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Historical documents

112 Stuart to Burton

Letter SINGAPORE, 21 July 1949


In recent weeks there has been almost a revolution in strategic
thinking in Singapore, and I believe this is of sufficient
significance to be worth your following up in Australia. Briefly
this is the position.

2. When I arrived in Singapore two years ago and began to sit as
Massey's deputy at meetings of the Joint Intelligence Committee
[Far East] here [1], I was struck by the literal way in which
Service planners in the Far East interpreted the view of the
London Chiefs of Staff that the sole threat to peace will come
from the U.S.S.R. Accepting this basis for their local studies,
the planning staffs here appreciated the possible threat to South-
East Asia only in terms of Soviet long-range submarine and air
attack, and in Moscow-directed internal subversive activity. As an
observer only, and in addition without authority to comment on the
Committee's work, I could do nothing to alter this situation; but
in private conversation I used to say that in my personal opinion
it was unreal. I pointed out that, whereas it seemed politically
sound to evaluate direct Soviet military threats to this area as
of secondary importance, it was on the other hand, politically
unsound not to take into account. the possible aggressive
behaviour of other powers, especially when presented with a South-
East Asia left defenceless as a result of Western concentration on
a war elsewhere-with the U.S.S.R. or any other power for that
matter. I felt in particular that presence of a vacuum in South-
East Asia would make it very tempting to either China or India to
press their own interests even to the point of military
occupation-especially so in China's case. In short, I could not
conceive that other powers than the U.S.S.R., whatever their
political complexion, would forgo the opportunity if it were
offered them to fish in troubled waters here.

3. These arguments were in most cases treated with tolerant
indifference or criticised as ill-informed. I remember in
particular that the then Chairman of the J.I.C., a Foreign Office
representative, was of all the people I talked to least impressed,
and his condescension most marked.

4. This has all changed now. The alteration in the internal
balance of power in China has of course been responsible, for many
who are unwilling to consider nationalist designs on this area are
easily persuaded to expect Communist threats to it. You remember
that in the paper which I gave you here for the Prime Minister on
this subject I postulated attack by regular Chinese forces in the
event of a war on Vietnam, Burma and Siam. This is now accepted as
a probability by the J.I.C. too.

5. The turning point appears to have been about a month ago when
the planning staffs asked for intelligence guidance on a new
general paper they are preparing on the defence of British
interests in South-East Asia. I hope it is in conformity with your
own ideas that, while making it plain I spoke only for myself, I
set about once more to criticise their appreciation as basically
unsound because it neglected to treat China as a party principal
to any future conflict involving this part of the world. I said I
thought it most unlikely that the U.S.S.R. would be interested in
this theatre, because China would take the lead here and that
indeed, given a general war, no Chinese government could hope to
retain popular support which did not endeavour to occupy South-
East Asia as Japan did on the last occasion. China would not
behave as a mere vehicle for Soviet designs-it would have definite
aggressive ambitions of its own and, by all accounts, sufficient
efficient military means for achieving them. It was odd to find
that this came as a novel idea to many here. As result the paper
is being redrafted, and a new appreciation of the role of China
has now been prepared, which seems much nearer our own ideas. This
is not yet 'cleared' by the Committee and I am waiting for the
Committee's final views before summarising the whole subject in an
official report.

6. Meanwhile, I felt I should let you have a note on the subject
because of the arrival in Australia at this time of the United
Kingdom Joint Planning Team. These people have been passing
through Singapore singly or in couples during the last few days,
and their presence here is being kept Top Secret. They are going
to Melbourne under cover as advisers to the United Kingdom
Services Liaison Mission there, and I have not myself met any of
them. Nevertheless, they are bound to have been affected by the
changed views of the J.I.C., Far East, and I am hopeful that when
they get to Melbourne they may be useful-if we still wish this-in
shaking what I understand to be the continued obsession there with
the Middle East. No doubt Moodie can follow this up.

1 Australia had the status of obsever at meetings in accordance
with arrangements made for liaison with the British Defence
Committee in South East Asia.

[AA:A6537, SEATS 1]
Last Updated: 11 September 2013
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