Tentative Encounters China, India, and Indochina

Asad-Ul Iqbal Latif. Between Rising Powers: China, Singapore and India. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2007.

Lee Kuan Yew’s choice of democratic India over communist China in the 1950s underscored the political logic of Singapore’s relations with Beijing, which were far less warm than its ties with New Delhi on Singapore’s independence in 1965. Other factors supporting the Singapore view were that communist China was helping insurgencies in Southeast Asia, and that Beijing was an ethnic source of attraction to Chinese in the region. Lee’s People’s Action Party (PAP), democratic socialist and anti-communist in orientation, had to contend with the dual pulls of ideology and ethnicity that China exercised on the Chinese majority in Singapore, where the PAP was pledged to the principle of multiracialism and not nationalism predicated on Chinese supremacy. India, by contrast with China, identified itself with the ideals of democracy, socialism and non-alignment, these values being consonant with the PAP’s self-definition and worldview as well.

Yet, in the decade and a half after Singapore’s independence, several trends redrew the Asian security landscape that Singapore inhabited. The Sino-Indian War of 1962 rebuffed hopes of Third World internationalism inaugurated by the Bandung Conference of 1955, in whose spirit of Afro-Asian solidarity had originated the Non-Aligned Movement that was established in 1961. Dawn in Bandung was overtaken by the high noon of colonial retrenchments, superpower initiatives, and consequent alignments that marked Asia’s trajectory from the mid-1960s onwards. Britain announced in 1967 that it would withdraw its forces in Malaysia and Singapore by the mid-1970s, a date that was subsequently brought forward to 1971. The Sino-Soviet split, which had begun in the late 1950s, peaked in 1969. The Soviet Union’s Asian collective security proposal, first advanced by Nikita Khruschev in 1956, was taken up by Leonid Brezhnev in 1969 as a means of containing China, whose domestic and foreign policies by then were convulsed by a Cultural Revolution that revived fears of Beijing as an unpredictable and destabilizing force in Asian politics. The Soviet security proposal came on the heels of the Brezhnev Doctrine of 1968, which asserted Moscow’s control over Warsaw Pact countries and its right to define “socialism” and “capitalism” in its relations with socialist countries, which would not be allowed to deviate from Soviet leadership in their conduct of domestic politics and international relations. This doctrine provided the justification for the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and the invasion of Afghanistan far down the road in 1979, although Kabul was not a Warsaw Pact capital.

Even as Moscow tightened its international grip in the late 1960s, America escalated its involvement in the Vietnam War, but in 1969 there appeared the Nixon Doctrine, which set the stage for “Vietnamization”, or the policy groundwork that culminated in the eventual U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam. As part of this doctrine, Richard Nixon declared that the United States would honour its treaty commitments and provide a shield if a nuclear power threatened a nation allied to Washington or one whose survival it considered vital to its security; in cases involving other types of aggression, the United States would furnish military or economic assistance when this was asked for in accordance with its treaty commitments, but the nation that was threatened directly would have to bear the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defence. The doctrine was seen as a declaration of America’s unwillingness to send its troops into Asian conflicts—and a message to Asian nations to redraw their security parameters accordingly, particularly as the durability of American engagement in Asia was placed in sharp relief by the Soviet Union’s strategic advances into Asia. The India-Pakistan War at the end of 1971, which occurred after the signing of the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation in August that year, led to the independence of Bangladesh from a Pakistan supported by America and China.

However, that war was preceded by perhaps the most significant development for Asia as a whole: the Sino-U.S. rapprochement, whose early stirrings included Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing in July 1971 and which was formalized during Richard Nixon’s February 1972 visit to China. By the time that rapprochement had matured into the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979, it had overshadowed for Asia the course of the U.S.-Soviet détente that had begun in the first half of the 1970s and petered out in the second half. The conclusion of the Vietnam War with the dramatic American departure from Saigon in 1975 marked a grave deterioration in Washington’s contribution to the security of non-communist Southeast Asia. That development was rebalanced only somewhat by the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. As China and the United States drew closer, so did independent Vietnam to the Soviet Union. The signing of the Soviet-Vietnamese Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in 1978 was followed by Hanoi’s invasion of Cambodia the same year and by Beijing’s punitive action against Vietnam soon after in 1979. In the Indochina conflict of the closing years of the decade was coalesced the latest confluence of Cold War forces that had changed Asia’s security trajectory in the decade-and-a-half since Singapore became independent. Amidst this flurry of world affairs, Singapore made its security calculations as China benefited because of its posture towards the United States and India palpably drew close to the Soviet Union. This chapter will examine the role of the Indochina conflict in the evolution of Singapore’s relations with the two Asian powers, after sketching the city-state’s initial relations with Beijing and New Delhi.


China had an economic presence in colonial Singapore. The Bank of China set up a branch there in 1936 to channel the diaspora’s financial support to the Chinese mainland in its struggle against Japanese imperialism. After China’s independence in 1949, the bank served as a point of unofficial diplomatic contact with Beijing. Much later, when Singapore was a part of Malaysia, the bank came close to being shut down but was saved by Separation, leading Michael Leifer to believe that its existence well might have featured in the degree of political tolerance that Beijing extended to independent Singapore. As an entrepôt, Singapore was naturally drawn to trade with China, and Chinese emporia selling cheap products helped to keep down the cost of living. However, Leifer notes that at issue in the development of Singapore’s relations with China is “the need to separate out economics from politics. In that respect, Singapore’s flag did not follow trade.” The nascent government not only sought to register its distinct political identity but promoted economic and military ties with Taiwan while adhering to a one-China policy.

