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Deep in the SEA with Mirko Giordani
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Deep in the SEA with Mirko Giordani

Author: Mirko Giordani

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I have lived my entire life in the West and I love it. I love Europe and I love my country, Italy. However, I am feeling it is time to embark in discovering the most interesting region in the world. Middle East? America? China? No, I want to explore Southeast Asia and India and their diversity, their cultural melting polt, their economic and political experiments that are far away from the attention of western media.

In fact, when our media speak about Asia, they mean only China. Mainstream western media are completely forgetting Southeast Asia and India, two of the most young, diverse and driven regions in the world. The western world can’t allow anymore to forget about more than two billion of people.
47 Episodes
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What will be the consequences of Pompeo's statement on South China Sea?Professor Carlyle Thayer, a good friend of mine, has clear ideas on the issue. Have a listen!
Twenty Indian soldiers died in the heights of the Himalayas in the clashes with PLA troops. The skirmish is getting serious but, according to Akshobh Giridharadas, the risk of a further escalation is unlikely.
Dylan Loh is not going around the issue: ASEAN will remain neutral over Hong Kong. ASEAN countries can't allow - according to Dylan - to side with either China or the USA on Hong Kong. ASEAN - to retain its centrality and strategic strength - must engage with both the superpowers and preserve the balance of power between them.
Is there a parallel between China's assertiveness and military actions in the South China Sea and the recent escalation against India? According to Abhijit Singh - former naval officer and Head of the Maritime Policy Initiative at ORF - China is acting in the Himalayas in the same way as in the South China Sea. It is carrying on minimal tactical shifts on the ground - which usually never trigger a tactical response - but slowly but surely changing the strategic scenario. However, in the Ladakh region, India has tactically responded to the menaces, causing several skirmishes. But what is the rationale behind China's assertiveness? According to Mr Singh, Chinese actions are dictacted by a deep sense of internal weakness, not strength. The CCP has been the target of international scrutiny - especially from the West and particularly the USA - for the COVID-19 epidemic. and this amounted pressure has exploded against India. Like a press ion cooker, the huge pressure on Xi Jinping's shoulders exploded against India.
Indonesia's rate of contagion is surging swiftly. Will it be another Italy of Covid-19?
This is a special episode of Deep in the SEA, covering the geopolitical, economic and political consequences of COVID-19 over SEA and India. This time, Mirko Giordani interviewed several analysts and professors: Carlyle Thayer, Akshobh Giridharadas, Shaanti Shamdasani, Chester Cabalza, Narut Charoensri and Aakash Brahmachari.
COVID-19 has just woken up Southeast Asian countries: over reliance on China is not possible anymore.
Akshobh Giridharadas is a friend of mine, and he is the best source possible about what is happening in India. We have recorded this episode before the COVID-19 global outbreak, but he has done a fantastic overview of pre-corona India's issues: Trump meeting with Modi, the clash with European Union over Jammu Kashmir and the budget law. Have a listen!
Malaysia, without considering the damages of the COVID-19, is coming out of a political turmoil. Mahathir Mohamad has been the long-living kingmaker of Malaysian politics and, after his resignation, Mr Muhyiddin Yassin took his place. However, as I have discussed with Emmanuel, I observe Malaysia from outside and it seems to me it is a declining country surrounded by more dynamic and flexible nations. According to Emmanuel, Malaysia has the potential to blossom again, because it has still good economic infrastructure. However, the demographic dividend is not helping the country. Its salaries remain low, due to the large immigration from low-income Muslim countries. The risk for Malaysia is to remain forever in the low-income trap.
