5. Memorandum From the Deputy Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Johnson) to the Under Secretary of State (Bowles)0


  • Southeast Asian Regional Planning and Coordination

I refer to your request for information on the foregoing subject.

First, I repeat what I often told visitors in Bangkok—“Southeast Asia” is much more a geographic expression than a political reality. The [Page 10] area is fragmented with a wide diversity of culture, language and religion, further intensified by its division among the powers during the colonial period, and with competitive rather than complementary economies. The individual countries of the area face toward various European powers and the United States much more than toward each other. Our long efforts, most notably SEATO, to find a common denominator to meet the common threat which they face have thus far met with indifferent results. Nevertheless, this does not mean that we have or should stop trying.

In the conviction that any real unity must come from within the area, we have long quietly encouraged incipient movements toward some unity, especially those initiatives that have been taken by Malaya, Thailand and the Philippines. That these efforts are bearing some small fruit is shown by the fact that there was held during this past week in Bangkok a preliminary meeting among the Thais, Malays and Filipinos further to discuss an “Association of Southeast Asian States (ASAS)” which at this stage is directed toward a small measure of cultural and economic cooperation.

Also, as a matter of long-standing policy, we have devoted much energy and effort toward reducing frictions and resolving problems between countries in the area. This has been particularly true in the case of relations between Cambodia and South Viet-Nam and Cambodia and Thailand, where our embassies have long acted as channels of effective communication and often in the role of mediator. Previously it has been the practice for the Ambassadors in Vientiane, Saigon, Phnom Penh, and Bangkok informally to meet about once each six months to discuss regional problems and, where appropriate, make recommendations to the Department. I am suggesting to FE that this practice be continued insofar as practicable.

Apart from such meetings, there is much in the way of informal contact between those four Ambassadors as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, with Rangoon and Kuala Lumpur, and traditionally there is a wide exchange of communications between those posts.

Another example of the regional approach to problems was the largely successful evacuation of the Chinese Nationalist irregulars from Burma, Laos and Thailand in which all three embassies heavily participated in addition to the embassy in Taipei.

In the field of economic and technical assistance, there is also a well-established policy of cooperation looking toward further regional integration. For example, Thailand is much used for the training of Lao teachers, technicians and military personnel. There is considerable interchange between the Thai and Malayan police. Some efforts have been made to use Thai facilities for the training of Cambodian and VietNamese technicians, but this is much inhibited by language as well as [Page 11] political problems. The road presently being constructed in Thailand from Bangkok to Nongkai (opposite Vientiane) is designed not only to serve Thailand but also to serve Laos. The same was true of the railway extension from Udorn to Nongkai. A telecommunications project serving South Viet-Nam, Laos and Thailand both internally and between each other is now under construction (Cambodia, although invited, refused to participate). You are also well aware of the ECAFE Mekong River project, which the United States inspired and led from the background and to which we are making a major contribution. ICA is financing the engineering and DLF has committed itself to a loan for the construction of a highway in southern Thailand that will not only serve Thai domestic needs but also provide a road connection between Thailand and Malaya. We have also supported the encouraging efforts that ECAFE has been making to stimulate national authorities so to plan and carry out their road construction programs as to provide road connections not only within Southeast Asia but also with South Asia. As an example, because of the stimulation of ECAFE, Thailand and Burma now have under construction a bridge which will connect their two road systems. The establishment in Bangkok of the SEATO Graduate School of Engineering, to which the United States is a heavy contributor and which is open to students from all countries of the area is another example of what has been done.

However, I agree that much more probably can and should be done to encourage regionalism, especially by keeping regional considerations in mind when planning individual country economic programs and in this way building up the physical and psychological base for regional consciousness. While I know that FE has this in mind, I will again stress its importance to FE and the AID organization.

On the organizational side, the Office of Southeast Asian Affairs, as well as the FE Bureau, are of course established for and have the responsibility of always keeping in mind regional considerations in day-to-day operations as well as in major political matters. This of course is one of my responsibilities as well.

With respect to specific policy studies and recommendations on this subject, the Bureau of Far Eastern Affairs has prepared a paper on Asian regionalism1 which has been discussed with S/P and, in accordance with a discussion at the Secretary’s Staff Meeting, Assistant Secretaries McConaughy and Talbot have been directed to meet with S/P to pursue [Page 12] the matter more deeply and in closer coordination between the two Bureaus.

It is my own impression, with which S/P concurs, that we are not yet at the point at which we have a truly regional task of policy formation which is in sufficiently sharp focus to submit to the special procedures of an inter-Departmental task force. However, I and George McGhee, together with the Bureaus, will continue to give attention to the matter and will recommend such a task force at such time as it would appear to be most useful.

  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, 790.00/6–2461. Confidential. Initialed by Johnson.
  2. Text of a paper entitled “Regionalism in the Far East” was distributed on July 19, 1962. (Ibid., 379/7–1962) A paper entitled “An ‘Independent Nations Zone’ in Southeast Asia,” August 16, 1961, was sent to Bundy at the White House on August 28. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Regional Security Series, Southeast Asia: General, 8/29/61–8/31/61)