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, what is the reaction of the ASEAN countries to the inauguration of the Biden administration, the storm on Capitol Hill and that many Asian states, including US allies, signed the RCEP? Are the USA still perceived as a reliable power? How are the 4 years of Trump´s Asia policy perceived and how the incoming Biden administration? Does the diversity in the administration and government institutions with many American- Asians make a difference?
Dr. Sachsenröder: : The ex-president has widely been held responsible for the escalation of the US-China trade war and the tensions. The military presence of the USA in the ASEAN region, and the fast development of the Chinese army and navy, have been perceived as much more alarming than in other parts of the world. A military conflict of the giants, triggered by chance or premeditated, would be the biggest threat to the security and stability of the ASEAN countries since the Vietnam war. This is why, like in Europe, the expectations are extremely high that the Biden administration will be less aggressive and more open for dialogue with mutual respect. The protracted turmoil in Washington when Trump refused to accept his election defeat, has damaged the image of the USA to a degree rather difficult to change back.
In a survey by the ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore, “The State of Southeast Asia: 2021”, published on 10 February, the trends in the perception are evident. Out of the more than 1000 responding experts from different sectors, 76 % see the economic influence of China as dominant, against only 7 % of US influence. But the growing assertiveness of China is also creating concerns, 88% worry about China’s strategic clout, while the perception of the political influence is still mixed, 49% for China, and 40% for the USA. When it comes to a choice of which of the two superpowers one should align with, compared to the survey results a year before, China shrinks from 46 to 38% and the USA increases from 53 to 61%, a remarkable change.
The most interesting result of this year’s survey is probably the view that China is a revisionist power and has the intention to turn Southeast Asia into its sphere of influence (46%) against 31% who think that China is gradually taking over the old US role as regional leader. A year earlier there were only 35% with this sceptical opinion. The Chinese sphere of influence must be seen in a nuanced way, though. Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are of course more dependent on China than the countries which have open sovereignty issues along their coastal waters in the South China Sea, also claimed by the big neighbour. Their hope still rests on the USA and an international community insisting on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UMCLOS) and a compromise with China on a code of conduct, still hoped for by many. But the increasing militarization of reefs and small islands damages China’s standing in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, who all ask for at least a fair part of the gas and oil reserves.
Concerning hopes that Asian-Americans in the Biden administration might be good for the region, nothing much has been discussed so far in the regional media. The experience with these hyphenated Americans is not really encouraging because more often than not they want to be recognized as true Americans and not as Asians. But I recently came across an interesting theory that many in the huge Chinese diaspora do not see themselves as a minority in the host country but more as a part of a more and more dominating China, except migrated regime critics of course.
Global Review: The German government issued a new Indo-Pacific strategy. However, Indo-Pacific is not understood as a mere geopolitical term. The idea is that Germany diversifies its dependency in Asia, especially from China and focus on ASEAN, maybe with an EU-ASEAN free trade agreement and make some military co-operations, especially with Australia and maybe send a German military ship to the South Chinese Sea to guarantee the freedom of navigation at sea. The German Indo-Pacific strategy shall also become the blueprint for a European Indo-Pacific strategy. Until now only France has an Indo-Pacific strategy and Brexit-Britain its own new Asian pivot which mostly is supporting the US approach. How is the German Indo-Pacific strategy perceived in Asia and the ASEAN and is the fact that Germany wants diversification, mainly with ASEAN counteracted by the new EU-China investment protection agreement? Isn´t this a stab in the back for the Biden administration as for the ASEAN countries?
