“A significant deterioration of the political environment”: an interview with Michael Vatikiotis


Nicholas Gordon interviews Michael Vatikiotis, author of Blood and Silk.


How did you come to write Blood and Silk? What inspired you to write this longer journey through your time in Southeast Asia?


In many ways, it’s premature. I’m nowhere near close to retirement or the end of my journey in Southeast Asia. But I did feel, perhaps instinctively, that the time was right to distill a number of explanations that I increasingly felt were important to elaborate, given the circumstances in the region.

The last two to three years have seen a significant deterioration of the political environment, after years of optimism—the rise of identity politics, the rise of income equality. What particularly moved me was the perpetual, seeming ceaseless conduct of violent internal conflict and a sense that the region was becoming increasingly exposed to geopolitical currents.

Packing all that together, I felt that it was a timely opportunity to look at the region from this thematic perspective and to draw conclusions about not just where the region is at the moment, but where it might go in the future.

The last two to three years have seen a significant deterioration of the political environment, after years of optimism.

Your book contrasts with more optimistic views of the region—for example, Professor Kishore Mahbubani recently credited ASEAN with instilling peace in the region. How does your book come to a different conclusion from looking at the same region, the same data?


It’s not quite the same data. There is no disputing that ASEAN over the past fifty years has prevented war between the ten member states. There have been fifty years of complete interstate harmony.

My argument, however, is that if you look within the ten countries there are persistent, protracted internal conflicts, whether the remnants of past grievances or new conflicts, that are not being resolved adequately and are creating profound instabilities in society.

So while I agree that ASEAN has been an extremely successful mechanism for ensuring that the countries of Southeast Asia don’t go to war with each other, it has failed spectacularly in addressing the root causes of the violent internal conflicts that affect the region. And that’s mainly because it lacks any particular mechanism for intervening to help countries address the causes of violence.

It’s in complete contrast to the African continent which has very well-developed mechanisms for managing international conflicts, through the African Union, the African peacekeeping forces and the African Security Council.

I think that Southeast Asia has failed to develop these mechanisms. For the ASEAN member states, what happens in different countries is not their business, even if it costs thousands of lives, and disrupts and displaces hundreds of thousands of people.


Is there a risk that growing internal conflict can escalate to an interstate, or at least transnational, level?


I think that’s what we’re now seeing in [Myanmar’s] Rakhine State. For a very long time with internal conflicts, people would largely suffer in isolation. But in the case of Western Myanmar, a Muslim minority is being persecuted in a time of broad access to media and social media. It highlights the suffering of Muslims in a region where half the population is Muslim and the other half are Buddhist, and so inevitably sets up the potential for sectarian strife across the region.


 Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, Michael Vatikiotis (Orion, June 2017)
Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, Michael Vatikiotis (Orion, June 2017)

Blood and Silk talks about growing income inequality. How serious is this problem, and how has it distorted politics and policies in the region?


Income inequality is not unique to Southeast Asia; it’s a problem affecting the whole world. What I’m interested in the extent to which selfish ruling elites exacerbate the impact of income inequality by continuing to use rent-seeking activities, failing to address the problem, and providing ordinary citizens with little relief. I think this increases the pressure on society as a proximate cause of conflict.

To give an example: it is shameless that, in Indonesia, food prices are so high simply so that a few people can make a profit from the import of foodstuffs. It’s also alarming to me that despite the huge amount of money spent on education in Indonesia—20% of the budget—there is very little effort to increase the quality of education. It’s almost as if education was a mere basic amenity, rather than something that should be more highly valued. I think that is something that, again, fuels long-term problems and issues.


Does the gap in income inequality correspond to an urban-rural divide in these countries?


It’s increasingly within cities. For instance, Jakarta has abnormally high rates of child malnutrition. 30% of children below the age of five in Indonesia have stunted growth. Even in cities, children under a certain age show abnormally high rates of child malnutrition. This is storing up problems for the future.

And again, it made all the more stark because overall rates of poverty have come down. People have the means to earn money, to have jobs. But when access to that earning power, to economic opportunities is constrained by the selfishness of political elites—that’s the thing that worries me the most.


You note how democratic structures in Southeast Asia may have contributed to, or magnified, the problems in the region, in Thailand, in the Philippines, in Indonesia, in Myanmar. What is missing in these democracies that is leading to the “wrong” result?   


In other words: how to explain the democracy deficit? It’s not easy to capture that in a single answer, but if I had to choose one of the factors that I think Southeast Asia suffers from the most: the lack of institutionalization. We have seen an overall increase in the quality of elections, the integrity of elections, an increase in people’s desire for freer systems of representation and expressions of popular sovereignty. But then you have at the same time not enough being done to strengthen the institutions that deliver democracy.

