The Voices of War

38. Michael Vatikiotis - Southeast Asia And Its Peculiar Role In Global Politics

VOW 38 | Southeast Asia


My guest today is Michael Vatikiotis who is a writer, journalist and private diplomat working in Southeast Asia (SEA) since 1987. He was formerly editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review as well as a journalist in Asia for more than three decades. He currently lives in Singapore and is the Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based private foundation that facilitates dialogue to resolve armed conflicts.

Michael has written two novels set in Indonesia and three books on the politics of SEA, including ‘Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in modern Southeast Asia’, which we focused on today. Some of topics we covered include: ‘delusion’ of democracy in SEA; power of the elites; question of SEA identity; Western misunderstanding of SEA; China’s influence and role; reality of regional circumstances; US/China contestation; Australia and AUKUS; reality of adjustment and accommodation as well as issues plaguing traditional and social media.   

Full show notes:

My guest today is Michael Vatikiotis who is a writer, journalist and private diplomat working in Southeast Asia since 1987. He was formerly editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review as well as a journalist in Asia for more than three decades. He currently lives in Singapore and is the Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based private foundation that facilitates dialogue to resolve armed conflicts.

Michael has written two novels set in Indonesia and three books on the politics of Southeast Asia, including ‘Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in modern Southeast Asia’, which we’ll focus on a lot today, as well as ‘Political Change in Southeast Asia: Trimming the Banyan Tree’. His latest book ‘Lives Between The Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant’ was published in August this year. In addition to his books, Michael regularly writes opinion pieces for international and regional newspapers and is a regular contributor to outlets such Al Jazeera and the BBC.

Michael is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and gained his doctorate form the University of Oxford.

He joins me today to discuss social, political and cultural dynamics of Southeast Asia and the role it plays, or is likely to play, in the complex world of modern geopolitics.  Some of the topics we covered include:

  • Michael’s background and journey to Southeast Asia
  • Why Western idea of democracy remains a ‘delusion’ in SEA
  • Power and influence of elites in SEA
  • Identity in SEA
  • Western misunderstanding of SEA and what makes it ‘tick’
  • Chinese influence and role in SEA
  • Diversity and values
  • Reality of ASEAN
  • US/China contestation and resulting friction in SEA
  • Peculiar reality of the region’s position
  • Sources of risks of conflict in SEA
  • Australia’s role and impact of AUKUS
  • Reality of ‘Easternisation’
  • Geopolitical struggle of adjustment and accommodation
  • Role of journalism and social media

Reasons behind Michael’s hope

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Michael Vatikiotis – Southeast Asia And Its Peculiar Role In Global Politics

My guest is Michael Vatikiotis, who is a writer, journalist, and private diplomat working in Southeast Asia since 1987. He was formerly the editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, as well as a journalist in Asia for more than three decades. He lives in Singapore and is the Asia Director of the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, a Geneva-based private foundation that facilitates dialogue to resolve armed conflicts. Michael has written 2 novels set in Indonesia and 3 books on the politics of Southeast Asia, including Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, which we’ll focus on a lot, as well as Political Change in Southeast Asia: Trimming the Banyan Tree.

His latest book, Lives Between The Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant, was published in August 2021. In addition to his books, Michael regularly writes opinion pieces for international and regional newspapers and is a regular contributor to outlets such as Al Jazeera and the BBC. Michael is a graduate of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and gained his Doctorate from the University of Oxford. He joins me to discuss the social, political and cultural dynamics of Southeast Asia and the role it plays or is likely to play in the complex world of modern geopolitics. Michael, it is a pleasure. Thank you for joining me.

It’s good to be here, Maz.

Maybe before we get into the complex and dense topic of Southeast Asia, maybe you can start with a little bit about your own background. What took you to that part of the world, and perhaps more importantly, what made you stay?

It’s an interesting little story in that. It was accidental to some extent. I was actually following in my father’s footsteps, studying Middle East Islamic History and being interested in the Middle East itself, which is where my family comes from. We are Italians and Greeks from Egypt and Palestine. I was at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. I asked if I could do a degree where part of the time, I learn Arabic. Part of the time, I did Middle Eastern History and Political Science, and they said no. The Arabic Department basically said, “No, unless you do Arabic full-time, there’s absolutely no way that we’ll let you do the language.”

Accidentally, in the coffee shop, I ran into someone who was teaching modern Southeast Asian languages and said, “We’ll let you do Thai and Indonesian part-time.” It was literally on the basis of that that I started to focus on Southeast Asia and grew to be fascinated by the region, particularly its post-colonial history. I ended up learning Thai and Indonesian. I ended up doing a PhD in Thailand, spending two years or so in Northern Thailand studying the dynamics of the city of Chiang Mai. Accidentally, I was headed into academia. I had a job at the University of Hong Kong lined up after my PhD, and it was my mother who persuaded me to apply for a job at the BBC, perhaps because she didn’t want me to leave the country. I ended up working for the BBC World Service. They sent me first to Southeast Asia as a correspondent in Indonesia, and then I stayed.

Contrary to your mother’s ultimate wishes, as it would seem.

