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In the Eye of the Storm: The Causes and Events of the Franco-Siamese War

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The Franco-Siamese War was an 1893 conflict between the Kingdom of Siam (now Thailand) and the Third French Republic that was rooted in European colonial aspirations for Southeast Asia. It was a territorial dispute over possession of Laos, which up to that point had been administered by the Thai King Chulalongkorn. The French claimed that, due to their administration of Vietnam, they held the rights to Laotian territory as well. The conflict ended with the cession of the land to the East of the Mekong River to French Indochina and a continuation of Thai strategy to sacrifice claims for sovereignty. On a larger scale, the conflict served as a prime example of the extreme tension involved when European colonial empires attempted to expand into neutral territory. This particular conflict, while a stark loss and severe compromise for the Thai Kingdom, only served to exacerbate tension between France and the United Kingdom, the other major colonial power with Southeast Asian interests. That tension would not be resolved in full until the outbreak of world war 21 years later.                      

Southeast Asia in the late 1800s was almost entirely under colonial rule. The British controlled Burma and had done so since the 1820s through a series of violent and destructive wars.[1] They also controlled the entirety of the Malay Peninsula. The French, on the other hand, after a long and complex dispute, administered Vietnam and Cambodia under the auspices of French Indochina. The French acquisition of Cambodia in the 1860s had actually been at the expense of Thailand, which had laid claim to it for several hundred years.[2] The only sovereign state left in the literal middle of it all was that Kingdom. Acutely aware of their precarious international position, the Thai government had made territorial cessions before, but primarily to the British and primarily with something given in return in a more traditional diplomatic method. It was this careful political balance of Britain on one side, France in the other, and Thailand in the middle, in which the Franco-Siamese War took place.

There were domestic reasons why the Thai people had, unlike all of their neighbors, remained independent. Chulalongkorn, following in the footsteps of his father, King Mongkut, began aggressive modernization and Europeanization campaigns in the 1860s. Before adulthood, the king had traveled across the region (as opposed to staying in the royal palace like most kings), established a central treasury, had European constitutions translated into Thai, reformed the labor system to eliminate corvee,[1] and took initial steps toward the abolition of slavery. He even normalized the practice of using forks rather than chopsticks and modelled many government buildings after European architectural styles. He modernized military methods and created a royal guard, “organized and trained on the model of an English infantry regiment.”[3] Before long, he had mustered a small but well-trained and well-equipped military. In essence, when the French challenged Thailand for Laos, they were challenging a country modeled after a European power just like themselves.

While British encroachments were subtle, the French in Southeast Asia were much more inclined towards gunboat diplomacy. Baker and Phongpaichit argue that “French colonial dreams alternated between hopes of finding a northward route from Indochina into China, and consolation of forging westwards across mainland Southeast Asia.”[4] At the time, they were unaware that the Mekong River simply runs from its source in the Himalayas, and is not a navigable route to China. The Thais and the French would develop a relationship in that context which featured “no little bitterness.”[5] French aspirations for territory combined with a disinclination towards negotiation created extreme tension in Franco-Thai relations that could not readily be resolved amicably in the way that Anglo-Thai dilemmas could and had been addressed. Perhaps the main issue was that, as shown, Thailand was fully committed to being reckoned with as a legitimate state in the region, and therefore dismissiveness on the part of the French was not taken well. In this charged relationship, there was a limit to the feasibility of appeasement. It came in 1893.

Pursuant to their goals, the French attempted to formalize a claim to all the land to the East of the Mekong River, essentially the modern state of Laos, and absorb it into French Indochina. There was, as expected, disagreement on that notion on the part of the Thai government, which opposed the measure, arguing that these were essentially Thai lands and that no foreign power had the authority to tell them otherwise.[6] The French based their claim, in a practice they had used before, on historical documents and maps which indicated Laos as a historical territory of Vietnam, a French possession. Ergo, the French had a right to Laos. In truth, this claim is somewhat dubious as all the historical powers of Southeast Asia had conquered and been conquered by all the others at some point in history in a constant shifting of the balance of power. Thailand itself had been invaded and its cities burned barely a century prior by the Burmese.

When Thailand refused to surrender the territory, France “responded with its own maps, historical claims based on local documents, and troop columns sent to occupy the peripheral areas.”[7] French and Thai forces proceeded to engage in minor skirmishes throughout Laotian territory. France then escalated the conflict based upon “sundry outrages upon the persons of French nationals” which were “alleged to have been perpetrated by the Siamese authorities.”[8] One of these sundry outrages was the death of a French commander, engineering large amounts of arguably racist anti-Siamese nationalism in France itself. Simms elucidates that this turn of events was controversial at best, as “the French authorities blamed the Siamese, but one Cambodian eyewitness was later to state that it was Inspector Grosgurin (the French commander) who had started the shooting.”[9] The French used the opportunity to escalate from skirmishes to a threat of real force in what became known as the Paknam Incident.

