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date: 22 September 2020

Summary and Keywords

The U.S. relationship with Southeast Asia has always reflected the state of U.S. interactions with the three major powers that surround the region: Japan, China, and, to a lesser extent, India. Initially, Americans looked at Southeast Asia as an avenue to the rich markets that China and India seemed to offer, while also finding trading opportunities in the region itself. Later, American missionaries sought to save Southeast Asian souls, while U.S. officials often viewed Southeast Asia as a region that could tip the overall balance of power in East Asia if its enormous resources fell under the control of a hostile power.

American interest expanded enormously with the annexation of the Philippines in 1899, an outgrowth of the Spanish-American War. That acquisition resulted in a nearly half-century of American colonial rule, while American investors increased their involvement in exploiting the region’s raw materials, notably tin, rubber, and petroleum, and missionaries expanded into areas previously closed to them.

American occupation of the Philippines heightened tensions with Japan, which sought the resources of Southeast Asia, particularly in French Indochina, Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia). Eventually, clashing ambitions and perceptions brought the United States into World War II. Peeling those territories away from Japan during the war was a key American objective. Americans resisted the Japanese in the Philippines and in Burma, but after Japan quickly subdued Southeast Asia, there was little contact in the region until the reconquest began in 1944. American forces participated in the liberation of Burma and also fought in the Dutch Indies and the Philippines before the war ended in 1945.

After the war, the United States had to face the independence struggles in several Southeast Asian countries, even as the Grand Alliance fell apart and the Cold War emerged, which for the next several decades overshadowed almost everything. American efforts to prevent communist expansion in the region inhibited American support for decolonization and led to war in Vietnam and Laos and covert interventions elsewhere.

With the end of the Cold War in 1991, relations with most of Southeast Asia have generally been normal, except for Burma/Myanmar, where a brutal military junta ruled. The opposition, led by the charismatic Aung San Suu Kyi, found support in the United States. More recently American concerns with China’s new assertiveness, particularly in the South China Sea, have resulted in even closer U.S. relations with Southeast Asian countries.

Keywords: Cold War, communism, colonialism, trade, decolonization, Vietnam, Indochina, Philippines, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, nationalism

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