Dr. Sachsenröder: German companies are all over Asia, and the German prestige is predominantly due to the car industry and other quality products. Apart from that, I am afraid, Germany is not really perceived as a political player but more as a part, if important, of the EU. In the ISEAS-survey mentioned above, the positive perception of the EU is impressive. 22.5% of the respondents see it as the leading champion of free trade (compared to 22.2% for the USA), and 32.4% as beacon of the international law (against 28.6% for the USA). This is certainly due to a Trump-effect, but the EU-image as a reliable partner beyond the good trade relations is important and helpful for the increasing formalization of the partnership with ASEAN. On 1 December 2020, after six years of negotiations, the EU and ASEAN upgraded their relations from “dialogue” to “strategic partnership”, and the free trade agreements with Singapore and Vietnam are important steps toward an even closer cooperation. For China, the successful economies in ASEAN and the 655 million consumers there are the biggest trading partner since 2019, before the EU and the USA, and ASEAN attracts increasingly investment from Japan and Korea with the attractive wage difference. Insofar, Europe and Germany should indeed focus on Southeast Asia.
In my view, the freedom of navigation issue in the South China sea is a complex issue with a big ideological background. So far, except fishery incidents and rampant piracy problems in some areas, the commercial navigation has not been affected and certainly not in a serious way. The growth of China’s navy capacity, still way behind the US, creates concerns in Washington because the USA is used to dominating the vast oceans around Asia since the victory against Japan and cannot imagine to share that. Except Taiwan, no country in the region is seriously worried about a military attack by China, though historical reminiscences may linger in Vietnam and Korea. The South China Sea issue is one of the big threats for the cohesion of ASEAN and a litmus test for its unity narrative and mutual trust.
Global Review: The EU claims, that RCEP wouldn´t meet labour and environmental standards while the new EU-China investment protection agreement would incorporate these criteria. The EU also claims that this was in the interest of mankind and could support a new TPP under the Biden administration. General Domroese also hopes that an RCEP-TTIP 2.0 agreement could be reached. How much are China, the ASEAN and Asians interested in such standards and don´t they fear them or that if even under a Biden administration there would be a multilateral free-trade agreement that it could be cancelled any time under a new Trumpist- Republican government in the USA?
Dr. Sachsenröder: With a population of 2.2 billion people, the RCEP is the biggest trade block ever, but also the most diverse in terms of development and income. High tech leaders like Japan, Korea, and increasingly China, play in a different league than Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Vietnam, or the Philippines, not to speak of Myanmar as the poorest country in the region. Expecting that they could meet European labour and environmental standards is unrealistic, though cooperation could help them to move into the desired direction. Apart from commodities and raw materials, low labour costs are the main comparative advantage for these countries.
The latter have offered huge profits for certain companies from richer countries, offering employment and often unstable jobs for the poorer partners because they tend to switch to the next cheaper place all too easily. Despite much talk about fair trade, FDI must yield sufficient returns if it should last longer and help the recipient societies to improve on labour and environmental standards. Legal regulations for the supply chains with norms for labour standards are good for the conscience of legislators and human rights activists but need a long perspective to avoid job losses among the target groups for this type of outside protection. In reality, however, the different terms of trade perpetuate in some way or another the exploitative structures know from the colonial times. Tariff and non-tariff reductions, of course, are desirable, but meeting the pertinent legal requirements is difficult or impossible for small and medium companies.
Under the new Biden administration in Washington, the USA may tone down their attitude towards China and their ideas about an inevitable trade war. This will not change the growing imbalance between the two superpowers in favour of China, and it will certainly not change the mutual suspicions and lack of trust built up in the Trump years.
Global Review: China claims that it has overcome the Covid crisis and kickstarted its economy while most Asian countries and the West still are preoccupied with the Corona crisis. At the same time, China tries to promote its image as a health world power with a New Health Silkroad which wants to make health a public good for the whole world community and speaks of the danger of “vaccine-nationalism”. In the latest Global Time comment it also tries to ask if the EU could trust in the USA and Great Britain as they want their people to be vaccinated first. But doesn´t China also want this and what would it mean if 1,3 billion people in China and India want to be vaccinated. And with which vaccines? China has only its untested Sinovac. What do you think this means for the world and the ASEAN countries?
