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Thailand and ASEAN Centrality Geopolitics



The paper will argue that although Thailand has its own national geostrategic framework ranging from 1) exploiting “buck-passing” and buffer states with “mini” proxy warfare 2) offshore balancing, and 3) international organizations like the UN, whereas ASEAN is a new regional architecture had been developed quietly and continually. But with the natural development of ASEAN, it will fit with the future geostrategic framework of Thailand, albeit a requirement to get a deeper rethink of ASEAN architecture to address the coming challenges.The major regional challenges will come from the contest of power between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific. While both countries will construct several layers of international and regional institutions to draw ASEAN members to join in, in the end, ASEAN will be preserved independently. From the perspective of national interest to maintain neutrality, Thailand will deliberately support ASEAN centrality to maintain its influence over major powers. The term has continuously evolved since 2011 into various definitions. But this time, for Thailand, ASEAN centrality will be impelled toward a more unified ASEAN similar to the platform of the European Union. During the gradual evolving process, the new concept of ASEAN centrality will face internal contradictions between the double stages of economic development. This contradiction will inevitably dictate the geostrategy of ASEAN centrality to adjust accordingly into two types of internal subgroup into 1) the “old ASEAN” or the maritime ASEAN which are upper middle income economies and developed economies that will generate more unified ASEAN, and 2) the “new ASEAN” or the mainland ASEAN which are underdeveloped in term of economic development than the former one. The two subgroups will not break apart from the ASEAN framework, but instead,it will reinforce each other to cope with the intense competition among rival major powers in Indo-Pacific region.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
Thailand and ASEAN Centrality Geopolitics
Kan Yuenyong
and Charoenchai Chaipiboolwong
The paper will argue that although Thailand has its own national
geostrategic framework ranging from 1) exploiting buck-passing” and buffer
states with “mini” proxy warfare 2) offshore balancing, and 3) international
organizations like the UN, whereas ASEAN is a new regional architecture
had been developed quietly and continually. But with the natural development
of ASEAN, it will fit with the future geostrategic framework of Thailand,
albeit a requirement to get a deeper rethink of ASEAN architecture to address
the coming challenges. The major regional challenges will come from the
contest of power between the US and China in the Indo-Pacific. While both
countries will construct several layers of international and regional
institutions to draw ASEAN members to join in, in the end, ASEAN will be
preserved independently. From the perspective of national interest to maintain
neutrality, Thailand will deliberately support ASEAN centrality to maintain
its influence over major powers. The term has continuously evolved since
2011 into various definitions. But this time, for Thailand, ASEAN centrality
will be impelled toward a more unified ASEAN similar to the platform of the
European Union. During the gradual evolving process, the new concept of
ASEAN centrality will face internal contradictions between the double stages
of economic development. This contradiction will inevitably dictate the
geostrategy of ASEAN centrality to adjust accordingly into two types of
internal subgroup into 1) the “old ASEAN” or the maritime ASEAN which
are upper middle income economies and developed economies that will
generate more unified ASEAN, and 2) the “new ASEAN” or the mainland
ASEAN which are underdeveloped in term of economic development than
the former one. The two subgroups will not break apart from the ASEAN
framework, but instead, it will reinforce each other to cope with the intense
competition among rival major powers in Indo-Pacific region.
Keywords: Thailand, ASEAN, Indo-Pacific, Geopolitics
1The author is a Ph.D. candidate at the Graduate School of Public Administration, National Institute of Development
Administration, Thailand. E-mail:
Faculty of Engineering and Technology, Panyapiwat Institute of Management, Thailand.
Received: May 24, 2022 / Revised: June 26, 2022 / Accepted: June 28, 2022
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
This paper will discuss ASEAN and Thailand’s challenges and opportunities as
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
What challenges do you see Thailand facing trying to play a greater role in the
Despite all 10 memberspledges to promote ASEAN centrality, there appears to be
a divide 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?
ASEAN Formation and Characteristics
In order to make an assessment of the dynamism and the evaluation of ASEAN and
its importance of ASEAN centrality, it is needed to firstly reinvestigate its history and
background. ASEAN has been established in 1967 in order to regularize the members’ political
contacts in a structured multilateral setting to correspond to the two challenges at that time
which were 1) the escalation of the U.S. war in Vietnam and 2) integrating post-Sukarno
Indonesia into a regional order without any domination form them (Weatherbee, 2009).
ASEAN has been built upon several principles such as the 1967 Bangkok Declaration, 1971
Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), 1976 Declaration of ASEAN
Concord, 1995 Treaty on Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ), 2000
ASEAN Troika, and 2003 Declaration of ASEAN Concord II, for example (Huang, 2020).
Although via ASEAN centrality, ASEAN has become an integrated part of East Asian regional
institutions by setting up both interregional and intraregional discussion forums, there are still
key concerns among ASEAN member states regarding the continuing US presence in the
region and the economic and military rise of China (Jetschke, 2011).
