ASEAN and Pan-Asianism aspiration

by Kan Yuenyong, Siam Intelligence Unit (SIU)

This paper will discuss ASEAN and Thailand challenges and opportunity as follow:

  • Why is ASEAN centrality so important to Thailand? How does Thailand benefit from ASEAN centrality in terms of its strategic position?
  • What types of action has Thailand taken to promote and strengthen ASEAN centrality?
  • What challenges do you see Thailand face trying to play a greater role in the organization?
  • Despite all 10 member pledge to promote ASEAN centrality, there appears to be division over the South China Sea dispute. How can ASEAN resolve this issue at the next Summit? How can Thailand—as a non-claimant to the conflict—play a constructive role to mediate the conflict? Will they play any role at all?

The paper will argue that although Thailand has its own national geostrategies rank from (1) exploiting “buck passing” and buffer states with “mini” proxy warfare (2) offshore balancing, and (3) international organization like UN, whereas ASEAN is a new regional architecture had been developed quietly and continually. But with natural development of ASEAN it will fit with the future geostrategy of Thailand, albeit a requirement to get the deeper rethink of ASEAN architecture to address the coming challenges.

Origins of ASEAN

Although there has been the Special Committee on Decolonization or C-24 setup by the UN in 1961 to undo the colonial rule ever since, led to independence movements around the world including Southeast Asia, but the struggle was not in peace on the first IndoChina war with almost a half of millions casualty, and also Indonesian revolution with hundred of thousands casualty. Hari Merdeka (Malaysian Independence) might be an exceptional on the British rule, but if thinking about a long term struggle in India (Sepoy Mutiny in 1857, and Dandi Satyagraha) and Burma (Bo Aung Kyaw murdered), this would be a learning lessons of the British rulers. Not to mention in North Asia with a complex engagement between the Japanese empire, Russia, and also varies European colonial powers, and also internal civil war both within China and Korean peninsular. However, these independence struggles fuel further nationalism in Southeast Asian countries, yet to create the colonialism hangover effect in the same time. (see The Southeast Asian Colonialism Hangover Effect, p. 9)

These nationalism movements have been pacified temporarily, however, by the outburst of Cold War era. At first, with the close cooperation between Thailand and The Philippines with the US, they have first sidelined with the free world (and still), Vietnam had broken with Geneva Conference (1954) into the North to side with the Communist camp, and the South with France and later the US. SEATO had been organized in the same year by Australia, France, New Zealand, Pakistan (including East Pakistan, now Bangladesh), the Philippines, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the United States to counter the Communist movement. Actually, SEATO was a continued anti-communist effort by the then Thai government under the concept of detaining the enemy in the faraway conflict zone out of the internal conflict or neighboring countries. Korean war was a proof of this concept to detain the communist invasion at the 38th parallel in 1953, one year before the creation of two Vietnams and the birth of SEATO. The Vietnam war, however, was difference. The withdrawing of the US out of Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, despite military advantages over North Vietnam, led to the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975, and turning Laos into communist in the same years, generated a question of Domino effect and a survival of Thailand itself.


However, there was a Détente between the US and China in order to break Sino-Soviet camp during Nixon administration.






(CIA’s memorandum discussion among Kissinger and Washington Special Action Group, meeting held August 10, 1973 retrieved from CIA crest)

This is a CIA’s memorandum discussion among Kissinger and Washington Special Action Group, meeting held August 10, 1973. It’s two months before the popular uprising of 14 October 1973 in Thailand and toppled Thanom’s military-led government. Early of this year, the US had withdrawn all military out of South Vietnam. The signing of Paris Peace Accords made Kissinger to win Nobel Peace Price, but actually instead of peace, it was a ceased fire, The North Vietnam would make an invasion in 1975 and reunited Vietnam as a single country in the same year.

The Thai conservative and the army elites had felt insecure and negotiated to a “certain” number of the US army, and especially the arms and equipments in Thailand. Actually the situation had changed dramatically in Thailand and in Indochina, it had forced Thai elites to endorse the de-facto “bamboo diplomacy” and “secret channel to Beijing” quietly led by Marshall Pibun and Zhou Enlai after Bandung conference in 1955. ASEAN has been founded without any influence of the great powers, according to ZOPFAN (zone of peace, freedom and neutrality) in 1967, and would gradually replace SEATO which had been dissolved in 1977. Actually, ASEAN is a continued architecture from ASA (1961 - 1963) and Maphilindo (1963).

