Interview with South East Asia expert Dr. Sachsenröder: „What is called today the assertiveness or rise of China is a long process over decades“

Interview with South East Asia expert Dr. Sachsenröder: „What is called today the assertiveness or rise of China is a long process over decades“

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, during the Covid crisis China got very assertive, sent an air craft carrier group  through the Taiwan Strait to the South China Sea, signed the new national security law for Hongkong which abolishes de facto the 1 country, 2 systems, started a border conflict with India and a conflict with the Philippines and Vietnam about other islands, imprisoned 1 million of 10 million Chinese Uighurs in concentration camps, sterilized 1/3 of the Uighur women. Besides these geopolitical struggles, China was also criticised for its delay and management of the Covid crisis and its role in the WHO. Philippine authoritarian ruler Duterte who before teamed up with China and Russia changed sides and renewed the US-Philippine military cooperation. Same with Indonesia and Vietnam which came closer to the USA. How did the ASEAN react to China´s new assertiveness?

WS: What is called today the assertiveness or rise of China is a long process over decades and increasingly perceived as a threat by the United States but much less so in Europe. The US has probably more to lose in Asia than the EU. Why? There are historical reasons. The takeover of the Philippines from Spain in 1899 was controversial in the US, criticized as an overstretch, but the expansionists won the debate  and the US Navy stared to controll the Asia-Pacific waters together with Britain until Japan took over after Pearl Harbour. America eventually won the war and decided to stay, especially after the Chinese Communists took over in 1949 and the US felt compelled to contain Communism in the region. As long as China was weak, nobody had any doubts about the dominant hegemon and his benevolent intentions.

Economic developments changed the roles decisively after China started to wake up and develop her economy much faster than anybody in the West could imagine. While manufacturing fizzled out in the US, China grew exponentially as the all-in-one factory for the world, supplying the US with everything they needed at unbeatable prices. This resulted in the huge trade deficit for the US which President Trump wants to reduce, ignoring that China has a different historical memory. What has been widely forgotten in the West is the British trade deficit in the early 1800s which finally triggered the two opium wars and the “century of humiliation” for China with the Western colonial powers cutting the country up at will. Pressure, therefore, economic, diplomatic, or military, has a different emotional value for the Chinese government and the people, and overreactions are not really a surprise.

About the Uighur developments we have some intelligence reports without enough details for a sufficient understanding about Islamist movements against which American and allied troops are fighting in other parts of the world.

The South China Sea is a different problem but so far, I cannot see that the freedom of navigation as such is endangered. And the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) talks about details of reefs, shoals, atolls and islets with some leeway for interpretation which is useful for China’s expansionist policy. As a political weapon, UNCLOS is rather toothless. ASEAN is divided among the countries with coastal zone claims and those without. This is why ASEAN is more harping on the necessity to find a “code of conduct”. And all try to balance these interests with the hope for Chinese investment and tourists. In practice, China has all the power, economically and militarily, which no passage of US aircraft carriers can counter.

Remains the Hong Kong problem. Since 1997, the city is back under Chinese sovereignty after nearly 150 years of British colonial rule which started in 1841 as  one of the results of the first opium war. Democratic rights were being limited under British rule until the 1997 handover, but still differ from the political rights in the rest of China. Hongkong has been the goose with golden eggs for Britain, with the HSBC bank growing on opium money and many more British companies thriving on the special status of the colony. From a Chinese viewpoint, the city has always been a thorn in the flesh despite being a useful hub for all sorts of cross-transactions. To expect that the homegrown democracy movement in Hong Kong with all the crippling demonstrations will be forever tolerated by Beijing is naïve. And the ultimate insult for them is the American intervention with President Trump signing the “Hongkong autonomy act” last week. Would the Russian Parliament ever dream of passing the “Alaska Autonomy Act” because their Tsar sold it to the US in 1867 for 7.2 million Dollars only? Imagine the reaction in the US. Expanding American legislation and jurisdiction to other continents and countries is unique but also in contradiction with the withdrawal of the USA from all sorts of international organizations and covenants.       

