SINGAPORE: The past is littered with Brexits. Indeed, episodes of Great Britain’s retreat from its empire multiplied after 1945, distressing its allies while encouraging other powers to ponder filling the vacuums it left across the world.
Like prior Brexits, last June’s UK referendum vote to leave the European Union seemed another confirmation that Britain’s international influence was withering. Yet, one Brexit initiated fifty years ago produced a result quite against the expected run of play.
WITHDRAWAL EAST OF SUEZ IN 1967
On Jul 18, 1967, London announced it would withdraw from its military bases in Singapore by the mid-1970s. Britain’s annual US$200 million bill for maintaining Singapore’s air and naval complexes had become too expensive.
Thus, the 30,000 British troops stationed in Singapore, a deployment second in size only to Britain’s commitments to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), would head home.
With this, Britain’s military presence to the “East of Suez” would shrink drastically, ending its role as a great power beyond the European theatre.
London’s decision disappointed its allies in Southeast Asia: The Malaysians and Singaporeans who relied almost entirely on British security guarantees, in addition to the Americans then warring in Vietnam.
This disappointment deepened six months later when Britain accelerated its military exit from Singapore to 1971, and declared it would also leave its outposts in the Persian Gulf.
The British public fully appreciated the significance of this development: One British newspaper compared it to the empire’s withdrawal from India and Africa.
US Secretary of State Dean Rusk, upon learning of these plans from UK Foreign Secretary George Brown, reportedly growled at him:
For God’s sake, act like Britain!
In turn, President Lyndon Johnson wrote British Prime Minister Harold Wilson, dismayed that in Asia, the US must now “man the ramparts all alone”.
The Russian mood was different. Russian aid to Hanoi had stymied US forces in Vietnam.
As both the US and Britain fashioned exit strategies from Southeast Asia, the Soviets hoped to capitalise on Britain’s withdrawal to enlarge their regional influence outside of Indochina.
Moscow believed that the west-friendly governments of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) would seek big power protection against potential Chinese expansionism as their Anglo-American patrons retreated.
The anti-communist countries of Southeast Asia seemed ripe for supplanting without their patron powers, the US and Britain.
Russian leaders, game to fill the power vacuum and counter China’s influence over many of Southeast Asia’s communist parties, proposed to ASEAN leaders a Soviet-led collective security framework for the region.
A WEAK MILITARY UMBRELLA TO FILL THE VOID
But Brexit ’67 unfolded in unexpected ways, frustrating the USSR’s plans. And this despite the fact that Britain mustered little to discourage Soviet ambitions.
Britain may have cajoled Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand into inking a new Five Power Defense Arrangement (FPDA).
But the FPDA was a poor substitute for Britain’s prior military umbrella.
While Britain had once been obligated to protect Malaysia and Singapore under the Anglo-Malaysian Defense Agreement (AMDA), the FPDA that replaced AMDA contained only British promises to deploy its military to Southeast Asia from bases in the Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
US officials judged that from such a distance, Britain could make little impact on Southeast Asian affairs. The FPDA did not bind Australia or New Zealand to defend Malaysia and Singapore either, requiring only that the allies consult each other on how to respond should these two countries face external threats.
Worse still, the FPDA members agreed to conduct a joint military exercise without Britain in 1970 (codenamed Bersatu Padu, Malay for complete unity) to test their capabilities, a move likely to expose their strategic inadequacies without British forces.
However, in mid-1970, something changed all that. The Conservatives won power in the UK and, to reinforce Britain’s ties to Australia and New Zealand, injected the British military into Bersatu Padu.
The exercise swelled to involve 50 warships, 200 aircraft and 25,000 military personnel, more than half of which were British forces, deployed in less than a day to Malaysia from some 8,000 miles away.
Britain’s largest peacetime airlift stunned Russian officials, intensifying several recent disappointments for Soviet policy in the region.
ASEAN leaders had already been unenthusiastic about the USSR’s collective security proposal. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand leaned resolutely to America.
The magnitude of Bersatu Padu convinced the Soviets that Malaysia and Singapore, too, would remain firmly in the western camp.
In frustration, Russian news organs could only denounce the FPDA during and after Bersatu Padu.
Among other things, the Soviets called FPDA a “blood relative” of NATO, insisting it enabled British military power to remain in Southeast Asia to support “imperialist” America.
Even a year after the exercise, Russian journalists continued to harp on this point.
Such official statements evinced the USSR’s bitter acknowledgement that it possessed limited capacity to compete against America for influence in the broader Southeast Asian region. Combined with ASEAN’s pro-US trajectory, the surprising twists accompanying Brexit ’67 influenced the Soviets’ decision to accommodate American predominance in Asia and pursue détente with Washington.
A GUIDE FOR THE FUTURE?
Brexit ’67, and indeed any close study of the past, reminds us that contingency rules the day.
For one, declining Britain truly frustrated the Russians once it became clear that neither US failures in Vietnam nor British withdrawal would propel ASEAN leaders toward the USSR.
This one past Brexit also shows that in great power politics, we must stand ready for reversals and surprises.
For fading empires and even smaller countries can exert substantial influence upon superpowers like the Soviet Union.
The banal exhortation to “expect the unexpected” holds a deeper truth than we dare acknowledge.
Wen-Qing Ngoei is an Assistant Professor of History at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. This essay is adapted from material in his forthcoming book, The Arc of Containment: Britain, Malaya, Singapore and the Rise of American Hegemony in Southeast Asia, 1941-1976 and his recent article in Diplomatic History.