“The Cold War in Asia” was the topic of a professional development webinar jointly organised by the National Studies Programme (NSSP) at RSIS and the Humanities Branch of the Curriculum Planning & Development Division at the Ministry of Education (MOE) for secondary school and Junior College/Pre-University History teachers. Held on 8 March 2023, the objectives of the webinar were two-fold: first, to enable participants to acquire a deeper contextual understanding of the Cold War and its developments in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia; second, to enable participants to situate the Korean War and Vietnam War (two events stipulated in MOE’s Cold War History syllabus) in the context of Cold War developments in Asia.
The webinar was divided into three sessions. In the first session, “Global Cold War Connections,” Dr Ngoei Wen-Qing, Associate Professor of History at Singapore Management University’s College of Integrative Studies, introduced the “global Cold War” concept which pays attention to the agency of non-European actors as drivers of the Cold War in the Third World, and the major role of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Asia, Africa, and Latin America during the Cold War. Dr Ngoei also explained the intersection of the Cold War with decolonisation in Southeast Asia and how this turned many decolonising countries into sites for global big power competitions. He ended off his session with a brief discussion of the Korean War and how it reflected the intersection of the Cold War with local conflicts.
The second session, “The Emergence of the PRC and its Impact on Cold War Dynamics in Southeast Asia,” was helmed by Dr Ong Wei Chong, Senior Associate Fellow and Head of NSSP. Dr Ong spoke about how the PRC saw itself as the vanguard in assisting fraternal communist parties in Southeast Asia and Asia in their national liberation and in the greater fight against imperialism. He also talked about the hardening of Sino-Soviet rivalry in the 1960s and the radicalisation of Chinese foreign policy following the Cultural Revolution, which led the PRC to adopt a more active policy of supporting communist revolutions not only in Vietnam, but also in Malaysia and Singapore. Another significant development was the gradual easing of tensions between the PRC and non-communist Southeast Asia from the 1970s as the PRC sought support from the wider non-aligned movement.
In the third session, “The Vietnam War in the Context of the Cold War in Southeast Asia,” Dr Ang Cheng Guan, Professor of the International History of Southeast Asia and Associate Dean at RSIS, highlighted how historians began to adopt the Cold War lens in the study of Southeast Asian international history only after the Cold War ended in the 1990s. Dr Ang addressed two controversial ideas related to the Vietnam War with reference to Southeast Asia – the “domino theory” and the “buying time” thesis. He concluded by noting that the Vietnam War legacies are far more complex than either of the ideas allow.
A Q&A segment was held after the speakers concluded their respective presentations. It was moderated by Sarah Soh, Associate Research Fellow at NSSP. The segment saw the speakers and participants engaged in discussions on a range of issues pertaining to the Cold War in Asia vis-à-vis contemporary geopolitical developments and the importance of studying Cold War relations in Asia.