Quo Vadis: Thailand’s Taking the Chair of ASEAN, Sailing in the Troubled Waters

After one year, Singapore has led the Association to progress in ASEAN’s three pillars, the next torch of the Association is now in Thailand’s grip. Faced with relentless fights against new threats of transnational crime, terrorism, trade wars, climate change, the new chairmanship seems to give some hopes to reach out a greater partnership, reaffirming some key agendas of deepening the infrastructure and people-to-people connectivity, maintaining the rules-based order and sustainability.

“Advancing Partnership for Sustainability” has been chosen as Thailand’s new tagline for its chairmanship of ASEAN 2019. It encompasses two points: sustainability and connectivity. Along with this tagline, many observers may ponder upon what will the next chairmanship bring to the region? And how will it pull the ASEAN member states together in the midst of facing other countries’ spur of development assistance? And more importantly, how would it push the agenda to strengthen ASEAN Centrality in any regional initiatives that seem to tear apart?

One greatest challenge facing the new chairman would be on finding the regional alternative to face the geopolitical battle in Indo-Pacific region; one depicted by the divisive characteristics of Pax-Americana and Pax-Sino initiatives on their own geopolitical strategy in the region.

ASEAN does not hold view a common ground on whether they should go take sides on either one of them, nor to just omni balance. The fact that there has yet been any unified approach to face Belt and Road Initiative, or US Pivot to Asia, tells us that the Association is tested for its unity. This, in turn, would be even more interesting to examine, as we also observe that countries like South Korea with its New Southern Policy, India and its Act East Policy and Japan with its long-standing International Cooperation Agency also try their best to get some shares of influences over ASEAN countries.


This above-mentioned argument would then also bring our attention to the dilemma of aid over independence. Noting that many of these initiatives by bigger economies usually showcase some features of being (infrastructure) development assistance, the question whether these assistances would be effective -for the receiver, thus, not likely to turn as a weapon against them – is largely determined by the ASEAN country itself. Thailand, could perhaps, encourage its fellow member states to be very careful in taking any risks of accepting aids so that they could benefit from the opportunities provided by the global economy.


Being a chairman determines your country’s privilege to set the agenda of the meetings. Perhaps, Thailand could seize the moment by introducing a new aid assessment tool or framework that ASEAN could agree upon, to better evaluate the effectiveness of aid – if they could not have an agreement upon the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness (PD) – sheds lights on values of net aid value, donor’s commitment to the Declaration, value for money, time to access aid, etc. –for what always being claimed as having too many indicators. Together, ASEAN could foster its institutional power to make the best of it in using the donor’s assistance while providing transparency and such.


In a similar vein, the new Chairmanship would also give up a new opportunity for the Association to explore existing partnerships. Keeping the old ones and trying to dig deeper into the core of the cooperation sounds delicate rather than having to reach out to new partners. Perhaps, Thailand could also lead the Association to work with South Korea in narrowing the development gap between Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam under ROK’s New Southern Policy. This could be made possible by requesting South Korea to help spillover its digital transformation into Southeast Asia, in two strategic possible cooperation areas of technology and creative industry.


Korea, as a middle power, looks as if it poses no threats to the region – moreover when compared with great players such as China and the US. With its miraculous economic transformation in the last 50 years, internet penetration rate and broadband speeds, as well as its leading technology companies Samsung, LG and Hyundai, such cooperation are possible. These show that South Korea has leverage on spreading its influence through its soft power approach- military power-centric afar. Looking at this trend, ASEAN needs more investor in developing its Research and Development in Industry 4.0 Sectors, transfer of idea and technology, as well as bridging its skills and capacities gap in digital technology. In addition, in the field of creative industry, countries like Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines are emerging inexorably. With emerging powerhouses in Southeast Asia and greater public-private partnerships, the way to achieve a rapid digital economic growth in ASEAN would come handy.


Amidst the geopolitical battle in the region between China and the US, Thailand, which has long been known for its unique foreign policy principle and a dedicated member to focus on ASEAN, comes as a promising actor to leverage the regional association’s position vis-à-vis great powers. Thai’s “Bamboo Bending with the Wind” foreign policy principle tells us about the policies that are rooted solidly in their own, but flexible enough to bend with the wind to survive. Together, the member states can swirl in the wind while balancing the US and China, through ASEAN-led foreign policy focus. Perhaps, it could also then facilitated by considering again the intra-regional initiative of having its “ASEAN-style Indo-Pacific Vision’ hoped to accommodate all interests regardless of some small frictions between countries.


With the laid foundations and ongoing projects under Singapore’s chairmanship that tend to shed lights on issues such as cybersecurity and digitalization, as well as maintaining the rules-based order in the region, Thailand should also continue the legacy of its predecessor. In this, we hope to keep the existing initiatives and make some improvements on ASEAN’s resilience and innovation, as we are living on the era of disruption whose challenges are inevitable but could be learned and mitigated. And this would continue to put the test on every member state of ASEAN, with no exceptions to Thailand.


Written by Kevin Iskandar Putra, research intern at the ASEAN Studies Center, Faculty of Social and Political Sciences, Universitas Gadjah Mada