There were several reasons for Singapore’s reservations about China. Beijing, which had shared Sukarnoist Indonesia’s condemnation of Malaysia’s formation as a neo-colonialist plot, did not recognize Singapore’s independence till 1970, preferring to refer to the city-state as a part of Malaya. Colouring Singapore’s perceptions of China were the early political battles that that the PAP fought with pro-communist and pro-Chinese forces. During the Cultural Revolution, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was branded a “running dog” of American and British imperialism. It was only in late 1970 that Beijing quietly changed its attitude to Singapore because it wanted as many countries as possible to check the expansion of the Soviet Union’s influence into Southeast Asia. Moscow had signed a trade deal with Singapore in 1966, set up a trade mission there in 1967, and established diplomatic relations with the city-state in 1968. It was with an eye to these developments that Beijing embarked on its overtures to the region, including Singapore. Some movement occurred in bilateral relations when Singapore allowed a ping-pong team to play in Beijing in 1971, and accepted a Chinese offer to send a ping-pong team to Singapore the following year. Singapore also voted at the United Nations in support of an Albanian resolution transferring China’s seat from the Republic of China to the People’s Republic of China. Even as these tentative steps in Sino-Singapore relations were being taken, Beijing was changing its position on the overseas Chinese, many of whom had taken up citizenship in the countries where they lived, by discouraging them from returning to China. This helped smoothen the prospects of ties between Beijing and Singapore, whose caution was based on a firm desire not to be seen as a Third China (after the Chinese mainland and Taiwan) either by Beijing or by Singapore’s neighbours. Singapore had to “cope regionally with the recurrent charge that ethnic affinity would make the island, at the very least, an agent of influence for China”. The change in China’s stance towards Southeast Asian Chinese was helpful here. However, there was another issue that remained unresolved: China’s ties with the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), a source of friction between Beijing, and Malaysia and Singapore. Beijing budged little on this issue, placing it in the context of its support for liberation movements against colonialism. That said, since only support from within the country and not from Beijing could cause a movement to succeed, if Southeast Asian countries and China had a “forward-looking view”, their relations could improve and they could have diplomatic relations. China was not so much giving up its ideological stake in liberation movements in Southeast Asia—for to do so would be to weaken its leadership of those movements and invite the Soviet Union to replace it in that role—as it was finessing a dual strategy of party-to-party ties with communist movements contingent on their domestic performance, and state-to-state ties that depended on how amicable governments were towards Beijing. The formula was sufficiently ambivalent to permit China to retain its revolutionary credentials while tackling pragmatically the challenge from the Soviet Union.

Intimations of a breakthrough in Singapore’s relations with Beijing appeared in two stages. The first was in March 1975, when Foreign Minister S. Rajaratnam visited Beijing. He assured his hosts that the city-state would not allow Moscow, whose ships were repaired in Singapore, to use that access for subversive activities against its neighbours, including China. Rajaratnam also explained that, given regional sensitivities about Singapore being a Chinese-majority country, it would establish diplomatic relations with China only after Indonesia had done so. (This occurred, finally, in 1990.) Rajaratnam’s trip was followed by Lee’s visit in May 1976. Lee’s memoirs capture vividly the interplay of factors that came to the fore. To ensure that Beijing did not treat the visit as one by kinsmen Chinese, the Singapore delegation included the Jaffna Tamil Rajaratnam and Malay parliamentary secretary Ahmad Mattar; moreover, all meetings would be conducted in English. At Beijing airport, Lee and his delegation were received by chanting schoolgirls and a banner that proclaimed support for the people, but not the government, of Singapore—a pointed reminder of how the communists in Beijing viewed the PAP. In his meetings with Chinese leaders, Lee made it clear that Singapore would not be pro-China merely because it had a Chinese majority, and declared that his government would prevent pro-communist Chinese at home from harming Singapore, but added that Singapore would not be anti-China. The stronger China became, the better and more equal would be the balance between the United States, the Soviet Union and China, Lee declared. An impromptu meeting with an ailing Mao Zedong took place, too. At a meeting, Huo Guofeng, the Chinese Premier, fudged on the issue of why Beijing was supporting the MCP, a Malaysian party that sought to liberate a foreign country, Singapore. Lee defended Singapore’s decision to train its troops in Taiwan. He pointed out again that the citystate’s neighbours would have greater suspicions the more China embraced it as a kinsman country. Hua reiterated China’s disapproval of dual nationality for people of Chinese descent living abroad but reiterated the traditional and kinsman-like relations between the peoples of Singapore and China, which were beneficial to the development of relations. There was clearly an impasse over both ethnic and ideological issues. It continued into the late 1980s, when Singapore viewed with unease China’s tendency to play up ethnic ties with Chinese from time to time, “whether for remittances, investments, commercial gain or even psychological ‘patronage’”.

That said, however, Lee’s 1976 visit marked for Singapore the high point of a process reaching beyond it that had begun with the Sino-U.S. rapprochement of 1971 and the signing of the Shanghai communiqué in 1972. China’s decision to turn towards the United States announced the second phase of the Cold War, the first having been capitalist America’s conflict with a putatively united socialist bloc that included the Soviet Union and China. In the second phase, China, hitherto an “ideological missionary state”, found a different focus for its regional interests, these being to prevent Vietnam from acting as the regional agent of Soviet expansionism. Lee, who had advised Richard Nixon as far back as in 1967 to engage China, could take some heart from the way in which Washington and Beijing were drawing closer and thereby holding out the possibility of turning China into a status quo power in Southeast Asia. A truer congruence of Sino-American interests would have to await Soviet-backed Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978, but the emerging patterns of Asian realignment were visible already.