Global Review: Due to the Covid crisis and the escalation of the Sino-American conflict and its trade wars, more and more states think about relocating their supply chains away from China and diversify their production network. The EU has just signed a free trade agreement with Japan (JEFTA)  and Vietnam (EVFTA) and tried to negotiate a free trade agreement with India which Modi rejected as China´s RCEP offer. Does ASEAN think that this could be a chance for them for foreign investment and boost its economy more independently from China?

WS: Yes, for ASEAN members that could be a positive development and chance to get a bigger piece of the international investment cake. This cake, however, with all the cheap money around, may shrink more than we think. Practically all Covid-hit industrial countries are pumping enormous amounts into their national rescue programs or the controversial regional one in the EU. Since China seems to get out of the pandemic quagmire faster than anybody else, these hopes may be premature, and the biggest investment source for ASEAN will still be China. Especially Vietnam has been predicted to be the new manufacturing hub, mainly because of a better infrastructure and education system than most of the neighbours, except Singapore.

Global Review: China faces serious problems due to the Covid crisis. Its growth rates even before were declining, at the 19th National Congress of the CCP Xi Jinping didn´t dare to make any concrete numbers on economic growth or an economic outlook. The BRI reduces its expansion and loans, inside the CCP there is the discussion if you can support BRI and China Made 2025 programs at the same time and the „Chinese dream“ seems also to be vanished as the middle class is declining and millions of migrant workers face unemployment without social welfare and unemployment insurance. Is China perceived by the ASEAN countries as the still and always expanding growth machine or did ASEAN countries readjust their perception of China?

WS: Double-digit growth cannot be maintained forever. After every household has a fridge, the demand for fridges must decline to the technical replacement rate. This is certainly true for China’s domestic market, which is nevertheless highly profitable for Western luxury goods. As it looks today, China seems to overcome the crisis faster than any other country. Diversifying and expanding the BRI is probably one of the ways out as well, especially when it develops the ever-growing health industry and creates a Health Silkroad. If the reports are correct, China has already reached a sort of monopoly for quite a number of pharmaceutical products. And the US-led campaign against the G5 telecommunication equipment will do anything but kill Huawei. 

Global Review: There are different geopolitical concepts for Eurasia or Asia. Xi Jinping wants a Community of Common Destiny, RCEP, BRICS, SCO, BRI, and a new Health Silkroad in the fight against Covid. Russia wants a Great Eurasian Partnership (GEP) based on the cooperation of China´s BRI and the Russian Eurasian Economic Union which as a centre should include other Eurasian states, including also South East Asia. The USA want the Indo-Pacific and together with India and Japan the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor and push the Quad in the hope that some ASEAN states will join them. While China wants to get the ASEAN into the RCEP, Japan and other Asian countries as substitute for RCEP and the cancelled Transpacific Partnership Program (TPP) started TTPP and wants the ASEAN countries to join them. How does ASEAN address these offers, does ASEAN have a common understanding or are the different ASEAN countries strategically balancing on their own?

WS: When sooner or later the dust over the American withdrawal from international treaties and organizations has settled, the rest of the world community will look for trustworthy partnerships wherever they are on offer. Bigger players like Japan and India may look for the US, at least at the moment, and Korea has its Northern Problem without much help from Washington. ASEAN, as all too often, has difficulties to come to a binding consensus and has no alternative to keeping as open as possible for all sides. Practically all members, maybe except Singapore, have internal governance and legitimacy problems and unstable or vulnerable economies. That means at the end that, if the Chinese economy really manages the proverbial V-curve recovery, Beijing will continue to be the first choice.  

Global Review: In an ISEAS survey where ASEAN elites were asked whom they would choose in the event that they had to decide between China or the USA, allegedly 60% of the interviewed persons choose China. However, is this a representative survey and could this change if Trump was not re-elected, but Joe Biden and the USA would change their Asian pivot policy, by engagement, TPP, respect for the ASEAN countries (Trump never visited a ASEAN summit)? John Mearsheimer, chief thinker of the so-called offensive realist school who sees a Sino-American clash and even war as unavoidable doubts this numbers as in his way of thinking nation states will act according the paradigm: Security trumps economy. What do you think about the potential choice of the ASEAN members?