I stayed in Indonesia. After about two years, I eventually left the BBC and joined the former glorious Far Eastern Economic Review as its correspondent in Indonesia and then moved around the region. I was posted in Malaysia and Thailand as bureau chief. I went to Hong Kong as deputy editor and eventually editor. It was 16 years at the Far Eastern Economic Review, a great career. It’s a great induction into reporting Southeast Asia, understanding the region and working with some tremendous colleagues.

Having finished Blood and Silk, which I found an absolutely fascinating read, it’s very obvious how nuanced your understanding of the region is. It’s a book I highly recommend to all my readers for that very reason. There was one particular point of the book that maybe is a good place to set us off on this journey of understanding Southeast Asia. You described democracy in Southeast Asia as a delusion, and maybe that’s an interesting place for us to launch from. I think it will open up a number of interesting avenues for us to explore. What did you mean by that? Why is democracy a delusion in Southeast Asia?

VOW 38 | Southeast Asia
Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia

All the time that I’ve studied and reported from the region, there’s been this perpetual struggle for establishing a representative participatory government. The region, immediately after the colonial era, many of these states were re-established or established. Indonesia was a completely modern state. The Burma emerged from the colonial context. Thailand was never colonised. Malaysia was given independence in 1957, incidentally, the year of my birth. All these countries were established in the mould of modern nation-states in some form, whether in the case of Malaysia or directly imported Westminster-style Parliament. In the case of Indonesia, it was a prime minister plus president cabinet-led system with a sprawling series of interlocking national assemblies.

Within about ten years or less, these forms of participatory, representative government either collapsed or were subverted by military takeovers, internal disunity and fractiousness. The rest has been a long struggle, essentially, to re-establish or reassert the sovereignty of the people. It’s been a long and perpetual struggle, and that’s why I say, in many ways, the pure form of democracy that many people would like to see exercised in Southeast Asia is somewhat delusional. You take the Philippines, for example, which was established after the American Commonwealth, very much as a carbon copy of the American bicameral system with an elected president. By the 1970s, there was Martial Law, and then there was a period of People’s Power in the mid-1980s where an elected presidency and democracy were restored.

Very quickly after that, there were further efforts at a military takeover. Since then, every single president, with almost no exception after the end of this mandatory six-year term, has been prosecuted and jailed. Perhaps delusional is too strong a word, but I think it’s very problematic across Southeast Asia to think that it’s possible to see a smoothly functioning democratic system. The one exception, and I think we’re all going to be surprised in the end, by Indonesia, I’m not particularly surprised. I think Indonesia is the one country in the region that was an invention of itself.

It was such an important invention that they arrived at independence, having had a struggle against the colonial Dutch, having won that, having fought with blood, sweat, and tears for their independence and their freedom, having created a nation in the mould of a modern nation, not an ancient kingdom. A modern nation based on ideals, very much distilled from the left-wing politics of Europe in the pre-war period.

A constitution that, in its economy and its idealism, is almost unmatched in the region. It took a long time, but after 1998, with the removal of an autocratic leader and semi-military rule, Indonesia essentially established itself as a robust, representative, participatory democracy. It has remained the same. Yes, there’s a lot of carping now about the shortcomings of Indonesia’s democracy and democratic system, but the fact is that people get to vote for the president every five years. There is a peaceful transfer of power, at least so far. The country is largely free, and people are treated fairly.

With the exception of Indonesia, then about the rest of Southeast Asia, why wasn’t it as successful in bringing through the ideas of democracy as ultimately the West would’ve liked, or as the West perceives?

In Blood and Silk, I point out the two general generalisations that I make about the region, and of course, they’re not perfect. One is the weakness of institutions. Two related to that to some extent are, of course, the privileged elites that have run these countries, controlled or remained at the apex of political and social systems for the last 70 years. Those privileged elites stand in the way of a more robust, participatory system with full popular sovereignty.

That’s certainly an aspect I’d like to explore because when I was reading that part of the book, particularly about the elites, it resonated so strongly with me. It echoes of what I’ve come to know of the Balkans. The control and manipulation by those elites to remain in power by using ethnicity, religion, and so on. What do you mean by the elites for those who firstly aren’t necessarily familiar with the idea of elite capture or elites maintaining control? What do we mean by that in the Southeast Asian context?

It’s a combination of two things. To some extent, the privileged elites that emerged from the colonial era were educated or were given preferential treatment in the colonial context. Also, the business elites tend to be large conglomerates that want to preserve semi-monopolies and military elites. The military, as you know, creates a very hierarchical system.

In the Southeast Asian context, there’s been a privilege, even though it’s part of the world that hasn’t fought many wars, certainly not among themselves. The military serves a rather internal security function for the most part in many of these countries. It’s created an element of privilege. They want to preserve budgets. They want to preserve a way of life, a leadership that can’t be touched or scrutinised.

Southeast Asia has not fought many wars among themselves. The military serves an internal security function for the most part in many of these countries and has created an element of privilege. Share on X

The establishment of these elites, these three pillars, and the highly educated, often aristocratic, the business elites, often overseas Chinese conglomerates, and then the military security elites, who want to remain untouched and unscrutinised in order to preserve their power, are essentially the three pillars. They have kept some of the normal functioning institutions of a well-balanced democratic system, anti-corruption, frequent regular changes of office holders, and transfer of power. It’s been very difficult to maintain those things in the face of this elite privilege and resistance.

