Monsoon Asia: Political History

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Monsoon Asia: Political History

Although Monsoon Asia has its own unique cultures, like the rest of the world it has been shaped by centuries of Western colonialism. In general, the history of western interference in the region can be divided into three major phases: direct colonial control, indirect colonial control, and neo-colonialism. The exertion of any control began slowly with trading relationships in the 13th Century. In the beginning, it was not at all clear that Europe would ever exert dominance over Asia. In many ways, the cultural and scientific achievements of Asian societies outstripped those of Europe. The transformation of Europe after the Columbian Exchange changed the balance of power, however, and Europe (and to a lesser extent, the United States) seized political and economic control of the region.

Direct Colonial Control

The period of direct colonial control lasted about 250 years, beginning in the early 16th Century and continuing until the mid-19th Century. During this period, European powers vied to directly rule over colonies. Europeans were particularly fond of Asian art, spices and tea and fought for control of the areas which provided these materials. Colonies had many functions: they were a source of prestige; they were a source of raw materials and exotic goods, many of which were not available in Europe; they were a market for the colonizer’s manufactured goods.

The Portuguese made the first forays into the region. The Treaty of Tordesillas (remember it was in this Treaty that the Pope divided South America between Spain and Portugal), gave the Portuguese rights to this area. They established a network of trading forts from peninsular India to Japan. During the same period, Spain exerted control over the Philippines.

Iberian hegemony was weakened by the Hundred Year War. With the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), the Pope’s ruling was jettisoned and countries began to compete for control of the region. The Dutch were among the first to venture into the region, establishing colonies in the Indonesian archipelago. Great Britain followed, as did France, and, eventually, the United States. By the mid-19th Century, the expansion of direct colonial control ended. Most of South and Southeast Asia was divided by the West.

Britain controlled almost all of South Asia with the exception of small Portuguese and French trading posts on the coast of Peninsular India. In Southeast Asia, Britain controlled Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. The French controlled French Indochina – Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Dutch controlled Indonesia. The Portuguese retained control over East Timor and the Spanish retained the Philippines. Except for Hong Kong and Macao, which we will discuss later, East Asia was not directly colonized by the West.

Within those two sub-regions, only Nepal, Afghanistan, and Thailand were never directly controlled. The British gained Nepalese territory, but were never able to capture the entire country. Afghanistan and Thailand were left as “buffer states.” Afghanistan was a buffer between British and Russian interests while Thailand was a buffer between British and French interests.

European colonialism changed the face of Asia. Remember that one of the primary purposes of colonialism was to gain access of raw materials. To facilitate the transport, Europeans built port cities in the image of their capital cities back home. These port cities resulted in the shift of population cores from the interior areas to coastal areas. Burma (Myanmar) is a case in point. Prior to British rule, the most important city of Burma was Mandalay, located in the interior of the country. The British built the port of Rangoon (now Yangon), and made it the capital of Burma. With over 4 million people, Yangon became Burma’s primate city – the center of politics, population, economics, and culture.

The best land was shifted away from food production to commercial agriculture and introduced new crops into the region. Europeans were interested in raw materials, not staple foods. Today, cotton, rubber, oil and coconut palm, teak and tea are the region’s most important cash crops. These are grown on plantations. Often, the best land was taken away from food crops and given over to cash crops. The region still is highly dependent on raw-material exports. At first, plantations were established primarily in coastal areas. Rail lines, however, allowed expansion deep into the interior.

Rubber is one example of a crop introduced into the region. Now an important export from Southeast Asia, but rubber is not native to the region. Rubber trees are indigenous to Brazil, which was controlled by Portugal. To break the Portuguese monopoly, Britain smuggled rubber trees out of Brazil and then established rubber plantations in the tropics of South and Southeast Asia.

A classic means of controlling indigenous populations is to “divide” and conquer. A fairly easy way to accomplish this is to pick a minority group and promote their interests at the expense of most of the population. The minority group becomes the target of animosity while the colonizer plays the role of the “disinterested” party trying to maintain peace between barbaric tribes. By doing so, Europeans destroyed traditional systems and created new social classes where rich and poor were sharply divided.

