have the power of decision. Thus in each case there is a third party to the struggle for possession. In addition to the United Nations on one side, and Japan and her European partners on the other, there are the native populations. By all recent historical precedent it can be taken for granted that the third party will not remain wholly a passive agent. A profound readjustment will be necessary in Southeastern Asia no less than on the mainland further north and in Europe.

However decisive the victory of the United Nations, it seems plain that Southeastern Asia will not again take on the same political shape that it had before 1939. The change in the relationship between great empires and their colonial dependencies which began after the First World War will be carried a step further after the Second. We could not foresee in 1918 that colonies which were inhabited by people of a relatively high order of national consciousness and cultural development were never again to resume the status which they had formerly occupied. But by analogy we now can foresee that after this war the same pressure for change will again be at work, though one stage lower down in the scale of national consciousness and cultural development. The colonies on that lower level, formerly passive, will many of them refuse to accept their former status. Among them are several of the territories in Southeastern Asia.

The First World War brought to a head certain ideas that acted as political solvents. Perhaps all great wars do; and in that sense all great wars are subversive. In any case, the First World War was irreparably disruptive of imperial relations. Democracy throughout the entire world, self-determination, the rights of small nations, justice for weak and strong alike -- these concepts were inherently incompatible with imperial rule, and they inevitably generated aspirations in subject peoples or sharpened ones which were already in existence. Nationalism as a political value had already been disseminated beyond the Western World, and the first consequent stirrings of revolt had been perceptible among the more advanced peoples of Africa and Asia before 1914. They of course responded readily to the appeal of the Allied war propaganda, with the result that the years between the end of the war and the resurgence of Germany were marked by nationalistic uprisings of subject peoples throughout the East and in North Africa.

Indeed, these uprisings were for some years the main stuff of world politics. India, China, Egypt, Syria, Morocco -- all were in a formal state of revolt at one time or another in the decade following the last war, and there were lesser affairs of the same sort elsewhere. In most cases the risings met with a measure of success and the lot of the subject peoples was at least ameliorated. On the whole, however, only the more advanced colonials were able to assimilate and act on the doctrines first expounded by Wilson and then given a peculiar edge by Lenin.

There was not much change in this period in Southeastern Asia. For one thing, the colonies there were possessions of Powers which had never been seriously shaken and which emerged victorious in the end. The Netherlands remained neutral. The United States was never in difficulties. Great Britain and France fought on the defensive for three years; but Germany never was unmistakably ahead and, moreover, since Japan was their ally, they were never under attack in the East. On the contrary, even in the worst years Great Britain and France showed gains in the world's colonial areas. Southeastern Asia itself was not touched by the war. There was no destruction there. There was some economic dislocation but no deprivation. In fact, some areas which exported primary products essential to war prospered abnormally. On the whole, then, the colonies of Britain, France, Holland and the United States felt the war at one remove only. Perhaps most important of all, those Powers never appeared to be in such desperate straits, never were so near defeat and humiliation, that the legend of their invincibility could be seriously questioned by the native peoples. And it is by this legend of white invincibility that the empires have ruled. It has been more effective in warding off any challenge and in maintaining stability than the actual forces available to suppress native risings.

To sum up: the prestige on which imperial rule in Southeastern Asia rested was almost unshaken by the last war. There did develop a nucleus of nationalistic disaffection, especially in the years when the Communist International was most active. But in contrast with what was happening in more highly developed colonies in other regions it was only a nucleus and as such was suppressed relatively easily.

It is far otherwise now. There is war in Southeastern Asia and its impact is being felt directly by all the native inhabitants, colonial or independent. Many of them are dying or being driven from their homes impoverished. Possession and rule are changing hands. Traditional ties are being severed. The first requisite of an empire -- the ability to protect the subject peoples -- has not been met. On the contrary, each of the empires is being evicted, at least temporarily, and its native subjects have been left to the mercy of the invader. The prestige of the sovereign is gone. It is not gone irretrievably and in a measure it can be regained by final victory; but it will never again signify just what it did before. The memory of the surrender of Singapore to Asiatic troops will not easily be effaced from the consciousness of Asiatic peoples.