Before getting to 1978, the turning point in Singapore’s political relations with pre-reform China, let us examine how the city-state’s initially warm relations with India had deteriorated markedly by around the same year, 1978.


Singapore-India relations got off to a good start in 1965 because no political baggage weighed down economic relations between the two Commonwealth countries. Economic relations between them in the following decade took the form of trade, technical assistance and joint ventures. “India’s admiration for Singapore’s success was comparable to the same feeling it had for Japan’s acheievement,” Somkiat Onwimon writes. Singapore was India’s best export market in ASEAN. India enjoyed a favourable trade balance with the city-state of about US$200 million, India’s best performance with any ASEAN country. Indian exports to the city-state consisted mainly of industrial machinery and other engineering products such as transport equipment, vehicles and parts, and iron and steel. Food items, textiles and popular Indian films were other exports. Singapore’s exports consisted of crude rubber, copper, tin and natural gums, natural gum resins, balsam, lacs, spices and books. Indian investments, however, were not as extensive as the Western investments that were driving Singapore’s economic transition from an entrepôt to an industrial centre.

These economic ties were part of a larger meeting of minds in Singapore and India notwithstanding New Delhi’s refusal to provide the island-state with a military adviser to help it build up five battalions. “I had half expected the Indian government might not want to take sides against Malaysia,” Lee writes. New Delhi and Singapore enjoyed close political relations, with the city-state supporting India during its conflicts with Pakistan, and the Tashkent Declaration. Several bilateral visits took place, and Singapore’s leaders were keen on involving India in Southeast Asian security arrangements following the departure of Western powers in the late 1960s. Lee emphasized the need for an Indian presence in the region either through a multilateral security arrangement “or by the enunciation of an ‘Asian Monroe Doctrine’ to dissuade possible ‘poaching’ in Asia”. Kripa Sridharan sees in Singapore’s attitude a reflection of several factors: the vulnerability of a small state in a region becoming a cockpit of major-power-rivalries, the challenges of adjusting to a proximate power such as communist China, and Singapore’s not very friendly relations with its neighbours. “Given these, it did seem useful to cultivate India as a possible counterweight.”

That counterweight did not materialize. Although China’s expansionist potential linked ASEAN states and India in a common concern, and although New Delhi did not want Southeast Asia to become a Chinese sphere of influence, India was unwilling to contemplate forming a defensive anti-Beijing bloc with countries situated on China’s periphery because of New Delhi’s opposition to entering into any defence pacts. During her trip to Southeast Asia in 1968, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did suggest a three-tier programme encompassing economic cooperation; the free exchange of ideas, resources and know-how among developing and developed countries; and, most interesting, “an international guarantee by the big powers that [the] neutrality and independence of aspiring nations would be preserved to help them develop their nationalism through popular governments”. The third proposal drew much interest. Indira Gandhi clarified later that India wanted to see all the powers that mattered in the area to be guarantors. Sridharan notes the difficulties with the proposal, such as whether China would agree to be a guarantor and whether the superpowers would be willing to take on additional responsibilities. But even before the idea could be refined, Gandhi “confounded everybody by saying that her suggestion of (an) international guarantee was restricted to Indochina and that she was merely thinking aloud”. India missed an opportunity to insert itself into the nascent security equations of Southeast Asia. The reason was India’s aversion to the formation of pacts and bases, which grew from an innate dismissal of the idea that power vacuums could result from the absence of such security arrangements. India therefore was not convinced when Lee, during his 1970 visit there, expressed fears that a British withdrawal from Southeast Asia would create a vacuum, and New Delhi did not make any specific security proposal for the region.

It was in the following year, 1971, that the geopolitical realities in which Singapore and India operated came into sharp focus. India found itself entangled in the civil war in East Pakistan, where the Pakistani military had cracked down on Bengali separatists and caused an outflow of refugees to India. In the midst of the crisis, Henry Kissinger’s secret trip to Beijing through Rawalpindi in July, and the possibility of a Sino-U.S. rapprochement, led to a new unanimity of Soviet and Indian interests. Moscow was confronted with a new global balance of power of which it would be the principal loser. The regional implications of that new balance of power could be disastrous as well for Indian strategy on East Pakistan. New Delhi took up a two-year-old offer from the Soviet Union to conclude a Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Cooperation. The Russians were hesitant initially: They wanted to know what exactly India expected, especially since it wanted the draft offer of 1969 expanded to include a “consultation” clause. When India made it clear that it was not seeking a formal—or secret—commitment of Soviet military assistance in case China intervened in an India-Pakistan war, Moscow agreed, and the treaty was signed on 9 August. However, Article 9 stipulates that, in the case of an attack or the threat of an attack, the signatories would enter into consultations directed at removing the threat. Thus, while the treaty did not commit the Soviet Union to protecting India, the phrasing of Article 9 was broad enough to leave open that possibility—and certainly broad enough for China to take a Soviet response very seriously. In the event, the India-Pakistan war of 1971 took place without any determining military intervention by the external powers. It led to the defeat and break-up of Pakistan, reiterated India’s role as the dominant power in South Asia, and cemented Indo-Soviet ties as Bangladesh emerged as an independent state in the teeth of Chinese and American misgivings over the disintegration of Pakistan.

