ASEAN and the Dynamics of Resistance to Sovereignty Violation: The Case of the Third Indochina War (1978–1991)

Published date01 August 2015
Date01 August 2015
Subject MatterArticles
ASEAN and the Dynamics
of Resistance to Sovereignty
Violation: The Case of the
Third Indochina War
Laura Southgate1
This article investigates the history of ASEAN’s relationship to external
intervention in regional affairs. It addresses a specific question: What was the
basic cause of the success of ASEAN resistance to the Vietnamese challenge to
ASEAN’s sovereignty from 1978-1991? ASEAN’s history is understood in terms
of a realist theoretical logic, in terms of the relationship between an ASEAN
state with the most compelling interests at stake in a given issue, which I call a
‘vanguard state,’ and selected external powers. Using the Third Indochina War
(1978–1991) as a case study, this article contends that ASEAN’s ability to resist
violations to the sovereignty of Thailand from a Soviet-backed Vietnam is a
consequence of high interest convergence between Thailand, and a designated
external power, China.
ASEAN, Interests, Sovereignty, Intervention, Cambodia
Without ASEAN there would have been no Cambodia issue. Because if we had not
taken up the cause of Cambodia in early 1979, and steadfastly championed it, it would
have disappeared.
Tommy Koh, former Singapore Ambassador to the United Nations. (cited in
Acharya, 2009a, pp. 95–96).
1 Doctoral Candidate, Department of Politics, University of Otago, New Zealand.
Corresponding author:
Laura Southgate, Department of Politics, University of Otago, Arts Building, Dunedin 9016, New Zealand.
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
2(2) 200–221
2015 SAGE Publications India
Private Limited
SAGE Publications
DOI: 10.1177/2347797015586128
Southgate 201
The Third Indochina War began on 25 December 1978, when between 150,000 and
220,000 Vietnamese troops invaded and occupied neighbouring Cambodia (Turley &
Race, 1980, p. 92).1 Rooted in Sino-Soviet rivalry, the conflict was a spillover of the
Cold War into Southeast Asia (Khoo, 2011). Following the invasion, Vietnamese
troops were involved in recurring cross-border operations in Thailand, which
stopped short of an outright Vietnamese invasion. In a bid to contain the Vietnamese
threat, Thailand, in its role as a frontline or vanguard Association of Southeast Asian
Nations (ASEAN) state, formed an informal alliance with China, the Khmer Rouge
and to a lesser extent the United States (US). These actors provided active diplo-
matic and/or military support to Thailand, culminating in a major diplomatic and
military success when Hanoi withdrew its forces from Cambodia in 1989.
This Cold War era episode has direct relevance to the current debate on ASEAN’s
record as a vehicle for defending regional sovereignty from external intervention.
As will be reviewed below, the existing research has either overemphasized or
under-emphasized ASEAN’s ability to defend regional sovereignty. This article
advances an alternative position, contending that ASEAN’s record is highly depen-
dent on the stance of external actors whose interests align with the organization. The
specific question to which this article is concerned with is this: What was the basic
cause of the success of ASEAN’s resistance to the Vietnamese challenge to regional
sovereignty from 1978 to 1991? This article contends that ASEAN’s success in this
instance can best be explained by levels of interest convergence between the ASEAN
vanguard state (Thailand) and a designated external actor, China.
As the vanguard state, Thailand was able to set ASEAN’s agenda, garner great
power security commitments and forge a united ASEAN front for Thailand’s
Vietnam policy. While Thailand (in its capacity as the ASEAN vanguard state)
clearly had an important role to play in this process, an equally important factor
explaining ASEAN’s resistance to sovereignty violation during this time period
resides in the role played by external actors. As will be explained more fully
below, this view represents a serious challenge to much of the existing scholar-
ship, which either overemphasizes or under-emphasizes ASEAN’s ability to
defend regional sovereignty from external intervention.
Contending Explanations for ASEAN
and Sovereignty Violation
The existing regional literature regarding ASEAN’s record on sovereignty viola-
tion is polarized. An influential group of constructivist theorists advocate a per-
spective emphasizing ASEAN’s autonomy and ability to uphold regional order
despite challenges (Acharya, 2009a, 2009b, 2012; Ba, 2009; Haacke, 2003).
A second approach views regional intervention in terms of its relationship to
social forces within ASEAN states (Jones, 2012). Leifer (1979, 1989) and Jones
and Smith (2002, 2006, 2007a, 2007b) represent a third perspective, emphasizing
ASEAN’s lack of autonomy and reliance on external actors’ sufferance. This article

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