You make that quite clear in the book. One of the things that also strikes me is a sense of identity is being manipulated by these elites. Also, the idea of nationhood, or what we would consider as nationhood, is perhaps a secondary order need for many of the social groups around Southeast Asia. Did I read that accurately? There are other identities that are far more important, whether cultural, religious, or ethnic identities that surpass this idea of nationhood or standing behind the flag. Did I read that accurately in your book?

The whole question of identity in Southeast Asia has good and bad aspects. The good aspect, of course, is that it is extremely fluid. You have 630 million people or more in Southeast Asia, divided between the mainland and the islands, a huge amount of diversity overlaying by historical patterns of migration. There isn’t a lot of uniformity or homogeneity in Southeast Asia. Even in countries like Thailand, which prides itself on being a unitary kingdom, there is much more diversity than meets the eye. The mainland states and the island states were always a checkerboard of little principalities, bounded by hills and valleys or islands that developed more or less on their own, with their own forms of leadership, cultures and languages over many centuries.

They were unified here and there over time, not always very successfully or for very long. In the post-colonial context, of course, these old historical kingdoms were reinvented in the case of Burma. In the case of the nine states of Malaysia, there was a federal system put in place. In the case of Indonesia, a unitary state that rather improbably amalgamated all these different islands, regions and languages, but the great secret in Indonesia, in terms of their identity, was the use of a common language.

Bahasa was literally created for that purpose.

It was a form of Malay. It’s a standard Malay that was spoken in parts of Sumatra but not in Java, for instance. Malay is a trading language, and so it was the easiest and most convenient for you because everyone spoke a bit of it. That’s how people traded. What’s ironic in Southeast Asia is that the major common language across the region is English, the common language of commercial exchange. It isn’t either Chinese or Malay or any of the other languages. It’s English. This question of identity, a very positive aspect of it, was because of the need to bind these groups of people together. There was never any sense of enforced assimilation or integration.

In the European context for a couple of hundred years, the whole notion of a nation-state involved a single identity for the most part. That often led to religious and ethnic discrimination in the European context. In the Southeast Asian context, most of the constitutions of independence allowed for pluralism. A tolerated religious difference mandated that people could have whatever faith they wanted and could speak their own language, and even go to their own schools if need be. I think that’s always been positive. It’s created a lot less conflict than we’ve seen in other parts of the world where nationalism imposed a single identity or a single faith. Indonesia has long argued over this.

There are those in Indonesia who would still like to see it as an Islamic state. I don’t think it will ever happen. I think pluralism is a bedrock. The identity is not that. The multiple identities of the region have served it well and prevented and reduced levels of conflict over time, even where there has been anti-Chinese sentiment. There have been pogroms here and there against Muslims by Buddhists and against Christians and so on, but by and large, the record is a good one. I had been rather worried by the emergence of identity politics, as you alluded to. When I wrote the book, I was extremely worried about this.

I’m slightly more encouraged because as the wave of extremism has passed, sensible people in all these countries recognised that actually what holds them together is diversity and not polarisation. The polarisation is still there, and it’s still exploited. One of the ironies of democratisation is that it actually allows people in plural politics to play identity politics. Even with that threat, I think that pluralism wins out across Southeast Asia for the most part.

VOW 38 | Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia: One of the ironies of democratization is that it allows people in plural politics to play identity politics. Even with that threat, pluralism wins out across Southeast Asia for the most part.


Almost ironically, the lack of credible democracy, as we would consider democracy, has allowed for these pluralist ideals to permeate and remain, which I guess is very much historically tied to the region. As you rightly point out, there is very little local conflict across Southeast Asia compared to the rest of the world. Having been there for so long, what, in your view, does the Anglo-West not understand about Southeast Asia?

I think two things. One is that there’s an under-appreciation of the extent to which this malleability and flexibility around identity and political systems, the whole ambiguity of norms and values, which frustrates a lot of Westerners because they want rules. They want the rule of law. They want a set of institutions that govern things in a certain way. This is what holds the region together because it prevents conflict. There is still that sense.

It’s maybe getting worse because as the geopolitics becomes more polarised, there is a more urgent demand on the part, particularly of the Western powers, the United States and Europe, that Southeast Asia somehow use a model that is somehow similar to theirs. In a way, this is less about what they think about institutions and norms and values and more about trying to retain a sense of primacy. Somehow Southeast Asia should look more like us. In the great contest with China, we certainly don’t want them to be ending up in that camp.

This is going to get a lot worse. This mismatch in terms of values, in terms of misunderstanding or a misperception of how this region ticks and its whole flexibility and adaptability to different conditions can frustrate people who are looking for alignments and alliances. They’re looking for rather hard boundaries between them and us. Southeast Asia, you look at where it is in the world, it’s between larger countries, between great seas. It is essentially a locus of trade and exchange. It’s always been a great place for the movement of people in and through and out. I think to try and lock Southeast Asia into some idée fixe about ideology and norms and values is going to make people feel very uncomfortable here. They will reject that.

VOW 38 | Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia: Locking Southeast Asia into some idée fixe about ideology, norms, and values will make people feel very uncomfortable. They will reject that.


