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Britain, Konfrontasi, and the end of empire in Southeast Asia, 1961–65

John Subritzky Published online: 01 Jul 2008.

To cite this article: John Subritzky (2000) Britain, Konfrontasi, and the end of empire in Southeast Asia, 1961–65, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 28:3, 209-227, DOI: 10.1080/03086530008583106


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Britain, Konfrontasi, and the End of Empire in Southeast Asia, 1961-65


In early 1965 Britain had over 60,000 servicemen deployed in the Far East, together with a surface fleet of over eighty warships. 1 The main reason for this extraordinary level of deployment was Indonesia's Confrontation of Malaysia. Started in January 1963, Konfrontasi had become, by 1965, Britain's gravest colonial crisis of the 1960s. This essay places Britain's Confrontation policy in its international context. No nation's foreign policy is formulated in a vacuum. For British officials, both the creation and the subsequent defence of Malaysia were inextricably linked to Britain's relationship with the United States and, to a lesser degree, Australia and New Zealand. It is contended in this essay that Britain's primary motivation for establishing Malaysia was to preserve its influence in the region in an era where formal empire was no longer tenable. A continued British political and military presence in Southeast Asia, based in Singapore, was regarded in London as a vital element in securing strategic partnership with the Americans, and in maintaining Commonwealth solidarity with the Australians and New Zealanders. But Konfrontasi turned British plans on their head. The asking price to be paid for remaining a Far Eastern power proved too high. Although history records that Malaysia did eventually survive, albeit without Singapore and Brunei, the same could not be said for British influence in the region. Faced with enormous costs associated with protecting this influence east of Suez, the Wilson government initiated plans for disengagement in late 1965. For Britain, Konfrontasi was a pyrrhic victory. Insofar as British withdrawal and the end of empire in Southeast Asia, not the destruction of Malaysia per se, was his ultimate objective, the Indonesian president, Sukarno, had succeeded beyond expectation.


The genesis of Konfrontasi lay in Britain's plans to divest itself of formal empire in Southeast Asia. Although independence had been conceded to Malaya in 1957, Britain retained significant colonies elsewhere in the

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region. The most important of these was undoubtedly Singapore. Britain's largest overseas military base and a valuable entrepot for trade and finance,

Singapore was a substantial asset for a country which still regarded itself as

a major world power. In the colony itself, however, the large Chinese

population was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their colonial status. Responding to this agitation for greater independence, Britain promulgated

a new constitution in 1958. The colony reverted to the status of a self-

governing territory, with Britain's sovereign powers restricted to defence

and foreign affairs. The first elections under the new constitution were held

in May 1959 with Lee Kuan Yew's People's Action Party (PAP) winning on

a platform of complete independence.

Once in power Lee's outlook quickly changed. Mindful of the economic value of both the military base and trading connections with Britain and the Commonwealth, Lee moderated his demands for full independence. This antagonized the left wing of his own party, causing a split in 1961, when a significant number of Lee's colleagues formed the Barisan Socialis, or Socialist Front. This communist-led party demanded formal independence from Britain and the adoption of a socialist constitution for a new Republic of Singapore. By July 1961, due to a by-election victory, the Barisan Socialis trailed the PAP by only one seat in the Legislative Assembly, with Lee relying on the Speaker's vote to retain power. Not surprisingly, these developments were of grave concern to the British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan. Only one year after his famous 'wind of change' speech in South Africa, Macmillan was well aware of the need to accommodate the rising force of nationalism in Asia-Africa if Britain's influence was to survive in the post-colonial world. Searching for possible solutions to growing nationalist assertiveness in Singapore, British policy-makers returned to a familiar objective: a federation of former British possessions

in Southeast Asia. 2 The name given to such a future grouping was Greater

Malaysia. The British viewed federation as a solution to two separate problems: it would provide a viable political entity for the Borneo colonies, considered too small and unsophisticated to survive by themselves as an independent state; and it would allow the transfer to the Malayans of responsibility for internal security in Singapore, thereby relieving Britain of an onerous, costly, and politically demanding task. 3 The Malayan government was no longer so opposed to the idea of a federation which included Singapore, particularly as concern mounted that the Barisan Socialis might obtain power and create a communist state on Malaya's borders. 4 The British were also providing an incentive for union by including the Borneo colonies. This would ensure that the Chinese would not outnumber other racial groups in the new state. On 27 May 1961 the Malayan Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul

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Rahman, announced his support for a 'closer understanding' at some future date between Malaya, Singapore, British Borneo and the Sultanate of Brunei. American State Department records indicate that, although British officials had in fact made the initial suggestion, London willingly conceded authorship to the Malayans in the hope that this would enhance the credibility of Greater Malaysia with both the inhabitants concerned and world opinion in general. 5 Historians have differed as to the Macmillan government's overall objectives in pursuing decolonization through Greater Malaysia. One view is that federation was designed to facilitate British disengagement from the region. 6 With the Belgian Congo a recent tragic example, the British were clearly averse to sudden withdrawal. Such rapid decolonization risked leaving a political vacuum in which chaos reigned and communism flourished. Federation was the means by which the British attempted to exert greater control over the process and avoid political anarchy after their departure. An alternative interpretation is that the British were responding to a changed political environment in which formal rule from London was no longer tenable. In its place, influence would be retained by more indirect means, namely self-government within the British Commonwealth. By this route, British elites hoped that still extensive bilateral financial and trade ties, together with defence collaboration, would continue to bind Malaysia to Britain, thus preserving British influence well after formal independence had been conceded. Such an arrangement has been described by historians as 'informal empire'. More recently, A. J. Stockwell has challenged the contention that Malaysia was a neo-colonial creation, suggesting inter alia that the British never had sufficient control over the process to realize their objective - if indeed they had one - of perpetuating empire. 7 As an interpretation of the result Stockwell is undoubtedly correct. British influence did not long survive after Malaysia was established. Nevertheless, the documentary evidence clearly suggests that British intentions at the time in creating Malaysia were to maintain rather than end Britain's historic interests in the region. The extent to which they proved incapable of doing so is a separate issue.