Aakash Brahmachari is an Associate Director at G3, a business intelligence outfit in London. Aakash, as an Indian living in the UK, has the opportunity to look at the Indian affairs with a detached sight. I have asked Aakash about a comparison between India and China and, differently from other Indian professionals and academics I have spoken with, he didn't agree to compare the two Asian giants. As Aakash said, what works in one country doesn't work in the other. China had a spectacular growth thanks to the government, while India has grown despite his bloating bureaucracy and inefficient government. Moreover, the institutions that are supposed to fuel economic growth, like banks, are plagued by corruption. Inefficient corporations backed by politicians received favourable loans from state banks, creating unfair conditions to unleash market forces. This despite Modi's government is perceived as a market-friendly government.
Bala is a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur, he is Malaysian and he works across the entire region. I have discussed with him about the broad and topical point on how the US-China trade war is going to influence Southeast Asian countries. During previous episodes, I have dealt with the issue in a kind of broad term, but with Bala I went in-depth, and we assessed how a small Malaysian island, Penang, is going to thrive thanks to the trade war. Penang has been ruled directly by the British and since it has been a thriving trade hub in the region, surpassed only by Singapore. In the late 70s, thanks to the ability of its Chief Minister, Penang became an educational powerhouse and it started to attract big western tech companies. However, when labor costs rose in Malaysia and China started to open up its economy with Deng Xiaoping, tech conglomerates moved their operations in mainland China. Penang was left in relative decline. However, thanks to the combo of higher labor costs in China and the uncertainties of the trade war, tech companies are now starting to come back to Penang. Companies can find in the island a cluster of exceptional universities, extensive use of the English language, and trained tech managers.
Carlo Fong Luy is a young researcher and he has a lot to share about his country, the Philippines. As you dear listeners may have understood, I have a passion to speak about Rodrigo Duterte and his flamboyant foreign policy. According to Carlo, in order to understand Duterte, we need to depart from a rock-solid assertion: the Philippines’ politics is an oligarchy. Powerful elites control vast swaths of the country and government needs them. A pro-Chinese foreign policy lead Chinese investments that have been beneficial particularly for the elites in Duterte’s circle: Dennis Uy and Lucio Tan.
Richard Heydarian is one of the most authoritative source regarding the Philippines and Rodrigo Duterte. According to Heydarian, in the past Duterte, a local politician in Davao with zero experience in global affairs, has been capable to pragmatically shift Manila’s foreign policy away from an ironclad and rigid alliance with Washington. Duterte, differently from previous leaders, has been acute enough to understand that sometimes the Philippines’ national interests would have been better off by distancing from the US and binding more with Beijing. However, Durerte has swung too much aggressively towards China and he is not appreciating anymore the value of the US deterrence against a more assertive Chinese presence in the South China Sea.The military apparatus, obviously, is not really in tune with Duterte’s pro China stances. According to Heydarian, Duterte and his supporters are overestimating China’s assets and underestimating it’s liabilities: aging population, ecological catastrophe and structural economic slowdown. There will not be a complete collapse, as American scholars predict, but the physics of power and economics are hitting hard on China.
Mekong river is a fundamental water artery in Indochina, but the Chinese dam may reduce the flow of the Mekong, hurting the economies of countries like Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. Narut is a Lecturer at the School of International Affairs, Chiang Mai University, and he is highly concerned of the negative social and economic consequences of the Chinese mismanagement of the Mekong over Thailand. The Chinese embassy in Bangkok issued a statement in whicgìh it said that China is doing nothing less than improving the quality of Thai people through that dam. Thai people are still worried but the government doesn't really care, it has never spoken out about the issue.
If Vansh Saluja was quite sure about India’s diplomatic, political and military capabilities in Southeast Asia, Gregory Poling, from the CSIS, is not sure about it. He believes that, on case of an American disengagement from the region, India will be incapable to provide any political or military reach. ASEAN has insistently asked India in the past for a major geopolitical involvement, but it never happened. At most, India will be another middle power in the region.