I guess as someone who is deeply embedded in the idea of diplomacy, and dialogue, you’re very well-positioned to make that assessment. How do we build those bridges, then? You’re striking me as though someone walks in two worlds. You are so deeply embedded in Southeast Asia linguistically, speaking two of the principal languages. You are educated in the West, whilst you have diverse roots. You grew up by and large in the Western system, so you understand the West. As you alluded to, in the ongoing contestation between US and China, Southeast Asia stands to play a very powerful role. How do we get to that point?

It’s going to be hard because the Southeast Asian position is that they don’t want to align or choose. There is, of course, a great deal of concern about the way China has been behaving as it rose, as it’s risen, as it’s become, for the first time in its history, a great power with the need for external interaction. If you look at previous periods of Chinese history, they were always big and powerful. They demanded tribute, but they didn’t interfere very much. They kept themselves to themselves and were very few exceptions. It was a very insular, inward-looking empire. The great fear in Southeast Asia is that it may change. China, because of its need as the world’s largest economy increasingly, is going to be like every other empire in the world.

The need for resources. The need for control of those resources. The need to use power and force to control the availability of those resources and trading routes, which then leads to a very different kind of China than anything that the region has been used to dealing with in the past. There is a great sense of concern about that. To some, it seems that the best way to deal with that is to balance it with a strategic investment in closer ties with the US and the Western powers. That’s the bedrock assumption that they want to try and swing it both ways. Where I sit in Singapore, the Singaporeans have invested heavily in the Sinosphere in terms of trade investment, money, capital and people. At the same time, they’re very worried if you invest everything in that Sinosphere, how are you going to counterbalance that?

How are you going to avoid being captured by the Sinosphere? It’s a great conundrum. I don’t think at the same time that it’s a very good time for Southeast Asia to be thinking about these things in a coherent way. At the same time as the geopolitics impinges on the region, the region is not very well connected. It’s not very well networked. There’s the fact that the pandemic, of course, has prevented effective face-to-face diplomacy within the region.

Secondarily, I think it’s also the fact that most of the leaders are in Southeast Asia. One of the ironies of more frequent changes of government with more liberal political systems is that leaders don’t know each other the way that they did years ago. They’re not well connected. They’ve got very little in common with one another because of their peculiar diversity. The ties have very little in common with the Malaysians.

One of the ironies of more frequent changes of government with more liberal political systems is that leaders don't really know each other the way that they did ten years ago. Share on X

Even the Malaysians, even though there’s a common language, have very little in common with the Javanese and much of Indonesia. It’s very hard to maintain, especially at a time like this, effective interaction and communication on critical issues. This has made for very poor regional diplomacy at a time when the ten nations of Southeast Asia should be acting in concert to deal with this massive challenge of geopolitical bipolarity.

I guess here you’re probably referring to ASEAN and its potential but also its difficulties, a consensus-driven, long-standing debate-based organisation. Am I reading between the lines there?

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has become a very popular punch bag at the moment, particularly in light of what’s been happening in Myanmar post the military coup. It’s never been set up as a strong coordinated sovereignty-softening body. It was always essentially meant as a convenience. It was designed as a convenience largely to prevent interstate conflict in the region, which it has done very effectively. It’s not really to promote intervention, to promote regional governance or to promote common values. They don’t have common values.

That’s a really interesting point. They don’t have common values. How would you describe that? That strikes me as a very important point.

Indonesia is the most modern state in the region. It has a very Republican mindset. Thailand is a traditional monarchy. The mainland states share some cultural similarities there. You could argue for cultural similarities across the region. Everyone grows rice. Everyone had a background of spirit worship. There are the great religions, Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. There are those sorts of commonalities, but in terms of what people actually have in common, they’ve largely lived rather isolated from each other. Let’s face it. Budget air travel is a few years old in this region. The fact that people are able to get on a plane in Penang and go to Bangkok is a very recent phenomenon.

Ordinary people, not the elites. I have just booked a flight from Singapore to Bangkok for less than $400, which is an affordable price for middle-class people. I think that that’s something that had been beginning to change, at least before the pandemic, the sense of people understanding each other a little better, but they’re a long way to go. There are lots of hard boundaries, and sovereignty is still a very important issue in this part of the world.

I was going to say that it relates to the point you made about the elite capture and the sovereignty idea. It’s in their interest to retain sovereignty over their own domains, however far and wide they reach, which is why an organisation like ASEAN is not likely to be seen by those very elites as a useful tool because it might dilute that very control and power they hold.

Coming back to China, you mentioned the aggressive nature of Chinese intervention, and you certainly talk about that in the book. Does that not lend itself for exploitation, then? We termed broadly as a wolf warrior diplomacy and isolating individual nations or groups for negotiations. China has an absolute asymmetry of power in those dealings. Do you see that having an impact on the region?

No one wants a war. The ten nations of Southeast Asia have successfully, over the last half-century, avoided interstate conflict. That’s not to say they’ve avoided intrastate or internal conflict. There’s more or less been perpetual intrastate or internal conflict but since independence in many countries. Largely, they’ve avoided interstate warfare. China is also of the view that 3war is not the best way for it to implement its interests in the region and beyond. The problem is that the United States and its allies are essentially steeped in the culture of alliance and alignment and, in a way, a history of successful prosecution of war.