The Japanese will make little headway with their propaganda of "Asia for the Asiatics," because from Bombay to Vladivostok it has long been recognized that in the vocabulary of Japan the phrase means Asia in subjection to Japan. But in its reverse interpretation, as signifying Asia not for Occidentals, the propaganda will be devastatingly effective. The right of the Western empires to rule has been impaired by the demonstration of their inability to rule or at least effectively to repel a challenge to their rule. Even in victory they will return with their glory tarnished. It will have been shown that they can be defeated and, moreover, that they can be defeated by non-whites. What the Japanese have been able to do others will feel that they, too, may be able to do. White empires will not again be able to rule by symbol only. Their power to command will be in proportion to the force they display. The sanction of moral authority has been lost. At the best there will be disaffection and a demand for more rights of self-government; at the worst there may be revolts.

Some distinctions must be made at this point. Thus far Southeastern Asia has been discussed as if it were a unit. It is not, of course. What is common to all its parts, beside their geographical situation, is that all of them except Thailand have been under alien control. Among these there has been the tie of a common aspiration, actual or potential, for independence. This has created only a negative sort of unity, even though some day it may be enough on which to base joint action against the common enemy -- the Western empires. In almost all other respects the peoples of the region differ from each other. Indeed, the differences are often greater than the similarities. Something more should be said about them, then, and about the territories which they inhabit. The Philippines and Thailand fall in one category; Burma and Hong Kong are in another; and each of the others is peculiar to itself.


With respect to the Philippines there is little new to be said now. In the normal course of events, as envisaged before 1941, the Philippines were to have become an independent nation in 1946. On all the evidence discernible in this country in recent years that was a matter of settled American policy. What still remained in question was the precise nature of the transitional measures to be devised to ease the shock of economic separation for both parties. The Philippine economy had become so closely articulated with the American, the dependence of Philippine products on the American outlet was so great, that to put the Philippines at once on the same basis as all other countries with reference to American tariffs would have undermined the whole economic structure of the islands and with it the position of the government. This had already been recognized and the principle of extending the period for adjustment had been accepted. What still was to be settled was how long the period should be and how the graduated rise of American tariff rates on Philippine products should be paced. But this was a matter of detail and was to have been decided in joint conference after 1946.

If it was settled policy before the war to give the Philippines their independence, it is hardly conceivable that we should reverse ourselves now. Leaving aside wartime rhetoric, we can say that the Filipinos have earned their independence. They joined in the defense of their homeland without hesitation or equivocation and played their part more than creditably. Even if it were not simple justice to redeem our pledge, it would be reckless for us not to do so, for if the Filipinos were insistent on the right of sovereignty before the war they will be intransigent after it. They have fought for it, and if we were to deny it to them we should be faced with the necessity of suppressing them by force. It is hard to believe that the American people would be willing to undertake that task, especially in light of their previous attitude.

Furthermore, with Japan defeated and reduced to impotence for some years, many of the grounds for such mental reservations as existed before about independence, both among Filipinos and Americans, will have disappeared. Both had been fearful about what Japan might do when the Philippines could no longer call on American support. At least for a period after this war there will be nothing to fear on this score, and in that period the Filipinos can train their citizens for defense and lay a solid foundation for the country politically and economically. And while the United States might have been justified before in taking the position that if the Filipinos want to sever the tie to the United States they must take the responsibility of defending themselves by their own efforts alone, in the light of the last few months it would be no more than just for the United States to give the Philippines a guaranty, to proclaim publicly that an attack on them by any Power will be construed as an attack on the United States. If the Filipinos offer in return to allow the United States to maintain a naval base in their waters, as quite likely they may, so much the better. But it is a question whether even that need be insisted on as a condition to Filipino independence. It might even be given more readily if we did not demand it. With the lessons of the last year in mind, the Filipinos are more likely to subordinate amour propre to considerations of safety. In any case, it seems safe at this stage to say that the future of the Philippines has already been determined by the course of events.

