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December 2002

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John Bull and Uncle Sam Grapple With South East Asian Nationalism
Review by Carl Fritz

bookcoverConflict and Confrontation in South East Asia, 1961-1965. By Matthew Jones. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xxi, 325. $60 cloth.)

"Matthew Jones provides a detailed insight into the origins, outbreak, and development of the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, a complex test of Anglo-American relations."

Matthew Jones, Lecturer in International History at Royal Holloway College, University of London, demonstrated his interest and background in British and American confrontation roles in a 1996 publication entitled Britain, the United States and the Mediterranean War, 1942-1946. This current study focuses on Britain, the U.S., as well as Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, and Indonesia. Jones demonstrates quite convincingly that the Vietnam War was not the only important episode in Southeast Asia between1961 and 1965.

The author examined former presidential archives, official British records which opened up in the 1990s under a thirty-year rule, in addition to innumerable official sources. Jones' style does not simplify the complicated subject matter. He provides detailed background for each new subject. The reader frequently wonders which year the author is referring to.

Many complications adversely affected the British post-World War II desire to decrease its colonial role and participation in international conflicts. These included (1) the development of SEATO and the U.S. desire to prevent the spread of communism; (2) the Malay dream of becoming a larger and more powerful Malaysia; (3) Indonesian and Filipino efforts to expand into Borneo;(4) Indonesian fears that Malaya might try to possess Sumatra, (5) the reluctance of Singapore Chinese to serve under a Malaysia Tunku; and (6) Australian and New Zealand attitudes.

The book relates the roles and views of leaders and statesmen; discusses international conferences and UN General Assembly meetings; mentions Sukarno’s admiration of President Kennedy as an impressive leader, and Kennedy’s impression of Sukarno as personally distasteful. It mentions many American statesmen and politicians as well as Dutch , Russian, Malaysian, Filipino, and Indonesian participants. Jones also describes Russian and American military aid, civic action, the Peace Corps, World Bank and International Monetary Fund activities, and tensions between Russia and China, as well as between communist and democratic countries.

Topics include Dutch-Indonesian hostilities over West Irian; Philippine attempts to recover portions of North Borneo and adjacent islands; the Greater Malaysia scheme, with British, Malaya, Singapore, and the Borneo players engaged in complex maneuvers; the 1962 Brunei rebellion; the Profumo sex scandal; the signing of the 1963 Malaysia Agreement by representatives of the UK, Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak, in which the British relinquished sovereignty over Singapore, North Borneo, and Sarawak to a new federal Malaysian Government; extending the 1957 Anglo-Malayan Defense Agreement to cover all Malaysia’s new territories and formalizing a common market between Malaya and Singapore. It covers differing U.S. and British approaches to Indonesia, the latter sometimes teetering between confrontation with Malaya backed by the UK, and moderate economic reform conditioned by Western economic aid.

After Sukarno rejected the UN Secretary General’s 1963 report which stated that Sabak and Sarawat majorities wished to join Malaysia, Indonesian crowds marched on the Malaysian Embassy and broke into the British Embassy in Jakarta, setting it afire. This resulted in a break in relations between Malaysia and Indonesia.

Washington's embrace of the "domino theory" complicated its obligations to assist Britain in case of a Malaysian—Indonesian war. The U.S. also worried that the conflict in Vietnam would bring Communist China and Indonesia closer together.

In October 1963, the Malaysian prime minister urged Indonesians to overthrow Sukarno, increasing Washington's concern that Sukarno might be driven into Communist hands, thus adding to existing problems in Laos and Vietnam. Meanwhile, the U.S. maintained a small aid program in Indonesia, including aid to its anti-Communist military.

After President Kennedy’s assassination in late 1963, President Johnson told visiting Gen. Nasution that U.S. policy toward Indonesia would remain unchanged, hoping to retain Indonesian ties to the West and counter internal threats from the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

By 1964, low-intensity guerrilla warfare dominated Borneo, with cross-border Indonesian raids and propaganda exchanges between Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta. The British sanctioned "hot pursuit" of raiding parties 3,000 yards into Indonesian territory. Australia provided an engineering battalion, and there was worry the U.S. might be drawn into the conflict.

In1964, visiting Attorney-General Robert Kennedy received agreement from Sukarno and the Tunku to a cease-fire in Borneo. After Kennedy’s departure, however, Sukarno proclaimed negotiations were temporary—confrontation would continue! The Tunku and Sukarno met in Tokyo in June 1964, departing after two days of acrimonious exchanges. This ended diplomatic attempts to resolve confrontation until a cease-fire agreement was reached in the summer of 1966.>

Two infiltrations of Indonesian troops in peninsular Malaysia in 1964 were rapidly repelled by local forces. A Royal Navy aircraft carrier passing through the Sunda Strait between Java and Sumatra prompted fears of a Gulf of Tonkin-type episode. No large Indonesian raids were undertaken thereafter.

Sukarno secretly offered to meet and negotiate with the Tunku, but later denied the attempt. An Indonesian troop buildup in Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) was countered by additional British troops in January 1965, now totaling 30,000, with orders to extend cross-border operations up to 10,000 yards. Sukarno strengthened links with Beijing and Hanoi but when it appeared that Malaysia would secure a UN seat, he withdrew Indonesia from that organization. Singapore left the Malaysian Federation in August 1965, thus altering the nature of Malaysia.

In October, some Indonesian army officers attempted a coup, and Gen. Suharto, a strategic reserve commander, quickly restored order. In the process, several anti-Communist generals were murdered with Gen. Nasution narrowly escaping the same fate. Thereafter, mobs attacked PKI buildings in Jakarta. Mass killings in the countryside resulted in a half million dead with the PKI finally destroyed.

In 1966, Sukarno was coerced into vesting Gen. Suharto with executive powers. In August, hostilities with Malaysia were officially terminated. Washington was at last rewarded for its long term nurture of anti-Communist elements in the Indonesian army. London felt compensated for assisting Malaysia in countering Indonesia. The author believes that Indonesian policies and actions had cost Britain much, but may have saved it from a far more costly conflict in Vietnam.bluestar


After serving in Asia during World War II, Carl Fritz earned his M.A. in International Affairs from Columbia University before embarking on a twenty-five year career with U.S. foreign aid agencies in India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, and East Africa. In 1976, he retired as Director of Program Planning and Research Utilization in AID's Technical Assistance Bureau. He served the next twelve years as a private consultant in Indonesia and Bangladesh. Mr. Fritz, member of the board of directors of American Diplomacy Publishers, has authored one book—Combating Nutritional Blindness, A Case Study of Technical Assistance in Indonesia—and numerous journal articles.

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