Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
Colonialism before the outbreak of World War II existed over the vast majority of the East as well as that of Africa and the Middle East. It was strong and deeply rooted in the areas it had settled with the intent to remain a permanent fixture in those regions. It took WWII to weaken European colonization and eventually break the strong hold of it in the Pacific. This weakening opened the doors for Asian conflicts and the susceptibility of the newly freed nations to Communism. That in turn led to a more frigid Cold War. The abrupt and reluctant decolonization of Asia was a major contributor to the tensions of the Cold War in the Far East. The Asian front of the Cold War became a visual representation of the deep and widening United States/Soviet Union conflict.
As the Second World War intensified, Europe found itself falling apart at home and abroad. These once strong nations found themselves collapsing against the push of the Germans on the home front which in turn meant those same nations could not attend to their colonies beyond the borders of Europe. The Pacific European colonies, especially China, were now without the tight European control they had been subjected to for years. Instead of finding themselves in the perfect situations to form their own governments, these Asian countries were left “vulnerable to Japanese advance” which was pushing hard in order to “substitute their own territorial control”. Japan was strategically taking pieces of Asia in order to control areas that produced the resources it needed to fight the war against the Allies. While the European powers were pulling back to protect their homelands, the Japanese were pushing forward to replace them.
During WWII, Asia just replaced one foreign power for another. Even though Japan was a neighboring Asian country, it saw its Asian neighbors as beneath them and a supply for resources needed for the war in order to develop “its own economy, and also its military strength.” Japan used its occupation to exterminate cultures and dominate China and other Asian nations. This created turmoil within Asia as the decolonization was conducted in the process of war and carnage. It would take the defeat of Japan for the rest of Asia to finally stop reeling from the effects and begin to stabilize for the future under the dark shadow of the Cold War.
At the conclusion of the war, Europe saw itself as still in possession of the Asian lands. Japan had occupied them, but they were still part of the weakened European empires. Many in Europe believed that life would resume as it had throughout the empires before the breakout of war, but Japanese occupation and defeat had “made the complete restoration of colonial rule virtually impossible.” America realized the truth of the situation and laid out the plan for the independence of the Philippines. The rest of the colonial powers found themselves strong armed by America and the weakened state of their own homelands into giving up their Asian colonies. Britain managed to keep Hong Kong, Malaya and Singapore while giving independence to India, Burma, Ceylon, and Pakistan before the 1950s. France and the Netherlands fought to keep their Asian colonies only to find native resistance too costly and demanding. The drain of fighting for control was too much for them. Asia was tired of being under the control of other powers and fought back. Victory after victory was achieved by the many Asian cultures.
Looking at China, one can see the struggle of all Asia as each culture attempted to find itself and its place on the new world stage. Every country had to pull itself together with many of them having to reunify from the effects of European colonialism and Japanese occupation. From the end of WWII in 1943, it would be six years before China was fully united as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under Mao Zedong’s Communist power. China had taken its new freedom and pulled itself apart before finally solidifying under the Communist flag. The next year, China would formally align with the Soviet Union which increased “the ability of Communist movements in South-East Asia to bid for leadership in the various anti-colonial movements after 1945.” The Communist party now had a foothold in Asia that no one on the American side of the Cold War had ever imagined. Beginning in Germany where the ancient country was split between Western and Eastern Europe, Asia began to be torn apart between Democracy and Communism. Many areas of Asia grasped Western thought and practices and initiated capitalistic reforms. The rest of Asia renounced Western philosophy after the many years of colonization and aligned with the Soviets. It became a struggle between those against the West and those for the West.
The Cold War intensified between the Soviet Union and the United States as well as the many nations that supported each side on all sides of the globe. The split in Asia grew wider as America refused to formally recognize any Communist leadership in China. On the other hand, the Soviet/Chinese relationship grew tighter. Pushing the Cold War divide wider was the war between North and South Korea in 1950. The Communist/Democratic tug-of-war ripped the nation apart and pulled the rest of the world into the mix. The United States rushed forward to support South Korea’s democratic stance which drew the Chinese in as they saw the defeat of another Communist Asian country.
China had taken up with the Soviet Union creating a relationship where “China’s dependence on Soviet aid and trade was considerable.” China was coming out from under the thumb of Britain and the devastating Japanese occupation. It lacked much in the way of industry and technology. China needed the Soviet Union in order to heal itself and develop the infrastructure and political structure it needed to compete in the new world. Despite the dependency and closeness, the relationship was not a walk in the park amidst the roses. There was a lot of tension that boiled beneath the Chinese/Soviet connection. The Soviets refused to relinquish their presence in Port Arthur, present-day Lushun, which was a constant thorn in China’s side. Instead of standing before the world as brothers of Communism, China had the position more of child or underling. Tension did not stop the united front China and the Soviet Union gave the Western block. Stalin firmly believed that the “world revolution” had moved from the European stage to the Asian stage where it would be stronger and “under discreet Soviet control.” China would be the mouth-piece and essential puppet of the Communist ruled Soviet Union. As the Soviet Union revealed its advancements in technology, China found itself impressed with its ally and the power it exerted yet it began to see how it was being used.
The world recognized the main players of the Cold War as being the Soviet Union and the Unites States, but it was China who became the aggressor against the West in conflicts such as the Korean War. China was the active participant in conflict, yet it was held at bay like a small child and not allowed to have all the toys their ally, the Soviet Union, had at its disposal. China was denied the very same nuclear weapons the Soviets had. On the same side, they were not given the same tools. It quickly became evident that the Soviets did not view China as an equal. Its role as a pawn in the Cold War game became more evident to the Chinese leaders over the years as the Cold War progressed.
Chinese and Soviet relations began to dismantle on the world stage in the 1960s when the Soviet Union reached an agreement with the United States after the Cuban Missile Crisis. This compromise was denounced by China. After that, China and the Soviets began to find themselves on the opposite of conflict as in the Sino-Indian war. The happy Chinese/Soviet match in Communist heaven was finding itself breaking apart. The united Asian Communist front was still present but not as strong as it once was against the capitalistic West. The Cold War was still represented in the East.
As the Cold War developed out of the defeat of Germany, it spread far beyond Berlin and the edges of Europe. The East versus the West became the United States versus the Soviet Union. Asia was perfectly conditioned to mimic this epic battle. It was of the Eastern culture yet had been under Western influence for many years. China had been one of the most intensely colonized Asian nations where the very Chinese culture had been suppressed. To move in alignment with Western democracy was not something that appealed to the large nation. It moved against the West and aligned with the Western enemy, the Soviet Union. Due to China’s size and influence, it became the perfect pawn to create the visual Cold War and put it into motion. Other nations followed China to point of splitting in two such as Korea. What was a political war in Europe, became a real war in Asia.
Smith, R. B., and Chad J. Mitcham. Changing Visions of East Asia, 1943-93 : Transformations and Continuities. London: Routledge, 2007. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost), EBSCOhost (accessed July 13, 2013).