In July of 1893, the French sailed two ships up the Chao Phraya, the central arterial river of Thailand which runs straight to central Bangkok, and anchored at the city, demanding capitulation on the part of the Thai government, as well as a not-insubstantial indemnity. The government, anticipating British support, did not budge, even with French guns targeted directly at the Grand Palace, so the French blockaded the coast. After that, the government under Chulalongkorn relented. The details of the agreement were as follows: Thailand “renounced all claim to territory on the east bank of the Mekong; she also agreed to maintain no military establishments within the provinces of Battambong and Siemrap or at any point within a radius of twenty-five miles from the west bank of the river.”[10] The French also occupied, temporarily, the port of Chanthaburi and even aspired to a protectorate over all of Thai territory, though a combination of British protest and growing concern in continental Europe over Germany largely put the kibosh on such hopes.[11] From another perspective, however, the treaty with the French solidified the border in such a way as it never had been, giving the government in Bangkok uncontested sovereignty over Korat and Lanna.

Thailand in the aftermath of the conflict was by no means certain of its future. The name of the game was not imperialism, but survival. Landon argues that “to the French they lost not only a rich part of their political and economic kingdom, but also part of their social and cultural heritage.”[12] Jeshurun posits that “at no time in the long history of Siam’s relations with the great European powers was the question of her independence more deeply and deliberately appraised as during the period immediately following the Paknam Incident of 1893.”[13] Winichakul elucidates how the conflict radically changed Thai perceptions of foreigners: “They were especially receptive to the British and adopted a pro-British policy until they felt betrayed by the Franco-Siamese crisis in 1893. The Europeans became a real threat to Siam late in the century.”[14] The very sovereignty of the state was at question, as they did not have the capabilities to fight either the British or the French and have success. In 1896, the French and British signed an agreement respecting the sovereignty of Siam. This was largely to avert the possibility of a costly Anglo-French war, but it also guaranteed Thai independence until the codification of the 1904 Entente Cordiale, in which both sides vowed to preserve Thai sovereignty.[15]  This would effectively remain the state of affairs until the French were gradually supplanted by the Japanese in influence, and the great power sandwiching of Thailand in Southeast Asia did not truly come to an end until the renunciation of British claims in India and Burma in 1947-48 and the forceful removal of the French from Vietnam in 1954. Thus, through the virtue of being essentially a fulcrum on the Southeast Asian see-saw of France and Britain, Thailand remained one of the only countries in the world to never be colonized by a European power.

The million-dollar question in international relations is why wars happen. The vast majority of research in that regard, however, has concerned major power wars, for multiple reasons. Records are far more readily available and great power wars are far more likely to affect the global state of affairs than local wars. The Franco-Siamese War can be classified as an extra-systemic war between a major power (France) and a local power (Thailand.) Such wars are arguably vastly more complex than traditional major power wars due to the multiplicity of factors that create and influence them, many of which are not readily apparent. It is also important to remember that the Franco-Siamese War was decidedly not a war. It never escalated anywhere near 1,000 battle deaths. That in mind, utilizing existing theory to explain this war is an imperfect process because extra-systemic wars have historically been the runt of the litter concerning study. Two of these existing theories that possess special pertinence here, as was alluded to above, are rivalry and territory.

More than half of all wars and almost half of all militarized interstate disputes can be interpreted to exist in the context of a rivalry and thus, the theory of rivalric war exists. If one can explain rivalries, then the idea follows that one can explain more than half of all wars, which would be quite a feat indeed. Rivalries are essentially historical in nature, as the definition of the word implies a history of conflict. This idea seems elementary out of context, but a primary criticism of political science is a general assumption in study that conflict is only related to immediately relevant factors. Goertz and Diehl argue against such logic, responding that most theorists “have ripped disparate conflicts from their historical contexts in order to test overly general hypotheses.”[16] In contrast, they posit that future propositions depend on past relationships. They further make the claim that the most conflict-prone of past relationships is the rivalry and within that, enduring rivalry.         Enduring rivalries are dyadic relationships which feature three factors: competitiveness, time, and spatial consistency.[17] Hensel makes the argument that  hostility and threat are also significant, but for the sake of brevity, those fall under the umbrella of competition.[18] The nature of the competition can change over time, as can the central contentious issue, but it is always there and it is always intense. Time is a necessary condition for any concept to be enduring. Spatial consistency is merely an indication that the same number of states must always be involved.

