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]