By Major General Dipankar Banerjee (Veteran)
Blogging from the ASEAN Think Tank Summit
Morning, 4 July, 2016
The ASEAN militaries have caught the Think Tank Blues. It is now Thailand’s turn. Thailand, the placid, beautiful holiday resort of the world would perhaps have been the last place where one would like to meet for a serious dialogue on “Global Conflict Management, Preventive Diplomacy and Its Resolution”.
But here I am in the sea side resort of Chonburi, in the idyllic settings of the residence complex of Field Marshal Pibul Songkkarn, the Prime Minister and the Military Chief of the nation. In addition to being the one to ensure the stability of his Kingdom, Field Marshal Pibul Songkkarn was also among the founding premiers of the ASEAN. Remarkably, the ASEAN was actualised in his personal home office in the same complex forty nine years ago.
Thailand is a unique country in the sense that it kept itself out of World War II. It provided but minimum support to the post war conflicts in Asia and that too mainly for R&R facilities. It is not too difficult to identify the reasons for the sudden pursuit of military intellectualism. Given the region’s growing prosperity, the sudden rise of China along with its increasing assertive behavior in the South China Sea, many countries have begun worrying.
Being held soon after the attention-grabbing “Shangrila Dialogue”, Chonburi would provide more serious interaction among senior professionals of the strategic community, in addition to a realistic perception of specialist views and national perspectives.
Participation in the summit is overwhelmingly military, though academics and researchers from leading think tanks from the US and others are also present; A total of around forty of them from around the world, dominantly East Asia, are attending the summit. The summit is also a host to senior participants from the Thai National Institute for Defence Studies.
The Convention facilities were inaugurated in August 2015 in a glittering traditional Buddhist ceremony. The Thai military took over the governance of the nation only a few months ago. Among this year’s participants, I am the only common thread connecting this year’s summit with the previous one. Back then the last time, General Worapong Sanganetra, the Chief of the Thai Defence Forces, had reinforced the establishment of the ASEAN Community from January 01, 2016. He had then wished for a “bright, sustainable and peaceful future for the entire ASEAN Community”.
On the first day of the summit, a three member Panel Discussion followed the inauguration on “The Dawn of the ASEAN Community”. I am the only participant from outside the ASEAN. In my opening presentation, I highlighted the challenges confronting the ASEAN Community.
Though a Community, the ASEAN is not yet a Union. There is no common diplomatic or security policy. Each nation still tends to limit their vision to their respective national interests, which varies widely amongst nations. Regrettably, warnings have a bad habit of coming true. Perhaps, that is also why I have been invited again.
I’m expecting the discussions to revolve around China. The participants will also include the Chinese Political Counsellor from Bangkok and a senior scholar from the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations, a leading think tank in Beijing. However, I don’t expect any one from the Indian Embassy to attend or be present at the summit. While “looking east”, even if not really pretending to “act east”, the nation’s antennae needs to be straight out.
Major General Banerjee has served in the Infantry Branch of the Indian Army for 36 years. For the last three decades, he has been associated at senior positions in the Think Tank community in India, in the region and in the world.
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