Whether it was the victory in two World Wars by the UK and the US and some of the European powers, or as some would see it, this is debatable, the successful establishment of a model of limited warfare. That’s a more controversial issue because in the Middle East, as we’ve seen, the US can maybe claim that it achieved its objectives in Iraq and Kuwait before that. The civilian costs were enormous. I think my concern now is that there is a sense in Washington and possibly even some European countries that limited war is a viable tool for shoring up primacy.

I think in this part of the world, there is this great aversion to war and suffering because, of course, they’ve experienced it. The Indo-China wars of the 1960s and 1970s, plus the anti-communist struggles that engulfed the region, cost the lives of more than 12 million people. That’s in living memory. There’s an aversion to war, and there’s a desire to accommodate. If you take the South China Sea, for instance, many US, European and Australian commentators find it hard to believe that Southeast Asian states are willing to accept China’s imposition of sovereignty over the South China Sea. A more reasonable assumption in Southeast Asia is that this is China’s only maritime front.

We can expect them to want to dominate it. We have to find ways of adjusting to that. There isn’t a legal fix to the sovereignty disputes. We’re going to have to manage. Managing conflict has always been the Southeast Asian way. You’re never going to resolve, and you’re never going to end in some agreement, but you will always find a way to manage with the least harm and violent fallout that suits everybody, but somehow, it never results in any resolution.

Managing conflict has always been the Southeast Asian way. You will always find a way to manage with the least harm and violent fallout that suits everybody, but it never results in any resolution. Share on X

You make the point in the book that Southeast Asia is a nut in between the two arms of a giant nutcracker, and that being China and the US. What I hear you say is it strikes me as though it’s the rigidity and the lack of nuance and understanding of the region from the West that’s actually pouring more fuel onto the fire. It’s putting more pressure on Southeast Asia than Southeast Asia would like. Incidentally, it’s, therefore, putting more pressure on China, and it’s an action-reaction, action-reaction. Is that accurate?

Yes. I take the view, and not everyone would agree with this. I think China was always going to run into obstacles when it realised that it could no longer adhere to these fanciful five principles of peaceful coexistence, non-interference, and so on. The logic of its growth and expansion as a global economy means that it was always going to have to deal with the outside world in a way that was different from its historical memory. They’re going to have to get entangled in regional conflicts. They’re going to have to take a stand on, for instance, Afghanistan on developments in Central Asia. They got involved in the ethnic peace process in Myanmar. This was inevitable. They don’t really have a good way of dealing with that.

They’re not used to it. They’re not the best diplomats. They can be clumsy. They can come in and bang the table. The whole culture in China of officials having to make sure that instructions are followed leads to a great deal of rigidity and ineffectiveness. However, as you say, I think on the other side of the ledger, there is enormous pressure on this region to take sides to align. If you read every American statement about Southeast Asia, this whole language of alliance and alignment is shared values, which is actually not true, and strategic alliances and relationships, which imply a ‘them’ and ‘us.’ It’s not a collective whole.

It’s like you are with us and not with them. That sets up a great deal of not just discomfort but friction. That makes people feel very uncomfortable in this part of the world. They simply have to live with China as they have to live, to some extent, with India. It’s fortunate for this region that India, which is also an emerging power, has very little interest in the outside world. India is interested in its own region and doesn’t really have much of a forward policy, and to some extent, that’s relieved the pressure on this region from having those two giant neighbours. On the other hand, China has been provoked, and it feels that it has to make these stands. It has to fly its fighter aircraft close to Taiwan.

It has to match the more or less perpetual presence of the US Navy in the South China Sea. At the same time, the US is putting pressure on Europe and Australia and its allies to join this confrontation. It’s very provocative. I think it’s fair to say that the presentation of the freedom of navigation operations as something that the US does everywhere to maintain the freedom of the sea lanes is not a true assessment of what they’re doing. What they’re actually doing is coming up against the Chinese Navy in the South China Sea in a meaningful, strategic way. They operate at the level they want to avoid mishaps and miscalculations, but the room for that has definitely grown.

It strikes me again that this action-reaction idea, which is what we’re describing here as well, is that it can lead us down some very dangerous waters, no pun intended in this case. It certainly can lead to accidents, misjudgements, and miscalculations. Given the nature of your work, how worried are leaders across Southeast Asia about this? What did they actually want for their region?

They’re very worried, but there’s also an area of resignation. I was talking to a senior Southeast Asian diplomat about this proposed Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. He said, “If it was difficult before because the Chinese weren’t really being sincere about developing a binding Code of Conduct, it’s now even more difficult. Everything has become coloured by the US-China confrontation.” There’s frustration but also a resignation to the fact that this is a reality. We’re going to have to manage it as best we can. I think Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has often given voice to the fact that it’s important for the US and China to understand that this is an extremely dangerous way to go about things in this region.

It’s going to, once again, embroil Southeast Asia as a proxy in a US-China conflict, as we saw during the Indo-China War, but which was extremely costly in terms of life and suffering. There’s concern, frustration, and an area of resignation because Southeast Asia has no power. As I said earlier, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations doesn’t have the centrality it craves in terms of regional security. The architecture is extremely fractured. Neither China nor the United States really pays any heed to regional forums, not in a meaningful way. Any attempt by medium and small-sized countries to convene the US and China to talk about this is doomed to failure at this point.