Dr. Sachsenröder: I do not think that we can assume that China is out of the woods with the Covid pandemic. With rigorous control measures the government, much better than all the others, has managed to contain the disease and prevent a meltdown of large parts of the economy. China is obviously cautious and prepared for more preventive interventions, with the huge advantage over the USA and Europe that the population accepts restrictions as necessary and practices hygienic standards without developing denial and protest movements.
As to the health Silk Road and the expansion of the Chinese and Indian pharmaceutical industries, both countries have developed a remarkable counterapproach vis-à-vis the Western systems, where “big pharma” has created a money printing system of gigantic dimensions. Their parasitic and partially criminal marketing practices are being highlighted in the opioid crisis in the USA and the legal procedures against Purdue Pharma and its painkiller products.
Health care for the masses who cannot afford more expenses for medicines can only work with generic products and a less profit-oriented health care system. India is known already as the pharmacy of the world. If China joins India on this path, more poor patients worldwide will be the beneficiaries. The Chinese secrecy with the Covid vaccine development has damaged its image as the world’s good Samaritan and opened a flank for doubts from the USA and European countries, including vilifying attacks. As the recent positive reports about Russia’s Sputnik vaccine show, suspicions and insinuations can be deceptive propaganda.
Global Review: Parts of the ASEAN countries are Muslim countries and Indonesia is perceived as a role model for a Muslim democracy in the Muslim world. However, an Islamist from Saudi Arabia returned, tries to engage in the mass protests of the Omnibus laws and the supporters of the assassins of the Bali attack were released. How do you see the development of Islamists in the ASEAN countries, especially in Indonesia?
Dr. Sachsenröder: Yes, large parts of ASEAN are Muslim dominated, and Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world. For centuries, Islam in Southeast Asia could be described as moderate and much less a political factor than a feature of personal piety. This has changed and is still changing since about three decades. It is related to the economic development that more Muslims could afford the pilgrimage to Mecca, with the number of hadjis becoming a better indicator for the income situation of a village than TV antennas or motor bikes. And the number of students being sent to Cairo or Amman for religious studies and their status after returning was the other big factor for the increasing religious awakening including radicalization and terrorism.
Since the 1980s this development is already more than visible in the streets with hijabs for most women and girls, and a variety of men’s dresses supposed to be Muslim. This sort of Arabization does not meet much sympathy in the Arab world where the sisters and brothers in Southeast Asia are widely perceived as second-class Muslims. While Malaysia’s leading politicians have used Malay identity as exclusively Islamic and superior to the Chinese and Indian minorities, a clear top-down approach, the Arabization and radicalization in Indonesia is visibly bottom-up and deep-rooted among university students and graduates.
The enormous financial strength of the leading parties (another complex story) has so far prevented that any of the several Muslim parties in Indonesia could come to power. Their influence, however, and their capacity to organise huge demonstrations, forces the politicians, including the president, to show and prove their religious credentials.
A recent incident in Singapore, a multi-ethnic and multi-religious model society, has shown that the terrorist threat is not limited to Islam. Inspired by shootings in Norway and New Zealand, a 16-year-old ethnic Indian and Christian student, radicalised over the Internet, had prepared an attack on Muslims in a mosque but was detected before he could commit the crime.
Global Review: Why do you think the military coup happened in Myanmar right now? How do you think the military coup in Myanmar will affect the ASEAN countries? And what about human rights and Democracy? Will China use the opportunity to expand its influence by Support for authoritarian Regimes Like Hun Sen in Cambodia and the Military in Myanmar and Thailand? Will the Milk Tea alliance Support the democratic forces in SOA? Do you think the Burmese military will retreat after 1year as proclaimed?
Dr. Sachsenröder: Since its crushing defeat in the November election, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the political arm of the military, has challenged the results with alleged irregularities. An unprecedented number of observers had been admitted and claimed proof that the country had reached democratic standards, 7,232 observers from 13 groups on the union level and another 985 from the states and regional levels plus 61 international, 182 diplomatic observers and staff from Western democracy organizations. A glimpse into the election results shows how complex the country is in terms of ethnicity, regional organization, and physical access to polling stations in the remote areas, not to speak of smouldering civil war areas. The observers were generally satisfied with the polling and counting procedures and declared the election as sufficiently free and fair.
