The Battle for the Heart of ASEAN

In April of 1975, the CIA learned they had vastly underestimated the strength of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (referred to then as North Vietnam) and the Liberation Front of South Vietnam (the Viet Cong). It became increasingly apparent to the US military and political establishments that the capture of Saigon, the capital city of South Vietnam, was imminent. By this point the Vietnam war was entering its twentieth year, as Vietnamese people, influenced by the Marxist thought of Ho Chi Minh, had fought alternately against French colonialism and US militarism. The war had devastating consequences for Vietnam including poisoning millions of people with the effects of US chemical weapons, and rendering large swaths of land uninhabitable, but now North Vietnamese victory was well in sight. President Gerald Ford ordered that US military and intelligence personnel—as well as several South Vietnamese officials—be evacuated in what would signal the official end of the Vietnam war. The evacuation was completed on April 30, 1975, after which the army of North Vietnam captured the capital in what would become known as the Liberation of Saigon (or the Fall of Saigon, as it is known in the West.)[5]

On May 23, 2016 US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken—now the current Secretary of State—published an article on his personal Medium account with the headline “On the Future of US-Vietnam Relations” in which he praised the Obama administration’s efforts to strengthen relations between the US and Vietnam. He praised the proposal of the Trans Pacific Partnership, as well as the advancements made by the Vietnamese people in the last few decades (he did not mention the war outright.) Blinken writes, “[The] United States and Vietnam are increasingly collaborating on a range of issues of global importance from international peacekeeping to wildlife trafficking to maritime security, from climate change to civil nuclear energy to global health. Our vision for the future of the region is clear — one where disputes are settled openly and in accordance with the rule of law, businesses excel, innovation thrives, and opportunities abound especially for young people.”[4]

Blinken’s article is a microcosm of the shift in US policy regarding Southeast Asia in the span of forty years after the Liberation of Saigon. That this shift happened in the space of one lifetime, much less that it happened at all, merits discussion and examination. Southeast Asia and the United States’ relationship with the countries therein reveal much about Washington’s goals with respect to trade, militarism, and indeed, its opposition to the government in Beijing.

Development of ASEAN

On August 8, 1967, the nations of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and the Philippines signed the document that would convene the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, known thereafter as ASEAN. By 2000, ASEAN had expanded to include the nations of Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Listed fifth in the ASEAN Declaration’s purposes of the association is “to collaborate more effectively for the greater utilization of their agriculture and industries, the expansion of their trade, including the study of the problems of international commodity trade, the improvement of their transportation and communications facilities and the raising of the living standards of their peoples.”[9] ASEAN nations are among the most resource-rich on the planet, which has not gone unknown by neoliberal economists in the United States. Southeast Asia is mainly tropical, with numerous sources of fresh water which yields vast amounts of arable land to grow warm-weather fruits and sugar cane. Southeast Asia also possesses great mineral wealth including petrochemical deposits in the South China Sea. All this is in conjunction with Southeast Asia’s geographic position between the Andaman and South China Seas, making it a hub for some of Asia’s most important trade routes.[10]

However the nations and peoples of Southeast Asia have historically been denied the ability to gain wealth and power from these resources due to the legacy of colonialism. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries most of ASEAN countries were colonially occupied by European powers such as France, the Netherlands, Spain, Portugal, and the UK. During the second world war, the Empire of Japan colonized Southeast Asia in order to provide Tokyo with resources and labor for the war effort. And of course, the United States military has occupied Vietnam and the Philippines. Despite the deep history of colonialism in Southeast Asia, the 1967 ASEAN declaration was not explicitly anti-colonial or anti-imperialist, instead containing in the preamble that “all foreign bases are temporary and remain only with the expressed concurrence of the countries concerned and are not intended to be used directly or indirectly to subvert the national independence and freedom of States in the area,” a statement included to acknowledge concerns over the US’ expanding participation in the Vietnam War.[9]

Socialist observers should also note the institution of ASEAN was made possible owing to the strong anti-communist sentiments of its founding governments.[11] Both Malaysia and Singapore had elected neoliberal governments since gaining independence.[12] The Philippine government under Ferdinand Marcos was growing increasingly amenable to US political support to entrench his power.[13] Thanom Kittikachorn, the military dictator of Thailand had presided over numerous attacks on protesters and crackdowns against calls for democracy in the name of stomping out communist influence.[14] And Indonesia, under the military dictatorship of Suharto, had carried out mass killings of communists and supporters of the now-ousted communist government. Most importantly, Suharto’s coup and purges were materially and logistically supported by the US military, officials, and CIA.[8]

After the communist victory in the Vietnam War and the growth of communist influence in Cambodia and Laos, the five ASEAN countries met to clarify the purpose of the organization, and agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Articles 2 and 11 of the treaty call for each nation to be free from interference in their internal affairs from both external sources and other ASEAN governments. The treaty does not define the scope of what is meant by “interference” nor does the treaty use the language of anti-colonialism or anti-imperialism at all. The lack of this kind of specificity would ultimately leave ASEAN open to invasion by foreign capital the moment that invasion would be possible.

