Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria College, Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 18, No. 11. August 12, 1954
Asia Now . . . — Background to Indo-China
Asia Now . . .
Background to Indo-China
Geneva has not resolved any of the conflicts underlying the war in Indo-China, because they are not the sort of issues to which a conference can find an answer. The objective of the Geneva conference was to bring the fighting to an end; that it has done this, and so removed one of the flash-points for world war, has been our main concern. But for the people of Indo-China, and of Korea, the problem still remains.
We on our side of the fence took at there wars from the point of view of their potential danger to us end their possible threat to our security. But they started at local conflicts, over internal issues. The fact that we became involved in them, and thereby risked their letting off a general war, was due to our deliberate decision to intervene: the decision, in Korea, of the United States, with the subsequent backing of a majority of the United Nations; in indo-China, of France, with, since 1950. American support. Whether, in either case, the action of the Western powers was justified, either on grounds of law or of military security, is a matter of debate. The emphasis, in both cases, was at first on the legal aspect, and the need to maintain the rule of law; latterly the argument has veered round to our military and strategic security.
The majority of Koreans and Indo-Chinese, and of Asiatic peoples generally, have seen the wars in quite a different light. To them they have been civil wars, in which the Issues were political, social and economic. On the one side were ranged the forces of revolution, on the other those of reaction. In Indo-China it seems clear that without French intervention the Viet Minh would have long ago become the established government of the greater part, if not the whole, of Indo-China. As the only organised resistance movement under Japanese occupation it had in fact, at the end of the war, become the effective government, and was recognised as such by the allies. The complicated and unsavoury story of the break-down of negotiations between Ho Chi Minh and the French for the settlement of their future relations reflect little credit on the French. Had British policy in India been followed by France, these relations would certainly not have been worse than they are now, and they might well have been as mutually satisfactory as those between Britain and India. In any case, a tragic and useless war would have been avoided.
This, however, is not to say that without the intervention of the French there would have been no bloodshed in Indo-China, civil war was almost inevitable, as it was also in Korea, even without the artificial frontier there. Indeed, the basic conflict in both countries, as in China, has been an internal one, a conflict of interest, classes and ideologies. It is internal in the sense that the opposing groups belong to the same race and nation, and those who seek change as well as those who oppose it are thinking in terms of their own society. On the other hand these conflicts are International, or at least Asian, in the sense that similar clashes in more or leas clearly defined form are occurring throughout the East.
Paradoxically, it is the West which has inspired the revolutionary forces of Asia, both in the broadest sense and in the specific character of the movements. Not only did the West bring to Asia its conception of political and social reform, but the present leaders of Asian revolution, including Ho Chi Minn, were educated in Europe and acquired most of their ideas from the study of, and association with, the radical movement of Europe. And if some of these, again including Ho Chi Minh, took their advanced training, so to speak, in Russia, the Russian revolution in its turn had been directly inspired by Western thought, and its original leaders by their Western contacts and experience.
Revolt Against West
But Asian revolution has not been merely a matter of the acceptance of Western ideas, or of Western Ideas transmuted by Russian experience It has also been a revolt against the West. This is again especially the case of Indo-China. The civil war there was simultaneously a war against French colonialism. One lesson of Indo-China Is that the West has no longer the strength or the will to enforce its nineteenth century domination over Asia, and the question is not whether it can retain control, but only how and when it will surrender its power.
The answer to these questions are now, disastrously, confused by another and basically quite extrinsic, issue: the conflict between the West and Communism, or, more accurately, the struggle between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. This issue cannot possibly be resolved by war In Indo-China or Korea, any more than it could be settled by conference at Berlin or Geneva. Whether or not it eventually leads to a titanic struggle, embroiling most of the rest of the world, we cannot escape the fact that it will be with us, and will dominate the political scene, for years to come—probably, on present showing, for at least a generation.
It was natural, if not inevitable, that the revolutionary movements of Asia in the thirties and forties should look to Communism for their pattern and inspiration. Beside the vast upheaval in Russia, the changes brought about by Social Democrats in Western Europe were insignificant. In any case, what Asian people wanted was not economic and constitutional reform by democratic procedures—this was in most instances quite meaningless—but drastic and swift action to overthrow the exploiting landowners and moneylenders, and to end their age old poverty and degradation. Western ideas had shown the possibility of a different sort of society; Russian experience, had shown how it could be brought about. The surprising thing is not that Communism is widespread in Asia, but that it is not more so. The absence of Western political freedom under Communism means nothing to millions who have never known, it, while the facts that in Russia the feudal landlords and capitalist owners have been overthrown, that illiteracy has been abolished, that industrialisation has preceded at an ever-increasing pace, and that the standard of living of the mass of the people has leaped ahead, these are what have counted in the eyes of the Asian peoples. I remember before the war meeting an Indian in Moscow. What struck him was not the drabness and the poverty, but the wealth and progress. The British, he said, had been in India for two centuries and had achieved nothing compared with the changes the Bolsheviks had brought about in two decades.