Everyone is very frustrated and worried. The biggest risk is a clash in the South China Sea between the US and Chinese navies, which can be accidental. There may also be a desire on the part of the high commands in both Beijing and Washington to test one another in terms of military capacity. “Let’s see what a bloody nose approach would achieve.” I think that’s a dangerous risk at the moment. There are people in both capitals who have this sense of “Bring it on.” I think on the US side, there is this real worry that if that doesn’t happen soon, then the US Navy and military, in general, may no longer have the capacity to best the Chinese.

On the Chinese side, in the political environment, it’s possible that in order to lock in his authority, it’s possible that it may be tempting for Xi Jinping to go along with some limited confrontation. Although I think that’s more on the US than on the Chinese side. I don’t think the Chinese side has much confidence in their ability to manage a conflict well. There’s always the fear of escalation. This could very quickly escalate because at the root of it is this quest for primacy.

The US has woken up at long last to the fact that China essentially has moved ahead in a number of areas where the US is far behind. That includes military technology as well as the latest reports about hypersonic missile suggests. This puts this region very much in the spotlight and in a vulnerable position because one part of this region in the maritime domain could well be the context in which conflict breaks out.

VOW 38 | Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia: The US has woken up at long last to the fact that China essentially has moved ahead in a number of areas where the US is far behind, particularly military technology.


Speaking of the maritime domain, what are your thoughts on Australia’s decision to pivot from France to go to the highly enriched uranium nuclear-powered submarines? What is Australia’s role, perceived role, imagined role, or otherwise in the region and this bigger geopolitical contestation?

There are two things to say. First of all is that over the years, Australia’s engagement with Southeast Asia has been in a serious decline. That’s largely due to domestic politics to some extent. I arrived in Indonesia mid to late 1980s, where essentially Australia was very firmly engaged on the issue of the Cambodian peace process. Its diplomats were extremely active in the region. They played an important role in working shoulder to shoulder with regional colleagues on locking in place a peace agreement in 1991 in Cambodia.

This was under a liberal government. You had extremely well-reversed diplomats like Gareth Evans, Michael Costello, and Paul Keating with his vision of engagement with the region. That all labour governments began to unravel with the liberals coming to power in a much more sustained way. Australia is essentially turning inward dealing with its own issues, the economy being quite strong on a primary commodity basis. What holds Southeast Asia together in many ways economically is its service and retail economy. It’s the trade and goods. The fact that there’s tourism, there’s a lot of movement and there’s a lot of commerce, but Australia’s economy is not commerce based. It’s iron ore, the primary export. There are not a lot of services that are exported to the region. That’s often, I think, underestimated as an important aspect of why Australia is not so closely bound to Southeast Asia.

The second point is, of course, the deep and inherent suspicion of Indonesia, which is the closest neighbour, which is a very deeply felt, almost visceral sense of fear. A large Muslim nation right up on our border, with a history of unrest and violence, not to mention potential immigration. I think that’s the second background factor. Thirdly, as I’ve said before, the US has put enormous pressure on Australia to align itself even against its better instincts. It started with the positioning of the Marines in Darwin. There was a lot of pressure to essentially go back to a model that we hadn’t seen since the Second World War of alignment, shoulder to shoulder, as they like to say.

These three factors have contributed to what we eventually saw with AUKUS, which I think is less about submarines and more about a deeper alignment in terms of sharing intelligence technology. Whatever people say, Southeast Asia didn’t like this, but for one thing, it’s basically three Anglosphere nations not really sharing very much with the region. It doesn’t have a good look, even to those who argue. There’s this whole tribe of strategic analysts out there who argue that this is so good for the rest of the region.

It provides a better security umbrella, intelligence, deterrence, and so on. I was struck by people like Hugh White, Paul Keating and others who sounded the alarm on this and said, “Is this what we want? Are we going to survive as a semi-continent, the bottom end of the world being isolated from the region that we’re closest to and in confrontation with our largest trading partner? Is that the way forward, mates?” It doesn’t seem to cut much domestically because China hasn’t done itself any favours in Australia. It behaved very aggressively and used very crude tools that have built up a great deal of public anger and suspicion towards China.

It’s a mess. What’s the way out? It might be the best way to end this segment because it would be useful for Australia to begin to counterbalance the fallout from AUKUS. This is going around the region, but you know, more than that, actually seek to deepen relationships that have languished over the years. I deal very closely with Australian diplomats around the region, and I’ve always had this incredible respect for Australia’s deeper understanding of Southeast Asia and its great sense of perspective on the region. It’s largely driven by a long history of engagement but also academic focus and so on. That seems to have deteriorated. I think it would be useful to see maybe beginning with civil society track two university-led discussions about how to restore a rather more sophisticated relationship with the region.

One of the things that I perpetually seem to try to want to explore in the show is this clash between interests versus values. It strikes me as though Australia is trying to pursue or merge both, but oftentimes they clash. Whether it’s in the expeditionary wars of the Middle East support to Iraq, which is public knowledge in Australia, it was a political decision to strengthen our alliance with the US. These kinds of interest-driven decisions ultimately undermine the values of Australia, in my view at least, and some will chastise me for this, but Australia undermines itself.