Lee visited India in November 1971, just before the outbreak of the war. He praised India’s patience in dealing with the situation in its neighbourhood, but “he did not seem entirely sanguine about India’s strategic partnership with the Soviet Union”. It is not difficult to discern why. In 1971, what was taking shape was Singapore’s belief in the value of a Sino-U.S. rapprochement, a belief predicated on the fact that a China drawn firmly into the orbit of status quo powers would be beneficial for Southeast Asian states at the receiving end of Beijing’s support for insurrectionary movements in the region. India, by contrast, had embraced the Soviet Union, entrenching the superpower’s influence in South Asia and giving it one more card to play in the Cold War. New Delhi’s suspicion of Washington and its distrust of Beijing had finally taken the form of a treaty with a Moscow hostile to both Washington and Beijing. The Indo-Soviet Treaty, although modest in scope compared to the Sino-U.S. rapprochement, was a direct response to the constellation of forces bringing America and China together. It would have been difficult for a country supporting a breakthrough in Sino-U.S. relations to welcome the possibility of an Indo-Soviet entente.

If 1971 revealed the distance between Singapore and India as the great powers realigned themselves in Asia, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in December 1978 and their occupation of that country in January 1979, and the Sino-Vietnamese war of February 1979 placed New Delhi and Singapore in two intensely distinct geopolitical blocs. The Indochinese conflict therefore is examined here in some detail, fleshing out China’s role in, and the responses of Singapore and India to, the last convulsion to grip Southeast Asia before the Cold War ended.

The Indochina Conflict

The origins of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia in 1978 were many. One was Vietnam’s historical self-perception of its role in Indochina, drawn from the Chinese strategic concept of heartland and periphery that had provided the rationale for China’s rule, invasion and Sinicization of Vietnam itself. The Vietnamese saw Indochina as part of their sphere of influence much as China had viewed Southeast Asia. There were material factors as well. The need for rice and cultivable land had led to the annexation of Kampuchea Krom, later known as the French colony of Cochinchina, by Vietnam (Annam) in the 17th and 18th centuries; this is cited as the starting point of the conflict between Cambodia and Vietnam. French colonial policy added to the potential for conflict. Pre-colonial and colonial legacies fused into the ideological impulse for a Hanoi-led Indochinese Federation that was formulated in 1935. The federation appeared achievable following Vietnam’s victory against the United States in 1975. Vietnamese armed forces installed a client regime in Laos, but they were unable to do so in Cambodia because of Cambodian nationalism, the desire of the external powers at Geneva in 1954 to ensure Cambodia’s sovereignty, and the political skills of Prince Norodom Sihanouk; and the rise to power in 1975 of the Khmer Rouge, a fellow-communist movement that, however, was not under Vietnamese control. When the Khmer Rouge launched military attacks on Vietnam, it provided Hanoi with the rationale to counter-attack, but this response need not have involved a full-scale invasion and occupation. It took the form it did because it satisfied Vietnam’s long-standing imperial ambition to dominate its weaker neighbour.

That ambition was given a fillip by the role of the Soviet Union. Moscow had offered Hanoi a friendship and cooperation treaty in 1975. That treaty was signed, after the two sides had smoothened out differences over the Vietnamese draft, on 3 November 1978. Article 6 of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics addressed security concerns. It said: “In case either Party is attacked or threatened with attack, the two Parties signatory to the Treaty shall immediately consult each other with a view to eliminating that threat and taking appropriate and effective measures to ensure the peace and security of the two countries.” The Vietnamese attack on Cambodia on 25 December 1978 suggested that the two events were coordinated, but the reality is that Hanoi had not informed Moscow of its plan to invade Cambodia until after the event. Nevertheless, Stephen J. Morris notes, the Soviet factor aided in the realization of Hanoi’s plans in Indochina because Vietnam would not have tried to challenge China without the political, military and economic support of the Soviet Union and its East European allies. The Soviet Union, estranged from both China and the United States, saw its Vietnam policy as an opportunity to curb Chinese influence and undercut American power. By the time the Soviet-Vietnamese alliance was formalized in 1978, it was clearly aimed at China, and subsequent to the 1978 invasion of Cambodia, Moscow’s willingness to help Hanoi amounted to the attempted creation of a regional hegemonic order under Soviet auspices, and accelerated the pace of the Sino-U.S. rapprochement.

China’s Role

China was the key factor in these developments. In the Vietnamese view, it was guilty of several transgressions. A book published by the Vietnamese Foreign Ministry in 1979 said that Beijing had favoured the recognition of two Vietnams with two separate governments at Geneva in 1954, had wanted a protracted war for the Vietnamese communists instead of a quick solution, and had tried to isolate Hanoi in certain ways. During the Cultural Revolution, China had interfered with Soviet arms shipments to North Vietnam, had organized Chinese residents in Vietnam, and had sabotaged Hanoi-Washington negotiations during the Johnson Administration so that Vietnam would bear the brunt of fighting the Americans. Then, the Chinese desire for rapprochement with the Nixon Administration had undermined the Vietnamese negotiating position by urging Hanoi to make a compromise in exchange for American accommodation on the Taiwan issue; also, Beijing had pressed Hanoi at the end of the Paris Agreement between Le Duc Tho and Henry Kissinger to postpone Vietnam’s drive for reunification, holding out as a carrot the promise to maintain China’s 1973 aid level for five years. (Vietnam was reunited on 2 July 1976.) The book accused China of harbouring hegemonic ambitions towards Indochina and a desire to dominate Southeast Asia because, among other reasons, it had claimed sovereignty over most of the Gulf of Tonkin while oil speculation was on near the offshore islands in 1974; it had seized the Hoang Sa (Paracel) islands from Saigon’s troops in January 1974; and it had asked Hanoi to supply the Khmer Rouge during its final offensives in 1975, thereby carrying out China’s obligations towards the Cambodian communists while avoiding a breach of tacit Sino-American agreements not to supply communist Indochinese forces. This approach had put Hanoi in a difficult position. The close interplay of ideological and material factors in this indictment attests to the depth of Vietnamese bitterness towards China, an historical rival with which relations had been sabotaged by the bad faith of a supposedly fraternal communist party unable to rise above China’s national interests. That was, in essence, the Vietnamese view. Cambodia was a sub-plot in the larger Sino-Vietnamese drama.

