Interview with Dr Sachsenröder-ASEAN and the Ukraine war: „It seems to me that the question of whether the threat to Taiwan has increased as a result of the Ukraine war is being discussed more in the West than in Southeast Asia“
Global Review had the honor and opportunity to conduct another interview with Southeast Asia expert Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder over Southeast Asia between the USA and China in the Ukraine war. Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenröder holds a PhD in Political Science and Public Law from the University of Bonn, Germany. He became involved in party politics in the student revolution of 1968 and later worked as a political adviser in Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans for a quarter of a century. When he returned to Singapore in 2008, he joined the Institute for Southeast Asia Studies (ISEAS) and focused on party developments in the region. Further information on the party systems can be found in: Sachsenroeder, Wolfgang, ed. (2014), Party Politics in Southeast Asia – Organization – Money – Influence, available from Amazon Books. A book on party finance and political corruption entitled 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.
His new book about the history of the colonial opium trade and its consequences has just been published. At the beginning of the 19th century it was organized industrially by the British East India Company and used by France, Spain, the Netherlands and the USA to finance large parts of the colonial budgets until the independence of the ASEAN countries. The political consequences in the form of corruption and organized crime can still be felt today.
„From Opium to Methamphetamines. The nine lives of the narcotics industry in Southeast Asia”, WorldScientific, ISBN 978-981-124-723-1
His party forum South East Asia has its own informative website at:
Global Review: Dr. Sachsenröder, under Donald Trump China was the main adversary and he also tried to mobilize the rest of the world, including Asia, against China. China is still important for Biden, but he probably has a more multilateral approach in mind with B3W, AUKUS and Quad as a counterweight, although unlike China he does not seem to want to revive TPP or TTIP with free trade. As a result of the Ukraine war, many Asians now fear that the USA will have to weaken its Indo-Pacific strategy and the Asia Pivot into perspective in favor of transatlantic Europe orientation How will the ASEAN countries react to Trump, who could be re-elected, to Biden and now to the Chinese-Russian Axis after the start of the Ukraine war?
WS: The Russian invasion of Ukraine dominates the media landscape in the East as well as in the West, that’s completely normal. However, one should not be fooled into believing that the US no longer sees China as the far greater danger and threat. While Russia is only dangerous because of its nuclear weapons, but is otherwise significantly weakened, China is continuing to expand its military capacities, but is even more intensively involved in making up for technological deficits almost with military precision and in transforming itself from the world’s workbench into an innovative economic leader. What is already being stated by entrepreneurs in Germany as a historical technological gap, „clocks in the south against ships in the north“, is playing out more and more clearly between China plus South and Southeast Asia and the so-called West with the USA and Europe. Here’s an anecdote: In the early years of Singapore, the Dutch economist Albert Winsemius played a decisive role in defining a promising niche for the economic planning of the resource-free city-state. He suggested to Lee Kuan Yew that he try making fish hooks because the Chinese have such nimble fingers. In just a few decades, Japan has blossomed from copied sewing machines and transistor radios into one of the leading industrial nations, and China is doing it even faster. If you spend a few minutes browsing www.aliexpress.com for technical products and looking at the offers and their prices, you will no longer believe that the secret of the latest chip generations can be guarded for a long time and monopolized by the West – including the exclave of Taiwan. This is widely known in Asia, even if it is not discussed in all media. The respective national interests are quite different. Those who are contested not only for the fishing grounds but also for significant oil and gas reserves by China in the South China Sea are more likely to seek American help than the others. And of course nobody wants to jeopardize lucrative economic relations with the USA. I haven’t seen any speculation about Donald Trump’s re-election.
Global Review: Biden spoke to Singapore’s Lee, but Lee avoided the term Indo-Pacific and now speaks of Asia-Pacific. The Global Times sees this as a Chinese victory, as Lee’s message is that ASEAN will not be incited against China, just as China recommends that ASEAN countries remain neutral. What positions do the ASEAN countries take on the Ukraine war, to what extent do they support the sanctions against Russia?
