restricted access To Cage the Red Dragon: SEATO and the Defence of Southeast Asia 1955-1965 by Damien Fenton (review)
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To Cage the Red Dragon: SEATO and the Defenceof Southeast Asia 1955-1965 Damien Fenton National University of Singapore Press, 2012 324 pp. ISBN 978-9971-69-564-4

Though the title of the book indicates that the study was confined to the ten-year period of 1955-1965, in fact it covers the whole history of the organization until its demise in 1977. The atmospherics that led to the formation of NATO in Europe and subsequently the birth of SEATO in 1955 are well analysed. SEATO, like its sister organization in Europe, was formed with the objective of deterring and, if need be, mitigating the threat of communism. The fall of China to the Communists in 1949 and the Viet Minh defeat of the French in Indo-China were the main contri-butory factors for the formation of SEATO.

The book is divided into eight chapters. Chapter 1 gives an overview of NATO's role in Europe and subsequently SEATO's role in the Southeast Asian theatre of the Cold War. Chapter 2 analyses the conventional military threat faced by Southeast Asia—the communist insurgencies. Chapters 3, 4 and 5 cover SEATO's organizational structure, strategic concepts and plans for a limited war. Chapters 6 and 7 cover the counter-insurgency plans to address the expansion of communism. Chapter 8 analyses the differences on the security perception as well as security priorities among the member countries that finally led to the closing of SEATO's Secretariat in Bangkok on 30 June 1977. [End Page 124]

Primary sources have been exhaustively used in researching for the book. They include declassified documents from the archives of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. The information gathered gives a good insight into the differences in priorities among member states. On one side of the spectrum are the relatively well-armed industrialized Western countries and on the other, the less prosperous Asian countries which were highly dependent on their security umbrella of the former.

SEATO was formed with the intention to deter communist aggression in the region. It was also a response to apparent—real or imaginary—threats to the three newly independent states of Indo-China (South Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia). Such threats were regarded as direct threats to the SEATO alliance. However, the members of the organization that came from different geographical regions of the globe made it difficult for the organization to view the threat to Southeast Asian security from one common prism. Consultations did take place regularly, yet member nations were unable to 'agree on measures which should be taken for the common defence'. SEATO's inability to take a common stand on the takeover of Laos by the Communists was one such case.

The writer tends to over-assume that the numerical strength of the Chinese armed forces was a threat to the region, hence the need for SEATO. With the exception of its involvement in the Korean War, China had never sent its army marching into any of the Southeast Asian states. The strength of the local communist parties which hitherto had been over-stated by Western analysts was de-emphasized by the writer. The political and economic instability in China made the local Chinese populace apolitical. By 1960 the perceived menace of the China-inspired local communist parties, acting in concert with mainland China, became irrelevant as the local Chinese 'tried to get on with their everyday lives as best as they could'.

SEATO measured the security of Southeast Asia overwhelmingly from the military strength/weakness viewpoint. Battle for the hearts andminds in containing communist influence is given scant attention in the book. A case in point was that SEATO tended to focus more on the ever-increasing numerical strength of the Viet Cong without making any efforts to study the reasons behind the increase from 12,000-14000 in September 1961 to 20,000-25,000 barely four months later. Interestingly the Laotians were considered 'a charming, indolent, enchanting people, but...just not very vigorous'. Ironically, it was only the United States that held to the belief that inadequate training and effective leadership were the cause of the...


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