Given Lee's continued precarious position in Singapore, the Tunku was eager to conclude arrangements as quickly as possible. Although the British welcomed Malayan support, one substantial point of difference remained between London and Kuala Lumpur. On 26 June the Tunku informed Macmillan that, although Britain could retain its military bases in Singapore, it would not be allowed to use them in support of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) once Malaysia was established. 8 Such a restriction, if implemented, could create major complications for British defence policy in the region. The Chiefs of Staff were adamant that, to

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maintain a credible military posture in the region, Britain must be able to employ its bases for SEATO-related operations. 9 Similar concerns were raised by Britain's principal regional allies, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. 10 They would not support Greater Malaysia if it meant the loss of Singapore to SEATO. But not all British policy-makers regarded such loss with alarm. Noting the considerable gap between commitments and resources, the British Commissioner-General for Southeast Asia, Lord Selkirk, suggested to Macmillan that the time might be right for Britain to avail itself of Greater Malaysia as means of swiftly cutting back its commitments in the region." Selkirk's prescription was too radical for policy-makers in London, the majority of whom favoured as little disruption of the status quo as possible. The Chiefs of Staff were particularly reluctant supporters of Greater Malaysia. Accepting that political realities in Singapore rendered British sovereignty untenable, they saw federation as offering the greatest chance of stability but emphasized nonetheless that British military deployment in the region - in support of either SEATO or Commonwealth operations - would be compromised without the unrestricted use of the Singapore bases. 12 Crucial to the attitudes of British ministers was their belief that Britain was, and should remain, a global power. 'The fact remains'* argued Julian Amery, Secretary of State for Air, 'that if we want to maintain our influence with Australia and New Zealand on the one hand, and the United States on the other, we must have the effective use of Singapore. Without it, our influence in the area could sink to the level of France." 3 The Prime Minister himself shared this outlook. Macmillan was no revolutionary in foreign affairs, still essentially believing in British global influence, although he recognized that this power had to be projected differently in the post-colonial era. 14 As one former Foreign Office official put it later, 'the Tories were always committed to imperial responsibilities and the world

their instinct was to hang on and not give up until they were


convinced it was the only option'.' 5 On 20 November 1961 the British received a Malayan delegation for discussions on Greater Malaysia. During the talks the Tunku reversed his earlier stance, accepting Britain's requirement for unfettered use of its bases in Singapore. With this hurdle overcome, agreement was quickly reached in favour of federation. Both parties agreed to work towards establishing the new state by 31 August 1963. In the meantime, Britain made preparations for transferring the troublesome problem of security in Singapore into Malayan hands. As part of this process, substantial cuts were made in late 1961 to the level of British ground forces in Singapore. Macmillan's administration pursued its vision of informal empire, hoping that influence could be retained by less direct means, and with the employment of fewer

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resources. Some advisers feared these objectives were irreconcilable. 'We

seem to be pursuing two separate policies', warned Lord Selkirk. 'First, to maintain freedom of military action in the area generally and in Singapore

in particular, and secondly substantially to reduce our forces in this area.

These two policies cannot be reconciled and we will have to decide which we consider to be most important. In practice', he concluded, 'I have little

doubt that reasons of economy will compel us to accept the latter." 6 During 1962 the British proceeded with preparations for rapid decolonization, despite the concern of some, especially Colonial Office officials, that many

of the Borneo peoples were content with the status quo. 17


A major concern of British planners was how Greater Malaysia would be

received by its neighbours, particularly Indonesia. There was considerable relief when, during preliminary talks with the Indonesians, no objections were raised. 18 In retrospect, it seems that this silence from Jakarta was largely due to their preoccupation with the campaign against Dutch rule in West New Guinea. Acquiring sovereignty over this last territory of the former Dutch East Indies had clear priority for President Sukarno. Once this was settled in late 1962, he was then in a position to turn his attention to British plans regarding Malaysia.

Indonesian foreign policy was dominated by Sukarno and his particular

view of the world. 19 He trumpeted a philosophy in which emerging forces, represented by new countries like Indonesia, were locked in a struggle with the reactionary established forces, represented by former imperial powers like Britain. A common method by which the old established states retained their influence was through 'neo-colonialism'; in Sukarno's mind, the granting of political independence was offset cunningly by the maintenance

of European control over extensive economic and other interests. Malaysia

appeared a classic example of the type of neo-colonialism about which Sukarno had warned his country. Under the arrangements for independence, Britain was to preserve significant military interests, including the unrestricted use of its bases in Singapore. British finance and trade would also play a crucial part in Malaysia's economy. The British were clearly eager to retain a significant role for themselves in the region after Malaysia had been established. Sukarno understood this, regarded it as a direct challenge to Indonesia's political philosophy, and reacted accordingly.