The Thailand problem is also relatively simple. There really has been no problem of Thailand for a generation, or since France and Great Britain came to a tacit understanding on the delimitation of their respective territorial ambitions in Southeastern Asia. That understanding poised Thailand between the two empires, not quite as a buffer state but as an area "out of bounds" for penetration by either. In that period it has done much to make itself secure in its own right. A sense of national identity took form. Modern ideas flowed in.

No question of Thailand would have arisen, then, if the whole area of Southeastern Asia had not been unhinged from its traditional structure by the collapse of France and the irruption of Japanese troops. And it will settle itself automatically once these troops have been driven back to their islands. Thailand can be reconstituted again as a sovereign and independent state, more or less as it was before. If stability is to be achieved in that crucial part of Asia there should be no talk of penalizing Thailand for having apparently allied herself with Japan, at least to the extent of granting Japanese troops free passage into Malaya. She could not help herself. The alternative would have been destruction of the Thai cities, and then the Japanese would have forced their way through in any case. True, Thailand took advantage of France's helplessness and vacillation, and with or without Japanese instigation wrested certain border areas from French Indo-China. But it is also true that these areas had once been a part of Siam and had been seized by France in the days of Occidental imperialistic aggression early in the century. They have constituted a kind of Siamese irredenta ever since. If there is to be a general settlement in Southeastern Asia there must be a rectification of frontiers between Indo-China and Thailand, and an equitable rectification would be to Thailand's advantage. On any impartial adjudication she would be awarded all or most of the areas in question. Apart from this adjustment Thailand can and should be restored to the status quo ante.


We come now to Burma and Hong Kong. The problem of Burma is part of Great Britain's major problem of empire -- India. It is not within the province of this article to discuss India proper, but it may be remarked that hardly any Englishman of whatever class or stripe of opinion can be so sanguine as to think that Anglo-Indian relations can be resumed again where they left off before this war. The years before 1939 provided an unnatural lull that even then did not seem likely to last. Since then there has been a truce. India elected not to take advantage of England's weakness, partly for the sound political reason that she had no illusion as to what to expect as a result of a Fascist victory and partly for doctrinal reasons: the leaders of the Congress Party are anti-Fascist by every conviction. Though Great Britain refused to make any material concession at the outbreak of the war, India did not obstruct the British war effort. On the contrary, Indian troops have played an important part in every British campaign outside Europe. The fact will not be forgotten by India later. It is not reckless prophecy to say that there will be a crisis in India after the war and that by comparison the years of Indian non-coöperation before 1930 will seem to have been calm and the position of Indian leaders of those days temperate.

Whatever comes in India will be reflected in Burma, whether the eventual settlement comes by compromise or after an open struggle. The elements of the problem are the same in both countries though they are discussed in different pitches of intensity. There is one peculiar complication in Burma. This is the presence there of Chinese troops, brought in to stiffen British forces defending Rangoon. The moral of Britain's having called on Orientals to bolster up the Raj in the part of the world where the Raj has been symbol and embodiment of omnipotence will not be lost on the Burmese. When the Chinese held out against Japan for more than four years, with little or no support from the rest of the world, while Great Britain could not hold out for three months without help from China, certain conclusions will be drawn in Burma -- and not only in Burma -- that will not simplify Great Britain's task in the East after the war. The analogy is not really sound, of course, since Great Britain was already fully engaged in Europe and Africa when she was attacked by Japan; but the effect will be expressed in emotions, not logic. And the political result will be the same, whether the analogy is sound or unsound. It must be faced now that repercussions of China's rôle in the war in Asia will be felt all through the East for a very long time. The visit of Chiang Kai-shek to India, and his assumption of the rôle of intermediary between the British and the Indians, is sure to have an enormous influence. When Japan has been crushed, China will occupy a new position in Asia, if not in the world.