Europeans brought with them improved medicine and hygiene, which brought down regional death rates. Most colonized areas were thrust into Stage II of the demographic transition model. Many areas doubled their populations in a few decades and then doubled them again.

European colonization resulted in the creation of huge multicultural societies. This was done in two ways. The first was the migration of ethnic groups throughout the region. For instance, many Chinese moved to countries of Southeast Asia. Europeans built “European” cities. Colonization resulted in the creation of huge multicultural countries. During this period a large number of Chinese immigrated to the new European-built cities where they became involved in international trade and commerce. Today they remain the biggest ethnic minority in many countries of Southeast Asia. Since the Chinese highly involved in trade, they are often more affluent than their indigenous neighbors. As a result, resentment runs high. We already talked about Singapore. The biggest port in the world, Singapore has a majority Chinese population. After independence, Singapore became part of Malaysia. That ended in just a couple of years because of ethnic differences. Malaysia forced Singapore to become a separate country. This would be like the United States throwing out New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles because they have too many foreigners.

The second way was the creation of huge countries that previously had not been united. European colonization resulted in the creation of huge countries where multiple ethnic groups were forced together within a single state. Ethnic strife remains common within these newly created countries. Burma is an example of this phenomenon. The British superimposed boundaries for Burma on an ethnically heterogeneous region. Burmese are the dominant group, but nine non-Burmese minorities have sought the right of self-determination. The corrupt military dictatorship has responded by the imposition of a police state. In the highlands where minority groups are dominant, poverty reigns. In these areas, many people earn less than $50 per year.

European colonial control resulted in the emergence of drugs as major cash crops. The British established the importance of opium as a cash crop in the region in the 1850s. Even today, it has important geopolitical ramifications. It is the major money earner for Afghanistan today and helps bankroll organizations like Al Quaeda.

Indirect Colonial Control

By the time the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, most European countries were not interested in directly ruling colonial territories. They were content to control the economies and trading patterns of countries. If necessary, they would install puppet governments, but they usually left governments to their own devices – provided they acceded to European demands.

The Opium Wars

One case of indirect colonial control occurred in China in the mid-19th Century. From the beginning, the Chinese severely limited European contact. In the mid-16th Century, the Portuguese arrived in China. The Chinese considered the Portuguese dirty barbarians (which was fairly accurate during this period) and restricted them to Macao. Macao is the oldest European settlement in East Asia. In 1711, the British East India Company established a trading post in Canton (now called Guangzhou). Notice its close proximity to Macao. China restricted the British to Canton for over a century.

The British were interested in all things Chinese – art, silk, porcelain, but it was British tea addiction that destabilized the British economy. In the early 1800s, the British acquired an insatiable appetite for tea. By 1800, the British working class spent about 5% of their incomes on tea. Tea can’t be grown in Britain because it is too cold.  At that time, the Chinese were the chief suppliers of tea to the British, who had not yet developed tea plantations in northeast India and Burma. The Chinese rejected British manufactured goods because they found them inferior. Instead, China accepted only silver or gold for tea. Soon the British had a huge trade imbalance that threatened their economy and political stability.

The British searched for some product that could balance the trade imbalance and hit upon opium, for which there was great demand in China. One reason for the rapid rise in demand was that the British introduced a new way to ingest the drug. Rather than drink the opium in tea form, which produced a mild high, the British introduced mixing opium with tobacco. By smoking opium, the drug crossed the blood-brain barrier much more quickly. The high was more intense and more addictive.

