Commentary: Cold War offers lessons on big power relations for ASEAN

Commentary: Cold War offers lessons on big power relations for ASEAN

With all the uncertainty surrounding Donald Trump’s actual foreign policy stance towards Asia, Southeast Asian countries can surely draw inspiration from their Cold War experiences, according to NTU assistant professor Ngoei Wen-Qing.

The historic handshake between Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1972
The historic handshake between Chinese leader Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon in 1972. (Photo: AFP)

For some time now, US satellites have documented China’s steady militarisation of the South China Sea. In various combinations, China’s artificial islands have been equipped with military grade airstrips, hangars, harbours, anti-aircraft guns, lighthouses and radar stations. Some house structures ostensibly designed for both surface-to-air and cruise missiles.

The leaders of most states situated around the South China Sea are certainly wary of China’s regional ambitions. A number have also disputed the ownership of several islands with China and each other for years, all pursuing access to fishing grounds and potential oil and gas reserves.

Chinese offensive capabilities in the South China Sea have only upped the stakes. To be fair, Vietnam and Taiwan have done island-building of their own, though at a tiny fraction of the expansive Chinese campaign.


As all this unfolds, President Donald Trump hurtles toward the milestone of his first one hundred days in office, leaving in his wake a trail of policy positions and about-turns that have unsettled US allies in Asia. Trump had seemed ready to overturn forty years of America’s One-China policy in a call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, but backpedaled at the request of Chinese President Xi Jinping. The new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in January 2017 advocated getting tough on China’s activities in the South China Sea, but in a March press conference with Xi appeared deferential to the Chinese leader.

This is not to mention how quickly Trump scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal, which US friendly governments in East and Southeast Asia have striven to promote, and which observers knew had been one of the Obama administration’s methods of countering growing Chinese influence.

The recent Trump-Xi meeting at Mar-a-Lago did little to clarify the future of Sino-US relations, and was partly overshadowed by Trump’s decision to fire Tomahawk missiles at Syria. And what can be made of the subsequent deployment of US Navy warships from to the Korean peninsula to somehow curb Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, news which Tillerson claimed that President Xi greeted with understanding?

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach

President Trump welcomes Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago state in Palm Beach, Florida. (Photo: REUTERS)

The uncertainty surrounding Trump’s actual foreign policy stance in Asia has America’s allies in the region worried about what these early developments portend for US-Asia relations.

It may be too soon to tell how the Trump administration will engage the countries of the Asia-Pacific and respond to the challenge of China’s rise. But it is worth noting some striking parallels, however imperfect, between current US-Asia relations and those of the Cold War era.

In the late 1960s, ASEAN leaders and their pro-US counterparts in South Vietnam harboured grave doubts about America’s security guarantees to its friends. The US had been unable to win the Vietnam War and wanted out, possibly even from the region altogether.


In July 1969, President Richard Nixon delivered a set of remarks in Guam which unnerved his Asian allies. On the one hand, Nixon affirmed that the US “should continue to play a significant role” in Asia, for like many Asian leaders he thought that China’s support for communists in Indochina and elsewhere evinced a “belligerent” foreign policy. But he also sought to drastically reduce US commitment to Asia, and stated that except for formal treaties, the US must “avoid that kind of policy” that would result in wars similar to that in Vietnam.

Journalists would later dub these remarks the Nixon Doctrine.

When pressed by American reporters in Guam to be more precise about the nature of US involvement in Asia, Nixon equivocated. He implied that America was retreating from Asia, for the US “has a right to expect” that Asian nations must be responsible for their own security. But he also pledged that US policy “rules out withdrawal” from the Pacific, and that America would still play the role that Asian nations “desire us to play.”

President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office of the White House in 1974

President Richard Nixon discusses foreign policy with Vice-President Gerald Ford in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington in 1974. (Photo: AFP)

Non-communist Asian leaders, already skeptical of US commitment to them, found Nixon’s answers frustrating. He had seemed at times nonchalant about China’s influence in Southeast Asia, asserting that Beijing had recently become less “effective in exporting revolution”.

To ASEAN leaders who had cast their lot with the US against Hanoi and Beijing, this rang false. Throughout the 1960s, communist groups in Southeast Asia continued to be galvanized by China’s call for world revolution. ASEAN leaders, while sporadically expressing reservations, therefore saw the US military presence in Southeast Asia as a bulwark against the Vietnamese revolution and Chinese expansionism.

Then Nixon upended this arrangement suddenly in 1971. He announced that he would visit China, begin normalising relations with Beijing, and thereby reverse two decades of America’s non-recognition of the People’s Republic of China. His decision profoundly disappointed the ASEAN leaders given the years they had spent supporting America’s containment of the PRC. Thereafter, ASEAN governments adopted a conciliatory stance toward Beijing, many albeit reluctantly.

It is anyone’s guess whether the Trump administration’s approach to Asia has caused comparable dismay to pro-TPP Asian leaders and traditional US allies in the broader region. And while we should not overstate the similarities between the past and present, there is no doubt that ASEAN leaders were in 1971, as they are today, deeply troubled about the future of US-Asia relations.


But ASEAN leaders of the Cold War era were certainly not hapless spectators to big power politics. While the US fought in Vietnam, ASEAN governments raced to buttress their political stability and economies by forging closer relations with western countries, as well as US friendly nations in the wider region such as Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.

Moreover, almost all ASEAN leaders (bar the Indonesians) effectively lobbied China to endorse a Malaysian proposal for the superpowers to guarantee the neutrality of Southeast Asia. In fact, Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai would tell US National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger that ASEAN leaders had preempted Nixon’s visit to China and promoted their plan to do so, also known as the ZOPFAN (Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality). Zhou had been receptive.

Records of the historic talks between Nixon and Zhou in February 1972 reveal that Zhou reworked the salient principles of ZOPFAN into the Sino-US Joint Declaration that, in turn, kicked off the process of normalising relations between Washington and Beijing.

For those seeking lessons from this episode in Cold War history, there is one crucial takeaway: smaller nations wield an underappreciated influence over the big powers and their own fates.

Of course, much has changed in the Sino-US-ASEAN relationship since the 1970s. Today, the countries of Southeast Asia are comparatively more stable politically, economically and socially than during the Cold War. Chinese trade, investment and contacts with Southeast Asia have increased exponentially, as have American investment and business in the region.

We cannot say for sure how the Trump administration’s policies will affect US-Asia relations. But we should be reasonably confident that Southeast Asians will continue to play a substantial role in shaping their future.

Ngoei Wen-Qing is a postdoctoral fellow in the Brady-Johnson Grand Strategy Program with International Security Studies at Yale University and an assistant professor of History at the Nanyang Technological University. This commentary is adapted from material in his first book, The Arc of Containment: Britain, Malaya, Singapore and the Rise of American Hegemony in Southeast Asia, 1941-1976 (Cornell University Press, forthcoming Fall 2019) and his article in Diplomatic History.

Source: CNA/sl