The Chinese view was equally bitter. Beijing, which had given Hanoi massive help—US$20 billion—during the Vietnam War, not only saw the Vietnamese as ingrates but felt doubly offended because they had aligned themselves with its arch-enemy, Moscow. The ethnic factor had come into play as well. In the early 1970s, the Vietnamese communist party purged ethnic Chinese and Chinese-trained cadres because it feared Chinese hostility over its tilt to Moscow. In 1976, Hanoi turned its attention to the ethnic Chinese population of Vietnam, and in 1978 it expelled hundreds of thousands of ethnic Chinese in the north to China. It was a combination of such factors that cemented a Beijing-Phnom Penh alliance, which had been ambivalent till then. China’s fear of Soviet encirclement made it see the Vietnamese-Khmer Rouge clashes as a challenge from what it called Soviet social imperialist expansion. Vietnam became a sub-plot in the Sino-Soviet drama.

China’s position on Vietnam reflected three interests: to uphold the independent existence of the three Indochinese states all operating within the purview of China’s regional and security interests, which meant getting Vietnam out of Cambodia and Laos; preventing the arrival of an “Asian Cuba” by getting Soviet influence out of Vietnam in particular and Indochina in general; and gaining control over the South China Sea so as to play a dominant role in the entire region.

China’s invasion of Vietnam bore out these themes. During a January 1979 visit to Washington, Deng Xiaoping prepared the Americans for the coming Chinese action against the “Cubans of the East”, who were moving on to embrace an Asian collective security system that threatened both the United States and China. On a stopover in Tokyo, he informed the Japanese that the Americans had been told of the invasion plans. Back home, he discussed at the Central Military Commission in early February the range of possible Soviet responses, from verbal condemnations to a limited raid across the border to a full-scale invasion. The Chinese decided that the third possibility was unlikely. They went ahead. China’s 29-day incursion into Vietnam beginning on 17 February 1979 was a limited punitive action that involved ground forces only. Chinese casualties were heavy, but provincial capitals in the border region fell, including Lang Son, which could have led the way into the Red River Delta. Having signalled to Hanoi that Chinese troops could have moved into the heartland had they so wished, Beijing announced on 5 March that the Vietnamese had been sufficiently chastised and that the campaign was over. The Chinese withdrawal was complete by 16 March. While it is true that China failed to compel Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia, what it did achieve in a limited punitive war was a diplomatic objective: to expose as unreliable Soviet assurances of military support to Vietnam. In that sense, Beijing “did achieve a clear strategic victory by breaking the Soviet encirclement and by eliminating Moscow’s threat of a two-front war”. Moscow apparently took to heart Deng’s warning that China was prepared for a full-scale war with the Soviet Union, a warning that had been accompanied with all Chinese troops along the Sino-Soviet border being put on emergency war alert, the setting up of a new military command in Xinjiang, and the evacuation of about 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border. Moscow did deploy warships off the coast of Vietnam, perhaps to deter a Chinese naval attack on the Vietnamese mainland and disputed island chains, but the Americans countered that move by deciding to send two aircraft carriers to a position where they were a day’s cruise away from Vietnam. In the event, the practical limitations of the Soviet-Vietnamese treaty were laid bare. Even more important from the regional point of view, the Chinese move, unchallenged by any substantial intervention by Moscow in Hanoi’s favour, deterred a Vietnamese attack on Thailand. At a broader level, Beijing became convinced that Moscow “lacked the political will to resort to war in order to sustain the Soviet sphere of influence in Asia”. This conviction led Beijing to inform Moscow on 3 April 1979 that it intended to terminate the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance when it reached the end of its 30-year term in 1980. Chinese leaders said after the war that “a lesson for Vietnam is also a lesson for the Soviet Union”.

Singapore’s Response

Singapore’s response revolved on two issues. The first was sovereignty. As a small state, it was particularly concerned over the implications “for all small nations in condoning or approving the armed overthrow of even a hateful government by a foreign army”. The “hateful government” was a reference to the government of Democratic Kampuchea led by Pol Pot, whose genocidal treatment of Cambodians was being used by the Vietnamese to justify their invasion and occupation of Cambodia. Although Singapore had no kind words for Pol Pot, it did point out that, till shortly before their ouster, he and his murderous colleagues used to be favourites of the same Hanoi government that was now revealing the atrocities of the fallen regime. Singapore’s stance was that Democratic Kampuchea deserved to keep its seat at the United Nations because it was the legal government of Cambodia. If this did not happen—or even if the country’s UN seat was left vacant—this caving in would mean the world body lending legitimacy to a blatant act of aggression by one state against another. Commenting on the Heng Samrin government that the Vietnamese had installed in Phnom Penh, Singapore pointed out that in February 1979 it had signed a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Vietnam containing a clause that allowed for Vietnamese troops to be invited in. Singapore noted the ominous implications of this arrangement: “First invade a country. Then set up a front organization which will sign a treaty requesting outside armed intervention after the invasion has taken place, and all would be perfectly legal.” The legal issue of sovereignty was the first aspect of Singapore’s position, the basis on which it was determined to mobilize international forces to reverse the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia.

The second issue was that of balance-of-power politics. The American withdrawal from Vietnam had created a vacuum that China and Vietnam were competing to fill. Singapore did not deny that Vietnam had apprehensions about China since, for “small nations all great powers are potential threats”, and it was against a policy of bleeding Vietnam white to punish it for its Cambodian adventure. The presence of a strong and peaceful Vietnam, which had fought off both the French and the Americans, was a source of stability in a Southeast Asia adjoining a vast country like China. However, Singapore insisted that Vietnam was using its apprehension about a China threat “as a pretext to realize its own imperialist ambitions”, recalling that, not so long ago, Vietnam itself had rejected the American thesis of a China threat when “the Americans sent troops into Vietnam for precisely the same reason—to save the rest of Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, from the Chinese menace”.