On 20 January 1963 the Indonesian Foreign Minister, Dr R. Subandrio, announced a policy of Confrontation against the proposed state of Malaysia. The term was deliberately vague. Realizing that an open engagement with superior British forces would be futile, Sukarno hoped to wear them down

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in a guerrilla insurgency in the Borneo jungle. In early 1963 Indonesian army regulars, posing as insurgents, began crossing the border. Far from easing Malaysia quietly onto the international stage, Britain now faced the considerable task of establishing it against the direct opposition of its closest neighbour. British policy-makers were agreed that the Indonesian challenge had to be resisted. 20 Britain was committed to creating a Federation of Malaysia on 31 August 1963, the Prime Minister advised the Foreign Secretary, Lord Home, 'and there can, of course, be no question of not honouring that undertaking'. 21 Moreover, in doing so, the British recognized that they had undertaken a potentially formidable commitment. A guerrilla war launched from inside Indonesia's borders could be sustained by Sukarno for many years. The human and military resources Britain might have to expend in responding dramatically undermined London's basic objectives in establishing a greater Malaysian state. As Philip de Zulueta, Macmillan's Principal Private Secretary, recalled, the Prime Minister's civil and military advisers had hoped that Malaysia would enable Britain to reduce its visible presence in Southeast Asia, particularly in the form of garrisoned troops, while nevertheless retaining significant political influence by more indirect means. Sukarno's violent opposition made this impossible. 22 This fact also had important ramifications for the British government's economic objectives. The Lord Privy Seal, Edward Heath, emphasized to Macmillan that, 'so long as we are committed to defend Malaysia against attack, we shall be unable - even if the attack is limited to infiltration - to make any significant reduction in our forces in Southeast Asia. Little by little, the defence "economies" which the Chequers meeting undertook to ensure, are being shown to be impossible as a result of our overseas political obligations.' 23 Macmillan was well aware of the difficulties. 'I doubt whether this is a situation,' he admitted to Home, 'if it really got out of control, we could deal with single-handed.' 24

British hopes that Indonesia might eventually be reconciled to Malaysia were finally dashed on 16 September 1963, the date when the Federation was formally established. An angry mob in Jakarta responded by attacking and then looting the British embassy. Both Britain and Indonesia had invested considerable international prestige in Malaysia, one for its survival, the other for its destruction. Neither could easily back down for fear of losing face. With Indonesian opposition seemingly entrenched, British military advisers warned of the difficulties involved in protecting the new state from its hostile neighbour. 'We are seriously concerned,' warned Chief of the Defence Staff, Lord Louis Mountbatten, 'about the implications which a long drawn out commitment, of the nature which we now envisage, will have on our ability to meet other emergencies. At worst,' he concluded,

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'costs might well compare with those involved in the Malayan emergency.' 25 Despite these rapidly increasing costs Britain continued to honour its commitments to Malaysia. The importance of Southeast Asia to British national interests was not immediately apparent. Both trade and investment between Britain and the region had declined over the previous decade. 'Economic arguments alone,' wrote Macmillan to Selkirk, 'would not justify, and have not for many years justified, our very heavy expenditure on the maintenance of defence forces in the Far East. Wider political and military interests are at stake.' 26 What were these wider political interests? Fundamental was the prevalent Whitehall assumption that Britain was, and should remain, a global power. It naturally followed from this world view, largely etched in historical experience, that Britain should continue to contribute to the security of Commonwealth allies. 'So long as Commonwealth defence has any meaning at all,' advised Fred Warner, head of the Foreign Office's Southeast Asia department, 'our obligations to Australia, New Zealand and Malaysia, and more remotely India and Pakistan, command our continued presence.' 27 The reference to India exemplifies the difficulty faced by some British policy-makers in disengaging themselves from traditional strategic considerations and assumptions that had already become outdated.

Of decisive importance to Britain's global power pretensions was the complex relationship with the United States. Macmillan's analogy of Britain's Greece to America's Rome neatly summarized the hopes of the British elite of influencing, albeit modestly, the foreign policy of the world's greatest power. A significant British military presence in Southeast Asia was one means of consolidating this idea of partnership with the Americans. By contributing to the containment of communism in the region, Britain was able to present its bona fides to the United States as a dependable senior ally in the Western alliance. In return, the British hoped that, through this influence, American power could be harnessed on occasion for the furtherance of specifically British objectives. 28 A stable Malaysia, with a continued British military presence in Singapore, was therefore vital if Britain was to retain these important linkages with not only the United States, but also key Commonwealth allies, namely Australia and New Zealand. 29 This was a world with which Tory politicians, in particular, were entirely comfortable. Indonesian Confrontation represented a major threat to that world. By the end of 1963 a stalemate had ensued in Borneo. Indonesian forces had been unable to prevent Malaysia being established. On the other hand, British forces could not prevent the easy flow of insurgents crossing from Indonesian Kalimantan into Malaysian Borneo. The possibility of being tied down in a long guerrilla campaign caused mounting concern in London.

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'Although we can certainly carry on for some time', wrote the Minister of Defence, Peter Thorneycroft, 'it will not be possible for the present state of affairs to continue indefinitely. The Indonesians can readily increase their pressure, and we should then have no choice but to step up our own military action and make further calls upon our strained military resources.' 30 The British made it clear, as prospects for a quick end to Confrontation disappeared, that strong support from key allies was vital for eventual success. The response from the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, however, merely contributed further to the gloomy outlook. The Kennedy administration had warned London early in the crisis that American military intervention was highly unlikely. The President and his advisers, noting the strategic importance of Indonesia, and the fragile domestic political balance there between the Army and communists, did not want to risk an open breach with Jakarta. They feared that escalation might only result in a communist takeover in Indonesia, much to the detriment of Western interests in the region. 'The real danger in the Far East', warned Averell Harriman, Under-Secretary of State for political affairs, 'is communist China and it is therefore essential to save Indonesia from communist influence. If Indonesia did go Red there was no hope for other countries in Southeast Asia.' 31 To avert such a catastrophe was the paramount objective of the Kennedy administration. 'To me,' argued presidential adviser Robert Komer, 'it's worth every resource of preventative diplomacy to forestall the kind of blow-up over Malaysia in which our very success in blocking Sukarno may lose us Indonesia.' 32 Australian and New Zealand politicians agreed with these sentiments. 33 In its relations with these three allies, Britain faced a dilemma between its interest in establishing Malaysia, and the Cold War imperative, underlined continuously by the allies, that Indonesia must remain non- communist. Crucial American support would be forthcoming only when London's interest in Malaysia could be reconciled to Washington's wider regional objectives, focusing on Indonesia. Until then, Britain would be largely alone in bearing the full force of Sukarno's Confrontation. The difficulty in balancing imperial against Cold War requirements was recognized by Macmillan's successor as Prime Minister, Alec Douglas- Home. 'We must defend Malaysia of course; but it will help neither Malaysia nor ourselves, nor the Western cause in general, if in the course of defending Malaysia we drive Indonesia into the arms of communist Russia or China. It is probably considerations of this sort that make our friends and allies less than wholehearted in our support.' 34 R. A. Butler, the new Foreign Secretary, did not disagree, but pointed out that Britain's available options were limited. He saw little alternative but to retain a strong defensive posture in Borneo until more favourable circumstances developed. 35 The