At first the nations of ASEAN (including Brunei after 1984) attempted to grow their economies by trading primarily with each other, which failed because most ASEAN members could not justify such massive imports while also producing national surpluses. Thus, by the 1990s the economies of Southeast Asia began attempting to attract foreign capital and corporations under the euphemistic term “foreign direct investment.”[11] This growth strategy culminated in the 1997 Asian financial crisis, which resulted from speculation and divestment of foreign capital from Thailand, causing a cascading crash that stagnated rising wages and collapsed the export markets of ASEAN. This crisis was compounded by US support for Southeast Asian regimes that would accede to neoliberal economic policy, as well as IMF trade policies that favored capital over the Southeast Asian working class.[16]

ASEAN, Washington, and Beijing

The late 90’s also saw Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia each attain full membership of ASEAN. The increased membership prompted ASEAN to revise both its collective trade policy as well as the organization’s stance on human rights. Though with regards to the latter concern, ASEAN members have agreed to abide by their policy of noninterference, the organization has shifted their economic model to one largely favoring imports and exports, refining raw materials into consumable products. The story of the exploitation Southeast Asia can be seen in the structure of its exports to other countries: every member state of ASEAN (except Myanmar and Indonesia) imports and exports more as a percentage of their GDP than the global average.[17] Of the exports of ASEAN nations the most common include electronics parts, and integrated circuits, raw metals such as copper, nickel, and iron, petroleum both crude and refined, clothing and footwear items, and tropical plant products such as rubber, bananas and palm oil.[18] These exports are not driven by serendipitous surpluses in ASEAN countries, but rather to fulfill the United States’ desire for inexpensive electronics, tropical fruits, and oil.

Because presence in global trade is a central concern of both the governments of the United States and China, both nations have taken initiative in cementing trade relations with ASEAN countries. Both the United States and China are one of the top five export partners for every single ASEAN nation (except for Brunei).[18] But because Washington cannot pass up a chance to obstruct Beijing’s operations anywhere, these trade relationships too have become a front in the US-China conflict.

I’ve written here before about Washington’s intrusion into the South China Sea sovereignty dispute, but one aspect frames the dispute. In December 2019 Admiral John C. Aquilino, now the commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, claimed that Beijing’s installations on the South China Sea “absolutely have military purpose in order to present an optic to partners and nations in the region that show military strength and ultimately coerce and bully the nations in the region.”[20] By using the language of bullying Admiral Aquilino de-emphasizes the US’ role in the South China Sea conflict, claiming to be acting on behalf of nations in the region whom an empowered Beijing might be a danger to. Four ASEAN nations (Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, and the Philippines) have conflicting claims with Beijing in the South China Sea, which Washington is eager to exploit to build an international bloc ready to conflict with Beijing. Even countries with no territorial disputes with Beijing might be persuaded to join such a bloc if the US can stoke fears of Beijing’s expanding influence well enough.

However Washington is not only in willful ignorance of the consequences of raising alarm over militarism, it also appears to be in willful ignorance of the flaws in its own strategy. For one, although ASEAN members have similarly-sized export relations with the United States and China, all ASEAN members are far more reliant on China for imports of raw materials to manufacture goods for export. Washington cannot feasibly ask the governments of ASEAN to withdraw from these relationships while maintaining their current economic models. Furthermore, China has much older and closer cultural and linguistic ties with the nations of ASEAN than the United States. And thirdly, Washington’s insistence on setting the rules for human rights (while it violates those rules both domestically and abroad) is bound to become irksome for ASEAN nations  Particularly, the governments of the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar, and Brunei would be the most reluctant to subscribe to the US’ inconsistent vision of human rights.

The case of Vietnam is of particular interest as it is the ASEAN member whose relationship with both Washington and Beijing has changed the most rapidly. Hanoi has South China Sea disputes with Beijing, which Washington has capitalized on, pledging greater military cooperation with the country in maritime affairs, and becoming Vietnam’s largest export destination. The Blinken article quoted at the beginning of this piece reflects Washington’s endeavor to tempt Hanoi into an anti-Beijing bloc by deepening trade, military, and scientific ties. But even so the specter of war still remains and Hanoi remembers that it enlisted Beijing’s help to fight off the imperialism of the United States even as the direct effects of the Vietnam War grow more remote.[6] To this end Hanoi has vocally rebuffed attempts to “undermine” its relationship with Beijing, as observers try to explain Hanoi’s tenuous position.[3]