I should say that with the maneuver of Kissinger, on ignoring of a massacre in East Pakistan, an Operation Searchlight led by president of Pakistan, Yahya Khan in 1971, Kissinger had laid the groundwork by helps of Khan for Nixon to meet Chairman Mao in China in 1972.

According to Sirin Pattanothai, in 1967 her father, Sank, would use the “Bangkok-Beijing secret channel” to help president Lyndon B. Johnson to make a connection between Beijing and Washington. Unfortunately, because of the cultural revolution, it failed. She would, however, use this secret channel to facilitate the Thai diplomats to connect to Beijing, led to a meeting between Prime minister Kukrit and Chairman Mao in July 2, 1975.

It could be said that Thailand has distanced itself from the US toward more neutrality, via multi-diplomatic instruments. The US, however, would finally withdraw the whole army out of Thailand in 1976. This year there was a massacre in Thammasat, adding more people and resources to the communist party of Thailand. Thailand would embark a bitter struggle with communist insurgency until ending of the Cold War. Vietnam would join ASEAN in 1995, Laos and Burma in 1997, and Cambodia in 1999. This has first finally fulfilled Pridi's idea of “South-East Asia League" planned in September 8, 1947 and lasted for only two months.

Although, there was a maneuver secretly from the Thai security apparatus to use “Bangkok-Beijing secret channel” created since Marshall Phibunsongkram to convince China to deviate Vietnam out of their Thai-Cambodia border front to refocus in Chinese-Vietnamese border front in the The Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, but actually this was a normal conflict between Sino-Vietnamese geopolitical struggle. (There was a report that the Thai authority had dispatched their secret diplomats in Moscow to neutralize Vietnamese offense either.)

Siam and ASEAN Continental Geopolitical Implication

It’s the same tactic that Siam could rapidly recover itself after the Burmese invasion during 1765 - 1767, because of the global trade gravity had changed lower to The Strait of Malacca , but the Myanmar campaign of the Qing dynasty during 1765 - 1769 could deviate Burmese force more on the Burmese-Sino front. Actually, Siam or Thailand, has geopolitically faced challenges similar to Germany in European plain, in risking of two-front war with Burma on the west and Vietnam on the east. This is why Siam had supported a rebellion in Lan Na (Chiang Mai) to gain independence from Burma In January 1775 and secured Lan Na as their buffer state ever since. In order to pacify the aggression of Burmese force, Siam had applied the guerrilla warfare style, not to depend on the defensive inside the fortress like in Ayutthaya era anymore. Because of the defeating of Qing’s army to Burma and also Vietnam during the last period of Qianlong Emperor, and also the invasion of Colonial rule over China led to the weakening of Qing, Siam had exploited the conflict between the British empire and Burma to secure its western front in Anglo-Burmese war (1824-26), while relied on its own army to pacify Vietnamese army in the eastern front, creating Cambodia as a joint Siamese-Vietnamese suzerainty in Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–45). Actually, this war had happened because of the intervention of Siam over the civil war between the three kingdom in Lan Xang (Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Jampasak). This, however, created Lan Xang as a buffer state for Siam in the eastern front, and triggered the invasion of Vietnam in Cambodia and Siamese–Vietnamese War (1841–45) later.

Kingdom of Lan Na, as well as Lan Xang (Luang Prabang, Vientiane, and Champasak) would be absorbed into Siam, while Kingdom of Cambodia would be a joint Siamese-Vietnamese suzerainty, all would be acted as a buffer state to protect core Siamese Chao-Praya basin from the western front (Burma), and from the eastern front (Vietnam). This absorbing would be completed during King Chulalongkorn, he adopted the Westphalian modernization to manage the colonial threatening form both British empire and French empire.

Both Vietnam and Burma have reasons to fear Siam/Thailand, as seen in Chartichai administration’s dream to turn Indochina "from a battlefield into a marketplace" and projects its influence of economic zone over the continental Southeast Asia.