To deal with such concerns, Asian middle powers use several mechanisms and
strategies, but generally, it can be said that those Asian middle powers tend to “tame” rather
than contain China. This will, in the end, institute varies in responding to the region’s
increasingly active alliance, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QUAD) that might impact
the future direction of ASEAN either, such as South Korea may choose to engage with QUAD,
while Vietnam may apprehend QUAD as a hedging mechanism, whereas Indonesia will still
rely on ASEAN centrality to making an engagement with QUAD (Jung, Lee, & Lee, 2021).
According to the recent survey, the State of Southeast Asia 2022 Survey conducted by
the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute (Seah et al., 2022), it has stated that
ASEAN has a more positive view of QUAD (58.5% pros to 13.1% cons) on dealing with
tangible cooperation in areas such as vaccine security and climate change more than AUKUS
(36.4% pros to 63.6% cons) on dealing with security area. ASEAN has been concerned about
the growing assertive influence of China (76.4% concern to 23.6% welcome), while it has
welcomed more on the US’s growing influence (37.4% concern to 62.6% welcome). In
The authors would like to thank several international diplomats on their inquiry of Thai political development inspiring the
following questions and thus to formulate the idea of this essay.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
maintaining rules-based order and upholding international law, ASEAN has trusted the US the
most (36.6%), followed by the association itself (16.8%), the EU (16.6%), and China (13.6%)
and Japan (7.7%)
. But at the dimension of overall confidence in major powers, ASEAN has
trusted Japan the most at 54.2%, followed by the US at 52.8%, the EU at 48.5%, China at
26.8%, and India at 16.6%.
The contemporary strategic view of ASEAN is considered by the member states as a
platform, to correspond to outsider influence, for greater maneuverability among the great
powers, to augment but not to replace the traditional bilateral diplomacy (Weatherbee, 2009).
While in internal regional Southeast Asian affairs, ASEAN will also still rely on the ASEAN
way or consultation and a consensus mechanism among members, which is actually a conflict-
avoidance system relying on informal negotiation for “not to allow bilateral disputes between
ASEAN states to disrupt wider regional stability and the functioning on ASEAN itself” (2009).
This is a de facto conflict management mechanism of the association, and it has been seen
again in the Myanmar crisis, in which from the result of the survey mentioned above, that
ASEAN has addressed and has taken active steps appropriately to mediate the crisis (42.5%),
doing its best within the institutional limits to handle the problem (30.1%), and recommend to
use dialogue as a major instrument among stakeholders (37%) and mounting a coordinated and
unified response with international partners (24.4%) rather than employing harder methods
such as sanctions (19.6%) to cope with the crisis
Although strictly codified in the article 2 of TAC stating that there should be
“noninterference in the internal affairs of one another” reflected the institutionalized “ASEAN
way” as explained above, as we will see that ASEAN frequently employs this kind of “quiet
and informal diplomacy” or even the so-called Indonesian style empat mata (four eyes
diplomacy) of ASEAN way, although there used to be a call for “constructive engagement”
rather than ASEAN way to resolve the problem of 1997 coup in Cambodia by the then
Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and also “flexible engagement” by
appointing ASEAN “troika” consisting of the foreign ministers of Indonesia, Thailand and the
Philippines followed by Cambodia troika as an ad hoc ministerial body to resolve the crisis of
democracy in Myanmar in 1998 by the then Thailand’s Foreign Minister Surin Pitsuwan. But
those extensive mechanisms were both shunned by ASEAN members.
ASEAN has been designed from the necessity of the situation of its time, it is no surprise
Thailand was the main actor to formulate the association at that time of the outburst of the Cold
War era. At first, with the close cooperation between Thailand and The Philippines with the
US, they have first cooperated with the free world, Vietnam had broken with Wikipedia into
the North to side with the Communist camp, and the South with France and later the US. The
Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (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. The Korean war was proof of this concept to detain
Noted that the trust in Japan has declined from 2021 at 11.6% as well as the EU at 32.6%, while the trust in ASEAN itself
can be considered in the same level at 17.5%. However, ASEAN’s trust on China has increased from 2021 at 4.4%. This might
be because of relatively assessment of the changing of US administration from Trump to Biden in 2020 and his increasingly
active foreign policy to preserve the rules-based international order, as we have seen that ASEAN’s trust has significantly
increased from 2021 at 24.5%.
Please noted that this is contrary to the correspondents from Myanmar that they’ve proposed harder method as much as
43.4%, followed by employing the dialogue at 22.0% and cooperate with the international partners at 21.4%. Which is not
surprised because it reflects the belief from the correspondents inside the country to wish for more active mechanism than the
correspondents from other member states.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
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 different. The US
withdrawal from Vietnam after the Tet Offensive in 1968, despite military advantages over
North Vietnam, led to the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975 and turned Laos into a communist
in the same years, generating a question of the domino effect and survival of Thailand itself.
