Thai leadership more important than ever, said a prominent academic on Southeast Asia

Thailand’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is more important than ever and it is time for the Kingdom to lead again, a respected academic at American University wrote in a newspaper column in Thailand last week.

Thailand “can emerge as a major player in injecting ASEAN with a new sense of purpose and vitality to ensure its continuing relevance. This remains a major challenge for Thai governments. It’s time for Bangkok to lead again,’’ wrote Amitav Acharya, the UNESCO Chair in Transnational Challenges and Governance and a Distinguished Professor of International Relations at American University in Washington, D.C.

His comments appeared in an opinion piece published in the Bangkok Post newspaper that pointed out Thailand’s critical role in the founding of ASEAN and examined the multiple challenges facing the 10-nation regional bloc today. ASEAN is currently marking the 50th anniversary of its establishment and Thailand was one of the five founding member states in 1967.

Acharya’s views were echoed last week by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam during an official visit to Thailand. She used the occasion to pay her respects to the late monarch King Bhumibol Adjulyadej and to meet with Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha at Government House in Bangkok.

“I can see clearly the significant role of Thailand as a center of ASEAN and the gateway to CLMV (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam), while I hope that Thailand and Hong Kong will have more ties on cultural and economic cooperation,” Lam told reporters after meeting Prayut and agreeing to his suggestion that Hong Kong establish a trade office in Bangkok.

Hong Kong and Thailand are in the process of negotiation a free-trade agreement. Lam attended two roundtable forums to discuss investment possibilities for Hong Kong in the Kingdom, and a Thai official said Lam agreed to set up a working committee to explore how Hong Kong could invest in and help accelerate Thailand’s Eastern Economic Corridor, the country’s advanced development zone.

Thailand’s role in ASEAN is, however, far more than economic, Acharya wrote. It spans diplomatic and security initiatives while the group deals with competitions between great powers, religious radicalization and the dangers of internal strife.

“Thailand has played a proactive and productive role that has been central to the foundation, consolidation and transformation of ASEAN. What is also remarkable is Thailand’s support for ASEAN has been maintained,’’ Acharya wrote.

ASEAN has been a cornerstone of Thailand’s foreign policy and Thailand’s leadership is now needed more than ever, he wrote.