There’s an overt and obvious clash between pursuing its interests against values that it tries to espouse or promote to the rest of the world. Treatment of France is certainly one of those aspects. This is not a debate about the actual utility of the submarines, and I certainly don’t want to get into that, but more on the macro level of how we are perceived still as a world power. What’s your view on that? Do you see a clash between interests and values?

I think it’s true that the two have merged in a way. AUKUS is a good example of that because the rest of the region views this as these three Anglosphere countries. They are therefore sharing values who decided that their interests are best served by binding themselves more tightly in terms of those shared values. It’s clear that, of course, France has the biggest deployment in the Pacific than any other nation other than the United States. They’re very much a Pacific power. It was just a few years ago that Australia was trying to project itself as a Pacific nation. That seems to have gone by the wayside.

This binding of interests and values speaks to something much deeper and more important in the world. I think the West feels very much threatened by what my friend, Gideon Rachman at the FT, described in the book a few years ago as Easternization. It’s a great term. The fact that the economic focus or locus of activity is shifting Eastward, that the centre of gravity in the world is no longer in Europe and North America. It’s essentially in Asia. It’s shifting towards Asia, not just China, but also India. Southeast Asia is almost 700 million souls with vibrant economies. This has injected a sense of insecurity that has forced the West to want to use those common values as more of a binding tool.

The West feels threatened by Easternization, or the shift of economic focus or locus of activity from Europe and North America to Asia. Share on X

A last-ditch effort really to assert primacy. It’s obviously felt more strongly in the United States because the United States cannot conceive of itself. This is only a relatively recent phenomenon, of course, because pre-1941, the US was a rather insular country, concerned more about its own neighbourhood in the Caribbean and Latin America than Europe and further East. This concern and neurosis about the loss of primacy are driving that values-driven desire for closer binding and alignment and binding of those alignments to commitments, which is what we’ve seen with AUKUS. It’s those commitments that I think we have to worry about because, at the same time, in Southeast Asia, there are two concerns.

One is this begins to look like old-fashioned, White-faced colonialism. Two, there’s a question of whether those commitments will ever be lived up to if you don’t share the same values. Everyone remembers very clearly what happened in 2012 in Scarborough Shoal. The US did not respond to Philippines’ request for help. There’s the question of Taiwan as well. Are those values-driven and interest-driven binding commitments the same in Asia? That’s an unspoken, very much current question in the minds of many people. AUKUS didn’t help because of the optics of the three leaders, the three middle-aged White men on the stage basically saying, “We’re standing together,” and there are no Asians anywhere in sight, that didn’t help.

I think that’s the problem. I also think the values themselves are becoming more compartmentalised. There’s no doubt the old euphoria of the post-Cold War era where we’re all in a globalised context and doing things together. We’re all responsible stakeholders. We’re all committed to the multilateral system. That has deteriorated significantly because of domestic politics across Europe and the United States.

Domestic constituencies have said, “Actually, we don’t subscribe to that agenda. We want more for ourselves. We want our children to be better educated and better looked after. Why should we spend money on troops in Afghanistan? Why should we spend money on the multilateral system in the UN when we actually need more ourselves?” That’s driving a much more insidious division of the world into different poles of identity and values that are no longer so shared. I think that’s very dangerous.

Where do you put that down to? That strikes me as something that we’ll look back decades from now, as the unfolding crisis over the last 30, 40 years. Some call it the growing inequality, but the growth of populism. What do you put that down to this us versus them closing off ourselves? How do you explain it?

To a large extent, the old European concert of powers, the US umbrella, it’s going to be hard to maintain. It’s costly. People don’t want it. At least for the United States, it’s almost unimaginable to think of what they would do without it. They spend what percentage of their GDP on defence? How can you continue to justify that if you are not a purveyor of global peace and values, peace being a debatable term? I think this is a great struggle. I hate to use that term all the time, but we’re largely talking about Australia, Europe, and the United States, North America. How can they begin to adapt to a world in which they’re no longer the primary powers?

How can they adjust to the shift in the centre of the economic, political power, and global power to a part of the world, and everyone knows this, which doesn’t completely share those values? Everyone talks about India being in the quad as a democracy. If you look at India now, it’s far from being a rambunctious, liberal democracy. It’s emerging as a Hindu Nationalist State. I think that’s the great struggle. It’s an adjustment. It’s a struggle of adjustment and accommodation. Hopefully, we can achieve this without war. It’s very hard to imagine the United States accepting to go quietly into the night as a lesser power or for Europe to accept. I think Europe’s a little bit easier with this.

VOW 38 | Southeast Asia
Southeast Asia: It’s hard to imagine the United States quietly accepting that they are a lesser power than Asia.


I go to Europe quite a bit, and I’m always struck by the sense in which they’re quite gracefully adjusting to a more mundane existence. It’s not necessarily wielding power on the global stage. They would rather like to see people respect what Europe has to offer in terms of institutional integrity, in terms of law and values. That’s true, but they’re less insistent on primacy. I think that’s the great struggle. Here in Southeast Asia, I think people are torn. On the one hand, there is a liberal segment of society that actually worries very much. If China’s primacy becomes too heavy, then all their struggles for openness, transparency, and democracy are going to be lost.

