After the Fall: Saigon and Kabul in US-Southeast Asian Relations
Updated: Sep 9
Photo Source: Wikipedia
United States Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to Singapore in August 2021 took place just days after the Taliban had taken Kabul. It was no surprise that during Harris and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s joint press conference in Singapore, journalists questioned if US failure in Afghanistan had shaken Singapore’s—and by implication, Southeast Asia’s—confidence in America. Analysts and pundits had begun drawing a wave of parallels on America’s chaotic exit from Saigon in 1975 and its present debacle in Kabul. Few could resist juxtaposing photos taken decades apart in Vietnam and Afghanistan of US helicopters evacuating Americans and their local allies. In this light, US withdrawal from Afghanistan supposedly augurs a broader US retreat from the world. This gloomy forecast rests on popular interpretations of the past that American influence in Southeast Asia must have dwindled sharply following North Vietnam’s defeat of the US-backed regime in Saigon.
This glib historical parallel is misleading. More likely, forecasts of US decline in Southeast Asia today are as exaggerated now as in the mid-1970s. My study of US involvement in Southeast Asia before, during, and after the Vietnam War, underscores that America’s Southeast Asian partners and allies had worked closely with Washington in the 1960s and early 1970s to effectively contain the Vietnamese revolution as well as the influence of China and the Soviet Union.
Indeed, US engagement with the west-friendly states of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) strengthened as the war in Vietnam raged. As discussed in Arc of Containment, when Saigon went to the communists in 1975, ASEAN statesmen quickly got over the shock of Hanoi’s victory and vigorously encouraged US officials to “devote more attention to the remainder” of Southeast Asia. Indonesian President Suharto asked America to play a “discreet but active role”; Thailand affirmed the need for US “security assistance”; Marcos of the Philippines considered the United States “essential”; Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak called for “quiet American support”; and Singapore leader Lee Kuan Yew requested the US continue to offer “vital assistance.” In fact, US policymakers found that most Asian countries, not only those in Southeast Asia, had reacted to US retreat from Vietnam by drawing closer to the United States. It was a pattern that one official called the “reverse domino effect.” Put simply, Asian states were not falling to communism but standing firm with America instead.
Importantly, ASEAN leaders found Washington keen to recommit to the region, not frightened off by its humiliating fiasco in Vietnam. US policymakers remained intent on investing in and trading with the subregion, maintaining formal treaties with Thailand and the Philippines, as well as nurturing close ties with Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore to “ensure continued freedom of transit through the Straits of Malacca” and the projection of US power into the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea. The consequence of these developments, the further intertwining of US and Southeast Asian interests and destinies, is the exact opposite of popular (and inaccurate) notions that US power in the region declined with the fall of Saigon. Indeed, Washington’s reassessment of its involvement in Southeast Asia centered on the belief that this sub-region, and Asia more broadly, was “where the future of half the world’s population, much of the world’s resources, and important US economic interests are at stake.” There could be no talk of retreat.
Fast forward to the present, we find that ASEAN has been for some time the number one destination for US investment in the Indo-Pacific, receiving more US foreign direct investment than China, India, Japan, and South Korea combined. In addition, the US military has also been a close partner in ASEAN’s many multilateral exercises, some of which have been running for decades.
If we really must find historical parallels, we should consider how Harris and Lee, like their predecessors after the fall of Saigon, reinforced and broadened their ties despite the crisis in Afghanistan. Lee has pointed to the range of existing and new initiatives in the US-Singapore partnership. Harris, answering a journalist’s question about US resolve in the region, elaborated on her prepared remarks by highlighting America’s “commitment to a longstanding relationship” with Southeast Asia. Just as US policymakers discerned nearly fifty years ago, Harris also stressed that Southeast Asia and the countries of the wider Indo-Pacific would in “large part dictate the future of the world.” In other words, the US wants in, not out of the region. Likewise, Lee responded to a question about the credibility of US foreign policy promises by stating that Singapore works on the basis that the US will continue to play the role of “regional guarantor of security and supporter of prosperity” for “many more years to come.” As he made plain toward the close of that press conference, Singapore’s enduring partnerships with America in defense, cybersecurity, intelligence exchange, trade, and people-to-people relations would “continue, Afghanistan or not.” If the history of America’s increasingly intimate involvement in Southeast Asia since the 1970s is our guide, we can expect US-Southeast Asian relations to expand and deepen in the days ahead.
Wen-Qing Ngoei is a historian of Southeast Asia-US Relations. He is an assistant professor of humanities in the Office of Core Curriculum and School of Social Sciences at the Singapore Management University. His recent book is Arc of Containment: Britain, the United States, and Anticommunism in Southeast Asian (Cornell University Press, 2019). Ngoei’s articles have appeared in journals such as Diplomatic History, International Journal, and the Journal of American-East Asian Relations.