Empire in Asia

A New Global History

Imperialism in Southeast Asia

Book Cover

Book Title

Imperialism in Southeast Asia: 'A Fleeting, Passing Phase'. London; New York: Routledge, 2001


Tarling, Nicholas


The book adopts a concept of Southeast Asia which included the idea that its regional distinctiveness should not obscure its diversity. In addition, a comparative approach like this would have its benefits: the region may be compared with other regions, and any part of it with any other part of the globe. Thus, this approach allows one to study imperialism in the various commonalities and diversities of experience to a region already marked by both. What imperialism became for other regions, or other parts of the world, is also relevant, for imperialism was both differentiated and global in its compass.

In Chapter One, the author advanced a definition of imperialism, focusing on the concept of control and the period from 1870-1910. The second chapter seeks to place that definition in the long-term context of the emergence of a world economy and a world of states, and in the history of the whole region of Southeast Asia. Chapters Three and Four tackle the question of imperialism in Southeast Asia from another vantage point; by investigating in some detail the 'imperialist' interventions in Southeast Asia in the period of 1870-1910. Intervention had resulted from a variety of circumstances and motives, and a detailed approach may help both to sort them out and to indicate their interrelationships. The focus of these chapters is on the decision of the European powers to 'intervene', displace or protect.

Scope (Topics Covered, Time Period)

The book covers the larger part of Southeast Asian history in the period of High Imperialism. It covers the beginnings of formal colonial rule, dedicating a chapter to the British and another chapter on the other powers. The book ends with an extensive discussion on the different legacies of colonial rule and the responses of the colonial powers to nationalist demands after WWII. The future of the world had been seen by the British as one of nation-states, which could trade with one another, and whose interests would be reconciled by diplomacy that took account both of a theoretical equality of sovereignty and of an actual disparity of power.

Argument (Methodology, Significance)

The book's conclusion reiterated that the rivalry of the European states is at the core of the explanation for imperialism. Imperialism is defined here as the movement that saw most of Southeast Asia and Africa emerge as the domain of colonial powers in the last three decades of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, two major sources of change operated within and among states: the national revolution and the industrial revolution. This had produced the apprehension and ambition that unfortunately bred insecurity.

The author argues that the 1870s marked a new phase in the history of empires because the two sources of change had begun to have major effects on the distribution of power in Europe. Britain herself had attained an unusual degree of primacy at the mid-century, being successful in its long rivalry with France, and became the major power in the industrial revolution arena. However, it was eventually challenged by the spread of the industrial revolution and national unification of other European territories. It was in this context that 'imperialism' got under way, since the arguments for empire, and the actions taken in pursuit of it were often presented in terms of state necessity.

In addition, the various case studies tended toward proving the interpretation that puts an emphasis on the renewal of rivalry among the major powers, taking into account also the failure of existing states to handle the pressures of the world economy alongside those exerted by their economic rivals. He also recognizes that it was the personal ambition and zest for adventure that had characterized the arrival of Europeans in the second part of the sixteenth century as they had those of the first.

The establishment of European empires was not the sudden result of overwhelming strength, but a result of the gap between the Western and Southeast Asia; a gap that had continually widened during the nineteenth century. On the one hand, the Western states had enhanced their ability to mobilize military and economic power partly as a result of their own interstate struggles. On the other hand, the Southeast Asian states were weakened; partly by the earlier advances of Europeans who had secured command of the sea, and partly by their own internal divisions. However, the establishment of European empires was still a difficult endeavor and the process of consolidating control remained largely unstable. In this way, one should not make the mistake of exaggerating the smoothness of the process, for one would then misunderstand it, and misread the nature of the regimes that were established. These very regimes had provided the context of the economic changes that followed.

Finally, Tarling argues that colonial regimes were easier to start than to consolidate. These colonial territories increasingly themselves took on the character of states. Yet, they could never possess all the attributes of an independent state, nor all its capacities. Within their frontiers, however, the constant process of state-formation was producing elites that wanted to complete the task, and the Japanese invasion had opened the way for them.

Annotated by Michelle Djong