Nevertheless, there was a détente between the US and China in order to break the Sino-
Soviet camp during the Nixon administration
. And there was a CIA memorandum discussion
between Henry Kissinger and the Washington Special Action Group, meeting held on August
10, 1973. It was two months before the popular uprising of October 14, 1973, in Thailand
toppled Thanom’s military-led government. Early in that year, the US had withdrawn all
military out of South Vietnam. The signing of the Paris Peace Accords made Kissinger win
Nobel Peace Prize, but instead of peace, it was a ceased fire, The North Vietnam would make
an invasion in 1975 and reunite Vietnam as a single country in the same year. The Thai
conservative and the army elites had felt insecure and negotiated with a “certain” number of
the US army, especially the arms and equipment in Thailand. The situation had changed
dramatically in Thailand and in Indochina, it had forced the Thai elites to endorse the infamous
“bamboo diplomacy” and a secret channel to Beijing” quietly led by Marshall Phibun and
Zhou Enlai after the Bandung conference in 1955. Led by the then Thailand Minister of Foreign
Affairs, Thanat Khoman, to mediate the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia during the
1960s, it has evolved into the foundation of ASEAN with neutrality from the great powers,
according to Zone of Peace, Freedom, and Neutrality (ZOPFAN) in 1967, and ASEAN would
thus gradually replace SEATO which had been dissolved in 1977. ASEAN has been perceived
as a continued architecture from ASA (from 196 to1963) and Maphilindo. We can say that with
the birth of ASEAN, Thailand can entertain further options for her foreign policy from the only
balance of power among great powers to the regional architecture platform as an extensive
instrument that she could not possess before the beginning of the Cold War. ASEAN has
functioned well ever since for both Thailand and the member states until recently.
An Evolved ASEAN Centrality
ASEAN centrality has been firstly coined by various scholars after a remark by former
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2011 to explain ASEAN as “the fulcrum of an evolving
regional architecture”. Those claims including an Australian analyst, Malcolm Cook when he
saw both the US and Russia attended in the East Asia Summit (EAS) mentioning clearly that
“ASEAN’s claim to its centrality in East Asian and Asia Pacific regionalism is confirmed”
(Caballeo-Anthony, 2014).
There are several further interpretations of the concept of ASEAN centrality as shown
in Mueller (2021), such as 1) “centrality of substance” via “setting the agenda, providing
direction and resolving disputes” (coined by the late Surin Pitsuwan), 2) “the ability to maintain
consensus, carry out collective action and achieve its stated goals” (suggested by Cabellero-
Anthony), or even 3) ambiguous and unclear objective (proposed by See Seng Tan) for
example. However, the authors do agree with Mueller ’s definition judged by benefits from
ASEAN centrality’s function as “a mechanism to manage the organization’s resource
dependence by managing resource supply risks and by preventing the incorporation of ASEAN
in the institutional designs of external actors” including “to offset hedging strategies by
See “The Beijing-Washington Back-Channel and Henry Kissinger’s Secret Trip to China”, especially document number 34.
The discussion between Zhou Enlai and Kissinger, dubbed “constructive ambiguity”, leaving room for the future “evolution
of Sino-U.S. relations from a philosophical perspective”, the origins of the ambiguity of “Taiwan question”, the Shanghai
Communiqué (including the two others) to normalize relations between Washington and Beijing,
NSAEBB/NSAEBB66/, accessed at June 26, 2022.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
individual ASEAN member states by precluding contestation of ASEAN’s strategic objectives
at the regional level”. And ASEAN can do so by using its networking strategy to “increase its
potential to shape outcomes despite its relative lack of power.”
Although these definitions of “ASEAN centrality” are very useful for understanding
the concept, but it is necessary to understand that “ASEAN centrality” as well as “ASEAN” is
means rather than ends, and it will never replace the primordial objective of nation-state which
is a survival of nation or “reason of state” (raison d’état) which was firstly popularized the term
by Richelieu (Poole, 2015). In the next section, the authors will explain thoroughly why and
how the definition of “ASEAN centrality” will evolve from merely benefits mentioning earlier
to the necessity of crafting a more unified ASEAN and thus to elaborate a contradictory of
various factors ranging from distinctive Thailand’s and ASEAN member’s national interest
including challenging from a competition between major powers especially the US and China
in the region. The essay will finally observe the possible strategic optimality on how to strike
a sweet spot among those mentioning challenges.
Thailand Geopolitics and Lessons from Europe
China has concerned about the involvement of the US in Myanmar regarding its
similarity to the Russian response to its neighbors’ “color revolutions” and that Myanmar is at
its “soft underbelly” (Embassy Bangkok, Wikileak, 2007a) and China told Thai diplomat that
“they will never let Burma be like Iraq” (Embassy Bangkok, 2007b; Zawacki, 2021). It seems
there would be the repeating of the history since the ancient era, because of its geostrategic
centered on the Southeast Asian mainland, this has led to the centuries of the geopolitical
potential of conflict along with Thailand’s neighboring countries like Laos, Cambodia,
Vietnam, and Myanmar (Weatherbee, 2009). In 1775, Siam (Thailand) at that time had secured
Lanna or nowadays Northern Thailand to be its vassal state to buffer against centuries invasion
of Burman force on the Western front, while Cambodia was a joint Siamese-Vietnamese
suzerainty in the conclusion of Siamese-Vietnamese War in the Eastern front. This dilemma of
the two-pronged attack would continue further into the colonial era; Siam would choose to help
the British empire to conquer its long rival, Burma, just to discover that Siam would be the
buffer state between British Raj in the West and French Indochina in the East again. After
ceding the eastern bank of the Mekong to France as a result of the Franco-Siamese War in
1893, King Chulalongkorn would start his European visiting campaign in 1897; Siam would
bother to align with the Kingdom of Prussia and the Russian Empire as a diplomatic deterrence
against both British Empire and the French Republic. While during the World War II, Thailand
led by Marshall Phibun would align itself with the Japanese Empire, just to end the War by
switching to side with the Allies, thanks to the underground Free Thai Movement led by
or a war-time codename for Pridi Banomyong, and this flexible diplomacy would
repeat itself again during the Cold War era when Bangkok would on one hand, shoulder-to-
shoulder join with Washington to wage war in both Korean war and Vietnam war, while on the
other hand, it would secure the back channel to establish the secret diplomatic tie with Beijing.