These theoretical conditions advanced by Goertz and Diehl can be distilled to a basic theory which indicates that two states both covet something, whether it be tangible or otherwise. The conflict over that issue then becomes so contentious that they fight over other issues and soon enter an all-out competition for mastery over a period of many years. These enduring rivalries are conflict-prone because they create means, motive, and opportunity. The nature of enduring rivalries as a relationship between two states over time grants plenty of interaction opportunities and the overt hostility of that relationship vastly increases the likelihood that those interactions will be militarized in nature. The genesis of such rivalries is up for much debate. Hensel argues that the process is extended and gradual, beginning with an initial conflict and becoming more severe as alternatives to that conflict fail.[19] Goertz and Diehl argue the opposite, that political shocks create and destroy rivalries. In their words, “if enduring rivalries are the result of well entrenched causes, then the end of a particular rivalry or the beginning of a new rivalry should be associated with some dramatic change in the environment.”[20] In the context of the war at hand, however, initiation and termination are relatively insignificant for explanation, as the Anglo-French rivalry was initiated as far back as the middle ages. In its 19th Century iteration, the rivalry would not come to pass fully until both countries were sufficiently concerned about the growing German threat in 1904.

The Anglo-French rivalry has spanned a vast period of time and captured imaginations like no other. The two countries have been contentious since Edward I’s ascension to the English throne in the early 13th Century and have been involved in some of the world’s most devastating conflicts, punctuated by such climactic conflicts as the Hundred Years’ War and the Seven Years’ War. Competitiveness was no question, and the two empires fought back and forth for centuries over money, land, trade, religion, and influence, so time was a given, too. Spatial consistency is also apparent. They occasionally reconciled their differences such as in the Crimean War, but only as a matter of convenience to face a common threat. The Franco-Siamese War took place during the waning years of that rivalry, which would see its official end with the Entente Cordiale, but relations were just as hostile in 1893 as they had ever been. While the main object of their contention was Africa and its partition, Southeast Asia was an arena for their conflict all its own. As aforementioned, states in the region had historically been volatile, with constantly shifting borders and constant threats of invasion, so no state was ever able to achieve a measure of strength appreciably comparative to France or Britain. As the world got smaller, empires began to spread. The British took Burma in the 1820s. The French took Vietnam later in 1862. The Southeast Asian theater of the Anglo-French rivalry was literally clashing right on top of Thailand, with the British coming from the east and the French from the west. The Thai regime was cognizant of this, and “they understood that the new westerners had a sense of their own superiority, and they believed this superiority justified them in seizing territory…”[21] Both sides, then, had a vested interest in keeping the other out of Thailand. What the Thai government, in escalating the conflict with the French, underestimated, was the British commitment to that interest. Thus, the French pressed for territory to gain the upper hand against the British, but the British did not view the seizure of Laos as sufficient to go to war. Therefore, logically, they allowed the French to take Laos from Thailand. It would be highly unlikely, however, that the British would have allowed a French invasion of Thailand itself.

Buffer states were not unknown. Belgium and Poland had historically served those functions, and the British had a vested interest in Thailand playing that role. More than one researcher has attributed the maintenance of Thai independence after the Paknam Incident to the balancing act the country played between the two empires’ sense of rivalry and, more specifically, to the idea of opportunity cost. Both the British and the French had a conception of the opportunity cost of controlling Thailand, which was the possibility of an Anglo-French War. Such an occurrence in such an environment would quickly negate any gains to be had from conquest. Thus, “leaders in London and Paris sought to deny rival external actors, especially each other, access privileges in the Thai polity that they did not enjoy themselves.”[22] This sense of rivalry would diminish with the increasing German threat in Europe. Some scholars attribute this to sheer luck for the Thais, but some, such as Landon, contend that “Thailand had learned how to balance a secondary power against a primary one. Without France, Thailand would have been unable to bargain with the British. Without Britain, Thailand would have been unable to prevent the French from occupying central Siam.”[23] By that logic, the Franco-Siamese war happened in the context of the larger Anglo-French rivalry.