As the solution of the problem of Burma depends on the solution given the India problem, so the problem of Hong Kong is pendant to that of China. But it is less complex. In dealing with China the Western Powers will have even less choice than they have in the case of India, if indeed they will have any at all. The defeat of Japan will automatically give China the perquisites of sovereignty. Previous derogations therefrom will lapse automatically. Until now Chinese nationalists exempted Hong Kong from their claims or at least put it in a deferred category. But Japan's expulsion of the British from Hong Kong and China's victory will clear the slate. In the new rapprochement which we can foresee between the British and Chinese, the Chinese may be willing to agree to consider Hong Kong as being in a state of transition from British to Chinese control; but this is as much as can be expected. Victorious China will hardly stand by and willingly see Hong Kong resume its status as a British crown colony. Much subsequent friction will be saved if the British at once propose that Hong Kong shall not again become a crown colony but will be operated as a joint Chinese-British settlement, with a Council in which at first there should be a British majority, but steadily diminishing until the majority is Chinese. After a stated interval the Island would revert to China. During the transitional period the administrative agencies could be manned in the same ratio as the membership of the Council and there would be time for British economic interests to make such adjustments as were unavoidable. This is as much as the British can hope for, and it is probably as much as the Chinese will give if the question is dealt with while there is amity and in a spirit of negotiation rather than of demands and refusals.


The population of Hong Kong is Cantonese, indistinguishable from that of the adjoining territory. But the inhabitants of the provinces or principalities known as Indo-China are of a racial stock different from the Chinese. The two problems presented are thus entirely different. The inhabitants of Hong Kong consider themselves part of the Chinese Republic, though temporarily living under the British flag. The inhabitants of Indo-China do not. Relations between them and China were never very close, and the separation from China for two generations has deepened the gap. The rendition of Indo-China to China would not be an ideal solution either ethnically or politically if it were made by outside fiat rather than voluntarily by a plebiscite. Indeed, it might substitute one kind of friction for another. Then there is France to be considered. Presumably we shall not want to deal with France as a conquered province. But neither shall we be called on to make a simple restitution of Indo-China to France without any conditions.

The population of Indo-China has never been reconciled to French rule. It was not immune from the nationalistic sentiments which penetrated the East after 1918 nor from the influences of Chinese nationalism in the period between 1923 and 1928. Communist propaganda crept in also when the Third International was trying to strike at the capitalist empires through their colonial possessions. Serious uprisings occurred, especially after the Chinese nationalists had won a measure of success with the help of Soviet Russia. As a result, in the period before and after 1930 the French had to resort to drastic punitive measures to suppress disaffection. Indo-Chinese nationalists were hunted down and killed or driven to cover. The measures taken were so drastic as to leave considerable rancor.

The contemptuous treatment accorded the French by the Japanese and the submissiveness of the Vichy pro-consuls to brusque commands of Japanese generals have not enhanced the esteem in which the French are held by the native population nor their moral authority. It is true that France had already made some concessions to native sentiment before 1939, and made even more thereafter; but still more will be required. Even though her rule is reinstated, France can maintain her rule only if she makes a definite effort to conciliate native sentiment. There must be a sharp increase in native representation in government, at all levels in the administration. Natives must have a voice in the making of policy. Those with educational qualifications must have opportunity for minor professional and white-collar posts in the civil service and opportunity to win promotion. No one thing has done more to stimulate native disaffection in colonies everywhere than what can be called the occupational pale -- the rule, written or unwritten, whereby natives are restricted to the lower ranks in the public service. They can be clerks, overseers, supervisors, the civilian equivalents of noncommissioned officers -- but seldom officers. Thus the first nucleus of discontent has been formed almost everywhere. It is not accidental that the first recruits to native nationalist movements are from the young men of the educated middle classes. Indo-China, moreover, must have more local autonomy. More educational facilities must be provided. Economic and tariff policies must be devised with more regard for native welfare. In short, there must be consistent, perceptible devolution of power from the top and a broadening base of power at least in the middle ranges of the population. Since this would represent a reversal of French colonial policy as a whole, it will not be easy to bring about. But unless brought about, Indo-China, even though restored to France, will not long remain French. The nationalists of the region will rise again and they will have moral encouragement from China, if not material assistance.


