Interview with Dr. Sachsenröder: „Any type of Sino-American war can only be a nightmare for ASEAN, because, as the African proverb goes, it’s the grass that suffers when elephants fight.“

Interview with Dr. Sachsenröder: „Any type of Sino-American war can only be a nightmare for ASEAN, because, as the African proverb goes, it’s the grass that suffers when elephants fight.“

Global Review had the honour and opportunity to have another interview with South East Asia expert Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder about South East Asia between the USA and China.

Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder owned his PhD in Political Science and Public Law from the University of Bonn, Germany. He got involved in party politics in the student revolution of 1968, and worked later as a political adviser in Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans, for a quarter of a century. Coming back to Singapore in 2008, he joined the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and focused on the party developments in the region. More information on the party systems can be found in:
Sachsenroeder, Wolfgang, ed. (2014), Party Politics in Southeast Asia – Organization – Money – Influence, available at Amazon books. A book on party finances and political corruption, titled “Power broking in the shade” was published in 2018. Power Broking in the Shade, Party Finances and Money Politics in Southeast Asia, WorldScientific 2018, ISBN 9789813230736

The Partyforum South East Asia has its own informative website at:

Global Review: Dr. Sachsenröder, the ASEAN is more an economic union than a real political union. Has ASEAN a common strategy or policy towards Trump´s trade wars, do they unite the ASEAN in a united front against US protectionism while seeking outlets and export markets in China, the EU and Asia? Or is Trump attacking some South East Asian states while preferring others and tries to divide and control them? And do the ASEAN countries see the Trump-style USA as their future or do they hope that the Democrats might return or the Republican party finds a new leader that will stick to globalization and free trade and to renew the Transpacific Partnership Programme instead of RCEP?

Dr. Sachsenröder: ASEAN is often being compared with the EU, and there are indeed many similarities. But as the Brexit has shown, the goal of becoming a real political union was and is not shared by everybody in Europe. In Southeast Asia, the differences between the member states are even bigger, in size and population, political systems, ethnic and religious diversity, but especially in economic progress and management. Europe is trying to promote more equality by transfer payments and subsidies, ASEAN, on the contrary, promotes the overall growth by private investment business links as well as co-ordination by hundreds of yearly meetings on all levels of government. The principle of non-interference in internal affairs of the member states, even in questionable domestic issues like the regime evolution in Myanmar or the serial coups in Thailand, are definitely more difficult to manage than in Europe with the dominantly democratic membership. But the cohesion, as a result, is delicate and forces ASEAN to tread cautiously.

Cold war memories, the Vietnam war experience, and the US-Chinese rivalry, are all obstacles for easy consensus building in ASEAN. The Philippines, an American colony from 1889 to 1945, has grown more and more critical of the US, while Vietnam is warming up despite the painful memories and still open wounds after the devastating US war intervention due to the domino theory. Thailand, allied with Japan and the axis in WWII, emerged stronger after the Vietnam war by being useful to the US war effort. All ASEAN members have substantial Chinese minorities, immigrated in part centuries ago. In Singapore they have a majority of 75%, in Malaysia about 30%, in Thailand 15%. Their economic success compared to the indigenous populations which are also ethnically very diverse, is all too often visible enough to trigger mistrust and envy, which affects the states’ policies vis-à-vis China and the US as well.

The recent trade war of President Trump, on the mentioned historical background and the unforgotten British, French, Dutch and American colonial past in the region, stirs up old resentments against “the West”, especially in predominantly Muslim areas, and triggers debates on what can be expected from the US or the Chinese side in the future. It does not come as a surprise that a wait-and-see and as-balanced-as-possible attitude is prevailing in ASEAN. With the economic weight of their own Chinese minorities and the resulting connections to the People’s Republic, practically no ASEAN country can afford to opt for the USA alone. If the US wants to stay relevant in Southeast Asia, asking for a clear option from any country would be counterproductive and self-defeating. Singapore alone, sure enough about its close ties to China, has recently dared to renew a military pact with the US.

ASEAN, to be sure, is pragmatic and unideological, and by far too weak between the superpowers to think about any one-sided option.  