Mr. Chatichai's advisers like to speak of turning Southeast Asia, including Indochina and Burma, into a "Suwannaphume,"or Golden Peninsula, with Bangkok as its center and the Thai baht as its currency. Diplomats from other regional powers say the Thais are getting ahead of themselves. A Grateful Vietnam Nguyen Co Thach, Vietnam's Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, responded by suggesting a new regional consultative forum for economic development and proposing that Thailand coordinate it. In part, Mr. Thach was being polite to his hosts, since Vietnam would first like a great deal of aid from richer and more advanced Western countries. But Vietnam will take investment wherever it can be found.
Mr. Thach is also grateful for Thailand's willingness to break from its partners in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on Cambodian policy, both in warming relations with Vietnam and in welcoming direct talks with Hun Sen, the Prime Minister of the Vietnamese-backed Government in Phnom Penh, whom Asean and most of the world had long ostracized.
Mr. Chatichai's policy has been controversial at home and almost led to a break with the country's longtime Foreign Minister, Siddhi Savetsila, who felt it undermined relations with Asean and undercut Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who leads the Cambodian coalition opposing Mr. Hun Sen.


And in the same time Thailand has reason to fear both their powerful neighboring countries in mainland ASEAN either, actually both Vietnam and Burma tried to negotiate once to wage a two-front war over Siam, but because of the aggression by the colonial powers both from British empire and French empire, that plan would never be materialized. Although that would be without the colonial aggression, Thailand like Germany will employ a gap of “buck passing” as discussed by Measheimer (see how Prussia utilized buck passing toward France and Austria in “The tragedy of Great Power Politics”, by John J Measheimer, especially on page 274-281), moreover “offshore balancing” strategy is also Thai option (as we see the British empire against the Burma, China against both Burma and Vietnam, the US against the communist Vietnam). This was also applied when facing colonial threat from both French empire and British empire, Siam had applied both modernization in socio-politics and economy during King Mongkut and King Chulalongkorn, and seeking “offshore balancing” from Prussia and Russia in the same time, later relied more on “The League of Nations” during King Vajiravudh.

I’d like to conclude that Thailand has relied its natural national security strategy on (1) exploiting “buck passing” and buffer states with “mini” proxy warfare, i.e. White Hmong (Laos), Khmer rogue (Cambodia), Shan and Karen (Burma), and “Chin Peng” (Malaysia), for example, (2) offshore balancing, and (3) international organization like UN, whereas ASEAN is a new regional architecture had been developed quietly and continually.

ASEAN has, however, been designed according to Bandung conference’s 10 principles, especially on the forth: “Abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country”, thus later “ASEAN way”. With this “principle”, ASEAN won’t be useful in the real border dispute. The Cambodian–Thai border dispute (2008 - 2011) had been resolved at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in 2013. Cambodia tried to seek for multilateral approach by UNSC and later by ASEAN, but Thailand insisted in bilateral approach, thus ignoring a mediation role by Indonesia. We need to understand that there is geopolitical power play, a cold war relations inside this dispute. The geopolitical dispute in South China Sea consensus among ASEAN countries has been tested via Chinese bilateral approaches, not to mention its natural complexity such as a claiming of a nine dash line, albeit being rejected by the ICJ, and also a building of artificial islands and an occupying of China and also some ASEAN countries in various islands in the area.

Southeast Asia will face more growing Chinese economic sphere with the internal moving westward inside China, One Belt One Road (OBOR), and also a new role of The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Although this is not clear that it’s a geopolitical strategy from China, albeit a normal economic cooperation in the façade level.

Chinese Military Doctrine

According to a paper “China Debates the Future Security Environment” by Michael Pillsbury, China has developed its own national power measurement called “Comprehensive National Power” (CNP), and its three schools of Future Warfare: RMA school, Local War school and People’s War school. (1) The People’s War school will employ the vast area to wage attrition warfare against the enemy and mobilize huge amount of soldier to wage a long war as seen in the 7-year war (1937-45) against the Japanese invader with a loss of over 20 million Chinese lives, (2) The Local War will utilize its rapid reaction force to counter with border conflict such as Vietnam War (1979) and Korean War (1950-51), and (3) the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) will face enemy with huge technological military gap, such as the US and Iraq in gulf war. China has to close this technology gap as soon as possible.



(1) People’s War Scenarios (pg. 261)


  • The enemy--the United States, Russia, or Japan--will invade and seek to subjugate China.
  • The war will last many years.
  • China's leaders will move to alternative national capitals during the war.
  • China's defense industrial base will arm rmllions of militia in protracted war until the enemy can be defeated by the main army.


(2) local war scenarios (pg. 262)

  • The opponent will not be a superpower
  • The war will be near China's border
  • The war will not be a deep invasion.
  • China will seek a quick military decision.
  • Rapid reaction forces will defeat the local forces of Japan, Vietnam, India, Central Asia, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia.