The inspiration of the codename has come from “Book of Ruth” in which “Ruth (תר), being a pure heart or emotional nature,
helps the being so that in time Mahlon, the lower consciousness, dies and as the story proceeds, Ruth (the pure heart) will be
united with the higher mind that she as helped to bring into the being.”
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
Instead of interpreting this kind of Thailand’s geostrategy as merely “bamboo
diplomacy” as mentioned in Kislenko (2002; 2020)
, but actually, Thailand has precisely
followed the “offensive realism” strategy suggested by Mearsheimer (2014) that Thailand as a
middle power in Southeast Asia, it has to use “offshore balancer” to contain its strategic rivals
in the region either Myanmar or Vietnam or both. Because of the series of Sino-Burmese wars
from 1765-to 1769, the Burmese had to focus on its northeast territory just to pave the way for
Siam to free itself from the fall of Ayutthaya in 1767 led to the unifying of Siam in 1771, Siam
would rely on major European powers to balance against both British Empire and the French
Republic, later Thailand would switch back and forth between the Axis and the Allies during
World War II, while at the first period of the Cold War, Thailand had relied on the US, and
then it would side with China to counter the Vietnam offensive in its eastern border during the
late period of Cold War.
This kind of behavior is similar to Germany which will inevitably face a two-pronged
attack from either France or Russia. Furthermore, Mearsheimer (2014) has suggested that in
this kind of situation it would prone to the risk of an escalation of the total war between these
three major powers because of the miscalculation buck buck-passing France and Russia to
miscalculate Germany’s intention on which side it will invade first and that this miscalculation
due to buck-passing was one of the major factors to lead to the war twice in the European
In order to resolve this dilemma permanently, France, by the suggestion of Alexandre
Kojève has initiated the European Union (EU) project by inducing Spain and Italy to help
formulate the “Latin Empire” and then to negotiate with Germany separately later (Kojève,
1945; Kletzer, 2006). Therefore, I’d like to argue that Thailand will treat ASEAN similarly to
France and Germany’s idea of the EU. A reliance on “offshore balancer” and the regional
“balance of power” alone will not enough in the 21st global politics. The formation of ASEAN
led by Thanat Khoman coincided with the situation in the Cold War era when the country had
to deal with complicated international affairs and rising liberal global order that was beyond
the national capability alone. ASEAN is for Thailand as well as other members in the
association a platform “to augment but not to replace the traditional bilateral diplomacy”. But
for the changing the global situation, similar to the EU, Thailand must rethink the revision of
ASEAN into the next stage, a more unified ASEAN. However, there is a need to rethink the
lesson of the EU’s several crises ranging from Brexit, illiberal democracy, and the rising trend
of renationalization of politics (Kirchick, 2017).
The two major strategic choices to move ASEAN further, to borrow the motto from the
Chinese Warring States period, are 1) “horizontal alliance system” advocated by Zhang Yi to
side with Qin and 2) “vertical alliance system” advocated by Su Qin to unite against Qin. China
in the 21st century is similar to the Qin problem during the Chinese Warring States period,
albeit we will use the word “to tame” China, not to “against” during its ascending to global
superpower. The decision to choose the pattern of the alliance will inevitably dictate the
outcome of both Thailand, ASEAN, and Indo-Pacific since Thailand is the center of
Although Kislenko’s articles, mentioning Klausner (1993), have been referred widely such as in chapter 5 of Strangio (2020)
and in chapter 1 of Poonkham (2022) for example; but after carefully examining, the authors do not find any exact “ancient
Siamese proverb” anywhere in Klausner (1993). Although there are some references on the poem about bamboo in page 17,
but it’s obviously Klausner’s “Haiku”, without any specific Siamese proverb regarding the bamboo. Klausner has, however,
delicately mentioned about “Siang Miang” or the northeast folktale of the similar central folktale of “Srithanonchai”, a
scheming antihero. It seems Siang Miang’s story might inspire Kislenko to coin the term “bamboo in the wind” in his own
articles. The earlier mentioning about “flexible diplomacy”, however, can be found in Likhit Dhiravegin (1974), mentioning
Kumut Chandrung’s book of “My boyhood in Siam”, stating that King Chulalongkorn believed that “a flexible tree does not
break in a storm” (the authors’ emphasize).