WS: The 60% preference underlines my take on the last question. The pivot to Asia has not met with enough credibility here so far, and the American hawks around Mearsheimer might have a rather lopsided perception of China and Southeast Asia because of their preoccupation with the conflict potential and their pessimistic view that a war with China is unavoidable. In October 2019, though, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs published a poll result “that two-thirds of Americans (68%) say the United States should pursue a policy of friendly cooperation and engagement with China rather than working to limit the growth of China’s power (31%).” With the Covid pandemic ruining many enterprises in the USA, security will not trump the economy. Anyway, the security concept of the “offensive realist school” and parts of the military is too narrowly focusing on the vague notion of “national interest” without defining it sufficiently. The people in Southeast Asia have different priorities, namely sufficient economic growth to get out of the middle-income trap and eradication of poverty.

 Global Review:

Indian General Asthana writes:  „The economic offensive and military posturing of China in the Indo-Pacific, especially in the South China Sea and US response has increased the pace of ongoing Third World War. COVID-19 has exposed some vulnerabilities of US and created huge trust deficit for China globally; hence the idea of everyone accepting one/two countries as superpower or global leader may soon be outdated, in the future world. It may appear that China has an upper edge because of controlling COVID-19 earlier, but it is too early to predict because the global anger and trust deficit is against China; hence the strategic situation is fluid. A new global order will emerge, which may not be US/China centric.

Parag Khanna in his new book „The future is Asian“ hast he similar view that an Asian system is emerging, reviving old historical positions in the world economy, revitalizing old cultural, political and economic interconnectedness beyond the old and new Silk Road. He also thinks that the financial crisis was a Western financial crisis as it hadn´t much impact on Asia and that intra-Asian trade is already surpassing Western-Asian trade: 

„Here the is a more likely scenario. China´s forays actually modernize and elevate these countries, helping them, to resist further encroachment. Furthermore, China`s moves have inspired an infrastructural „arms-race“ with India, Japan, Turkey, South Korea and others also making major investments that will enable weaker Asian nations to better connect to one another and counter Chinese manoeuvres. Ultimately, China´s position will not be of an Asian or global hegemon, but rather the Eastern anchor of the Asian- or Eurasian-mega-system?“

Maybe the new world order is not US or Sino-centric, but multipolar, even in Asia and ASEAN could find its own place within it. How are the Pan-Asian ideas perceived by the ASEAN states?

WS: What general Asthana calls “global anger and trust deficit against China” needs a differentiating assessment. The anger caused by the Wuhan outbreak has been a media hype in the West and is already history with the pandemic raging so much more in the Americas than before in Asia. The military assertiveness is focusing mainly on the South China Sea than anywhere else. Chinese navy ships sailing through the strait between Taiwan and the mainland is certainly not against international shipping rules, though felt as a provocation by Taipei. Would the USA be directly entitled to feel provoked as well? Maybe not much more than Beijing by the sale of the newest fighter jets and missiles to Taiwan. The provocations are reciprocal and potentially dangerous, never a zero-sum game but a lose-lose gamble with incalculable losses for everybody.

Parag Khanna’s “The future is Asian” and other “Asian Century” perspectives have a lot of merit, until now. The long-term effects of the Covid pandemic may be quite a game changer, though. In many ways, the actual starting positions are in favour of China and many Southeast Asian countries in terms of infrastructure but especially in human capital and education. Too many industries are now in trouble, especially aviation, tourism, trade, and banking. I think it is too early to talk about meta-structures, Pan-Asian or smaller.  

Global Review: How did the ASEAN countries react to the Covid crisis and how does and will affect it politically, economically and culturally? Was there a united response to the Covid crisis or did each country react on its own? Is there a common vaccine research programme of the ASEAN or Asian states or ideas for the reform of the WHO?

WS: Given the huge differences in size, population, economic development, and education, there could not be a united response. Singapore, where I live, started with what the international media called a “gold standard” but was surprised by a massive infection rate among the million odd foreign workers living in dormitories with ten or twelve beds per room. But Singapore had a hight testing rate as well which is not possible in an island nation like Indonesia with 240 million inhabitants. Vietnam has had remarkably low infection rates, but second and possibly further waves are not excluded. Singapore has five universities and a differentiated health system plus branch offices of the major pharmaceutical companies from all over the world. As far as I know there are several research groups in the region working on a future vaccine which might also be a future gold mine.

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