On the other hand, you have elites who never really subscribed to those views in the first place. You basically see an opportunity. They want to make sure that they’re on the right side of that opportunity. At the same time, they also fear being captured by large Chinese conglomerates. I think on all sides, there is a sense of trepidation. I wouldn’t say fear, but concern. If the US in the past, as a major superpower, was hard to manage, how are the Chinese going to be managed? How will they fit into a global system? Will they adhere to the basic rules of multilateral diplomacy? I think everyone’s watching that. There’s a great push in China at the moment to try and get hold of control of governance in certain new areas like artificial intelligence.

Everyone’s worried that when they do that, are they going to adhere to rules, or do they want to make up a new set of rules to benefit themselves? Which, of course, the Chinese would argue is precisely what the West did at the end of the Second World War. They made up rules to benefit themselves, the Bretton Woods system. We’re at this great pivotal moment in a way where we’re not quite sure how it’s going to go. Is it going to lead to conflict, or is there going to be a grand bargain and accommodation? What role does this region play in that at a time when two years of isolation from one another has made regional diplomacy and advocacy very difficult to conduct?

I suspect that will keep you busy for the foreseeable future. Michael, I’m conscious of the time, so we’re coming pretty close to our hard-right shoulder. A couple of maybe final questions, this first one relates to your DNA as a journalist. Given what we’ve talked about, it strikes me as a lot of it is to do with what you’ve explicitly said. It’s about maintaining domestic support in the various countries that are involved. That is done through the media. As a journalist who’s written for prominent global newspapers, what are your thoughts on the state of the Great Fourth Estate now?

I sense that the media globally has suffered a body blow because of the loss of its business. Traditional media suffered a body blow because of the loss of its business model. It was replaced to some extent by the rise of untrammelled social media. The great fear has always been that if you have untrammelled social media, unconstrained, unmoderated and unedited views and opinions everywhere, the distinction between fact and fiction and the ability to manipulate misinformation enormously increases. That’s what’s happened. To some extent, what you see is people are looking for ways to bridle, manage social media and adhere to a set of behavioural rules for people not to exploit and conduct influence operations,

On the other hand, the surest way to better management of information is to have an organised set of media institutions. Provide people with good, moderated, edited content that has been checked for facts. That has been edited so as not to lead people into misunderstanding. That is governed by a set of objective news values, but that’s not happening because there’s no money for it. I suppose there’s also little demand for it because everyone enjoys being able to have their own say.

The surest way to better manage information is to have an organized set of media institutions. Provide people with good, moderated, and edited content that has been checked for facts. Share on X

Due to my own background as a journalist in the traditional mould, I sometimes wish that we could return to stronger media bodies or institutions that foster well-curated content that could then give people a genuine choice as to what to believe. I think this whole idea of being able to impose controls on social media is likely to fail. People want to have their say, and governments want to be able to manipulate information. I fear that we’re not in a good place vis-a-vis the media. What’s needed is money to be devoted to provide the resources for reporting and editing. That’s how it works. People need to have trust in the media that they read or see, and that’s fast disappearing.

I guess that’s been eroded over time, and institutions have failed. This is one of the reasons for the West, the failed idea of meritocracy and so on. Social media, naturally by its design, exists as an attention economy to grab your attention. I discussed this with one of your colleagues, Adam Cooper, on a previous episode. Given everything we’ve talked about, and perhaps the gloomy prognosis that one might want to read between the lines, what makes people like yourself not lose hope? Why have you been able to remain hopeful and committed to pursuing mediation rather than taking aside or stepping outside of the domain and pursuing perhaps less noble ideals?

It’s a good question, and I think there are two answers. One is I think I belong to a generation that is optimistic by nature. The Baby Boomer generation had a lot of opportunities. We were born and cast in an era where there was great faith in human endeavour and the institutions created by human endeavour. That leads to an optimistic mindset by nature. That’s not true of my children’s generation. They’re very much less optimistic about the future. We haven’t even gone onto the subject of climate change. The second reason is that I live and work in a part of the world that is by nature also fairly optimistic.

Tomorrow will always be better. There are always opportunities around the corner. People are not so dogmatic. They’re rather fearful of ideology. There’s also a great deal of uncertainty and insecurity, but they live with it. They manage it rather better. You get up in the morning and think it’s another sunny day. It’s not like being in the middle of Afghanistan or Tigray in Ethiopia. There’s a bountifulness about this region that I think helps people cope with the problems that they face. Going back to one of my earlier points, there’s a great deal of social elasticity despite the great inequalities. People have found ways to manage at different levels, a sense of community, a sense of belonging, and a great faith in the ability to work through problems. It’s my optimism and also the optimism of this region.

Perhaps that should be a trait adopted by the rest of the world, this idea of flexibility, which I really like. On that note, Michael, it’s been fascinating. I feel like we’ve barely scratched the surface of this exceptionally complex and dynamic area. It’s a likely role that it’s playing in geopolitics, but nonetheless, thank you very much for your time. I look forward to speaking with you again in the future.

Thank you, Maz. It was a great pleasure. Take care.


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