WS: Alongside giant India, giant China was the dominant political and cultural power in Asia for thousands of years, until the 18th and 19th centuries when Britain and other European colonial powers ruined both countries economically. Historically, East, South and Southeast Asia are a naturally connected economic area. It does not necessarily have to turn into an “Asian Century” if the so-called West also remains strong and innovative and benefits equally from competition and partnership. A zero-sum game between West and East is by no means inevitable, but it is ideologically conjured up when the relationship is theoretically exaggerated or exaggerated as a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism.
ASEAN’s politicians and political commentators see the US very clearly primarily on the containment of China, i.e. not genuinely interested in bilateral or regional cooperation. This is more than obvious with the rapid progress at AUKUS and Quad and the constantly delayed agreements with ASEAN. In terms of military and weapons technology, only Singapore can keep up to a certain extent for the USA anyway, the Pentagon should only look down on the others, and that never goes down well. Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong not only had a politically far-sighted father, but with 18 years in office he is also one of ASEAN’s most internationally and regionally experienced politicians.
During his trip to the United States, he expressed himself diplomatically, condemning the war in Ukraine, but not criticizing China’s strategic ambitions in Asia. With Asia-Pacific he refers to the American strategy paper from February „Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States“, which is not only understood in China as a specification of the containment policy, but is also meant as such. This policy will probably change little about China’s growing regional influence, at most the choice of words by ASEAN politicians who want a balance or at least don’t want to offend the USA.
Global Review: Even assuming that China gave Putin the green light at the Winter Olympics for his war of aggression in Ukraine to confront the West and tie down US troops in Europe, perhaps to establish facts against Taiwan or in the South China or East China Seas, China seems to face the failed blitzkrieg and present quagmire of Russia and the United Sanctions Front worldwide before the 20th Congress of the Party. Furthermore, China is only in the early stages of creating a “Greater Asia sphere of prosperity” – like Japan did then – which could also pose a threat to the ASEAN states, especially those with larger Chinese minorities. At the moment it’s only about a few islands or Taiwan for the foreseeable future. But how would ASEAN countries react if Taiwan were attacked? Neutrality, waiting to see how this develops between the US and China?
WS: Whether or not Putin got the green light for his invasion in Beijing remains a matter of speculation. In fact, China has so far done nothing resembling moral or military support for Russia. However, one can assume that China and other Asian countries will act more pragmatically and that Germany and other EU countries will not shoot themselves in the foot with economic sanctions. Russia should easily be able to sell the oil and gas in Asia that the West is boycotting, albeit face-saving without fanfare and lengthy media debates. Whether the threat to Taiwan has increased as a result of the Ukraine war seems to me to be discussed more in the West than in Southeast Asia. A „golden goose“ is difficult to eat and actually too valuable to destroy beforehand. The Western goose theory has already proved to be idle in the case of Hong Kong.
Global Review: To what extent do the sanctions against Russia affect ASEAN countries and how could this affect their economies and societies?
WS: The economic experts, above all from the mixed chambers of commerce, must be able to judge that. Aside from oil, Russian export products are not particularly important in the region. Even vodka is increasingly coming from Western European countries. And Russian and Ukrainian wheat plays a very minor role because rice is by far the most important staple food.
Global Review: What about the Covid crisis. Is this over in the ASEAN countries and how is China’s Covid strategy now perceived after the pandemic was considered manageable and all of Shanghai, Shenzhen and other cities are now being put under a total lockdown with all the effects on the supply chains and people? To what extent are Covid or now the sanctions against Russia a greater burden on the economy and society and how specifically?
WS: The quarantine in the economically most important Chinese cities are being viewed with concern because vital supply chains are threatened, which are primarily maritime in the extensive island kingdom of Southeast Asia. On the other hand, there are pragmatic approaches, because travel restrictions that are too long would ruin the vital tourism industry. The signs are therefore pointing in the direction of a cautious and increasingly exploratory opening, even if the pandemic is far from over. Despite the tropical temperatures, wearing a mask is certainly far less of a problem than in Europe, because it has long been common practice to treat colds out of consideration. Even with falling and less publicized infection numbers, most people dutifully wear their masks when going into stores and indoors, and often outdoors.