The link between Vietnam’s regional actions—which Singapore placed in the context of Hanoi’s unfulfilled aspirations for an Indochinese Federation that possibly could be extended to the rest of Southeast Asia—and the Soviet Union’s global role lay in the world “imperialist”. From Phnom Penh to Kabul excoriated relentlessly Moscow’s motives in supporting Vietnamese expansionism. Drawing parallels between the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a year later, it said that the two related events attested to “the struggle for the establishment of a Communist world order”. Both were wars for a Soviet Empire, fought in one case through direct invasion and in the other through a proxy. The bottom line: the “vacuum” created by the collapse of Western empires in the Third World “must be filled in the name of international proletarianism”. The last of “Western imperialist wars” was fought in Vietnam. Within just three years of that war ending, “Vietnam, which had fought a war for national independence continuously for 30 years has now been harnessed to the cause of a socialist universal empire”. Vietnam’s reinvention as part of a fresh empire, in the wake of a drawing down of American forces in Southeast Asia, threatened to create a new balance of power in the region inimical to Singapore’s interests.

On the basis of these two issues, Singapore developed a “minimum” and a “maximum” objective regarding the resolution of the Cambodian crisis. The minimum objective was that the status quo ante should be restored by Cambodia withdrawing from the sphere of Soviet and Vietnamese influence to become again a buffer between Hanoi and Bangkok. This objective differed from Indonesia’s and Malaysia’s desire to see the Vietnamese-installed Heng Samrin regime consolidate itself. Singapore’s position was closest to that of Thailand, which saw a direct threat to itself from the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia. Indeed, Hanoi’s troops had attacked Cambodian refugee camps in Thailand. The proximity of Hanoi’s invading troops in Cambodia and uncertainty over Vietnamese intentions had driven Thailand into a quasi-alliance with China, which shared Bangkok’s interests in curbing Vietnamese expansionism and which possessed both the will and the power to protect Thailand from Vietnamese encroachment. Singapore’s maximum objective was the re-establishment of a genuinely independent, neutral and non-communist Cambodia (which necessarily would include the routing of the Khmer Rouge) and the emergence of a non-aligned Vietnam that could work with ASEAN; Singapore was even prepared to accept the emergence of an Indochinese Federation if this were to be decided on freely by Cambodians, Laotians and Vietnamese and if this were not to be the result of a drive for hegemony by Hanoi. That maximum goal was shared by the other ASEAN states.

Singapore embarked on a highly vocal condemnation of Hanoi’s designs at the United Nations and elsewhere. It played a major role in the formulation of a common Indochina policy for ASEAN, initiating, organizing and coordinating most of the grouping’s activities so that the situation in Cambodia did not become a fait accompli because of a lack of international interest. As the main architect of ASEAN’s Indochina policy, Singapore mediated between Thailand, and Indonesia and Malaysia. It pointed out repeatedly that the crux of the conflict lay, not in the human-rights excesses perpetrated by the Khmer Rouge, dreadful though these were and strong though Singapore’s reservations about the Pol Pot regime always had been; nor in the humanitarian crisis caused by the outflow of the “boat people”, largely ethnic Chinese refugees who were fleeing Vietnam by sea; but in Vietnam’s action, backed by the Soviet Union, in invading a neighbour in gross violation of the United Nations Charter. It was the consequences of that invasion that needed to be reversed; to focus attention either on the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities or on the plight of the Vietnamese refugees, real though these were in themselves, was to fall prey to Hanoi’s attempt to divert attention from its own, central and unacceptable role in the crisis. Resistance to Vietnamese aggression was necessary also because, otherwise, Vietnam would be emboldened to behave similarly with other regional countries, principally Thailand. As for the “boat people”, it was not insignificant that most of them were Vietnamese of Chinese origin. Could it not be, Singapore argued, that Hanoi’s motives in creating conditions that led to their departure was to cause an outflow of ethnic Chinese refugees who, if they landed elsewhere in Southeast Asia in sufficient numbers, would exacerbate underlying tensions between non-Chinese and Chinese in the host states, complicating their governments’ relations with China? If that was the Vietnamese strategy, what humanitarian purpose could be achieved by keeping the refugees at the forefront of the Indochina issue?

A comprehensive analysis of the course of the Cambodian crisis, and the diplomatic initiatives that accompanied it, is beyond the scope of this study. However, it is true to say that the crisis created a degree of convergence between the views of China and Singapore notwithstanding the Republic’s opposition to Beijing’s continuing support for communist/Chinese insurgencies in Southeast Asia, a support that complicated Singapore’s efforts to entrench a common ASEAN position on the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia. The close congruence of views between Thailand, threatened by Vietnam, and China helped Singapore consolidate an ASEAN position on the conflict that overcame the early reservations of Indonesia and Malaysia.

Intimations of the convergence between Singapore’s and China’s approaches to Vietnam’s intentions were evident in November 1978, the month preceding the invasion. Deng Xiaoping, on a visit to Singapore, said that if Hanoi succeeded in controlling Indochina, the Indochinese Federation would “expand its influence and serve the global strategy of the Soviet Union to move southwards into the Indian Ocean… Wherever the Soviet Union attacked, China would help to repel the attack. To have peace, Asean had to unite with China and repel the Soviet Union and its Cuba in Southeast Asia, Vietnam”. To Lee, the problem was that while China wanted Southeast Asian countries to join it in isolating the “Russian bear”, Singapore’s neighbours wanted it to unite and isolate the “Chinese dragon”. The reason was that there were no “overseas Russians” in Southeast Asia leading communist insurgencies supported by Moscow, but there were “overseas Chinese” supported by the Chinese Communist Party and government who were posing threats to Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and, to a lesser degree, Indonesia.

