Great Power Competition and Internal Politics in Asia, Then and Now

I have a new piece up in Lawfare that builds on a research agenda I’ve been pursuing as a hopeful-third book project, and assorted scholarly and policy articles. The broader project explores how geopolitical rivalries intersect with the domestic politics of third-party states affected by these competitions among great powers. I took a couple years off of public-facing writing to both deal with various other things in life and to learn about a broader set of cases and dynamics than I’d previously explored; there’s no point just repeating the same arguments about the same topics and places indefinitely – sometimes it seems like I just need to re-tool and find something new to say.

This article zooms in on a set of lessons from Asia’s Cold War for analysts, scholars, and policymakers on how to think about the internal political dynamics within these third-party countries. The first couple paragraphs set the stage:

“Competition between the United States and China in Asia has generated ongoing discussion about whether Asia’s present will resemble its Cold War past. In one key area, the contemporary period is—at least so far—much less dangerous. From the 1940s through the 1980s, Asia’s Cold War intertwined major power rivalry with intense local struggles for power and influence. Domestic political competition was frequently embedded within and connected to external geopolitics, producing complex, and often violent, outcomes.

Classic questions of strategy and statecraft could not be cleanly separated from internal political struggles for power, legitimacy, and control. The “authoritarian Leviathans” of Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia deployed anti-communism at home and abroad. Marxist-Leninist regimes with strong ties to the Soviet Union, China, or both emerged and consolidated in Laos and Vietnam. Militaries in Thailand and Pakistan mobilized Cold War fears and U.S. support to protect their political power. South Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, and Cambodia experienced extraordinary levels of instability and civil war, with internal armed actors closely linked to, though not fully controlled by, external players. The Sino-Soviet split and India-China competition also influenced the internal politics of states in the region.

This fusing of the global and local was not universal—India was comparatively insulated from these Cold War currents, for instance—but it helped to spur extraordinary levels of violence and political instability from 1946 until the mid-1970s in Southeast Asia, and then the fragmentation of Afghanistan and its spillover in the 1980s.”

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