Nevertheless, the Communist movements in China and Indo-China followed distinctive policies of their own. In North Korea, under direct Russian control the situation was different, and the pattern was no doubt imposed from without, as it was In Eastern Europe. But it was neither the Red Army nor Russian backing Which brought success to the Communists in China and Indo-China, and in both cases Russian recognition only came after they had gained substantial success on their account. The Russians have shown an understandable, if possibly misguided, determination to establish puppet governments in the nearby countries to their West, and agreed to the partition of Korea rather than allow American influence and arms to reach the outskirts of Vladivostok. There Is little evidence that they made serious efforts to influence the destinies of countries beyond this perimeter, and the fact that Communist China and Viet Minh are now ranged alongside them Is probably due as much to Western as to Russian policy.
It is moreover a fallacy to suppose that because nations share a common form of government they are inevitably allies in war and peace. Self-interest is stronger than ideological unity. Fascist Spain remained neutral in the war, while Japan joined the Axis powers not out of sympathy with their political systems but in the hope of sharing their victory, Communist Yugoslavia is outside the Russian orbit, while capitalist Egypt can hardly be regarded as a dependable ally of the West.
The fact that Mao Tse Tung and Ho Chi Minh have followed political policies similar to though not identical with, those of Lenin and Stalin is no guarantee that Malenkov can count on them as loyal followers "through thick or thin, right or wrong." They have indeed, nothing to gain and much to lose through being involved in war outside their own territory Chinese intervention in the Korean war when western armies were on the Yalu river was not surprising: and it would have been understandable if the Chinese hud long ago participated in force in Indo-Chma, though it would not appear that they have kept out What is perhaps more significant is that Russia, despite her proximity to Korea, avoided entanglement in both wars She certainly supplied equipment to the North Koreans, as America did to the South, but as far as direct support went she has done much less than the Went has done for Syngman Rhee—or the Americans for Chiang Kai Shek Whether through fear of American tombs, or because of a determination to avoid a world war, the fact is that the has not set herself out to win the unconditional allegiance of Communist China or the Viet Minh
Threat to Australasia?
Australia and New Zealand, and specially Australia, have long been conscious of their privileged position on the edge of the huge and poverty stricken populations of Asia. Perhaps as the result of an unconscious guilt Complex they have feared and halfexpected a vast mass movement of millions of Asiatics, pictured as sweeping down almost as a horde of locusts to destroy their wealth, and fill up their empty spaces. There is nothing to suggest that this is a serious likelihood and indeed the evidence points the other way; the Japanese, the most aggressive of Asiatic races, have never managed to colonise their conquered territories, while Chinese migration has been brought about more by Western importation of indentured labour than by any deliberate policy on the part of the Chinese. Nevertheless, this fear of Asiatic invasion lurks at the back of the Australian, and even of New Zealand's national consciousness.
The question now is whether Communism will lead to an aggressiveness on the part of Asiatic nations which (except for Japan) I they did not previously betray. The American view is not perhaps so much that countries like Indo-China will themselves launch attacks on their non-Communist neighbours, as that Russia might use them as bases for the aggressive design she is assumed to have on the world It can only be said that if this is the Russian plan, she has been very slow in taking steps to implement It. The Russians on the other hand might be excused suspecting, on the evidence of present American policy, that it Is the American aim to establish bases in Indo-China, along with Japan, Korea and Formosa, and so round to Pakistan. Persia and Turkey, through Greece. Yugoslavia. Italy and Spain to West-Europe, and completing the circle in Norway. Iceland and Greenland. This is "containment." The Russian answer appears to be not so much an attempt to establish opposing bases, as an attempt to surround herself with a ring of satellite governments on her immediate borders, and especially at her most vulnerable point, the European frontier. She aims to provide for defence in depth. Beyond these perimeter defences she does little to help even such potential allies as the Chinese in Malaya—or for that matter, the natives of Kenya. South Africa or the Congo She relics perhaps, on the slow but Inevitable working of the Marxist interpretation of history.
But Do We Care?
All this, however, Is outside our Immediate interest, and certainly outside our control. The rivalry between the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. will continue, and it is the interest of both powers to maintain a state of world tension: in this way It is easier for each to keep their satellites under a firm control. But war in indo-China is not just a facet of the cold war, it is also, and primarily, an effort by the common people of a former European colony to achieve self-determination and at the same time to establish a new social order. In these objectives we are bound both by our sympathies and our self-interest to support them. If there is anything to be learnt from post-war history it is that the days of colonialism are over, while we know from our expcilrnec with India that a new and far more fruitful relationship betweent East and West in possible.
At the Name time, if there is a danger to us and to our little pocket of Western civilisation on the edge of the Asiatic continent it is much more likely to come in the future, as it has in the past, from the aggressive policies of reactionary governments, than from the social reforms of the revolutionary forces. Japan is still a greater, potential threat to us than China, and we might well feel more uneasy about Chiang Kai Chek and Syngman Rhee than about Ho Chi Minh. On the other hand, we deceive ourselves if we do not recognise that it is the revolutionary forces which are now in the ascendant, and a wise policy would dictate that we attempt not to alienate but to come to terms with them.