During Lee’s visit to China in November 1980, Premier Zhao Ziyang told him that China would try to allay Malaysian and Indonesian suspicions towards it. “He said Malaysia and Indonesia could never win over Vietnam away from the Soviet Union unless either Vietnam renounced regional hegemony, in which case it would not need the Soviet Union, or the Soviet Union renounced global hegemony, in which case it would not need Vietnam.” In his talks with Deng, Lee conveyed the point that Thailand and Singapore were in danger of being viewed as China’s “stooges” because of their support for the Democratic Kampuchea Government’s seat at the United Nations. Lee noted that Malaysia and Indonesia must be satisfied that continued support of the Democratic Kampuchea Government would not result in the restoration of China’s influence in Cambodia. Both countries, he declared, believed the Vietnamese argument that ASEAN’s actions helped China to make Vietnam weaker and would allow Beijing to increase its influence in Southeast Asia. “Malaysia and Indonesia saw China as the supporter of communist forces that had troubled them for the last 30 years,” Lee recalls. When Deng asked him repeatedly to help promote an alliance between the Cambodian resistance groups, Lee got him to confirm that China would encourage the establishment of a non-communist front to resist the Vietnamese; and that Beijing would accept the emergence of an independent Cambodian government after a Vietnamese withdrawal, a government on which China would have no hold.

These Chinese agreements helped Singapore to create a common ASEAN position on Cambodia. Singapore’s strategy was to try and break the nexus between China as a communist state and China as a sponsor of ethnic-Chinese-cum-communist movements in Southeast Asia. Once this break was effected, communist China would be little different from communist Russia or communist Vietnam in their dealings with Southeast Asia. That break would remove the crucial ethnic element bedevilling China’s political relations with ASEAN states that had substantial Chinese populations, and open the way to a resolution of the Cambodia issue on its merits by stopping it from being held hostage to ASEAN nations’ view of China as an ethnic player. Although Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia was reversed in 1991 only in the context of a larger turn of events—the disarray and then the disintegration of the Soviet Union whose support Vietnam had enjoyed—it is correct to say that Singapore’s relentless efforts to keep the Cambodian issue high on the international agenda reflected a determination to ensure that the security of small states like itself should not collapse by default because of a failure of international will to uphold their sovereignty, because of the fact that a superpower was behind the aggressor, and because of the confounding effects of ethnicity on the international relations of Southeast Asia. The international balance of power must not be allowed to go against Singapore.

India’s Response

If China’s approach to the Indochina conflict and Southeast Asian security revolved on its interpretation of the intention and capabilities of Vietnam, the pivot of India’s response to the conflict was its deep suspicion of the role of China, which had been revitalized by the Sino-U.S. rapprochement. This was where Vietnam and Indonesia proved vital to Indian interests.

According to Indian analyst K. Subrahmanyam, India had a large stake in ensuring that Chinese pressure on the Indochinese states was contained. “That has been our basic policy from the fifties. The only country that can do this is Vietnam, the most capable nation of the region. That is where the strategic interest[s] of India and Vietnam coincide.” Also, in Indira Gandhi’s realpolitik-driven vision of Southeast Asia, a strong and anti-Chinese Indochina would “guard the flank of the Indian sphere of influence in South Asia. There was thus a convergence of Vietnamese and Indian views. Both were concerned with checking the southern advance of Chinese power”.

The other country of interest to India was Indonesia. Indigenous Indonesians’ view of the affluent ethnic Chinese minority in their country as being exploitative; the Indonesian elite’s strong aversion to the communist character of the Chinese regime; China’s attempt to intervene in Indonesian affairs in the 1950s by using the issue of the status of overseas Chinese; and Beijing’s perceived role as the mentor of the Communist Party of Indonesia were factors that alienated Jakarta from Beijing, notwithstanding the “aberration” of Sukarno’s last years, when Indonesia teamed up with China to confront what the Indonesian leader perceived as Anglo-American designs in Southeast Asia injurious to Indonesian interests. If there was an Indian “grand design” regarding Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Vietnam formed its two main pillars.

As for the Soviet presence in Southeast Asia, it made strategic sense for Moscow to reinforce its military capability in the South China Sea by using Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam if Moscow feared China’s entry into the Indian Ocean or an increase in the American naval presence there. In any case, the Soviet presence in Southeast Asia was not considered detrimental to regional security; instead, it was the American presence that attracted vocal criticism in Indian policy and scholarly circles. Referring, no doubt, to the circumstances in which the United States had to withdraw from Vietnam, Subrahmanyam hoped that the Americans “have learnt the lesson that their presence in mainland Southeast Asia is not only unwelcome but is militarily unsustainable”. And if, as Vietnam’s critics pointed out, its invasion of Cambodia occurred in the context of Hanoi’s links with Moscow, it was no less true, another Indian commentator exclaimed, that China had invaded Vietnam with the “tacit approval of a super power”—the United States. “An aspiring super power invaded India in 1962… The invasion was apparently undertaken to ‘teach India a lesson’. For the same reason, Vietnam was invaded in 1979…” The Soviet Union also was preferable to the United States because, unlike the latter, it rarely had permitted its strategic interests in South Asia to overshadow India’s vital interests, and it had accepted India’s pre-eminence and managerial role in South Asia.