Only Human Rights Watch declared it “fundamentally flawed” before it started, criticizing the NLD government for extensive propaganda for its own platform and disadvantaging opposition parties. Out of 15 competing parties, 12 made it into parliament, with a 58.6% majority for Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD and a mere 5.9% for the USDP. It is evident that this result was seen as humiliating by the military, who probably felt that they had been too generous in granting so much leeway to “The Lady”, and it must have reminded them of their miscalculation in 1990, when the NLD won to everybody’s surprise.
The timing of the coup on the morning of February 1st when the new parliament was supposed to meet for the first time, was the emergency brake from the military perspective, but not a complete surprise for Aung San Suu Kyi and her inner circle. For a few days before, they had been discussing with army leader General Min Aung Hlaing about a possible compromise concerning the election irregularity issue, which was obviously so controversial that, on the eve of 28 January, Aung San Suu Kyi destroyed her handphone in order to prevent that evidence against her could fall into the hands of the army. And she must have known that her international reputation, as low as it was at that time, could only encourage the military to remove her from office. Against the media impression, Aung San Suu Kyi is not in prison but under house arrest at her home, a situation she has experienced for 15 years before.
Her leadership in the NLD was no longer uncontested, complaints against her authoritarian style and her overly self-confident sense of mission were more and more coming to the surface.
The amount and duration of public resistance against the coup, especially among the younger generations, has not been foreseen by the military. Unless soldiers join the demonstrators in bigger numbers, and the first photographs of soldiers showing the resistance three-finger sign which originated in Thailand, the army will probably retain the upper hand.
The hundreds of thousands of protesters, different from the generation which went through the 1988 uprising, has learned from protest movements in Hongkong and Thailand to form the so-called “milk tea” alliance. They are internet-savvy and more individualistic under the restrictions to organise themselves without needing leaders. With the detentions so far, the junta has focused on the older 1988 opposition figures but probably underestimated the resilience of the younger and young professional’s generation.
It is a hilarious irony of regional politics in Southeast Asia that general Min Aung Hlaing has called his Thai colleague Prayuth and asked for advice how to switch to the role of a civilian politician, as reported on 11 February. As outside observers far away, we have to keep in mind that many political facades in the region look only similar to patterns of Western-style liberal democracies. In Southeast Asia, political parties are often enough more like business ventures, organized by wealthy and sufficiently charismatic personalities or as a front for vested interests like the powerful army in Myanmar. Except Singapore, the countries in the region rank disappointingly low in the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International.
ASEAN’s unity is being challenged once more, and the block is bound by its non-interference principle anyway, but this time the media are not shy to call the development a military coup. China’s official wording was more euphemistic, calling it a “major cabinet reshuffle”, and highlighting Aung San Suu Kyi’s “stubbornness”. However, despite some signs of caution against too much influence from the big neighbour, Myanmar and the army depend to a high degree on Beijing’s support.
For the NLD, without “The Lady” and her leadership determination, life will be more difficult, while internal divisions, which were bridged so far by her alone, will most probably break up and possibly end the party’s dominant role. The military, if they can survive the demonstrations, calm them down or suppress them by force, will be in a much more comfortable position than after their election disaster. They might have planned the coup with taking the 75-year-old Aung San Suu Kyi out of the equation, and thus destroy the thorn in their flesh, the National League for Democracy. They might have one argument for their intervention, though. Myanmar is not a nation state in the traditional sense but a conglomerate of a Bamar majority of 68 per cent plus at least 135 minority groups, which only the army can hold the country together, like the militaries claim in many other countries. However, also due to Myanmar’s huge opium and methamphetamine production and export and its many beneficiaries, not least the army itself, a peaceful reconciliation, and an end to the different ethnic wars against the central government, are as improbable as ever. Unfortunately, the democratic years under the NLD government and Aung San Suu Kyi did not make a difference in these extended minefields either.