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9.4: Political Conflicts and Changes in East and Southeast Asia

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  • The second half of the 20th century was a time of significant political change for East and Southeast Asia. The former colonies of Japan were able to break away from their colonial past and become independent, but as in many other parts of the world, that independence often coincided with political conflict.

    For Japan, the end of World War II brought a period of Westernization and rapid economic growth. Westernization refers to the process of adopting Western, particularly European and American, culture and values. Japan adopted a new constitution and embraced democratic principles. It continued to industrialize and would become a global leader in electronics and automotive production. Today, Japan has the fourth largest GDP behind only the United States, the European Union, and China.

    In other parts of East and Southeast Asia, the political changes to the region following World War II tended toward communism, a social, political, and economic system that seeks communal ownership of the means of production. Communism is associated with Marxism, an analysis of social class and conflict based on the work of Karl Marx (1818-1883 CE). In a typical society, factories are owned by a wealthy few who then pay workers a lower wage to ensure that they make a profit. In a communist society, however, the goal of Marxism would be a classless society where everyone shares the ownership and thus receives equal profits.

    Marxist ideas spread to China by the early 20th century and found particular support among Chinese intellectuals. The Communist Revolution in Russia inspired Marxists in China who founded a communist political party that would eventually be led by Mao Zedong. The communist party continued to gain traction in China and following a civil war, Mao Zedong established the communist People’s Republic of China in 1949. The previous Chinese government fled to the island of Taiwan, which is officially known as the Republic of China and claims control of the entire mainland. China, however, maintains that Taiwan is part of China.

    After securing political control of China, Mao Zedong sought to transform China’s culture by reorienting it around the ideology of communism. One of the first steps in this transformation was the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1961 which sought to reshape China’s agrarian society into an industrial power. Unfortunately, the changes led to widespread famine and the deaths of tens of millions of Chinese as a direct result.

    Following the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Mao aimed to eliminate any remaining traditional elements of Chinese culture or capitalist thinking through the Cultural Revolution. Millions were imprisoned, forcibly relocated, or tortured, and historical relics and cultural sites were destroyed. After Mao’s death, several leaders responsible for the abuses committed during the Cultural Revolution were arrested and China began a period of modernization and economic reform.

    In the Korean peninsula, allied forces divided the former Japanese colony along the 38th parallel. Russia would control the norther portion, where it helped install a communist government and economic system. The United States occupied the southern portion, where it assisted a pro-Western government in its political and economic development. Tensions between the two territories led to the Korean War in the early 1950s. Technically, the two sides are still at war having never signed a peace agreement and simply agreeing to a cease-fire. Today, North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), follows a Marxist model of development with state owned enterprises and agriculture. The government has been accused of numerous human rights violations and the people of North Korea are severely restricted in terms of their economic, political, and personal freedom. In South Korea, on the other hand, officially known as the Republic of Korea, a democratic government replaced a series of military dictatorships and the country is considered one of the most developed in the region according to the Human Development Index.

    Communist ideals spread to Southeast Asia, as well, where Marxism influenced the governments of newly independent countries. In Vietnam, for example, a communist movement was begun by Ho Chi Minh to try to gain independence from France following the end of Japanese occupation inWorldWar II. The communist forces were able to defeat the French in a key battle in 1954 and established a government in the northern territory. The country was then divided into a communist north and anti-communist and majority Catholic south. This was a time of high tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the US feared that the entire region would eventually come under communist control, essentially creating a Western capitalist hemisphere and an Eastern communist hemisphere. The fear that the fall of one country to communism would lead to the fall of other surrounding countries to communism was known as domino theory, and was originally meant as an anecdote but became the basis for US foreign policy in the region (Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\)).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Illustration of Domino Theory (© User:Nyenyec, Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

    The United States aimed to support South Vietnam’s resistance to the communist north’s goal of unification and began sending military advisors to the region. Military combat units followed and bombing campaigns began in 1965. The terrain of Vietnam was quite different than the geography of other areas where the US had previously fought. Much of Southeast Asia was tropical rainforest, and was ill-suited for the types of tanks and heavy artillery that had been so successful in World War II. The Viet Cong, referring to the Vietnamese communists, engaged in guerrilla warfare, using the terrain to support small, mobile military units. To try to combat these tactics, the US military sprayed chemical defoliants and herbicides, like Agent Orange, over Vietnam’s forests. In the end, waning support for the Vietnam War led the US to withdraw and in 1975, Vietnam was unified under communist rule. Over 1 million Vietnamese and 58,000 Americans died in the fighting. Millions others were exposed to Agent Orange causing health problems and disabilities, and the chemical had devastating effects on Vietnam’s ecosystem where it has lingered in the soil.

    During the same time period, a communist organization known as the Khmer Rouge, which is French for “Red Khmers,” came to power in Cambodia. Khmer refers to the dominant ethnic group in Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge opposed Westernization and US involvement in the newly independent country and believed in a return to an agrarian society. Pol Pot (1925-1998 CE), the leader of the Khmer Rouge, led a campaign to eliminate the country’s schools, hospitals, and other institutions and make the entire society work on collective farms. Urban cities would no longer be the economic and political focus, but rather wealth would be spread out around the countryside. Most of the country’s intellectuals, including teachers and even people with glasses who were simply perceived as academic, were killed. Large prison camps were set up to house those who were believed to be a threat to communism. Cambodians of other ethnicities or who practiced religion were also executed. In total, more than one million people were killed, often buried in mass graves known as the Killing Fields. Cambodia’s attempt to transform into an agrarian society ultimately led to widespread famine and starvation. In 1978, Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia and defeated the Khmer Rouge, but human rights continue to be severely restricted in the country.

    Much of East and Southeast Asia exhibits characteristics of a shatter belt, an area of political instability that is caught between the interests of competing states. Beginning in the colonial era and continuing today, Western involvement in this region has at times led to industrialization and economic growth and at other times economic depression and a drive to return to traditional values. Today, political instability continues to plague several countries in the region.

    Westernization :

    the process of adopting Western, particularly European and American, culture and values

    Communism :

    a social, political, and economic system that seeks communal ownership of the means of production


    an analysis of social class and conflict based on the work of Karl Marx

    Great Leap Forward:

    a campaign begun in 1958 by the Communist Party of China that sought to reshape China’s agrarian society into an industrial power

    Domino theory:

    refers to the fear that the fall of one country to communism would lead to the fall of other surrounding countries to communism

    Khmer Rouge:

    a communist organization in Cambodia that opposed Westernization and believed in a return to an agrarian society

    Shatter belt:

    an area of political instability that is caught between the interests of competing states