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stalemate therefore continued. Confrontation had become a war of attrition. Not surprisingly, the likelihood that Confrontation would continue for the foreseeable future deeply distressed British policy-makers and led to them questioning whether a traditional military presence in Singapore was the best means of promoting British interests in Southeast Asia. In particular, the cost of maintaining defence establishments east of Suez would not appear to be offset by the financial and trade returns from the region. Furthermore, officials were becoming uneasy with aspects of American-led Western strategy in Asia generally, suggesting that alliance structures such as SEATO, and military bases like Singapore, might be assisting, not hindering, communist infiltration.


During mid-1964 the Foreign Office conducted a review of British policy in Southeast Asia. As a starting point, officials analysed the extent of Britain's trade and economic interests in the region. These were found to have steadily declined in importance over the previous 25 years. No longer was Britain in particular need of primary products from the region, such as rubber and tin. No longer was Malaysia a net contributor of American dollars to the sterling area, but rather was in deficit and likely to remain so. Put simply, the level of Britain's economic interest in the region had become more negative than positive. Even so, there were still vital political interests at stake. Critical amongst these was Britain's role, as a senior member of the Western alliance, to ensure the region remained free from communist domination. The salience of this objective went well beyond Southeast Asia. Communist success in Asia could weaken American resolve elsewhere. Britain's still substantial presence in the region was essentially justified by officials as a crucial contribution 'to the global Anglo-American partnership', which in turn maintained a degree of British influence over the shaping of United States foreign policy. So long as this influence continued, officials calculated that Britain's military presence east of Suez was 'worth retaining for this reason alone'. A secondary consideration was the interests of Australia and New Zealand. On grounds of race and sentiment, together with the importance still attached to the Commonwealth, Britain felt obliged to contribute to Australasian defence through a forward position in Southeast Asia. 36

The formal basis for Western intervention in the region was the SEATO alliance. Under various contingency plans sponsored by SEATO, the United States, Britain and their allies allocated specific forces for deployment in the event that communist states committed aggression. These forces were usually permanently stationed in the region itself. During Confrontation

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British policy-makers increasingly questioned the validity of the assumptions supporting this strategy. Although not as pronounced as in the Middle East, local nationalist resentment at the continuing and seemingly permanent Western military presence in the region did exist. 'Military

alliances with Western countries', commented the Foreign Office, 'are suspect to radical Asian sentiment in the same way as Western military bases and for the same reasons. Their ultimate effect, like that of any other form of overt Asian dependence on the West, is to drive nationalism into partnership with communism. Since nationalism is still the dominant political emotion in Southeast Asia, such a partnership is bound to be damaging to the non- communist cause.' 31 The British feared that such a partnership would eventually undermine their own position in the region. Looking ahead, even the Chiefs of Staff considered the retention of permanent military bases untenable. 'However long we may wish to stay in Singapore', argued naval

chief Sir David Luce, 'the Malaysians are bound to ask us to go

should accept this as an inevitable historical development for which we must plan, and not wait for others to set the pace.' 38 Given these expectations, the British were not sanguine about the West's long-term chances of containing communist infiltration. 'If the Western objective is to keep communism out', noted the Foreign Office, 'and if, as our treaty obligations imply, we are prepared in certain circumstances to fight for this objective, we must take it for granted that the communists may also be prepared to go to extreme lengths to keep the West out.' 39 In other words, a potentially bloody stalemate could ensue. The British concluded that regional stability depended upon some form of understanding, either implicit or explicit, with the major communist powers, especially China. The nature of such an arrangement would be a neutralized Southeast Asia, in which neither the West nor the communists had a permanent military presence. If adopted, such a strategy would have major ramifications for Cold War policy in the region. The creation of a neutralized Southeast Asia would involve the abandonment of SEATO. The British also clearly envisaged the end of their own military bases in Singapore. Indeed, gradual withdrawal leading to eventual closure was foreseen, at an appropriate time, as the means by which to engineer a political settlement between Malaysia and Indonesia. 40 Such a settlement, however, should be negotiated only from a position of strength. The Foreign Office was mindful that any precipitate British departure could lead to political instability, and even greater interference by outside powers. Confrontation would have to be brought to an end before any renegotiation of the West's strategy and deployment could take place. Nonetheless, the ideas expressed in the Foreign Office's review betrayed clear unease over Britain's current predicaments in Southeast Asia.