If the United States was excoriated for giving succour to Beijing and if the Soviet Union was seen as but responding to Sino-U.S. moves to contain it, Singapore’s vociferous opposition to the Vietnamese invasion was seen in two-fold terms. First, Washington had a “very reliable ally” in Singapore because the city-state saw the American presence as a protection in case it came under pressure from Malaysia and Indonesia. The second point, Indian policy-makers decided, was that Singapore’s anti-Soviet and hence anti-Vietnamese stance was not based on the merits of the case but on a strategy of enhancing American interest in the city-state’s economic fortunes by playing its anti-Soviet card and by convincing Washington of the close link between Singapore’s prosperity and its strategic value. Such sentiments left no one in doubt about how Indians viewed the source of the problem in Indochina. While it was the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia that was making diplomatic waves, the real problem lay with China’s desire to dominate Indochina in particular and Southeast Asia in general, as Indians saw it.

The Indian Government’s stance initially was measured, however. It was even-handed under the Janata Party government of Morarji Desai, which did not recognize either the Democratic Kampuchea Government of the Khmer Rouge ousted by Hanoi or the People’s Republic of Kampuchea regime installed by the Vietnamese. Even when China’s attack on Vietnam in 1979 began to tilt New Delhi towards Hanoi on the Cambodian issue, India tried to be even-handed. Thus, when the contentious issue of Cambodian representation was raised at the Sixth Non-Aligned Summit held in Havana in September 1979, India’s position was that the seat should be left vacant. It was Indira Gandhi’s return to power in January 1980 that drove Indian policy markedly in a pro-Hanoi direction, and New Delhi recognized Heng Samrin’s regime in July 1980. (India recognized the Soviet-supported Babrak Karmal government in Afghanistan as well.) The decision, which came in the wake of a Vietnamese attack on Thai territory, caused the Indian-ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ dialogue to be aborted. New Delhi stood its ground. However, by the mid-1980s, it began to realize that its endorsement of Vietnam’s position on Cambodia—a position opposite to that of an ASEAN which wanted to see the Vietnamese military presence there come to an end—was becoming counterproductive. Vietnam’s inflexible position was hurting Indian interests by highlighting the coincidence between ASEAN’s formal approach and China’s; and by underscoring the convergence of Chinese and American interests in Southeast Asia because of their common refusal to accept the military presence of Soviet-supported Vietnam in Cambodia. Indian policy-makers therefore went about trying to narrow differences between Vietnam and ASEAN.

As for Singapore, the Indian recognition of the Vietnamese-installed government placed the city-state and New Delhi “on opposite sides of an issue crucial to peace and stability in Southeast Asia”. At the Commonwealth Heads of Government Regional Meeting in the Indian capital in 1980, Lee Kuan Yew disputed Indira Gandhi’s dismissal of the value of condemning armed intervention across frontiers, with the Singapore leader arguing that the Vietnamese and Soviet occupations of Cambodia and Afghanistan were establishing “a new doctrine of justifiable intervention outside the framework of the UN Charter, setting precedents for open and armed intervention”. The two countries argued again over Cambodia at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in New Delhi in November 1983.

Kripa Sridharan makes the important point that Indian policy on Indochina confirmed “the operative condition in a derived relationship”, which is that “crucial foreign policy interests determine choices towards a secondary area of concern”. India’s overriding interests were to prevent China from exploiting the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to create a coalition of Southeast Asian countries willing to accept Beijing’s regional assertiveness in exchange for reversing Hanoi’s unacceptable gains in the area; and to balance against this goal India’s stake in upholding the interests of Vietnam, its closest partner in Southeast Asia apart from Indonesia. For India, the key lay in enabling Hanoi to withdraw from Cambodia without suffering serious reverses to its security in the form of a regionally strengthened China. As noted earlier, the Cambodian conflict ultimately was resolved as a part of the dramatically unexpected implosion of the Soviet Union. However, what the conflict did was to reveal the extent of the divergence between ASEAN’s and India’s approaches to Southeast Asian security, notwithstanding concerns over China’s role that New Delhi shared with Jakarta. Between India and Singapore lay a gulf of difference in the terminal phase of the Cold War.

The Indochina conflict and its diplomatic aftermath reversed Singapore’s close relations with India and its suspicions about China in 1965. It is true to say of the 1980s that Singapore never had been closer to China and never had been farther from India. But the end of the Cold War changed that situation. As the international system created by the old bipolarity came crashing down, the disappearance of the certainties that it had sustained forced countries to abjure habits of thought and reflexes of action inherited from decades of bipolar animosity. So it was for China, India and Singapore. What occurred globally was not only the bloodless defeat of one superpower by another but the collapse of an historical challenge to the primacy of the capitalist order espoused by an America-led West. Save for two peripheral enclaves of defiance—Cuba and North Korea—countries now had a menu of only one world system to choose from. China effectively had joined that system in 1978 with its reforms; in 1991, India no longer excluded the West from a defining role in its destiny. However, a geopolitical fact that would have a bearing on Singapore’s relations with Beijing was that, though Moscow’s disappearance as a major global and Asian player benefited Beijing, as it did Washington, the Chinese relationship with the US lost “the degree of shared interest and strategic convergence that were present when confronting the Soviet Union and its regional allies during the second phase of the Cold War”. Instead, China’s economic rise and the consequential growth of its political and military influence became the source of the greatest potential challenge to American global supremacy. Relations between Washington and Beijing became a key fact of the times, especially in Southeast Asia, which lay on China’s periphery. India was yet to feature that prominently on the American radar. These were among the defining circumstances in which Singapore moved on to cement its ties with the two Asian protagonists.