Global Review: What is the impact of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) on ASEAN. Such a great country as India rejected to sign the free trade agreement as it feared that China might dominate it and Asia economically. What are the positions to RCEP within ASEAN? And everybody is talking about the USA and China as economic powers—but which role does India, Japan and the EU as economic powerhouses play in the calculation of the ASEAN countries compared to the USA and China?

Dr. Sachsenröder: My answer would continue here with the last statement in the previous question. ASEAN has enough internal problems, developmental, environmental, ethnic, religious, concerning the political stability, even border disputes. The pragmatic approach, therefore, can only be that any trading opportunity will be considered with open minds and doors. India, Japan, and the EU are equally welcome if the projects look useful and profitable, including and especially foreign direct investment. The Middle East is another region coming increasingly into the focus of ASEAN entrepreneurs and state actors. India’s withdrawal from the RCEP is being regretted by a clear majority, but overall optimism is high.

Global Review: The USA and India incorporated in their national security strategies the new term Indo-Pacific instead of the former Asia-Pacific. Has any ASEAN country a position to this concept? Do they feel part of it? On the one side Singapore and Vietnam have close cooperation with the US military and navy, others don´t have, e.g. Burma now gives China a naval port that also could be used for military purposes.

Dr. Sachsenröder: So far, I did not notice any prominent changes in the terminology or debate about it, but it is evident that India’s growing economic prowess is waking up the business sector everywhere. India, economically retarded by 190 years of British colonialism, (which, according to the foreign minister, extracted about 45 trillion in today’s US$ equivalent) and subsequently by home-made socialist experiments and bureaucratic handicaps, has by now unleashed more of her potential and, on top, can rely on a well-integrated Indian diaspora everywhere in Southeast Asia. Since ethnic Indians overseas often prefer marriage partners from the motherland, closeness comes naturally and facilitates business connections.

Concerning military relations with the US, for Singapore and its port facilities, this co-operation is certainly good business, as it was during the Vietnam war already, with efficient refuelling and repair services. The case of Vietnam, the main victim of what they call “American War”, is more surprising in my view. But Vietnam has a long and often rather hostile history with China as well, and China is much closer than the USA. After the Sino-Vietnamese war of 1979, smaller border clashes continued until 1991, and probably even more important, overlapping claims to big areas of the South China Sea and its oil and gas reserves plus fishing grounds continue to be disputed. Insofar, the old enemy in the West is considered a potential help, at least for the time being. Myanmar, after decades of rather mismanaged military rule and countless ethnic problems, is probably the biggest economic laggard in ASEAN and far from its full potential. No wonder then, that Chinese investment is welcome there, irrelevant of possible strings. 

Global Review: In a Global Times article a Chinese strategist criticised the Indian foreign policy as some sort of balance of power approach which tried to balance between China and the USA. According to the author this approach was outdated, an old British colonialist model of the 19th century and that India in the future had to decide to side with China and Asia or with the USA as an escalation of the Sino-American conflict, even to a Sino-American war was probable. In the case that China expands its military activities in the Indo Pacific and the US is responding with a sea blockade war following the offshore strategy of TX Hammes, which side would the ASEAN countries choose? Could such a scenario lead to the split and disintegration of ASEAN as an economic union about political and military/geopolitical questions?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Being not sufficiently familiar with the strategic concepts, American or Chinese, I tend to think that the type of war scenarios you mention here are probably discussed internally and in ASEAN defence ministers meeting but not in public debates or in the media. Any type of Sino-American war can only be a nightmare for ASEAN, because, as the African proverb goes, it’s the grass that suffers when elephants fight. Even if more attention is being paid to China these days than to the USA, ASEAN would have big problems to come to a common decision to choose for one of the two sides and participate in a war. Concerning splits within ASEAN, very little comes to the surface and out of the conference rooms. The statements of the regular ministerial meetings are normally not giving away much about internal disagreements, with very few exceptions. That is one of the interesting principles of the ASEAN “Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia” of 1976, and not fully understood in the West. Nevertheless, tensions and disagreements remaining “under the carpet” are certainly a possible danger to the stability and cohesion of the grouping.

