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The deeper roots of a potential new Cold War with China

Western powers have long viewed the Chinese presence in Southeast Asia as a threat to their interests in the region

President Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit in November. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Even as the Cold War has come rushing back into the consciousness of Americans thanks to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, debate continues among scholars and self-styled experts over whether the present Sino-U.S. rivalry can be described as a new Cold War.

Those ready to declare it so can point to several escalating disputes. The two superpowers are at loggerheads over Taiwan and trade, as well as U.S. efforts to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, which counter China’s controversial militarization of, and claims in, those waters. Various Southeast Asian leaders around the South China Sea already lament the emergent “Cold War-style conflict” and being “forced to choose” between the two countries.

Yet one thing is certain — the current conflict has much deeper historical roots than the Cold War animosities between the United States and China. Even before World War II and the Chinese communists’ victory on the mainland in 1949, U.S. officials worried that China’s presumed influence over its large Southeast Asian diaspora might pose problems for U.S. interests in the region.

Although the geopolitics of the Cold War era were new, in many ways, U.S.-Chinese tensions during that era were the perpetuation of colonial and Indigenous antipathy toward China and its diaspora in Southeast Asia from centuries earlier, the legacy of which is today’s competition.

Anti-Chinese sentiments in colonial Southeast Asia stirred as early as the 1600s. These prejudices were always complex. They sometimes emphasized colonial and Indigenous fears that overseas Chinese would facilitate China’s expansion into Southeast Asia. At other times they emphasized local resentment of perceived Chinese economic success or sporadic provocations by some assertive Chinese communities in the region. The 1603 massacre of Chinese in the Philippines, partly sparked by Spanish colonial authorities abetting Indigenous bitterness against local Chinese, was born of these dynamics. Variations of these anti-Chinese sentiments also led to violence in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1740. From the mid-1800s onward, as Southeast Asia experienced the immigration of Chinese labor on a large scale, these concerns began to permeate all the colonial administrations of the region.

By the 20th century, colonial authorities witnessed how the 1911 republican revolution in China inspired Southeast Asian Chinese to contribute financially to the revolutionaries in the mainland who toppled the Qing dynasty. Western powers then easily imagined that their own rule in Southeast Asia could also be challenged by the region’s Chinese.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Chiang Kai-shek’s Guomindang (also known as Kuomintang) fueled these colonial anxieties when it tried working through Chinese-language schools and Chinese cultural organizations in Southeast Asia to garner Chinese support overseas for causes such as the war against imperial Japan. The emergence of the Chinese Communist Party in 1921 and, in connection, the Malayan Communist Party (a party that was 95 percent ethnic Chinese) soon after, fed Western fears of millions of Southeast Asian Chinese joining world communism’s anti-colonial cause.

Then World War II arrived in the Pacific. Japan scored shocking victories over European colonial regimes in the early 1940s. It routed British imperial forces in Malaya and Singapore and easily seized the Dutch East Indies and the U.S.-controlled Philippines.

When Japan went from America’s chief adversary in the region to its most significant capitalist ally in the Pacific after 1945, American planners feared that China would emulate Japan’s invasion campaign and expand into Southeast Asia. Indeed, in 1946, U.S. intelligence officials concluded that the “4,500,000 alien Chinese and millions more persons of part-Chinese blood” would probably “direct their loyalties to China” and serve as a “tool for the extension of China’s influence in Southeast Asia.” Preexisting colonial attitudes that essentialized the Chinese — their blood commanded them to obey — had flowed easily into the Cold War era.

Following the Chinese communists’ takeover of the mainland in 1949, the Truman administration was convinced that the People’s Republic of China would marshal its huge and loyal network of Southeast Asian Chinese to reach across state lines and collectively bring the region under China’s hegemony. This principle of Southeast Asia’s interconnected insecurity had already nestled within U.S. assessments of the region by the 1950s. President Dwight D. Eisenhower merely reflected these preexisting fears when he coined the “falling domino” metaphor in 1954 to explain America’s deepening involvement in Southeast Asia.

These fears were not unfounded. Beijing did resolve to “utilize overseas Chinese groups” for “strengthening and expanding Communist influence in Southeast Asia,” employing methods reminiscent of those the Guomindang had used in the preceding decades. It shipped communist propaganda and textbooks to Chinese-language schools in Malaya, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines. China’s agents infiltrated Chinese cultural organizations across the region, collaborated with local ethnic Chinese communist sympathizers and tried having it both ways by also courting Indigenous communists.

By early 1954, even as Vietnamese communists decisively routed French forces, U.S. estimations of Southeast Asia emphasized that the region was “part of and ethnically associated” with China. Consequently, Washington must respond to Beijing’s “wooing of overseas Chinese” to mobilize a “fifth column.” Old colonial anxieties had mixed with new developments to underpin U.S. Cold War policy.

U.S. leaders did pursue strategies to win Southeast Asian Chinese over to anti-communist or pro-Taiwan stances. However, the priority for most U.S. administrations from the 1950s onward was to cultivate relationships with Indigenous anti-communist nationalists in countries like Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, furnishing many of them with generous aid, and collaborating with them against local and regional communists. For their part, anti-communist nationalists won and maintained power by translating popular local anti-Chinese sentiment into political capital. In effect, they had recycled the strategies of the colonial powers for the Cold War, grafting their anti-communist campaigns onto the long-standing Indigenous suspicion of China and the Chinese in their societies.

For example, the anti-communist Suharto regime in Indonesia rose to power in this way, mustering (with U.S. assistance) widespread local antagonism against China and Indonesian Chinese, fueling a bloody anti-communist purge in 1965. Such repression and violence were commonplace in the successful anti-communist maneuvers of other pro-U.S. Southeast Asian regimes. By the mid-1970s, these anti-communist nationalists presided over the majority of Southeast Asia’s peoples and resources, forming an arc of containment around communist Vietnam and China.

America’s predominance in Southeast Asia today and China’s present challenge to it were born of this complicated past. Tensions today between the United States and China reflect these long-standing ideas about race and the legacy of colonialism, and are not merely a Cold War redux or a byproduct of China’s very recent emergence as a superpower.