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Beyond strategic considerations, Whitehall specialists were also concerned at the rising financial cost, exacerbated by Confrontation, of maintaining Britain's traditional military presence in the region. By late 1964 Britain was experiencing significant problems with its balance of payments. This constraint challenged the arguments of those in favour of the 'world role'. An interdepartmental long term study group warned that, by continung obligations which imposed a serious strain on British resources, a point might be reached 'at which the advantages of influence are outweighed by the weakening of our economy. To maintain the commitments beyond that point would be disastrous to our whole position.' 41 Nevertheless, the value and prestige Britain obtained from its historic commitments could not be so easily ignored or dismissed. 'A balance would have to be struck', observed the Defence and Oversea Policy committee, 'between the pressing need to restore our own economy and the value to us, as a trading nation, of being able to continue to exert through our overseas commitments an influence in world affairs out of proportion to our actual resources.' 42

The task of doing so would fall to a new government. It is of course unclear whether the Conservatives would have carried out a significant reform of British policy east of Suez. Sir Alec Douglas-Home, in particular, was a strong supporter of 'the world role' and Britain's continuing status as a global power. 43 As Foreign Secretary he had strongly resisted the Treasury's efforts to prune defence spending the previous year, 44 but his short tenure at Downing Street ended on 15 October 1964 when Harold Wilson emerged victorious at the general election. It would be left to the first Labour government in thirteen years to address the problem of an ever- widening gap between Britain's commitments and the resources available to meet them.


Many traditional Labour supporters hoped that the Wilson government would be a truly reforming one, modernizing the elitist state they believed Britain still to be. Certainly Wilson promoted a number of prominent left- wing MPs to the Cabinet: Tony Benn, Frank Cousins, Barbara Castle and Richard Crossman. However, the key positions of state were held by those on the right of the party: Patrick Gordon Walker at the Foreign Office, George Brown at Trade and Industry, and James Callaghan at the Treasury. Wilson himself was no revolutionary, believing essentially in Britain's continued status as a global rather than a regional power. The dominant historical interpretation is of a Prime Minister who abandoned the opportunity to implement radical change. 'When one surveys the entire field

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of foreign affairs', wrote Robert Rhodes James in 1972, 'it is difficult indeed to detect any real differences of substance between the performance of Labour and its predecessor.' 45 Recent commentaries provide a similar interpretation, emphasizing Wilson's support for Britain's 'world role' and maintaining its historic commitments east of Suez. 46 The documentary evidence relating to Confrontation suggests, however, that while Wilson may not have been a revolutionary, he was more willing to accept a radical reappraisal of Britain's position east of Suez than has previously been recognized by most historians. It was not long after assuming office that the new government's resolve in Southeast Asia was strongly tested. In late December Sukarno ordered an intensification of Confrontation, despatching more Indonesian army regulars across the border into Malaysian Borneo. The Labour government immediately heeded the call for assistance from the Malaysians, sending further reinforcements to the region during January 1965. Wilson's vigorous response would appear to support the contention of his critics that he favoured the status quo and was not prepared fundamentally to challenge the basic principles of British foreign policy he had inherited from the Conservatives. Nevertheless, rising defence expenditure, at a time when Britain was facing a serious balance of payments crisis, did provoke renewed calls from senior ministers and officials for a rapid reduction of Britain's overseas obligations. Military expenditure allocated for east of Suez commitments was a favourite target of criticism. This was partly because it involved overseas expenditure, thereby draining Britain's precious foreign exchange, and also because it was still rising as a result of Confrontation. 47 'We are bound to state our opinion', outlineda Treasury briefing to ministers, 'that we cannot see a satisfactory solution for the economic problems of this country in the next decade unless an immediate halt is called to the increases in the defence budget, and a steady reduction takes place in the proportion of the nation's resources devoted to defence.' 43 In light of these concerns Callaghan made it clear to Gordon Walker that, while he supported the objective of neutralization in Southeast Asia, it had to happen sooner rather than later. In his view Britain simply did not have the luxury of waiting until Confrontation was satisfactorily concluded before negotiating a withdrawal from the area. 'The basis of our policy should be to lessen our commitments as quickly as we can', he warned, adding that if this was not implemented Britain was in serious risk of bankrupting itself. 49 These economic concerns undoubtedly lent considerable weight to those who believed Britain had already outstayed its welcome in Southeast Asia. In reporting progress of the 'neutralization' paper to overseas posts, the Commonwealth Relations Office warned that 'the validity of its main theme has received fresh

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emphasis from our present economic difficulties: we do not want to retain a substantial military presence in Southeast Asia longer than we can help.' 50 Arising from these concerns London initiated a major review of all aspects of defence spending. Although it was not completed until late 1965, some key decisions had been made by June. Most importantly, ministers agreed that defence expenditure must be reduced to £2,000 million (at 1964 prices) by 1969-70. To do so was not realistically possible without a substantial reduction in commitments. The most viable strategic region where cuts might be made was east of Suez. 51 There Britain had neither valuable industrial resources to protect, as was the case in the Middle East, nor overriding political objectives to meet, like stability in Europe. Ministers also recognized, albeit reluctantly, that only by forsaking its capacity for independent intervention could Britain seriously reduce its defence expenditure. 52 'One of the most significant conclusions which appears to have emerged from the work done so far', the Cabinet Secretary, Burke Trend, warned the Prime Minister, 'is that we shall probably have to plan in future on the basis that we shall not try to retain, as at present, the capability of mounting any operations single-handed in the face of opposition.' 53

Important factors militated against a swift reduction of Britain's east of Suez commitments. To attempt this while Confrontation remained unresolved would effectively give final victory in the conflict to Sukarno. Although the consequences of this could not be gauged accurately, political instability, eradication of any vestiges of British influence, and the dismemberment of Malaysia were all reasonable assumptions. In addition, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand, strong supporters of a British military presence in the region, would react harshly to any pull out. It was simply not in Britain's power alone to implement a policy of rapid withdrawal. 'It is essential that there should be no premature disclosure of the way in which our minds are working', Trend emphasized to Wilson, 'if only because, once it is thought that we are on the run, we have lost our main negotiating card, and a process which ought to be a phased and controlled contraction of commitments will degenerate into a disorderly and ignominious retreat'. 54 The government was faced with a contradiction between its long-term goal of negotiated withdrawal, and its short-term requirement to conclude Confrontation in a manner which recognized the territorial integrity of Malaysia. Britain's predicament was well explained by Michael Stewart, the new Foreign Secretary, in his memoirs.