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
geostrategy in Southeast Asia, and ASEAN as well will be the center of geostrategy of Indo-
In ASEAN, the horizontal alliance system will be Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia,
and Vietnam, while the vertical alliance system will be Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei,
The Philippines, and Singapore
. Actually, the vertical alliance system is the original founding
members of ASEAN (except Brunei), while the horizontal alliance system is the late members
joining the association in 1967, and this alliance system is already recognized in the platform
of CLMVT, the Ayeyawady-Chao Phraya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy
(ACMECS) and Greater Mekong Subregion Economic Cooperation Program (GMS Program).
We can depict the characteristics of both alliances in Table 1 below:
Table 1 Comparative Statistics Among Major Alliances and Actors in Indo-Pacific
Alliance system
in Million
Total GDP
(nominal) in
Trillian USD
GDP per
capita in
1. Vertical alliance
(founding members
of ASEAN plus
Brunei, Indonesia,
Malaysia, The
Philippines, Singapore,
and Thailand
2. Horizontal alliance
Cambodia, Laos,
Myanmar, Vietnam, and
Brunei, Cambodia,
Indonesia, Laos,
Malaysia, Myanmar,
The Philippines,
Singapore, Thailand,
and Vietnam
4. China
5. Northeast Asia
Japan, South Korea,
and Taiwan
6. The Quadrilateral
Security Dialogue
Australia, India, Japan,
and the USA
Considering alliances and major actors in Table 1, we will find that to “tame” China, it
has to be a coalition between ASEAN, Northeast Asia, and QUAD. Given that major powers
will interact with ASEAN members in a bilateral manner rather than in a multilateral manner,
the horizontal alliance will align itself with China, while the vertical alliance will be more
independent and, if necessary, will align itself with Northeast Asia and QUAD
. According to
the survey (Seah et al., 2022), Northeast Asia will side with the QUAD, while the vertical
This strategic option can be considered as an extended form of “ASEAN Minus X” because “the consensus decision-making
process has come at a cost. It has ed to the adoption of collective decisions based on the lowest common denominator”
(Emmers, 2017).
To clarify more in categorizing the alliance, since Thailand will be in both the vertical alliance and the horizontal alliance,
as well as Japan will be in both the Northeast Asia and the QUAD, therefore, the table will depict the comparative statistics
for strategic insight rather than absolute statistics for any calculation purpose.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
alliance will also finally decide to side with both the Northeast Asia and the QUAD, it will be
rather done via the “ASEAN centrality” platform. Thus, Northeast Asia will be a close alliance
with the QUAD, while the vertical alliance will be a loose alliance with both Northeast Asia
and the QUAD.
Nonetheless, we will see that relying on the single ASEAN is not practical for Thailand
anymore since too much diversification of the members will drag the whole ASEAN to stay
still in the quagmire, or to borrow the famous quote, “two steps forward, one step back”.
Consider the case of the human rights problem in Myanmar, it will face several vicious circles
of civil war against the ethnics, the coup and the suppression of its civilians, and the temporal
democratic climate. Such characteristics of the governing body of ASEAN and “ASEAN Way”
will not resolve the problem but leave it under the carpet, albeit it will serve as the de facto
mechanism to contain the problem within a specific area, in this case, Myanmar for decades.
Thailand needs to push ASEAN into further steps with the vertical alliance. But before talking
about the policy recommendation, let’s observe the strength and weaknesses of each form of
the alliance first.
The horizontal alliance will be in favor of Thailand in terms of location and cultural and
religious similarity except for Vietnam, major religion in this alliance is Buddhism with 97.1%
in Cambodia, 66% in Laos, 87.9% in Myanmar, 14.9% in Vietnam
, and 93.5% in Thailand,
compared to the dominance of Islam in the vertical alliance with 80.9% in Brunei, 86.7% in
Indonesia, 61.3% in Malaysia, while there are more diversified in Singapore (31.1% of
Buddhism, 20.0% of no religion, 18.9% of Christianity, and 15.6% of Islam), and dominance
of Christianity in the Philippines at 88.7%.
But in terms of economic modernization and urbanization, Thailand will be categorized
naturally with the vertical alliance thanks to the early economic development policy during the
Cold War era, see Figure 1 below:
Figure 1 Economic Modernization (Measured by GDP Per Capita) vs Urbanization.
Major religion in Vietnam is folk belief at 45.3%, followed by no religion at 28.4% and Buddhism at 14.9% and Christianity
at 8.5% respectively, given that its governmental form is unitary Marxist-Leninist one-party socialist republic which tend to
be more secularist than other member countries of ASEAN, at least officially.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
The orange dash line (descending from left to right) represents the agricultural area (see
top horizontal axis) vs GDP per capita while the green dash line (ascending from left to right)
represents urbanization (see bottom horizontal axis) vs GDP per capita, both lines depict the
similarity correlation between economic modernization and urbanization rate (the more
economic development, the more urbanization, the less agricultural sector). The size of each
circle represents the degree of the openness of the economy.