(3) RMA Scenarios (pg. 263)



The opponent—perhaps the U.S., Russia or Japan–will have advanced weapons, satellites for communications and reconnaissance, stealth aircraft, nuclear weapons, and nanotechnology. Therefore China must:

  • Close an "information gap.
  • Network all forces.
  • Attack the enemy C3I to paralyze its operations. Pre-empt enemy attacks.
  • Use directed energy weapons.
  • Use computer viruses.
  • Use submarine-launched munitions.
  • Use anti-satellite weapons.
  • Use forces to prevent a logistics buildup.
  • Use special operations raids.


The advantage of Thailand’s geopolitical implication toward Chinese doctrine

If we look at Chinese military school of “Local War” : “Rapid reaction forces will defeat the local forces Japan, Vietnam, India, Central Asia, Taiwan, Philippines, Malaysia, or Indonesia.”, there is no any mention to Thailand. Thus the geolocation of Thailand is neutral for China. There is one map that there is no measuring of national power or “CNP” of Thailand in the neighboring countries surrounding China. Actually, Thailand acts as a “Southeast Asian” balancer for China. This can explain why China during Qing cooperated with Siam during Thonburi and Rattanakosin era both military and commerce, and why China secretly open back channel between Bangkok and Beijing during Marshall Phibunsongkram and Premier Zhou Enlai, and why Thailand cooperated with Beijing during cold war to secretly support Khmer Rouge, and Beijing responded back by cutting support of the communist movement in Thailand and also closing the radio station of Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in China. Naturally, Thailand and China has no geopolitical dispute on each other.

Thailand may act like Switzerland and Sweden during World War II to be neutral, but both countries would employ bilateral trade to balance between the Axis and the Allies, see The Economics of Neutrality: Spain, Sweden and Switzerland in the Second World War by Eric Bernard Golson. Contrary to the superficial outlook, these two countries, although promote neutrality and peaceful dialogue, but both have a strong army and its own arms industry. (see Sweden’s Dirty Secret: It Arms Dictators).

Actually, Thailand has gradually and slowly developed its own arms industry, see Thailand sales its armors, First wind to Malaysia: Thailand’s First Win for Malaysia [INDODEF16-D3], Thailand has gradually developed DTI-2 rocket launcher. Actually, contrary to general understanding, Thailand attempts to modernize its army while distance itself from US military system dependence, albeit maintaining NATO standard, and start to develop its own arms industry. Thailand has maintained military power according to the rising Asian arms race, according to defense budget per GDP. The special relationship with the US (Major non-NATO ally) allows Thailand to be only country in ASEAN to procure RIM-162 ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile).

Thailand also tries to maintain military exercise with both the US (Cobra Gold) and China (Blue Strike). See another Thai-UK Panther Gold exercise.




In the medium term, Thailand needs to address its double play, political reconciliation and infrastructure reform such as a building of Dawai deep seaport project, Singapore-Kunming High speed rail link, a joint exploration and development of the Overlapping Claim Area (OCA) to the untapped energy resources in the Thai gulf between Thailand and Cambodia, and also a possibility of the Kra Canal project. With the well develop financial institutes, Thailand can help CMLV countries develop their economic into the next level, as well as playing the greater constructive role in the logistic link between both China and India (Chindia).

Modernity and capitalism from Kan Yuenyong

Blueprint of the new ASEAN

As the new president of the US, Trump has announced an abandoning of TPP, but actually the common security among the US Allies still exists. According to the picture from MUNICH SECURITY REPORT 2017, Thailand will be one of a strategic point of American alliances (see page 36).



With or without TPP, under this context Thailand will have to choose, But on which side it will take, when the time comes? In short term, while the US can’t find solution in the Middle East, a new geopolitical challenge between Europe and Russia will arise, especially on the eastern Europe. Asia pacific will enjoy economic prosperity and an economic integration with China through OBOR together with the rising middle class during the peaceful dividend period in the next decade. But in the longer term, the question of the old Thucydides trap between the US and China remains. I guess that Thailand will employ unique geolocation to be neutral, like Switzerland. But it will not be a stable strategy in the time of crisis. Developing neutral ASEAN will create more stronger peaceful fundamental not only with China, but also with India and Japan in the long run, for, as discussed in Bill Emmott’s Rivals that there are many flashpoint in Asia, and Asia has not yet passed the grand conflict like European countries before. In order to pacify the new emerging devastating conflict in Europe, Alexandre Kojève in the idea of “Latin Empire”. (see Esquisse d’une doctrine de la politique française, and description texts from both Open Democracy and Hoover.) He suggested to create Latin-Catholic empire with a union between France, Spain and Italy first, and then induced Germany into this geopolitical sphere.