Adaptation to our position in the second rank was not easy, as Britain still had post-imperial commitments all over the world. We were like a juggler who has a dozen plates circling in the air, and knows he

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cannot keep them going; but to fold his hands and let them crash would be irresponsible. We had the grim story of the Belgian Congo to warn us against precipitate abandonment of imperial rule. The juggler must extract from the circle one plate after another and put it safely on a table until his job has become manageable. The Cabinet had already decided that we must divest ourselves of responsibilities east of Suez, though we knew that this would be the work of several years. 55

By mid-1965 British policy-makers were searching, or perhaps more accurately hoping, for a change in political circumstances that would allow the process of disengagement to begin. Fortuitously, this occurred suddenly in early August. Rising tension between Singapore and Malaysia, and the two respective Prime Ministers, finally resulted in the Tunku expelling Singapore from the Federation. This provided the Wilson government with a convenient excuse to reassess Britain's defence commitments to Malaysia. 'Even if the lawyers are no longer confident that our Defence Agreement has lost its juridical basis', the Defence Secretary, Denis Healey, told Wilson, 'no one would consider it politically or morally binding. It is for us to decide whether, and on what conditions, we retain a defence commitment to Malaysia.' Healey himself was in no doubt that Britain had to disentangle itself from an increasingly untenable position, which was costing the British taxpayer countless millions. 'Our basic objective should be to obtain the early consent of the United States, Australia and New Zealand to a policy aimed at negotiating the end of Confrontation and the withdrawal of British forces from Borneo.' 56 A number of his ministerial colleagues agreed. Cledwyn Hughes, Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations, advised Wilson that Britain's position regarding both Confrontation and tenure of the Singapore bases had been drastically undermined by the Tunku's action. 'It is therefore all the more desirable and in our interests that Confrontation should be brought to an end.' 57 George Brown chimed in, noting his agreement 'with the conclusion that some means must be found to bring Confrontation with Indonesia to an end quickly'. 58

With these objectives in mind, and using Singapore's expulsion as an excuse for formal talks, British officials met with American, Australian and New Zealand representatives in London in early September to discuss possible options. The British delegation outlined its concerns regarding tenure of the Singapore bases, and the need to end Confrontation in the near future. This marked a blunt admission to the allies that Britain's ability to

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carry the weight of its commitments east of Suez was being rapidly eroded. 'By whatever means it may be contrived', outlined the British paper released at the talks, 'we need an early end to Confrontation.' 59 As a result, the only option was to negotiate a settlement directly with Sukarno, even if this damaged British prestige. Minimum requirements for Britain in any such deal were that no part of the original Federation should be placed in a position of complete helplessness in the face of future Indonesian aggression, and that there should be an orderly withdrawal from Singapore. The reaction of Britain's allies,. especially the Americans and Australians, was scathing. 60 United States officials took issue even with Britain's basic premise: that tenure of the Singapore bases was now uncertain and unlikely to remain beyond the medium term. They also felt that any attempt to negotiate a settlement with Sukarno would fail. 61 Once the Indonesian leader received clear evidence of weakening British resolve he would no doubt wait until virtually all Indonesian demands were met. The result could potentially be disastrous for the Western position in Southeast Asia. 62 Over the previous twelve months Sukarno had increasingly edged Indonesia towards communism, taking the country out of the United Nations and into a de facto alliance with China. In contrast to the first years of the crisis, the Western allies now wanted Britain to maintain a strong military deployment in the region, principally as a means of keeping Sukarno's ambitions in check. An abandonment of that role was considered unacceptable in Washington, Canberra and Wellington. Britain was in no position to ignore the representations of its allies. Australia and New Zealand now had troops on the ground in Borneo. American diplomatic support was vital to putting further pressure on Jakarta. The Wilson government had little choice but to heed these concerns and maintain existing force deployments in Malaysia. 'It is clear,' Burke Trend told Wilson, 'that we could not insist on making an early move to end Confrontation without causing grave offence to our allies and prejudicing the prospect of their future collaboration.' 63 In his messages to Menzies and Holyoake reporting on the talks, Wilson assured them that there would be no precipitate withdrawal and that further consultation would take place. But he concluded by warning that 'our assessment of the situation is that time is not on our side, either as regards our tenure in Singapore or the continuation of Confrontation'. 64 Less than a week after these messages were sent political violence erupted in Indonesia. On 1 October 1965 a group of army officers, led by Colonel Untung, attempted to seize power in Jakarta. The coup ended in a dismal failure, the fledging rebellion being ruthlessly crushed by troops loyal to Major-General Suharto, commander of the strategic reserve. This event heralded a major transformation in Indonesian politics. Increasingly,

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Sukarno became a paper President, with real power being exercised by Suharto and the army establishment. These generals, concerned with restoring economic stability and suppressing the local communist party, were now eager quietly to abandon Sukarno's radical agenda, including the Confrontation. Although the crisis did not officially end until the signature of the peace treaty in Bangkok on 11 August 1966, in reality it all but died during the months immediately following Untung's intervention. Britain was saved by these events from a potentially serious humiliation. Although Sukarno did not succeed in 'crushing' Malaysia, as he once claimed that he would, there is little doubt that his policy of Confrontation helped to bring to an end British aspirations of remaining a Far Eastern power. The asking price to be paid, as Confrontation cruelly showed, was simply too high. By late 1965 the Labour government appeared to have accepted this. The following February, Defence Minister Healey visited Canberra to explain to Australian and New Zealand officials Britain's future plans for deployments east of Suez. It was not an easy meeting. Healey made it clear that Britain 'would never again be prepared to act alone against an opponent like Indonesia, 10,000 miles away, nor undertake large- scale counter-insurgency operations'. 65 The British also 'envisaged' leaving Singapore by 1970. Although North Australia was flagged as a possible substitute base, both Canberra and Wellington regarded it as a non-starter. The New Zealanders were under no illusions that the British were in fact preparing to leave. 'The whole process of British withdrawal is likely to be a hesitant and gradual one,' cited the Department of External Affairs, 'and will be modified in accordance with political developments.' 66 Although such a process would make adjustment slightly easier, it could not camouflage the fact that the preparations were already being made.