The Effects of Imperialism

A 2021 survey from the ISEAS-Yusok Ishak Institute gathered poll respondents from all ten ASEAN nations about ASEAN-specific political issues. The surveyors asked “If ASEAN were forced to align itself with [either China or the United States], which should it choose?” and found that 61.5% of respondents chose the United States, up from 53.6% the year prior. Immediately after, the survey team asked another question: “ASEAN is caught in the crossfire as Beijing and Washington compete for influence and leadership in Southeast Asia. How should ASEAN best respond?” The survey found an outright majority, 53.8% said that ASEAN should build “resilience and unity to fend off pressure from the two major powers.” Another 30% of respondents believed that ASEAN continuing its policy of non-alignment was best.[15]

Many pundits and opinion writers from major news outlets were quick to give their interpretations of the first question while ignoring the second. The popular interpretation among these pundits was that the people of ASEAN have greater faith that the incoming Biden administration would serve their strategic interests, as opposed to the Trump administration who acted as if all international relations were categorically destructive to the United States.[24] This interpretation is incomplete as the Biden administration has been wholly neglectful of Southeast Asian affairs and diplomacy. Of the ten ASEAN countries, only six have ambassadors from the United states that have been officially appointed. Of those six, only Vietnam has an ambassador nominated and appointed by the Biden administration. Both Washington and Beijing have arranged diplomatic tours of ASEAN nations centered largely on the ASEAN governments, neglecting the people.[1][19]

As to the people of ASEAN, Washington believes it can win their popular support by stoking fears of Chinese influence, and using individual governments’ diplomatic grievances with Beijing as leverage. This approach is fundamentally misguided so long as the effects of US imperialism and economic hegemony are much more immediate to the people of Southeast Asia. It was the interests of the US capitalist class that caused the 1997 Asian financial crisis which robbed many Thai and Indonesia workers of their livelihoods. The United States has also, through its appetite for inexpensive consumer goods, altered the industry and export markets of Southeast Asia to satisfy consumer demand in the metropole. And in the case of Vietnam specifically, US corporations and their suppliers have been some of the most egregious violators of Vietnamese labor law.[23] US military buildup in the South China Sea has also placed the people of Southeast Asia against their wishes on the front lines of a potential global armed conflict. If the best overtures Washington can make to the people of Southeast Asia is to become the primary game pieces in Washington’s new Cold War while having their industries consumed and their wealth expropriated by American interests, they’d be right to reject them.

Socialists and communists in the West must realize what’s at stake for the people of Southeast Asia, and the sheer breadth of education we must engage in to be understanding at all. The politics of the nations of Southeast Asia do not map easily onto typical western binaries of imperialist or anti-imperialist, capitalist or anti-capitalist, or even left vs. right. Against the wishes of the people of ASEAN, their fortunes are lassoed to those of Washington and, to a much lesser extent, those of Beijing. Imperialism has resulted, around the globe but in Southeast Asia particularly, that the peoples in possession of the greatest material wealth become the poorest as their surpluses are extracted to feed the appetites of consumers in the imperial metropole. To remedy these injustices, the governments doing business with the people of ASEAN must respect the dignity and well being of the people, which explicitly means that the extracted profits of the labor of the Southeast Asian working class must be returned to them, and  their communities be allowed to develop on their own terms. Thus anti-imperialism informs how the people of Southeast Asia deserve autonomy, and reprieve from the extractionist west, which has exploited them for several centuries too long.


  1. – Amid Chinese Push, US Official to Visit Three Southeast Asian Nations
  2. – China and the US: Who has more influence in ASEAN?
  3. – Vietnam Vows to ‘Firmly Resist’ Schemes to Undermine Relations with China
  4. – On the Future of US-Vietnam Relations
  5. – A description of the liberation of Saigon
  6. – An op-ed about the current Vietnamese peoples’ perspectives on the end of the Vietnam war (I’ve become more critical of this one as I’ve researched more so tread carefully)
  7. – The Biden administration’s numerous flubs with respect to ASEAN cooperation
  8. – An explanation of the US’s role in an anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the 60’s
  9. – Text of the original Bangkok declaration
  10. – A summary of the natural resources possessed by Southeast Asian nations
  11. – An explanation of “The ASEAN Way” and how the current country governments plan to mix with the global economy
  12. – A criticism of the implementation of capitalism in Malaysia
  13. – A socialist retrospective of the government of Ferdinand Marcos
  14. – An obituary of Thanom Kittikachorn describing his regime’s multiple crimes against humanity
  15. – The State of Southeast Asia 2021 survey results
  16. – A economist’s class-based analysis of the 1997 Asia financial crisis
  17. Imports and Exports as a percent of GDP of world countries, World Bank
  18. OEC trade profiles for Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia
  19. – China hosts Southeast Asian ministers
  20. – US Navy officer claims China’s SCS actions are “bullying.”
  21. – Bangkok Post opinion on how Thailand could take lead on US-ASEAN relations
  22. – Opinion piece on Indonesia’s relations with China
  23. – US culpability in the suffering of the Vietnamese working class
  24. – Analysis of the ASEAN survey