Chen et al. (2014) have argued that the degree of urbanization (migrant/moving people
into the city) which can be measured by either the size of the agricultural sector or urbanization
indicator may not lead to the successful economic development (an increase of GDP per capita)
on it owns, or it means that urbanization alone will not automatically trigger the economic
development, albeit there is a close relationship between urbanization and economic
modernization via GDP per capita. Contrary, the authors suggest that governments and
development agencies should focus on creating a mobile workforce, ensuring broad access to
goods and markets, implementing government policies that support commerce, and investing
in infrastructure. Therefore, “urbanization” will be the by-product of implementing such
economic development policy, or we can say, it can be categorized as another indicator of
economic modernization.
The members of the vertical alliance especially Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
and Thailand (sometimes called the tiger cubs economy) had enjoined high economic growth
rates although they can’t strike rapid economic growth rates like Japan and Asian tigers during
the 1950s and 1990s and China (since late 1970s) and India (since 1990s) (Echavarria & Arias,
2017). Vietnam’s rapid economic growth recently might be considered to move it from the
horizontal alliance to the vertical alliance. Brunei’s energy export-dependent economy
not fit well with the “economic modernization” and may be prone to a resource curse, but
Brunei has set its vision for economic development and diversification as seen in Wawasan
2035’s goal number 3 are: 1) to ensure high & sustainable economic growth, 2) to achieve
economic diversification, 3) to maintain low unemployment, and 4) to strike macroeconomic
. To achieve such an ambitious goal, Brunei needs to attain a higher development in
Human Development Index (HDI)
Brunei’s strategy is also in line with the endogenous growth theory developed by Gary
S Becker and Paul M Romer (Romer, 1990). The theory has been developed as a result of
dissatisfaction with the Neoclassical growth theory/ Solow growth model which put too much
emphasis on savings and investment in physical capital (e.g., factory, transportation, and
irrigation) as means to promote growth. Long-term economic growth is also dependent on
“human capital development” (particularly skills and education of the population.) According
to data from World Banks World Development Report 1993-2003, East Asian and Pacific
countries can generate high savings and therefore leads to higher economic growth, according
to the neoclassical model, but in Latin America, despite they can generate higher saving, it fails
to generate higher economic growth like East Asian and Pacific countries, but low growth
instead. Endogenous growth theory argues that long-term economic growth is also dependent
on human capital development. The focus of this theory is therefore to understand how human
capital development can contribute to economic growth. The two researchers mentioned above
See, accessed at April 19, 2022.
See Brunei’s Wawasan 2035 target to achieve top 10 GDP per capita,
aspx, accessed at April 19, 2022.
Brunei has attained HDI ranked number 43 at 0.845 in 2022, compared to other ASEAN members: Singapore ranked number
9 at 0.935, Malaysia ranked number 61 at 0.804, Thailand ranked number 77 at 0.765, The Philippines ranked number 105 at
0.712, Indonesia ranked number 111 at 0.707, Vietnam ranked number 116 at 0.693, Laos ranked number 137 at 0.604,
Myanmar ranked number 142 at 0.584, Cambodia ranked number 143 at 0.581, data retrieved from https://worldpopulation at April 19, 2022.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
took a study in South Korea and found that human capital development can stimulate economic
growth through 1) spill-over effect, more educated workers are not only more productive and
can get employment in modern economic sectors, but they also can interact and share their
knowledge with their workmates so that the productivity of other workers also rises. And 2)
learning-by-doing effect, with education and training, the labor will have more capacity to
accumulate and learn new skills and new technologies from their works. This causes an
increase in the productivity of labor over time. Knowledge Management (KM) can play a
role here in improving human capital. Sometimes we cannot use the spill-over effect and
learning-by-doing effect to acquire new knowledge because it's a trade secret neither and open
knowledge, thus “reverse engineering” may play a role here.
It’s obvious that the character of members in the vertical alliance is, therefore, economic
modernization via increasing human capital development and the HDI will be a good indicator
to carry the members in the vertical alliance out of the middle-income trap.
The US Grand Strategy and ASEAN
Since the release of “Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Towards China” in March 2015
(Blackwill & Tellis, 2015), the US has continuously maintained its strategy according to this
paper. Its objective is clear on preserving US primacy in the global system by 1) strengthening
the internal US economy by encouraging disruptive innovations, 2) revising trade arrangements
among US partners and allies to resume the mutual gain and thus automatically excluding
China from the vital value chain, 3) engaging technological-control regime to prevent China
from acquiring latest innovation to enable its strategic leverage, 4) improving US military
capacity and projecting its forces along the Asian rimlands (2015) Considering several
developments after since from the US ranged from 1) refocusing its strategic focus on Indo-
Pacific militarily
and economically
, 2) engaging several layers of partners and alliance
formation (i.e. AUKUS, QUAD, and Indo-Pacific Strategy), 3) waging economic war and
technological trade barrier against China, 4) withdrawal from Afghanistan, and 5) maintains
its strategic patience toward Russia’s invasion against Ukraine, we will see that the US has
pivoted to Indo-Pacific, not Europe, and follows the grand strategy recommended in CFR paper
very closely.