Greater Malaysia had originally been described as the 'grand design' by Macmillan and his colleagues. Britain certainly had ambitious, and perhaps in retrospect naive, hopes for the Federation. Recognizing direct imperial rule from London as untenable, the British hoped that independence within the Commonwealth would produce a new nation content to retain historic trade, financial and defence ties with the former colonial power. By these means Macmillan wanted to retain some measure of British influence and power east of Suez. By declaring Confrontation, however, Sukarno denied Britain the option of an easy transformation from formal to informal empire. The cost of remaining a Far Eastern power, not to mention 'the world role', was to be far greater than anticipated. In addition, addressing the Indonesian threat proved to be a mostly lonely vigil for Britain. The United States, especially under President Kennedy, placed a higher priority on securing a non-communist Indonesia than on protecting Malaysia from external aggression. Even Australia and New Zealand did not deploy forces in

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Borneo until April 1965, over two years after the crisis had begun. Early that year, as Wilson recollected in his memoirs, the trooping the colour ceremony was in risk of being cancelled if there had been one further deployment of troops overseas. 67 British military and financial resources had been stretched to the limit. Although Sukarno failed in his task to 'crush' Malaysia, it should also be recognized that the British failed in theirs. Any ambitions of being a global power of substance, and retaining a significant role for itself east of Suez, had vanished by December 1965. The Wilson government had resigned itself to disengagement. Although implementation took several years, there is little doubt that Confrontation hastened the end of empire in Southeast Asia.


1. John Darwin, Britain and Decolonisation (London, 1988), 290.

2. The British had argued for many years that the most logical form of decolonization was a union of Britain's territories in the region, starting with Malaya and Singapore. This had been strongly opposed, however, by Malayan leaders; see A. J. Stockwell, 'Insurgency and Decolonisation during the Malayan Emergency', Journal of Commonwealth and Comparative Politics, 15 (1987), 71-81.

3. Memo, by Iain Macleod, Secretary of State for the Colonies, to Cabinet, 7 April 1961, DO 169/25; see also David Easter, 'British Defence Policy in South East Asia and the Confrontation, 1960-66', unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, 1998, 400-03, who emphasizes British concern about the future of the military bases, given the rise in popularity of the Barisan Socialis and the inevitability of formal independence for Singapore.

4. Memo., Kuala Lumpur to State Department, 8 June 1961, 790.00/6-861, Decimal Files, 1960-63, RG 59, National Archives and Record Administration, Washington.

5. Memo., Singapore to State Department, 16 June 1961, 790.00/6-1661, ibid.

6. Chin Kin Wah, The Defence of Malaysia and Singapore: The Transformation of a Security System, 1957-1971 (Cambridge, 1983), 179.

7. A. J. Stockwell, 'Malaysia: The Making of a Neo-Colony?', Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 26 (1998), 138-56.

8. The Southeast Asia Collective Defence Treaty was signed in Manila on 8 Sept. 1954 by representatives of Britain, the United States, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines and Pakistan. The crucial operative clause was Article IV: 'Each Party recognises that aggression by means of armed attack in the Treaty area against any of the Parties (or against Cambodia, Laos or the territory under the jurisdiction of the free Vietnamese government) would endanger its own peace and safety and agrees that it will in that event act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.'

9. Minute of Chiefs of Staff meeting, 3 Aug. 1961, DEFE 4/137.

10. State Department to London, 12 Oct. 1961, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, 'Malaya and Singapore - general', National Security File, box 140; Australian Prime Minister R. G. Menzies to Lieutenant-General Sir William Oliver, British High Commissioner to Australia,


Aug. 1961, PREM 11/3418; New Zealand Prime Minister K. J. Holyoake to Macmillan,


Oct. 1961, PREM 11/3422.

11. Selkirk to Macmillan, 30 Dec. 1961, PREM 11/3866.

12. Minute of Chiefs of Staff meeting, 3 Aug. 1961, DEFE 4/137.

13. Note by Amery, 4 Oct. 1961, D(61)66, CAB 131/2.

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considerable: see in particular John Turner, Macmillan (London, 1994), 272; Peter Clarke, A Question of Leadership: Gladstone to Thatcher (London, 1991), 229-31.


Sir James Cable, counsellor in the FO, 1961-63, head of Southeast Asia department 1963-66, interview with author, Cambridge, 16 Sept. 1994.


Selkirk to Macmillan, 30 Dec. 1961, PREM 11/3866.


John Subritzky, Confronting Sukarno: British, American, Australian and New Zealand Diplomacy in the Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation, 1961-1965 (London, 2000), 37-8.


Leslie Fry, British embassy, Djakarta, to Fred Warner, head of Southeast Asia Department, FO, 11 Aug. 1961, DO 169/28.


For leading commentaries on Indonesian policy during Confrontation, see J. A. C. Mackie, Konfrontasi: the Malaysia-Indonesia Dispute, 1963-1966 (Kuala Lumpur, 1974); Ide Anak Agung gde Agung, Twenty Years of Indonesian Foreign Policy, 1945—1965 (The Hague, 1973), and Michael Leifer, Indonesia's Foreign Policy (London, 1983).