Vansh Saluja is the co-founder of the Confederation of Young Leaders. He is actively promoting cultural and political exchanges between young Indian activists, policymakers and businessmen with their Chinese counterparts. He is creating bridges between two nations that just two generations ago were on the being of a catastrophic war on the Himalayan heights. However, I had a point for him: what will happen to the Indian foreign policy in case of an American security disengagement from the region, especially from South China Sea and the maritime chokepoints. Vansh l’è answer has been clearcut: despite India’ incomprehensions with some ASEAN countries, especially Malaysia over Jammu Kashmir, India will step up and make its part to guarantee the security of the maritime trade routes.
Kishore Mahbubani is a living legend when we deal with Southeast Asia, India and ASEAN. He is one the brightest mind and I had the honor of having him in my podcast. Kishore Mahbubani is a living legend when we deal with Southeast Asia, India, and ASEAN. He is one the brightest mind, and I had the honor of having him in my podcast. Kishore Mahbubani has been a supporter of a significant role of India in ASEAN, but the issue, according to his judgment, is very delicate. There are problems in the short term and great opportunities in the long term. In the short term, ASEAN got disappointed towards India because it didn’t join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. India is domestically preoccupied with various challenges, and it can’t divert its attention to other goals. However, the history showed us that, until the 18th century, the biggest economies in the world were China and India, and only in the last two centuries the West has taken off the two Asian nations. China has come back very fast, and India will come back slowly but steadily. In 2050, China will be the first economic power, and India will be number two. Professor Mahbubani also speaks about ASEAN and how, routinely, it has been considered as a failing and declining organization. Two years ago, when Indian outperformed China, western media were jubilating. This year, despite ASEAN has slowed a bit, is performing better than India. No western media took note of it. Despite regular ups and downs, ASEAN forward trajectory has not stopped. Professor Mahbubani considers ASEAN as the second most successful international organization in the world while he believes the EU the best one. ASEAN and EU, according to Mahbubani, have a natural partnership. However, there is a caveat: EU must treat ASEAN with respect. The case of the palm oil and the various sanctions EU is targeting ASEAN countries are the brightest examples of a western organization trying to patronize over different political and economic cultures.
Aditya Dave is an Indian expat living and thriving in London. He has no doubts that India will play a future role in the world stage, but only with better and more functioning institutions. China is the present, India will be the future, only at certain conditions. India is a massive market, but currently the economic performances are sluggish. It is facing internal struggles with the Muslim factions in the north of the country, and some Muslim countries, including Malaysia, are backlashing. However, more pragmatic Gulf Countries like Saudi Arabia continue to do business in India despite the recent turmoils. Nevertheless, despite India pride itself on being the biggest democracy in the world, is far away from having effective governance. Indian democracy is still not so inclusive, and this can hamper future economic growth prospects.
As a westerner, I had doubts over the alliance between Jokowi and Subianto. Was it really right, from a point of view where democracy means majority vs minority, that a government represent nearly all the political factions in a country? That was the case when Subianto joined Jokowi in the government. Shoeb Kagda, the founder of the Indonesian Economic Forum, believes that this is just the normality. Indonesian democracy is not interested in neverending ideological battles, but in delivering results for the people. Indonesian leaders can’t afford to lose time, they need to get things done because the country still needs colossal structural reforms, first of all in the job market. Southeast Asia shows that the west, entangled in a parliamentary system that can’t decide on anything, does not have a monopoly of what democracy really means.
During the financial crisis, some banks were “too big to fail”. According to Keith Leong, Indonesia, despite the political turmoils, is “too big to ignore”. The second term of Jokowi, in fact, is not starting positively: a series of unpopular projects of reform, which would endanger civil liberties, led young people on the streets. Despite the chaos, the Indonesian market is so massive that investors and businessmen can’t ignore it. However, civil unrest is not an uncommon feature in Indonesian politics and society. Indonesian political system prefers results over ideology, and it is not unusual that the country is led by a big coalitional government, in which majority and large portions of the minority rule together. For this reason, the opposition is usually tiny and not so effective, so the need for Indonesia to have a strong and fierce independent civil society, ready to occupy street and squares against any government.
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