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The Geopolitics of Empire

While in a state of economic and geopolitical decline after the Second World War, Britain and its empire still held considerable great power influence. In fact, the empire was a key reason why the first few postwar governments were able to assert British great power. This was partly because, after President Roosevelt died in 1945, successive US administrations found strategic value in Britain’s formal control in key regions. Both Cyprus and Hong Kong were critical in maintaining British (and Anglo- American) power in the Middle East and East Asia. However, it seemed that as the British found increasing strategic value in certain colonies, they also faced increasing pressure to decolonize. Thus the Attlee, Churchill, and Eden governments walked a fine line between preparing certain strategic colonies for self-government and doing so as slowly as possible. For Cyprus and Hong Kong, whose strategic values in the Cold War were considered to be indispensable, colonial policy-makers were prepared to hang on as long as possible.

During the 1940s, a ‘firm statement’ of British intentions to retain control over certain colonies, especially Hong Kong and Cyprus, was considered to be one of the most effective tools available to British colonial policy-makers. It was thought that a mere statement of British determination would deter any serious nationalist claims for independence and ward off external meddlers. Several such statements were made from Parliament regarding Hong Kong between 1942 and 1944; Governors Woolley and Winster pleaded for similar statements regarding Cyprus, but had to wait until 11 December 1946, when London decided that it would not have detrimental consequences for British interests in Greece. Once made, Winster had the island plastered with posters which declared that ‘[o]n this foundation of a clear understanding of the future intentions of His Majesty’s Government [...] the road lies clear for a new start in the relations between Britain and Cyprus’.8

Moreover, both Turkey and Greece depended on British and then Anglo-American economic and diplomatic support during the immediate post-war years. It was Winston Churchill who arguably saved Greece from

Soviet domination at the Fourth Moscow Conference in 1944, and it was Britain which initially provided the necessary support for the Kingdom of Greece in the civil war. As the former Greek prime minister, George Papandreou, put it, Greece breathed ‘with two lungs, one of them being British and the other American, and for this reason it cannot undertake the risk of suffocation because of the Cyprus problem’.9 Turkey meanwhile supported British sovereignty as a deterrent against Soviet expansionism.10 By the mid-1950s, however, Greece’s political stability, pro-enosis public opinion, and diplomatic credibility meant that it could revive its active support for enosis, doing so somewhat successfully at the UN in 1954, outside hopeless bilateral discussions with Britain.11 This marked the beginning of the end of British rule in Cyprus.

The KMT and the CCP also benefitted from an ostensibly neutral and open British colony on China’s border. The relative lack of communist agitation against British colonial rule in Hong Kong was certainly not a success wholly of British policy; this was more a reflection of the CCP’s wider priorities: a concentration of efforts against Taiwan and the US and in Malaya, Korea, and French Indochina. A small, economically dependent, and formally neutral British colony on its border was an advantage the CCP sought to maintain.

For both colonies, then, the geopolitics of the Cold War directly and profoundly impacted British colonial rule. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the conflict’s pervasiveness. What is surprising, I imagine, is the fact that Hong Kong and Cyprus played relatively significant roles in British but also US, Soviet, and Chinese Cold War politics. Far from peripheral afterthoughts or even unsuspecting victims, Cyprus and Hong Kong (as well as the rest of Britain’s colonial empire) were battlefields, and British colonial administrators (as well as Cypriot youth, Chinese labourers, and Soviet diplomats) were soldiers in the Cold War contest between rival imperialisms.

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