Global Review: What positions have the ASEAN countries about global issues such as climate change, Middle East/US-Iranian, US-North Korean conflict, Asians or Kashmir conflict, Afghanistan or other regions? Is ASEAN only interested in political and economic issues that are in their limited geographical reach or interest or do they try to go beyond that? Do they have common positions on these issues?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Well, many big issues in one question. I think it is safe to assume that international conflict scenarios are being discussed and co-ordinated in the regular foreign and defence ministers’ meetings as well as among the top leaders. Unlike the EU, ASEAN has not yet developed a parallel diplomacy of its own, but altogether the embassy network of the member states is a formidable early warning instrument for dangerous issues worldwide. According to different national interests, like the direct involvement in the South China Sea claims, common positions are not always possible, but the elaborated system of consultations and co-ordination is one of the soft qualities of ASEAN and in the interest of all members.

The imminent consequences of the climate change, especially rising sea levels, are threatening huge areas in Southeast Asia, especially the metropolis of Jakarta, which is sinking already, the plains around Bangkok, the Irrawaddy delta in Myanmar and the Mekong delta in Vietnam, as well as big areas in Cambodia. On top of that, “traditional” natural disasters like earthquakes, floods, volcano eruptions, fish depletion and garbage proliferation in the oceans, as well as many tropical diseases, are all too common already not to keep environmental protection on the political agenda.

Concerning the other conflicts mentioned above, Middle East, Iran, Kashmir, or North Korea, a common position of ASEAN may be expressed, e.g. last November on Jammu and Kashmir after the visit of a delegation visit there. The statement expressed concern about the deteriorating human rights situation there. But concerning Middle East problems, the two big Muslim members, Indonesia and Malaysia, very probably have a closer interest than the others.

Global Review: In his new bestseller book „The Future is Asian“ Parag Khanna repeats the old topic that the 21st century will be an Asian century. Another thesis is that the USA will not prevent China from becoming a high-tech power through its trade wars, partly because most of China’s hi-tech imports now come from Asia. But will the USA accept its alleged decline and a multipolar world or will the United States, perhaps already under Trump, start a Sino-American war because they see no other way to stop or change this historical trend in any other way?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Let me start with a quotation: “Global hegemony has been the longstanding goal of the Chinese Communist Party the pursuit of which has become, under the leadership of Xi Jinping, increasingly brazen, blatant, and aggressive.” This view on China is the starting statement of the principles of “The Committee on the Present Danger: China” in the USA. Among the committee members you find people like Steve Bannon and a lot of intelligence and military retirees. But the statement sounds somewhat strange coming from the US, the real international hegemon since WWII. Her undisputed military superiority comes from a defence budget with a price tag of 686 b $ in 2019, compared to 250 b for China.

President Trump’s problem with China was the enormous trade deficit which has not been eliminated with the latest trade deal. China has indeed managed to develop her economy and export prowess with hitherto unprecedented speed, including progress in high tech areas and research. And the Chinese certainly have more of a historic memory than the Americans, and with evident reasons behind it.  Their thriving imperial economy had been destroyed by the British opium industry and a series of enforced treaties in the 19th century.  During most of the 20th, retarded by a Japanese invasion in WWII, and again by Mao Tse Dong’s Communist rule, the Chinese economy restarted only after Deng Xiao Ping’s reforms in the 1980s. Bringing China back to a superpower level in all areas from economy, technology, education to military, was not only a political goal but a necessity for the ruling party and its legitimacy. Any attempts to “contain” China will fail because of this dogged determination to lift the livelihood of 1.3 b people and give the country back the standing it thinks it deserves on the background of 5000 years of history.

The days of the “pax Americana” in the Indo-Pacific region, a result of American expansionism since the 19th century (opening Japan for trade, replacing Spain as coloniser in the Philippines, and especially as a result of WWII) may be counted anyway. Protection against Communism – and China – does not count any more among the priorities of practically all nations in the region, though a high level of mistrust vis-à-vis China persists like the one in the “US backyard” in Latin America. The ongoing Wuhan corona virus outbreak is fuelling this mistrust all over the region.  