Restitution of the Netherlands East Indies to the Netherlands is the only practical course to follow after the war. There is not yet in the islands which constitute the colony either a sufficiently stout nationalism or a social order which makes independence necessary, feasible or desirable. Some seeds of independence have been planted, however. The first shoots became visible simultaneously with a sturdier growth of the same plant elsewhere in the East after the First World War; but the soil was not propitious and the Dutch had little trouble in extirpating them. Nor is there any evidence which leads one to believe that if by some miracle the Netherlands East Indies should win their freedom immediately they could long subsist as a nation. Consciousness of national identity is not yet widespread or deeply felt. Not even the cadres of a governing class have as yet been formed. Modern ideas are disseminated very thinly. The techniques requisite to the management of a modern society have been mastered by too few. But it would be a mistake to believe that there is not discontent, that the present condition can be indefinitely projected, that the present war will not leave an ineradicable mark on the minds of the native population.

The Dutch have done much in recent years to retrieve the unfortunate effects of rather brutal exploitation in the nineteenth century. There has been a real beginning of native representation in local government. There has been more than a beginning of managed economic development with a view to safeguarding native interests, both economic and cultural. The spirit is paternalistic, but the principle is at least one of responsible stewardship. If there must be imperialistic dominion, this is one of its better parts. Certainly it is the reverse of the unheeding exploitation that characterized nearly all such rule in the nineteenth century.

Amelioration does not seem likely to be enough, however. It is almost an unvarying rule in the relationship of empires and dependencies that amelioration begets more discontent than oppression. At least the discontent becomes more intelligent and thereby more effective. Paradoxically, it can be met not by the cessation of the program of amelioration but by its accentuation. If the Dutch colonial authorities widen native participation in government in the larger centers, extend the degree of local autonomy in others, and in the more primitive centers carry out consistently the practice of indirect rule -- administration through native leaders, to whom power is delegated but who are held responsible -- then discontent can be kept within bounds. Already Dr. van Kleffens, Netherlands Foreign Minister, has announced that "home rule" is to be accorded after the war. This portends a fair degree of postwar stability and indicates that Dutch sovereignty will not be seriously challenged.


British Malaya is a problem of a different order. The name is a geographical convenience but a political abstraction. The area to which it is applied consists of a peninsula and outlying islands. There are the Straits Settlements, a crown colony comprising Singapore, Penang and Malacca; the four component parts of the Federated Malay States; and the five Unfederated Malay States, so-called. All are for practical purposes British-governed, through the medium of Advisers or Residents. The problem of Malaya is complicated by the two factors of racial composition and natural resources. Malaya is not wholly Malay. Of a population of more than 5,000,000, the Malays are the most numerous element but still constitute a minority. They are slightly less than half the population, the rest being Chinese and Hindu, with almost three times as many of the former as of the latter.

The Malays are a people of little or no political consciousness and almost no economic capacity or interest in the modern sense of the word. They have no sense of national unity. Their only strong identification is with the individual state or locality. The only effective tie which unites them is the Moslem faith. There can be no question of giving them national independence, since there is no nation. There is only particularism in nine small localities. If Malaya were to be emancipated from British rule, the succession would not necessarily go to the Malays. It might go to the Chinese. Aside from the personnel of government, which has been British, and the small upper economic strata, which also has been British, organized life in Malaya has been conducted by Chinese. Most commercial enterprises have been in their hands. Malaya without the Chinese would collapse economically.

The second point to be made is that Malaya is the greatest rubber and tin producing area in the world and as such is of crucial importance to the western nations. It is one of the economic prizes of the world. An area of a little more than 50,000 square miles exports normally some $300,000,000 worth of products. Since both rubber and tin are indispensable to the economy of the modern world, the normal functioning of Malaya cannot be left uncertain. The country cannot be run by Malays. It would solve no racial, ethical or political problem to turn it over to the Chinese. It must be returned to British rule -- with the qualification that a larger share of the wealth produced there should be turned back into education for the natives, that social services of all kinds should be expanded, and that the peasant and worker should be guarded against exploitation. If there is a genuine effort to teach the natives the first steps in the art of self-government and to develop them socially and economically, that is all that can be done in Malaya in the near future. Probably it is all that will be required.