Opium is produced from opium poppy. Opium is grown mainly in Turkey, Afghanistan, India, and the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. The graph at right shows the rapid reversal of the balance of trade between Britain and China, with Britain showing a positive balance after 1820 because of the opium trade

The British and their opium destabilized China’s government, leading to a century of misery. The Chinese banned the sale of opium in their country, an edict that the British flagrantly ignored. The First Opium War started in 1839 when the Chinese government confiscated opium warehouses in Canton. Queen Victoria sent warships and the British won a quick victory. The Treaty of Nanking (1842) ended the First Opium War. It forced China to pay a large fine, open 5 “treaty” ports, and cede Hong Kong to Great Britain. The treaty also gave British citizens the right of extraterritoriality. Other Western powers soon demanded, and were granted, similar privileges.

The right of extraterritoriality was particularly humiliating for the Chinese. This meant that British citizens were not liable under Chinese law. They could even kill a Chinese citizen and could not be tried in a Chinese court. The European enclaves in China operated outside Chinese law and were not open to the Chinese. Further, European citizens were not subject to Chinese law.

A decade later, the British used a minor incident to start the Second Opium War. They secured a quick military victory but China was reluctant to ratify the Treaty. They eventually burned the emperor’s summer palace to force the Chinese into even greater concessions.

The end of the Second Opium War initiated a European feeding frenzy in China. The signing of the second treaty initiated a feeding frenzy. At right is a political cartoon showing various European – and Japanese powers taking their “cut” out of China. China lost territory to the French and British in Southeast Asia and southern China. Germany took the Shandong Peninsula and territory was lost to Russia and Japan. A half century of civil war followed. In 1911, the emperor gave up the thrown and threw China into a state of chaos that basically lasted until after World War II, when the communists took power.

Gunboat Diplomacy

European contact with Japan began in the mid-1500s. The Portuguese were the first and Japan was torn apart by civil wars between rival warlords. Among the Europeans were Christian missionaries who were able to spread Christianity spread rapidly during those chaotic times.

In 1603, the Tokugawa family gained control of all of Japan. Because of the conflict between Christians and Buddhists, the Tokugawas banned Christianity in 1635 and closed Japan’s doors to foreign influence. Over 200 years of peace followed -- the longest peace in Japanese history. Much of what we think of as “traditionally” Japanese developed in this period including the traditional dress, Sumo wrestling, and Kabuki theater.

In 1853, Commodore Matthew Perry sailed to Japan with orders to force Japan to open its doors to trade. On July 8, he led a squadron of four ships into Tokyo Bay and presented representatives of the Tokugawa Shogunate with the text of a proposed commercial and friendship treaty. He offered the Japanese government three gifts: a miniature steam railroad,  a small telegraph system, and a cannon. These gifts demonstrated American superiority in transportion, communications, and war. He gave the Japanese a choice: open their doors to trade with the west or risk being torn apart like China.

Perry sailed away, giving the Japanese court time to think. He returned with a more powerful fleet the following year. Japan was aware of both the intended symbolism of the gifts and the situation in China. Japan signed a treaty with the United States that guaranteed humane treatment for shipwrecked sailors, that allowed U.S. ships to buy coal, and that opened two ports to trade with the United States.

Japan reacted to its situation in a way fundamentally different than the Chinese. A group of men came to power intent upon keeping Japan free from the sort of Western interference suffered by the rest of Asia. They realized the need for a strong central government and to learn as much from the west as possible. They also sent people out to learn everything about western science and political systems as possible. Shinto was established as the national religion of Japan and in 1868 the emperor was re-established as the center of the government.

Within four decades, they became the first Asian country in modern times to become a superpower. By 1872, the Japanese operated an imported full-size train between Tokyo and Yokohama. Telegraph lines also connected the two cities. By 1895, they were manufacturing their own locomotives.

Like the west, Japan established an empire to feed its industries. Japan has few industrial resources. By 1905 Japan began building its resource base through empire building. It went to war with Russia, the largest nation on earth and a European power. Russia lost.

Japan expanded first to the islands to the north, and then into Korea and northeast China. By 1937, on the eve of the second World War, it controlled most of Humid China, Southeast Asia, and northern New Guinea. Japan was firmly established as the first Asian empire of the modern era.