Global Review: The civil war in Myanmar is no longer worth reporting in the western media. What is the current status, how are the Asians, Russia and the USA and also the EU reacting to this?
WS: Yes, the junta in Myanmar got an undeserved respite with the Ukraine war. Of course, the topic remains virulent at the political expert level, the inclusion or exclusion of the military regime is a controversial ASEAN topic, but is currently largely on hold, including in social media.
Global Review: How are the ASEAN countries taking that the supposed US ally and Quad member India, like China, has not joined in condemning Russia or imposing sanctions, but wants to take limited arms, food and energy exports from Russia in exchange for rubles ? Do the ASEAN countries see a more Eurasian bloc formation Russia, China, India, which they would join? Especially since some experts already see a dollar-independent financial system as a reaction to the attempted sanctions regime. Is that seen as well?
WS: This also seems to me to be an expert topic, I did not notice the question in the (English-speaking) regional media accessible to me. In my view, the longer the war lasts and under pressure from the US, there are signs, not necessarily of anti-Russian statements, but condemnations of the attack. Since China is also taking an increasingly clear stance against the war, I cannot imagine any approach to a kind of Eurasian bloc formation, however defined. Incidentally, the USA is diplomatically active and tries to promote its Western theory of values and the superiority of democracy through Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin, among others. It may be plausible for the ex-general and ex-director of the large arms company Raytheon, Lloyd Austin, to say that India is the most important arms manufacturer in the region and thus the guarantor of security. In Southeast Asia, however, there is a great awareness of the dangers to India’s political stability and the dangerous neighborhood with Pakistan and China.
Global Review: To what extent do the Asians and also ASEAN still see the USA as a reliable entity and what are their prospects if Biden or Trump is re-elected in 2024. Isn’t China seen as more constant and stable in terms of domestic and foreign policy?
WS: There is a pretty patchy overall picture, depending on the pragmatic needs of the economy and the supply of military hardware from the USA, as far as they can be represented financially. The financial framework in particular is massively restricted in some cases by the Covid slumps in the important tourism industry. To what extent the feeling of American politics being threatened by China is shared by the people and the governments in Southeast Asia can certainly be questioned. On the one hand, there are some large Chinese minorities, some of which have existed for several centuries, which often cause controversy domestically, but are an enormously important factor economically. China supplies practically everything that is in demand on the market at considerably lower prices than comparable American offers. And the popular cell phones and computers may come under the flag of a US company, but without that flag and coming directly from China, they are available at a fraction of the price.
The political image of the USA has suffered considerably as a result of the bizarre charades surrounding Trump, and the withdrawal from Afghanistan has also significantly damaged its military reputation. Social malaise such as unemployment, racism or the opioid crisis are becoming all too visible and fading the image of the beacon of freedom and democracy. China, on the other hand, seems more stable, although not necessarily a role model. With the exception of Singapore, all young nation states in the region are stuck in the middle-income trap and corruption in business and politics is all too visible. For the general public, the difference between China and the US is pretty much irrelevant. For politicians, it’s more about opportunity and chances, depending on the current needs, you can alternately draw the Chinese or American card.
Global Review: China, India, Pakistan seem to be more the Putin fans in the rest of Asia. Especially since India, which after the peasant protests and now the workers‘ strikes also fears a China-Pakistan axis against Russia and apparently wants to prevent this by its coziness with Putin. How do the ASEAN countries view India and China’s position?
WS: I wouldn’t talk about Putin fans. There are historical perspectives and largely antiquated communist traditions, as well as animosity towards the US and the West in general. The new Prime Minister in Pakistan, Shehbaz Sharif, is considered to be Western-oriented, which does not necessarily mean that the USA would have India and Pakistan in their pockets against China, so to speak. And ASEAN, despite all protestations that ASEAN had centrality, which is always invoked as the top priority, is the most important link, appears just as little united here as the EU.