The CFR paper has mentioned strategic partners such as Japan, Australia, the Republic
of Korea, India, ASEAN, and Taiwan (Blackwill & Tellis, 2015), among these, it has advocated
that the US strategy toward ASEAN by engaging military reforms, establishing strategic
International Military Exchange Training (IMET) programs, and help to build domestic
democratic political capacity (2015). This is also in line with the recommendation in the US
Indo-Pacific Strategy that the US major partners will be Australia, Japan, the Republic of
Korea, the Philippines, and Thailand, as well as ASEAN (The White House, 2022).
The US has renamed the former unified combatant command from United States Pacific Command (USPACOM) into
United States Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) on May 30, 2018. There will be a five-year budget on Pacific
Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to ensure the refocusing in Indo-Pacific. See
plans-overtake-us-world-stage-top-commander-says/6203097.html, retrieved at April 20, 2022.
According to an analysis from the Congressional Research Service (CRS) the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF)
mentioning that the initiative will include different modules covering “fair and resilient trade, supply chain resilience,
infrastructure and decarbonization, and tax and anticorruption”. The paper has recognized the recent in absentia of the US
from several trade agreements in Asia such as Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership
(CPTPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and thus suggests that the US may use both US-
Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) digital trade chapter and the US-Japan Digital Trade Agreement as the template for
configuration the new trade agreement in Asia. See paper from,
accessed at April 20, 2022.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
We can see that although it has passed for several administrations, it seems the US
strategy in Indo-Pacific is quite steady and consistent in a long strategic viewpoint. Thailand
and ASEAN should, therefore, adjust their strategy accordingly to the emerging reality via
several alliance system layers according to different speeds of modernization mentioned in
Table 2 as follows:
Table 2 Strategic Recommendation for Each Alliance
Strategic Recommendation
Fosters economic integration and investment, especially labor-
intensive ones, among members provide economic aid and
investment as necessary to leverage the CMLV countries toward
the upper-middle-income country. This layer will economically
integrate with lower regions in China by nature. It’s natural to
engage with the members in this layer with the so-called “ASEAN
way” to avoid escalation of the crisis.
Pursues domestic economic development toward capital intensive
and getting out of the middle-income trap. To enable to achieve this
target, it’s necessary to rigorously invest in human development to
gain higher HDI and a better Global Innovation Index (GII). The
members in this layer should push toward a more integrated
political platform like in the EU, the European Schengen Area style
should be endorsed. This layer could easily integrate with an
advanced trading agreement suggested in the IPEF that has a higher
standard than RCEP with no problem. However, to pursue the
integration politically, the members should consider improving the
universal democratic and human rights institutions while carefully
preserving each national identity to co-exist peacefully together.
At this rate, the “ASEAN way” in this layer will be upgraded into
some forms of “constructive engagement” or “flexible
engagement”, the fast track ASEAN automatically. This layer
should be considered as the advanced WTO plus.
Maintains ASEAN centrality to leverage regional momentum in
diplomatic negotiation among major powers, while integrating
more trading agreements with more partners via the existing
ASEAN plus platform. ASEAN will support the UN’s Sustainable
Development Goals (SDGs) and it will cooperate with the major
powers to combat inequality, climate change, the pandemic, and
terrorism, for example.
It seems, however, that the US tries to strike a balance on calibrating between the US
Indo-Pacific strategy and relations toward ASEAN (Parameswaran, 2022), this kind of
readjustment in ASEAN will help to smooth US security fostering in Indo-Pacific, and in the
same time it will pose flexibility in engaging diplomatically and economically with China.
Fundamentally, the existing structure of ASEAN still acts as the regional settlement
intermediary (RSI) among regional great powers’ disputes like the South China Sea via
multiple instruments such as the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), the East Asia Summit (EAS),
and the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting Plus (ADMM-Plus). This can be done with several
strategies such as institutional balancing, bandwagoning, hedging, and co-option (Koga, 2018).
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
However, to strengthen the more unified ASEAN, there is a debate about whether Thailand
and members of the vertical alliance should endorse the law that will be the lynchpin of the EU
such as The European Communities Act 1972 in the UK. Currently, Thailand has enacted its
domestic law to conform with the ASEAN charter according to the theory of “dualism” that
treats the international and domestic systems of law as separate and independent with the act
to protect the conducting of affairs for ASEAN
(B.E. 2551) and the act to protect the
conducting of affairs for ASEAN (revision 2)
(B.E. 2558). ASEAN is recognized by its
members as an international organization, but not a supranational organization like the EU.
Therefore, there should be rigorous research on both law and policy that how much degree and
related law the country should enact to strike the level of optimality to conduct the new concept
of the vertical alliance in ASEAN.