One note has run through this analysis, whichever area has been under consideration -- the necessity for intelligent anticipation of trouble and action to forestall it. Lack of foresight and farsighted action brought us into difficulties with the dependent peoples after 1918. It can do so again. We thought in 1918 that we could go back to 1914 in Asia and Africa. We violated what is, or should be, one of the first laws of politics -- make concessions early or not at all. It might be put in other terms -- crush or conciliate.

The Western Powers violated that law with reference to their colonial possessions. They did not put down disaffection ruthlessly at the very start. For one thing, they could not. The strength of the empires was too spent after four years of war. For another, they would not. Four years of war had taught something to the victorious Powers, the Powers now known as democratic. It had taught them the tragic folly of war. Frank analytical criticism from within had made them conscious of their own shortcomings, of their own offenses against the social law in many respects -- amongst others, the law of how subject peoples should be treated. They were disenchanted with the glories of imperialism. They were not in the mood to respond to the cold, intellectual detachment of a Bismarck or Metternich or the callous selfishness of a Fascist leader. An appeal to make sacrifices in order to launch a punitive expedition against a nation which was being ruled without its consent would have fallen on deaf ears. The British and French, in particular, could not bring themselves to crush absolutely. Neither did they have the foresight to conciliate adequately. They neither put down native disaffection nor disarmed it by making concessions at the beginning.

There were concessions later, but too late. Then they really did more harm than good. For when made on demand, and because demand becomes so importunate as to be dangerous, concessions only testify to weakness and thus invite demands for more. Success begets desire for more success, until what is asked is so egregious that collision cannot be avoided. It is a good rule to follow, at least in relations with subject peoples: never appease from weakness, but do appease from strength. What is given voluntarily can produce content, at least for the time. Three times as much, if given involuntarily later in order to escape the necessity of using force, will not produce content but will have the contrary effect.

This carries a moral for us in dealing with the problems of Southeastern Asia immediately after the present war. Voluntary relaxation of foreign control and an increase in native participation in government can postpone demands for much more for years. If in the end that means withdrawal, we at least can ourselves pace the speed of the withdrawal. The British plan of dyarchy for India, the plan of dual control with certain powers reserved for the Crown (which incidentally would have softened the edges of Indian nationalism if offered a few years earlier) has in it the principles of a workable program for the colonies in Southeastern Asia. Obviously the empires do not desire to free those colonies. Except in the case of the Philippines and Thailand immediate freedom is not even desirable, from an objective point of view. But none of them can be returned to the position they occupied before. The forces of history were making that situation untenable in any case, and now the war has undermined it still further. The only course for the West is, by granting greater economic well-being and ever-increasing self-government, to obtain a transitional period in which to work out a new relationship or to cushion the shock of the eventual loss.

No device which we could adopt would halt the evolution, by stages, of the institution of imperialism. First came the stage of conquest, when the countries which were socially more effective because they were the first industrialized subdued the world. This ended before the close of the nineteenth century. Then came the period of conflict among the conquerors for the most desirable spoils of conquest. This came to a climax in 1914. Then began the third period, in which the conquered revolted and resumed their conflict with the conquerors with the object of regaining their independence. This was the period between 1919 and, roughly, 1933. Then, with the renascence of Germany and Italy and the challenge of Japan, conquerors and presumptive conquerors resumed the struggle. We are in that phase now. But the third stage is suspended only temporarily. The West will once again have to fight to hold its empire or lose it because it cannot muster sufficient force; alternatively, it can postpone the issue by conciliation and compromise. Without the latter, it will have to crush its colonies to hold them.

This is true whether an international order emerges from the war or not. Regardless of whether or not there is an international administration of colonies, regardless of whether we can devise and administer a better mandate system, this issue has to be faced. There can be as much disaffection and as sharp revolt in a mandated area as in an old-fashioned colony. One order of conflict would remain even if the other had been eliminated. What is under way now is a process of imperial devolution. It can progress gradually or in violent wrenches. One of the first tests as to which it shall be will come in Southeastern Asia.

[i] It is assumed that the United Nations will win; otherwise discussion of the question is useless.

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  • NATHANIEL PEFFER, Associate Professor of International Relations, Columbia University; author of "Must We Fight in Asia?" "Prerequisites to Peace in the Far East" and other volumes
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