The Cold War brought further confusion to Asian politics when an association of professedly neutralist or ‘non-aligned’ nations emerged after a meeting of representatives of twenty-nine African and Asian states at Bandung in Indonesia in 1955. Most delegations other than China’s were from lands that had been part of the colonial empires. From Europe they were soon to be joined by Yugoslavia, a country with its own histories of imperial and alien rule to rake over. Most of these nations were also poor and needy, more suspicious of the United States than of Russia, and more attracted to China than to either. They came to be called the ‘Third World’ nations, a term apparently coined by a French journalist in a conscious reminiscence of the legally underprivileged French ‘Third Estate’ of 1789, which had provided much of the driving force of the French Revolution. The implication was that they were disregarded by the great powers and excluded from the economic privileges of the developed countries. Plausible though this might sound, the expression ‘Third World’ actually masked important differences between the members of that group. The coherence of Third World politics was not to prove very enduring and since 1955 many more people have been killed in wars and civil wars within that world than in conflicts external to it.
Nevertheless, ten years after the end of the Second World War, the Bandung meeting forced the great powers to recognize that the weak had power if they could mobilize it. They bore this in mind as they looked for allies in the Cold War and courted votes in the UN. By i960 there were already clear signs that Russian and Chinese interests might diverge as each sought the leadership of the underdeveloped and uncommitted. At first this emerged obliquely in the guise of differing attitudes to the Yugoslavs; it was in the end to be a worldwide contest. One early result was the paradox that, as time passed, Pakistan drew closer to China (in spite of a treaty with the United States) and Russia closer to India. When the United States declined to supply arms during its 1965 war with India, Pakistan asked for Chinese help. It got much less than it hoped for, but this was early evidence of a new fluidity that was beginning to mark international affairs in the 1960s. No more than the USSR or China could the United States ignore it. Indeed, the Cold War was to produce an ironic change in the Americans’ role in Asia; from being enthusiastic patrons of anti-colonialism and demolishers of their allies’ empires, they began sometimes to look rather like their successors, though in the East Asian rather than in the Indian Ocean sphere (where long and unrewarded efforts were made to placate an ungrateful India; before i960 it received more economic aid from the United States than any other country).
A very specific example of the new difficulties facing great powers was provided by Indonesia. Its vast sprawl encompassed many peoples, often with widely diverging interests. Although Buddhism had been the first of the world religions to establish itself there, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population under one government in the world, while Buddhists are now a minority. Arab traders had brought Islam to Indonesia’s peoples from the thirteenth century onwards, and more than four-fifths of the Indonesian population is reckoned now to be Muslim, although traditional animism perhaps matters as much in determining their behaviour. Indonesia also has a well-entrenched Chinese community, which had in the colonial period enjoyed a preponderant share of wealth and administrative jobs. The departure of the Dutch released communal tensions from the discipline an alien ruler had imposed just as the usual post-colonial problems - over-population, poverty, inflation - began to be felt.
In the 19 50s the central government of the new republic was increasingly resented; by 1957 it faced armed rebellion in Sumatra and elsewhere. The time-honoured device of distracting opposition with nationalist excitement (directed against a continual Dutch presence in west New Guinea) did not work any more; popular support for President Sukarno was not rebuilt. His government had already moved away from the liberal forms adopted at the birth of the new state and he leaned more and more on Soviet support. In 1960 parliament was dismissed, and in 1963 Sukarno was named president for life. Yet the United States, fearing he might turn to China for help, continued to stand by him.
American support enabled Sukarno to swallow up (to the irritation of the Dutch) a would-be independent state that had emerged from west New Guinea (West Irian). He then turned on the new federation of Malaysia, put together in 1957 from fragments of British south-east Asia. With British help, Malaysia mastered Indonesian attacks on Borneo, Sarawak and the Malaysian mainland. Although he still enjoyed American patronage (at one moment, President Kennedy’s brother appeared in London to support his cause), this setback seems to have been the turning point for Sukarno. Exactly what happened is still obscure, but when food shortages and inflation went out of control, a coup was attempted (it failed) behind which, said the leaders of the army, were the communists. It is at least possible that Indonesia was intended by Mao Tse-tung to play a major part in the export of revolution; the communist party, which Sukarno had tried to balance against other politicians, was at one time alleged to be the third largest in the world. Whether or not a communist takeover was intended, however, the economic crisis was exploited by those who feared it was. The popular and traditional Indonesian shadow theatres were for months seasoning the old Hindu epics that were their staple material with plentiful political allusions and overtones of coming change. When the storm broke, in 1965, the army stood back ostentatiously while popular massacre removed the communists to whom Sukarno might have turned. Estimates of the number killed vary between a quarter and a half a million, many of them Chinese or of Chinese extraction. Sukarno himself was duly set aside the following year. A solidly anti-communist regime then took power and broke off diplomatic relations with China (they were not to be renewed until 1990). Some of the losers of 1965 were kept in jail and a few were hanged as evidence of resolute prosecution of the struggle against communism and, no doubt, pour encourager les autres.