There is no question that the center of geopolitics will pivot back to the Indo-Pacific or
what is called the “Yuxi circle”
of the new pivot, the centrality of world history in the 21st
century due to its sheer size of population and middle class. And it’s clear that the Chinese
economy will overtake the US somewhere around the 2030s according to the British Think
Tank, the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) (2021), the American
economy at the constant price will be at 25 trillion whereas the Chinese economy will be at 27
trillion. The economy is one of the handiest indicators to measure national power apart of the
Composite Index of National Capability (CINC), especially GDP per capita. However, the
Chinese GDP per capita at that time will still not surpass the US. Furthermore, Beckley’s new
measurement which is GDP x GDP per capita, To create a rough proxy for net resources,
therefore, I follow Bairoch’s advice by simply multiplying GDP by GDP per capita, creating
an index that gives equal weight to a nation’s gross output and its output per person. This two-
variable index obviously does not measure net stocks of resources directly, nor does it resolve
all of the shortcomings of GDP and CINC. But by penalizing population, it provides a better
sense of a nation’s net resources than GDP, CINC, or other gross indicators”, (Beckley, 2018)
Compared to the US, China has a less efficient economic system because “much of China’s
GDP is a mirage based on the fruitless investment. It is only when one tours China that the
extent of its waste of resources becomes apparent China has built more than 50 “ghost cities”
entire metropolises composed of empty office buildings, apartment complexes, shopping malls,
and, in some cases, airports. In industry after industry, from refining to ships to aluminum, the
picture is the same supply far outpaces demand-and still expansion continues, (Beckley,
2020). Therefore, according to Beckley, in the long run, China can’t compete with the US
because China’s debt “has ballooned eightfold and is on pace to total 335 percent of GDP by
the end of 2020. China has little hope of reversing these trends because it will lose 200 million
working-age adults and gain 300 million senior citizens over the next 30 years”, and Beckley
has warned us that the next decade will be dangerous to international security because instead,
a contest of power has come from the rising revisionist albeit it will, it rather comes from
powers that had been on the ascent but grew worried that their time was running short, such
as Germany and World War I, therefore, the US must not undertake far more drastic
measures, such as a full technological embargo, across-the-board trade sanctions, or a major
covert action program to foment violence within China. Nor should it dramatically ratchet up
pressure on China everywhere at once” the US needs to “shows that Beijing cannot overturn
See (in Thai), retrieved at April 21, 2022.
See (in Thai), retrieved at April 21, 2022.
See, retrieved at April 21, 2022.
Journal of ASEAN PLUS+ Studies Vol. 3 No. 1 January-June 2022
the existing order by force and Washington gradually grows more confident in its ability to
outperform a slowing China, Beckley & Brands (2020).
Therefore, it’s expected that the competition line will be on economy rather than
security, but the decisive factor will be innovation, given that the American political and social
environment will breed the rigorous innovation more than in China, but China will generate
varieties of use-case based on its abundant of data according to the enormous of population, so
it’s uncertain that at the end who will strike the triumph, and we still do not mention about
more and more economic interdependent between the two countries, even though the US tries
to leverage the embargo on several trading categories.
But the risk remains especially in the question of Taiwan, since Taiwan’s growing sense
of identity will define itself differently and independently from mainland China
, its domestic
political dynamics will inevitably challenge Beijing’s ambition to unite Taiwan under its
regime of “one country, two systems”. The situation in Hong Kong and the invasion of Ukraine
by Russia on February 24, 2022, will be generating more concern about security uncertainty in
the Taiwanese administration. Taiwan has maintained ambiguous relations with the US, on one
hand, the US has recognized Taiwan as a part of China, but the US has obliged to protect
Taiwan via The Sino-American Mutual Defense Treaty which is recognized in The Taiwan
Relations Act, while China has sent a very strong signal that the independent of Taiwan is
extremely unacceptable
The new revision of ASEAN and the readjustment against the new Indo-Pacific strategy
may generate the optimal economic benefits to ASEAN members, and it may help foster both
the security architecture in Indo-Pacific in the long run, which may mitigate the possible
tension, but it can’t help resolve the real issue of Taiwan dilemma. The best it can hope is that
the new revision of ASEAN will help strengthen the global governance architecture, and if the
competition between China and the US endures without any armed conflict, it may generate
global governance that can be acceptable to co-exist peacefully from every side.
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Full-text available
Objectives To figure out whether adaptation – specifically, Ernst B. Hass’ incremental growth model – is able to account for institutional changes of ASEAN in the shape of the ASEAN Political-Security Community (APSC). Methods Use Ernst Hass' theoretical arguments and propositions to examine some of ASEAN's internal and external factors that have an impact on the discussion, planning, and implementation of the APSC. Three variables -- the types of knowledge used by ASEAN leaders in making choices, their political objectives, as well as the manner in which issues being negotiated -- are found in historical documents and academic analyses and then operationalized in a simpler way. Results The selection of the incremental growth model is justified and the incremental growth model can serve as an innovative analytical framework for the institutional change in ASEAN. Conclusions ASEAN is in a dynamic context where increased expectations and pressure from within and outside are taking place all at once. The institutionalization of ASEAN security arrangements, originally led by the initiation of the ASC/APSC, means that ASEAN has started facing these expectations and pressure and moved on to enhance security cooperation to a certain degree. It is time for students of international relations to apply again the previous finding of adaptation through incremental growth and conduct further field investigations into the current evolution of the APSC.
Full-text available
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