In this text, Kojève analyses the geopolitical situation of France after the end of Second World War: France, Kojève writes, risks playing a secondary role with respect to an eventual German-Anglo-Saxon empire (protestant), on the one hand, and the Sovietic-Slavic empire (orthodox), on the other hand. What, Kojève asks, should France do, in the near future, in order to avoid this fall from power and influence? According to the philosopher France must once again examine and pose the question of the fundamental essence of its civilization and re-establish itself in its rightful place as the highest expression of Latin-Catholic civilization. To this end, France should constitute and lead a Latin-Catholic empire that would arise from a union between France, Spain and Italy. These three countries are joined by a linguistic relationship, a spiritual affinity and a religious identity: they, in effect, are utterly catholic, even when they define themselves as anticlerical.

Although, not only from a philosophical Kojève’s Hegelian dialectic, but also the creation of The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and a strong cooperation among European leaders during the cold war era (with supports from the US), and also many European institutions such as the European Parliament, European Central Bank, European Court of Justice, European Commissions, etc. It also has a development of European Identity Project. EU is facing a transformative challenges right now, and it’s thrilled to observe its development further in the coming decades, but apart of deep thinking on the political architecture of ASEAN, it can also learn a lot and prepare these foundations from EU’s lessons.

The Future of ASEAN

I have conducted a workshop on the future of ASEAN by employing a scenario technique. The workshop was included participants from different countries in ASEAN and Asia Pacific, and I have drafted a conceptualization of ASEAN as follow:



We will see that ASEAN will face various challenges from the global order (the emerging of multi-polar power?), to internal ASEAN countries such as geopolitical dimension: the choice between OBOR vs TPP; a problem of megacity development (Resilient Megacities vs water security), this will be addressed for a water security in Asia especially a water tower of Tibetan plateau; a problem of new economic model and inequality (circular economy vs the new space race). These middle level is needed to be addressed under the new ASEAN architecture, I think that each country in ASEAN can’t handle it alone. We have to mention about the Non-traditional security (NTS) threat, such as epidemic (SARS and MERS), Nuclear proliferation, terrorism, global warming and climate change, migrations, etc. These NTS can’t be dealt without a robust global order and required soft power to be engaged.

However, in order to create more unified ASEAN, first it has to rethink about the so called “ASEAN Way” first. Should it be maintained? What’s the fine line on “constructive engagement” in issue such as Rohingya migrant crisis in Myanmar? This has required a resolution of national identity that will be a contradiction between the local identity and universal value at the end. The coming of new governance (efficient and participant government) with global standard, and an algorithmic governance (the stack) would be also another challenge in ASEAN.

ASEAN will not be challenged from the Chinese bilateral approaches only, but ASEAN needs to rethink about its reconfiguration with the American architecture of hub-and-spoke system, as discussed in Victor Cha’s Powerplay. The actual approaches of the US toward Asian countries, contrary from the European countries, are bilateral either. This has been designed to not allow Asian countries to drag American in Asian quagmire, like Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee. The aiming to open multiple front war against mainland China caused the Operation Paper: The United States and Drugs in Thailand and Burma, and thus a more than of 50 percent of GDP of underground economy in both countries. (see further in http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/ijef/arti…)

These soft bind relationships accommodate for allies that go rogue. “Reckless” Chiang Kai-shek, “belligerent” Syngman Rhee, and occupied Japan made for challenging, constantly shifting partnerships in East Asia, all requiring more careful management and oversight than a multilateral relationship like NATO would accommodate. Japan’s reconstruction, in particular, required constant attention from the United States to avoid backsliding and the possibility of Japan becoming a Soviet satellite state.

ASEAN needs to rethink beyond this hub-and-spoke architecture too. RCEP might be a good starting point, and it should open to more participation in the future. Actually, ASEAN should think about the greater Asia, without abandoning the rest of Asia as stated in Fukuzawa Yukichi’s Datsu-A Ron neither ultranationalism, but a spirit of solidarity as of talking in Kakuzo Okakura’s The Ideals of the East, in order to create a peaceful and prosperous Asia in the future.

The walking path from the recent “liberal order” to the yet emerging coming peaceful global order will be required a hard work and deep thinking of either in the recent or among the next generation.

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