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Journal of Cold War Studies 5.3 (2003) 133-134

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Nicholas Tarling, Britain, Southeast Asia and the Onset of the Pacific War.Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 434 pp. $120.00.

This book examines British policy in Southeast Asia from 1939 to 1941, when the Second World War was in its early stages. During this time Britain was preoccupied by its clash with Germany, and it could offer little to nothing to the Chinese and to the colonial powers in Southeast Asia (the French in Indochina, the Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies, the Portuguese in Timor, and the Americans in the Philippines). Despite early hopes that a fleet could be sent to Singapore in extremis, the only real weapon on the regional front was diplomacy: words, not weapons.

Understanding this diplomacy and British policy toward this wide range of states would be a daunting task in itself. Nicholas Tarling shows us how rapidly the circumstances changed. The metropolitan Dutch Government fled into exile in London after Hitler's May 1940 invasion; Indochina switched to Vichy control beginning in the summer 1940; and Siam shifted from a traditional leaning toward Britain, through neutrality, to accepting Japanese diplomatic help to regain lost territories from Vichy Indochina in 1940-1941. To this must be added the United States, at once a colonial and an anticolonial power that opposed Japan's advance into China yet was unwilling to go beyond protests that change should be by agreement not by force. Even when the United States eventually imposed economic sanctions against Japan, these merely antagonized the Japanese and caused them to take even bolder steps. Tarling shows how Britain never really knew whether U.S. "help" in Asia was a good thing or a disaster in the making, and it tried to extract more substantive American promises. Only from mid-1941 did Britain begin to think it worth supporting American embargoes, in the hope that this would draw the United States in further, or deter Japan.

The diplomats and military officers of the retreating British Empire tried to encourage others to uphold the status quo, while avoiding any real commitment themselves. The desperate situation in Europe necessitated the appeasement of Japan—for instance, with the temporary closure of the Burma Road—and British officials encouraged other states to make whatever concessions were necessary to avoid provoking Japan.

Tarling's detailed account of these events sometimes becomes overwhelming, and the forest gets lost for the trees. Fortunately, however, Tarling sets out to do more than simply chronicle the Foreign Office's crystal-ball gazing, its fears of a possible Japanese strike, its appeals, and its persistent avoidance of a firm commitment. He also attempts to show us something more dramatic—that the origins of the Second World War in the Pacific lay not simply in the inevitable unfolding of a Sino-Japanese tragedy, nor simply in Southeast Asia, but in a particular, triangular relationship between the war in Europe, the impact of that war on the European countries' Southeast Asian colonies, and the Sino-Japanese conflict.

Tarling argues that the American response to Japan's southward advance moved from nonrecognition of Japanese gains, through moral outrage, to economic sanctions, [End Page 133] warnings, and the expansion of the U.S. navy (the latter as much in response to the battles in the Atlantic and Mediterranean as to Asian developments). We know that all this merely increased Japan's desire to complete its conquest of China and other East Asian territories. The European war, meanwhile, also continued to affect Southeast Asia. Above all, it weakened all European powers' abilities to defend their Southeast Asian colonies and resources, including the oil of the East Indies, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the strategic military bases in Indochina. Attempts by the European colonial powers (especially Britain) to preserve the status quo and help China, as Britain did by using the Burma-China Road and the Netherlands did by refusing to increase trade with Japan in 1941, ultimately thwarted their efforts not...