If rivalry is a theory of politics, territory is a theory of practicalities. Indeed, the practical issue under contention in the majority of conflicts is territory, for many reasons. Vasquez characterizes these reasons into three major categories: proximity, interaction opportunities, and territoriality. [24] He cites Wallensteen’s conclusion that 93% of contiguous dyads have had a militarized dispute and 64% a war.[25] This proximity leads to a far greater chance for interaction, as both states must deal with each other every day. France and Thailand would theoretically have never had a dispute if France had picked Borneo for its colony instead of Vietnam because they would never have the opportunity to interact meaningfully. The territoriality argument posits that territory presents an issue to be fought over. Simply put, neighbors disagree sometimes, in any situation. Georgia and Tennessee disagree on the state border because of water rights. Dogs disagree on where other dogs can relieve themselves People (and dogs) attach meaning to territory and sometimes fight over that meaning. Jerusalem, for example, is objectively a city with some buildings. There are no real economic benefits to it. Many people, however, have decided that they attach meaning to that territory and therefore fight for it. Forsberg advances this argument, positing that territorial disputes escalate not for strategic concerns, but for normative reasons. There is a self-identification and sense of ownership that comes with territory, so such disputes are often seen in the terms of taking from what is owned. There are emotional factors, as well. In his words, “territories are so deeply stored in the collective memories of nations, ethnic groups and families that their loss is not easily forgotten.”[26]  Upon inspection, one also finds that many issues that are not necessarily territorial disputes on their face. Japan attacked China for resources, but to get those resources, the Japanese army had to occupy territory. What is interesting to note is that they sparked that dispute via the infamous Mukden Incident, strikingly similar in many ways to the Grosgurin fracas of the war at hand here.

The territoriality aspect as key is made apparent by the argument of Gibler, who posits that democratic peace is not independent, but can only occur after territorial issues cease to be a factor in a dyad. Simply put, democracies do not fight because they do not have territorial disputes.[27] His study exemplifies how much stock some theorists put on territorial disputes: He places them above democratic peace, which for so long has been political science’s main bona fide proven theory.

The argument is compelling. There is no question that the main point of contention between the British and French Empires in Southeast Asia was territory. In the Franco-Siamese War itself, the French wanted to take Laotian territory and eventually all of Thailand. If France and Thailand did not share a border, the chances that they would have fought were extremely low, as territory was the only issue that they shared an interest in. Indeed, every single major interaction that Thailand had with France during the period were land cessions: not trade disputes, cultural/ethnonational issues, or weapons, but land. If anything, this is the quintessential example of territory as a primary cause of war. Thai people at that time also placed an emotional value in the territory they lost, and the Paknam Incident has become an infamous part of textbooks, lending credence to Forsberg’s thesis. I would hesitate to say the same for Thailand’s relationship with Britain, however, as the British relationship was much more complex and societal in nature. Then again, Thailand and Britain never fought each other.

When determining whether the cause of the conflict was a territorial dispute or a proxy conflict in a larger rivalry, the history argument is key. Territory is a proximate cause of conflict and a necessary and sufficient cause of this war, but the context of the territorial dispute matters. Vasquez would argue to the contrary, pointing out that “territorial issues can be regarded as an underlying, as opposed to proximate ‘cause’ of war because they do not directly bring about war in the sense of being a sufficient condition for war.”[28] Factually, he is correct; the simple presence of a territorial dispute does not cause a war, but he logically defeats his own argument in stating as much. Rather than showing that territorial disputes are underlying causes of war, his statement shows that territorial disputes are simple means by which escalation occurs within a rivalry. One could indeed say that Thailand and France would never have fought but for proximity, but it is equally true that they would have never been geographically proximate but for the Anglo-French rivalry. Territory is a point of competition between those two rivals and fits into Goertz and Diehl’s category of competitiveness. The fact that the conflict itself did not happen between two rivals does not mean that it did not occur in the context of that rivalry. To assert that territory is the crux issue seems short-sighted. Rather than being the root cause of the conflict, it is the means by which the conflict is played out.  If one were to analyze the Franco-Siamese war through the standard ahistorical paradigm, it could indeed be seen as a territorial dispute between an imperial power and a local one. A historical lens, however, shows that the events unfolded the way that they did because of a wider rivalry and that the central conflict did not subside until the rivalry did.

[1] A duty among citizens (almost exclusively of the lower class) to serve the government for a period of time, usually on public works projects. Essentially government-sponsored indentured servitude.


[1] B.R. Pearn, “Arakan and the First Anglo-Burmese War, 1824-25,” The Far Eastern Quarterly 4 no. 1 (November, 1944), 28.

[2] Kenneth P. Landon, “Thailand’s Struggle for National Security,” The Far Eastern Quarterly 4 no. 1 (November, 1944), 13.

