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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.
52 Episodes
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ASEAN is at the center of the geopolitical feud between the US and China. Little will change under Biden Administration, but in the meanwhile, it has joined the largest trade agreement in the world, the RCEP. How will this influence ASEAN's relationship with China? Will the US catch up with the geopolitical and economic clout the Dragoon is building on Southeast Asia. Carlyle Thayer, a friend and usual guest of Deep in the SEA, has clear ideas about the matter.
Maybe Mark Esper didn't say precisely that ASEAN need to evolve into a Nato-style alliance, but that was the sense practically. However Douglas Paal, a great friend of this podcast, said that only ignorant American policy makers and analysts can believe in such an alliance. When Dulles tried to dictate security policy in the region, he refused to send air conditioning appliances to the US Embassy in Bangkok because he believed that the city was not so hot in the summer. The Americans that believe in a Nato-style alliance in SEA are making the same clumsy mistake of Dulles.
This podcast has risen in popularity when we started to discuss whether or not the Belt & Road projects in SEA were facing a political and social backlashes. We have explored the possibilities that provider of more compliant investments, such as the US, Europe or Japan, could step up and oust China as the principal investor in the region. Together with Claire Chu, a senior analyst of RWR Advisory Group, we have explored further the hurdles, delays and problems which China is currently facing in SEA.
China is a global superpower, but Indonesia is the biggest country in Southeast Asia and the most important economy. Whatever deal China wants to carry on in the region, Indonesia is there and it must be involved in certain ways. Despite Indonesia doesn't have particular clashes over China's 9-dash line, the relationship between the two countries has been tense in the past. The Chinese minority in Indonesia has suffered racism and discrimination. However, the future is out there and together with Dewi Fortuna Anwar - a former advisor to Indonesia's VP - we tried to understand what will be the future outlook of the relationship between the two countries.
Maybe in the past, Southeast Asian countries may have remained neutral between the US and China, but nowadays, according to Grant Newsham, the strategic neutrality may not be enough. In the near future, ASEAN countries must decide where to stand, and must think quick on it.
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.
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