CC(63)6th mtg, 24 Jan. 1963, CAB 128/37; OP(63)4th mtg, 'The Future Defence of Malaysia', 24 April 1963, CAB 134/2371.


Macmillan to Home, 3 April 1963, PREM 11/4347.


Minute by de Zulueta to Macmillan, 3 April 1963, PREM 11/4189.


Memo., Heath to Macmillan, 23 April 1963, PREM 11/4347.


Memo., Macmillan to Home, 3 April 1963, ibid.


Mountbatten to Thorneycroft, 30 Sept. 1963, DEFE 13/387.


Minute by W. I. McIndoe, Cabinet Office, to T. J. Bligh, Principal Private Secretary to Macmillan, 24 Sept. 1963, PREM 11/4183.


Memo, by Warner, 'Four Years in South East Asia 1960-1963', 28 Nov. 1963, FO 371/169688/D 1051/41.




Warner to Marshall, 20 Sept. 1963, FO 371/169688/D 1051/37; memo., Lord Head, British High Commissioner to Malaysia, to Sandys, 11 Dec. 1963, FO 371/169907/DH 1062/124.


Thorneycroft to Douglas-Home, 7 Jan. 1964, PREM 11/4905.


Memcon, FO, 16 Oct. 1963, FO 371/169909/DH 1071/31/G.


Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961-1963, vol.23, Southeast Asia (Washington DC, 1994), 742.


David Ormsby-Gore, British ambassador in Washington, to FO, 12 Feb. 1963, FO 371/169695/D 1071/23.


Minute by Home to R. A. Butler, Foreign Secretary, 19 Dec. 1963, FO 371/169894/DH



Memo, by Sir Burke Trend, Cabinet Secretary, to Home, 8 Jan. 1964, PREM 11/4905.


FO memo., 'British Policy Towards South-East Asia', 22 Sept. 1964, CAB 148/7. The memorandum was approved by the Defence and Oversea (Official) Committee on 14 October, and later by the Cabinet; DO(O)(64)21 st mtg, 14 Oct. 1964, CAB 148/4; memo., Gordon Walker to Cabinet, 19 Nov. 1964, CAB 148/17.




Memo, by Luce to COS, 30 June 1964, DEFE 4/171.


FO memo., 22 Sept. 1964, CAB 148/7.




Report by long-term study group, 23 Oct. 1964, CAB 148/40.


DO(O)(64)21st mtg, minute of Defence and Oversea (Official) Committee, 14 Oct. 1964, CAB 148/4.


D. R. Thorpe, Alec Douglas-Home (London, 1996).


Memo, by Douglas-Home, 17 June 1963, CAB 131/28.


R. R. James, Ambitions and Realities: British Politics 1964-1970 (London, 1972), 61.


Austen Morgan, Harold Wilson (London, 1992), 270; Chris Wrigley, 'Now you see it now you don't: Harold Wilson and Labour's foreign policy, 1964-1970', in R. Coopey, S. Fielding and N. Tiratsoo (eds.), The Wilson Governments (London, 1993), 132; Leslie Stone, 'Britain and the World', in D. McKie and C. Cook (eds.), The Decade of Disillusion: British Politics in the Sixties (London, 1972), 126; Philip Ziegler, Harold Wilson: The Authorised Life of Lord Wilson of Rievaulx (London, 1993), 210-19; Clive Ponting, Breach of Promise:

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Labour in Power 1964-1970 (London, 1989), 97-9; Ben Pimlott, Harold Wilson (London, 1992), 383-6.

47. Easter, 'Confrontation', 412-3.

48. Treasury memo., 11 Nov. 1964, CAB 148/40.

49. Callaghan to Patrick Walker, 1 Jan. 1965, FO 371/180205/D 1051/7.

50. CRO to Kuala Lumpur, 19 Jan. 1965, FO 371/180206/D 1051/25/G.

51. Trend to Wilson, 11 and 14 June 1965, PREM 13/215.

52. Minute of COS meeting, 11 June 1965, DEFE 4/185.

53. Memo., Trend to Wilson, 14 June 1965, PREM 13/215.

54. Ibid.

55. Michael Stewart, Life and Labour: An Autobiography (London, 1980), 144.

56. Healey to Wilson, 13 Aug. 1965, PREM 13/431.

57. Hughes to Wilson, 13 Aug. 1965, ibid.

58. Memo., Brown to Wilson, 26 Aug. 1965, ibid.

59. London to New Zealand Department of External Affairs (NZDEA), 2 Sept. 1965, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Head Office, Multiple-Number Subject Files, ABHS, series 950, accession W 4627, 434/8/1, pt. 9, box 4670, New Zealand National Archives, Wellington (hereafter NZNA).

60. Memcon, Stewart with Ball, 8 Sept. 1965, PREM 13/431; Canberra to Ministry of Defence, 7 Sept. 1965, FO 371/181529/IM 1193/135/G.

61. FO to Washington, 9 Sept. 1965, PREM 13/431.

62. Djakarta to State Department, 7 Sept. 1965, Lyndon Baines Johnson Library, Austin Texas, 'Indonesia country file', vol.4, National Security File, box 247.

63. OPD(65)41st mtg, 23 Sept. 1965, CAB 148/18; memo., Trend to Wilson, 21 Sept. 1965, PREM 13/431.

64. Wilson to Menzies and Holyoake, 25 Sept. 1965, FO 371/181529AM 1193/152/G.

65. Report by NZDEA, 17 Feb. 1966, ABHS, series 950, accession W 4627, 434/8/1, pt. 10, box 4670, NZNA.

66. Report by NZDEA,

10 March 1966, ibid. pt. 11, box 4670, NZNA.

67. Harold Wilson, The Labour Government, 1964-1970: A Personal Record (London, 1971),