Anglo-French Agreement on Siam (1897)

Second Thai embassy to France
Second Thai embassy to France

The Anglo-French agreement concerning Siam (later Thailand) was the result of British and French imperialism in Southeast Asia in the 19th century. The British and French were expanding their influence into Burma and Indochina respectively and used Siam as a buffer state between the two expanding empires.

Siam was able to use this agreement to ensure some degree of autonomy, as European imperialism was increasing in Asia and Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The conclusion of the Anglo-French agreement marked an important event in European relations with Siam that had extended as far back as the 16th century.

In the 16th century Portugal began attempting to extend trading relations into Southeast Asia. British, Dutch, and French merchants were also interested in the riches of Southeast Asia and sent in merchant fleets in the 17th century.

The British East India Company was concerned with acquiring posts in Southeast Asia in order to expand trade with this region. In 1786 the East India Company negotiated an agreement with the Sultan of Kedah that allowed it to occupy Penang. In order to acquire control over Penang, the East India Company had to assure the sultan that it would defend him against hostility from Selangor.

In 1826 Captain Henry Burney concluded with the Siam government another agreement that opened up Southeast Asia to greater British influence, as this agreement prevented the Siamese government from disrupting British trade in the Trengganu and Kelantan regions.

The Siamese court negotiated an agreement with the British in 1855, which allowed British subjects to enjoy extraterritorial rights in Siam, allowed a British consul to take up residence in the country, and fixed tariff rates.

At the same time, France was also seeking to expand its influence in Southeast Asia. In 1862 the French government cited the maltreatment of French missionaries in Vietnam as an excuse to take control of the southern region of the country.

This region was important to the French because it exported rice and could produce rubber. In 1867 France sent a naval squadron that forced Siam to relinquish its control over Cambodia, allowing the French to assert their influence over the region.

In 1884 France went to war with China over Vietnam, although Vietnamese guerrillas continued to create instability in the region. Britain became concerned that a conflict between the Siamese and French governments would give the French an excuse to occupy the region.

During the 1890s the British government also became concerned about Germany and France acquiring influence over the Malay Peninsula. Joseph Chamberlain, British colonial secretary, stated in a letter in 1895 that it would be in the best interests of the British Empire to acquire a sphere of influence in the region between the Malay States and Tenasserim in return for recognition of a French sphere of influence in northern Siam.

The result was the Anglo-French agreement, an attempt by the British and French governments to transform Siam into a buffer zone between their two empires to lessen tensions in Southeast Asia.

Lord Robert Cecil, the British prime minister, dispatched a message to the British ambassador to France assuring him that the agreement would not result in the end of an independent Siam.

The government of Siam responded by appointing Westerners to government positions and reforming the Ministry of Finance. The Siamese government attempted to learn technology in an attempt to improve its international position.

Following the signing of the Anglo-French agreement, the British and Siamese governments negotiated an accord in 1897. It required the Siamese government to gain permission of the British government before it could grant concessions to a third country.

This new agreement strengthened the British position on the Malay Peninsula. The Anglo-French agreement, however, failed to end tensions in Southeast Asia caused by imperial rivalry between Britain and France.