[3] Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 59.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Josiah Crosby, Siam: The Crossroads (London: Hollis and Carter, Ltd., 1973), 59.

[6] Martin Stuart-Fox, A History of Laos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 24.

[7] Baker and Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, 59.

[8] Crosby, Siam: The Crossroads, 59.

[9] Peter Simms, Sanda Simms, The Kingdom of Laos: Six Hundred Years of History (Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999), 208.

[10] Crosby, Siam: The Crossroads, 60.

[11] Baker and Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, 61.

[12] Landon, “Thailand’s Struggle for National Security,” 14.

[13] Chandran Jeshurun, “The Anglo-French Declaration of 1896 and the Independence of Siam,” Journal of the Siam Society (1970), 105.

[14] Thongchai Winichakul, “The Quest for ‘Siwilai’: a Geographical Discourse of Civilizational Thinking in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth-Century Siam,” The Association for Asian Studies 59 no. 3 (August, 2000), 532.

[15] Jeshurun, “The Anglo French Declaration,” 106.

[16] Gary Goertz and Paul F. Diehl, “Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns,” International Studies Quarterly 37, no. 2 (1993): 153.

[17] Ibid., 154.

[18] Paul R. Hensel, “An Evolutionary Approach to the Study of Interstate Rivalry,” Conflict Management and Peace Science 17, no. 2 (1999): 2.

[19] Ibid., 8.

[20] Gary Goertz and Paul F. Diehl, “The Initiation and Termination of Enduring Rivalries: The Impact of Political Shocks,” American Journal of Political Science 39, no. 1 (1995): 31.

[21] Baker and Phongpaichit, A History of Thailand, 40.

[22] Ja Ian Chong, External Intervention and the Politics of State Formation: China, Indonesia, and Thailand, 1893-1952 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 201.

[23] Landon, “Thailand’s Struggle for National Security,” 14.

[24] John Vasquez, “Why Do Neighbors Fight? Territoriality, Proximity, or Interaction,” Journal of Peace Research 32 (1995): 278.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Tuomas Forsberg, “Explaining Territorial Disputes: From Power Politics to Normative Reasons,” Journal of Peace Research 33, no. 4 (1996): 438.

[27] Douglas M. Gibler, “Bordering on Peace: Democracy, Territorial Issues, and Conflict,” International Studies Quarterly 51, no. 3 (2007): 513.

[28] John Vasquez and Marie T. Henehan, “Territorial Disputes and the Probability of War, 1816-1992,” Journal of Peace Research 38, no. 2 (2001): 123.


Baker, Chris, and Pasuk Phongpaichit.  A History of Thailand. Cambridge: Cambdrige University Press, 2005.

Crosby, Josiah. Siam: The Crossroads. London: Hollis and Carter, Ltd., 1973.

Forsberg, Tuomas. "Explaining Territorial Disputes: From Power Politics to Normative Reasons." Journal of Peace Research 33, no. 4 (1996): 433-449.

Gibler, Douglas M."Bordering on Peace: Democracy, Territorial Issues, and Conflict." International Studies Quarterly 51, no. 3 (2007): 509-532.

Goertz, Gary, and Paul F. Diehl. "Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns." International Studies Quarterly 37, no. 2 (1993): 147-171.

Goertz, Gary, and Paul F. Diehl. "The Initiation and Termination of Enduring Rivalries: The Impact of Political Shocks." American Journal of Political Science 39, no. 1 (1995): 30-52.

Hensel, Paul R. "An Evolutionary Approach to the Study of Interstate Rivalry." Conflict Management and Peace Science 17, no. 2 (1999): 179-206.

Jeshurun, Chandran. "The Anglo-French Declaration of 1896 and the Independence of Siam." Journal of the Siam Society (1970): 105-126.

Landon, Kenneth P. "Thailand's Struggle for National Security." The Far Eastern Quarterly (1944): 5-26.

Pearn, B.R. "Arakan and the First Anglo-Burmese War, 1824-25." The Far Eastern Quarterly (1944): 27-40.

Simms, Peter, and Sanda Simms. The Kingdom of Laos: Six Hundred Years of History. Surrey: Curzon Press, 1999.

Stuart-Fox, Martin. A History of Laos. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Vasquez, John. "Why Do Neighbors Fight? Territoriality, Proximity, or Interaction." Journal of Peace Research 32 (1995): 277-293.

Vasquez, John, and Marie T. Henehan. "Territorial Disputes and the Probability of War, 1816-1992." Journal of Peace Research 38, no.2 (2001): 123-138.