“The Asiatic countries should get together”

“The idea was a good one,” remarked Wellington Koo, an ambassador of a nearly defeated government, in the late summer months of 1949. Speaking to his counterpart from India, V.L. Pandit, the Chinese diplomat continued his train-of-thought. “The Asiatic countries should get together and discuss the problem of the Communist menace which was of common interest.”

Koo convened the one-on-one meeting with Pandit in Washington’s Cleveland Park neighborhood to feel out her government’s views on collective security in Asia. As the Republic of China was losing control of the Chinese Mainland, Koo fretted that communist forces would make advances elsewhere in Asia: Korea, the Philippines, Burma, even India could be next. What could Asia do to stop the dominoes from falling?, Koo often pondered.

Three statesmen in Asia–Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jieshi), Syngman Rhee, and Elpidio Quirino–were already putting forth contradictory proposals for a “Pacific pact” or “Asiatic pact.” Chiang Kai-shek had even visited Seoul in August 1949 to lay the ground work for a regional security system and bolster morale at a time when the Republic of China appeared to be teetering on the brink.

korea_dignitaries
Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee in Seoul, August 1949

Chiang and Rhee were mostly on the same page. Elpidio Quirino was not.

Though the Philippines was initially named in a proposed trilateral alliance with the Republic of China and the Republic of Korea, the Filipino President, Quirino, publicly renounced the idea. Quirino explained that he merely wanted to take steps to enhance cultural and economic cooperation across the region–he wanted no part of a military pact with China or Korea.

First Phase Digital
Wellington Koo (far left) ponders life, 1945. Source: UN Photo #157964.

Though Quirino had watered down Jiang and Rhee’s aspirations, Koo continued to investigate the possibilities for regional security cooperation. He thus called Pandit for a meeting.

Pandit did her best to maintain India’s policy of neutrality in the discussion with Koo. India, of course, had already emphatically declined any type of participation in the so-called “Pacific pact.” She informed the Chinese ambassador what she had already conveyed to Carlos P. Romulo of the Philippines: “India could not send representatives” to any forum which intended to discuss “the Communist menace” (though Pandit did recommend that the countries involved should strive for a “more specific” agenda than what was being proposed).

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V.L. Pandit at a meeting of the UNSC with other delegates, 1948. Source: UN Photo #1252.

Pandit did empathize with the plight of China and the adversity which Koo was personally facing. She described how the newly independent Burmese government continued to understate the problem of communism, and that communists were also creating more and more problems in India, too. According to Koo’s notes, Pandit even “added that she knew that China was suffering heavily from the Communist advance. If she should fall completely under  Communist rule, the situation in the other Asiatic countries would very quickly become almost uncontrollable.”

These niceties aside, the meeting did not result in anything concrete. Pandit merely agreed  with Koo that “there should be a more candid exchange of views and discussion on questions of common concern” among the countries of Asia.

Nevertheless, this was not the end of Wellington Koo’s pursuit of a form of Asian regionalism favorable to his enfeebled Republic.

The Source: “Notes of a Conversation with the Indian Ambassador, Madame V.L. Pandit, 4:30 p.m., August 26, 1949, at 2700 Macomb Street, Washington, D.C.,” in “Various Interviews, 1949 #74-80,” Box 130, V.K. Wellington Koo Papers, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University, New York, NY.

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