Blocked by the U.S. in the Pacific, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By 1945, Japan had lost the war. Its economy was in ruins. Thirty years later, it became one of the original members of the G8 – the eight most economically powerful countries in the world. Japan was firmly established as the first economic superpower of Asia in the modern era.

Neo-Colonialism and the Cold War

Europe lost most of its colonies after World War II. In some cases, like India, independence was painful but relatively peaceful. In other cases, like French Indochina, the struggle for independence was protracted. Destabilized by wars for independence, Monsoon Asia became the staging ground for proxy wars in the ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union known as the Cold War. No subregion was spared. The three major proxy wars in the region occurred in Korea, in Vietnam, and in Afghanistan.


After World War II, Korea was divided along the 38th parallel. The area to the north was “administered” by the Soviet Union, while the area to the south was “administered” by the U.S. This arbitrary division divided previously existing provinces as well as families. It also divided the chief mining areas of the north from the prime agricultural land in the south. The Korean War lasted from 1950 to 1953 when communist forces from the north invaded the south with the intention of reunifying the peninsula.

A divided Korea has become a geopolitical nightmare. As discussed previously, North Korea is one of the poorest countries of Monsoon Asia. It has suffered economically from the collapse of the Soviet Union. In spite of its poverty, North Korea has purchased nuclear technology from Pakistan and has test launched missiles into the Sea of Japan. In October, 2006, North Korea tested a nuclear bomb. Even today, there are almost 40,000 U.S. soldiers stationed in South Korea.

The Vietnam War

After World War II, the French were never able to reassert control over French Indochina. The French had controlled an area called Indo-China from the late 18th Century until it was taken by the Japanese in 1940. The French tried to reassert control after WWII, but they were unsuccessful. On independence from France, French Indochina split into four countries: land-locked Laos, Cambodia, and North and South Vietnam. North Vietnam was communist and aligned with the Soviet Union. South Vietnam was not communist, nor was it a democracy. It was aligned with the United States. As in Korea, the division created the climate perfect for another proxy war. The Vietnam War lasted until 1975.

For 2 decades, Vietnam was torn apart physically and emotionally. About 5 million Vietnamese died – about 1 million combatants and 4 million civilians. (Over 58,000 U.S. citizens died.) The United States used chemical defoliants like Agent Orange to kill the thick jungle vegetation that made it easy for enemy soldiers to hide. Agent Orange is still affecting Vietnam. It lingers in the soil, contributing to cancer and to birth defects.

Oddly, although Vietnam was the site of the most intense fighting of the war, it has probably healed better than its neighbors, Laos and Cambodia. More than half of Vietnam’s population is under 21 so most Vietnamese have no personal memory of the conflict. Much of the countryside has been restored due to aid from international organization and tourism is booming. The country has also experienced a liberalization of its economic system.

Laos is, of course, hampered by being the only landlocked country of Southeast Asia. Making matters worse, millions of unexploded cluster bombs remain in the fields of Laos, rendering them useless for agriculture. In Cambodia, there are millions of old mines but there are also new mines, sown purposely by farmers to protect their land.

When the United States pulled out of Vietnam, it left the American-backed government in Cambodia defenseless. The Khmer Rouge were communist guerillas who over-ran the American-backed government and began a murderous rampage. From 1975 to 1979, the Khmer Rouge killed 2 million people – more than 1/4th of the Cambodian population. Vietnam finally intervened, not for humanitarian reasons but because the Khmer Rouge were inciting border incidents.

The Thai economy profited from the Vietnam War. In addition to supplying many of the material needs of the U.S. army in Vietnam, Thailand was a primary destination for US soldiers with only a few days of leave. Tourism is today the leading source of foreign currency for Thailand. It is not surprising that sex tourism is the core of the tourist industry. Sex tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry in Thailand. The United Nations estimates that there are 400,000 children forced into prostitution in Thailand. The problem became more acute when Thailand became the first Asian country to be hit by AIDS. Almost 2% of the productive population in Thailand has AIDS – an estimated 600,000 people. Treatment and care for the thousands of orphans left behind is a drain on the Thai economy.