The newest survey results, published in January by the Yusof Ishak Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, give a clear picture. On the most influential economic powers in the region: China 79%, USA 8%. But 70% are also worried about China’s growing economic influence. On the most influential political and strategic powers: China 52%, USA 27%.  And, interestingly, both surveys show that China’s influence perception has grown, and America’s shrunk compared to the same survey in 2019.

With the long-term planning of the Chinese administration in worldwide raw material supply, international trade, R&D, military build-up, and the nation’s endless pool of talent, workforce and soldiers, an American attack seems far too risky to be a realistic option. And it looks like the generals are more cautious than some of the politicians. The risk assessments were already in favour of China during the peak of the cold war, assuming, that only China could survive an all-out nuclear war due to her size and population. With the newest missile developments, the scale should be even more in her favour by today.

Global Review: Is Khanna’s statement that the majority of Asians are living in a democracy not wishful thinking, even if he is right that most Asians are conservative, pragmatic, technology addicted? Aren’t most Asians, especially if you define Asia as anything East the Suez Canal not living in authoritarian countries? He sees this only as a short-term anomaly, which will be followed by liberalization.  In his view the CP China wants to become a big Germany. Isn´t this the old democratization idealism of the liberal West, the change through trade mantra as Khanna also worked for the Council for Foreign Relations and for Obama? Isn´t Kai Strittmatter’s book „The Reinvention of the Dictatorship“, more realistic?

Dr. Sachsenröder: Sorry, I haven’t read both books yet. But observing the region for more than three decades, I see no reason to be so optimistic about democratic progress in Asia. While Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are democratic beyond doubt in East Asia, and India, including quite a number of question marks, in South Asia, China is not even discussed in this category. Parag Khanna is an incredibly prolific but also controversial writer. With the Asian century story, he adds not only to an already rather established narrative but a very safe bet as well, because the two population giants China and India alone have an incredible economic potential. And for the foreseeable future, the authoritarian system in China seems to have the upper hand vis-à-vis the domestically much more complicated India.

My own area of interest and research is Southeast Asia, where democratization has been slow and anything but linear. When Thailand managed to get rid of the military government in the early 1990s, the democratic process was deemed as irreversible. The general who led the last junta is now the same prime minister but without uniform, and in neighbouring Myanmar, the military is still in control of Aung San Suu Kyi’s civilian government. Vietnam and Laos are nominally socialist countries with one party rule but opening-up economically. Cambodia’s prime minister, Hun Sen, has managed to get the biggest opposition party disbanded by the supreme court, and his ruling party holds all seats in parliament alone.

Coming now to the more advanced countries, Indonesia has developed a very competitive multi-party democracy, with a number of serious shortcomings, though. Maybe the most critical is the prevailing money politics, by which the campaign budgets determine the election outcomes, but that is rather common in Southeast Asia anyway. The Philippines, after the legendary democratic revolution of 1986, has been dominated by not very democratically minded elites and partially more than controversial presidents, with the current one being no exception. Malaysia, after six decades of one-party dominance, maintained by money and racial politics, managed a peaceful transition of power but the new government looks fragile with a volatile coalition of not very compatible parties. But all in all, her democratic structure and institutions are there.

Remains the Republic of Singapore, often criticized for the ruling party’s long dominance and suspected of authoritarian tendencies. In reality though, the pugnacious style of legendary first prime minister Lee Kuan Yew is long gone. The nearly six decades of one-party dominance with the lowest corruption in the region and a capable administration, have allowed for exceptionally far-sighted policies, advancing the city state’s development from Third to First World status. More than a dozen opposition parties, so far, have not managed to offer a real alternative or to join forces. So, the ruling People’s Action Party, helped by a first-past-the-post election system, regularly wins big absolute majorities. It is certainly easier in a city state, but Singapore is objectively a rather well- governed country in Southeast Asia, where restricted, flawed, and incomplete democracies are the norm.

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