Drugs like hashish and heroin were also important to American servicemen and many Thai businessmen grew rich feeding their habit. The business did not just dry up when the Americans went away; rather, dealers joined the local economy AND looked to their own people as potential customers. IV-drug use is second only to prostitution as the leading cause of AIDS in Thailand.


Afghanistan occupies a strategic location between Asia and Europe. Although much of the country is dominated by rugged mountains, it also has river valleys that cut through the formidable mountains creating passes through otherwise almost impenetrable boundaries.

Afghanistan was a quasi-independent state for much of the 19th Century – acting as a buffer between Russian and British interests. During World War II, Afghanistan was a democratic monarchy and officially neutral officially neutral. After the war until the late 1970s, it retained its neutrality and received aid from both the Soviet Union and the United States.

In the early 1970s Afghanistan suffered because of a world-wide economic downturn and a severe long-term drought in the center and north. In 1973, military officers overthrew the king. The country has subsequently suffered three decades of turmoil. In 1979, the USSR invaded because it feared the civil unrest in Afghanistan would spill over into Central Asia. The Soviets executed Afghan’s president and installed a puppet president. For the next ten years, the mujahadin (“Islamic warriors”) fought the Soviets and the Soviet-backed government.

The U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia gave the mujahadin money, weapons and training. The Soviets were never able to win against guerilla tactics in the rugged environment. In 1989, they withdrew. When the USSR finally collapsed, the U.S. turned its back on Afghanistan.

In 1992, a new government was established, but the guerillas were unable to unite. Immediately, rival groups fought for power. During this period, Afghanistan was collapsed as many mujahadin leaders set themselves up as local warlords. Much like Somalia, the country was in chaos. Even humanitarian aid organizations were victimized as thugs looted their offices, hijacked their cars and trucks, and threatened their staff

Prior to 1992, the United States had not fund Afghanis directly because the CIA found the Afghani warloads unreliable. Rather the CIA gave about $30 billion to a “more reliable” group of Islamic militants from Egypt, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestinian refugee camps all over the Middle East. Among these reliable militants was Osama bin Laden. Since that time, Arab veterans of the Afghan War have been linked to violent Islamic movements around the world. As early as 1995 Jane’s Defense Weekly reported problems in Algeria, Egypt, and Yemen. Further, there is evidence that the United States ignored the fact that the mujahadeen drastically expanded opium exports from Afghanistan.

In spite of the world-wide bloodbath that followed, Cold Warriors like Senator Orrin Hatch defend the funding of Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan. According to Hatch, “It was worth it. Those were very important, pivotal matters that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union.”

In the mid-1990s, the Taliban formed from Pashtun students of Mullah Mohammad Omar, the former leader of the Kandahar province. The Taliban wanted to restore stability and enforce their interpretation of Sharia -- Islamic law. Assisted by Pakistan, the Taliban declared themselves the legitimate government of the country in 1996. However, the Taliban were never able to control the entire country. The Northern Alliance, aided by Russia and Iran, was particularly troublesome to the Taliban.

The Taliban established the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. This powerful agency enforced strict dress codes on women and men. Men had to have beards and dress modestly. A soccer match against rival Pakistan was cancelled because the Taliban would not permit athletes to wear shorts. Women could not work outside the home or go to school. They could not appear in public unless accompanied by a male relative. There are also bans on the keeping of pigeons, playing chess, music, radio and television.

The United States invaded Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11. President Bush declared victory in March, 2002. In September, 2003, a United States army official announced that hundreds of Taliban streamed across the border into Afghanistan from Pakistan. They have declared a jihad against the foreign occupiers of Afghanistan.

In October (2004), Afghanistan had its first democratic election since the 1960s. In spite of threats of violence and calls to boycott the election, millions turned out. President Karzai won over 60% of the vote. In spite of that progress, the Taliban currently control about a third of Afghanistan. Karzai has been forced to placate pro-Taliban warlords in order to secure a relatively peaceful election.

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