Indonesia’s democracy is woefully underdeveloped. People want to vote for the President—“one man, one vote”—but they’re not particularly interested in voting for their representatives in Parliament. People don’t really believe that Parliament is an effective delivery unit of democracy. The Indonesian Parliament is seized with corruption scandals. In Thailand, 60% of people voted for an undemocratic constitution. They don’t trust politicians.

At the same time, there are people who really want a more effective mechanism for change, for the expression of popular sovereignty, and it’s not being delivered to them because of the failure to institutionalize.


Is the focus on institutions missing in how we understand democratization?


I think so. For a long time people judged democracies by the quality and integrity of their elections. But that’s not good enough. Elections and election results can be distorted. In Malaysia in 2013, the government lost its simple plurality of the vote, but because they were able to pull in votes from East Malaysia, it could cobble together a kind of coalition. This basic expression of popular sovereignty, where people by a narrow margin lost faith in their government, was unable to deliver a change in government. There’s a great deal of frustration with that, even in places like Malaysia with a slightly more institutionalized setup, where you have courts, election commissions and a Westminster-style Parliament. The political elites will find a way to circumvent those institutions and even more obvious expressions of popular will.

Increasingly, when you talk to Communist Party functionaries, you get a sense that they feel that China’s time has come, but they’re not quite sure what to do with it.

How do Southeast Asian countries feel about the region as an arena for superpower conflict?


I think the problem is basically that China has the cash, increasingly the guns, and the will to assert a traditional super hegemony over parts of its littoral, parts of this region. The big question is: does China actually see itself as a hegemon?

There are arguments, I suppose, going back into history. The United States never saw itself as a hegemon; it saw itself as protecting norms and values, and, as they say, “the free world”. I think China has also signaled that it wants to be a builder of global values. It wants to be the builder of a new global order, which is what Xi Jinping has talked about.

I also think for China, it’s partly about protecting access to resources and food sources. There’s a basic protective instinct there.

Increasingly, when you talk to Communist Party functionaries, you get a sense that they feel that China’s time has come, but they’re not quite sure what to do with it. They’re not quite sure what the priorities are going to be.

This clashes headlong with the traditional view of China that they’re not actually that concerned with the outside world. They have this great obsession with the inside word, the “great within”. One wonders whether this is really changing, whether Chinese power projection is about securing resources and the ability to feed its people, or about going out into the world in an American sense. It’s hard to say and I don’t think we can really decide at this point.

But one thing is clear: there’s no doubt that in the last ten years the old notions of peaceful rise have been replaced with the reality that, if China’s going to rise at all, it needs to intervene, project its power, and protect its interests. There’s a sense in which it might be fighting conflicts in the future, just as the United States did at the end of the Cold War.

But I frankly see a growing parity between the two: a convergence between notions of powerdom, between the American notion of power projection and Chinese notions of power projection.


Much of the worry about China concerns the “hard power” part of the equation. But what about more subtle forms of influence: economic leverage, investment, or the overseas Chinese diaspora? Will China start using these in the future and, more importantly, will they work?


Clearly there are fears that China may be inclined to call upon the loyalty of the overseas Chinese. There is some ambiguity in terms of the way in which China considers other Chinese to be its subjects or citizens. And I suspect as China expands its reach, objectives and power, it’s inevitable that it’s going to want to use these overseas Chinese as a strategic asset.

America was never really able to do this because there’s no American diaspora. There’s Westerners writ large, there’s Christendom writ large, but China has 30 million Chinese in the world, if not more, to call upon. And I think it’s inevitable that they will increasingly do this.


The only other example I can think of for a country using its diaspora as a strategic asset is Russia with the Russians in Eastern Europe.


And there’s Israel. But these are small examples. A parallel, in a way, is India. India’s diaspora has proved to be extremely successful. But India has tried to bring them back and say “please come back and help the country.” In the case of China, you’ve got people that are well-embedded in society, extremely successful, and don’t necessarily want to come back to China. But China may increasingly ask for their help and be inclined to protect them because, of course, many of these communities, especially in Southeast Asia, are minorities subject to periodic bouts of prejudice and oppression.


In Blood and Silk, you predict where you think these dynamics will take Southeast Asia in terms of political organization. What is your model of how things might look like in 2050?


I see the overall erosion of the strong centralized state, not through revolution or upheaval, but through the steady progressive confederation of some of these centralized states. This is already being seen in the Philippines and in Indonesia through policy and deliberate government intention, but I also think this on a civil society level will become a more practical way to deal with the centralized state: community grassroots autonomy using the tools and mechanisms of social media and local grassroots financing. I think this will act as a kind of release valve on some of the pressures we’ve talked about earlier.

That is why I’m not overly pessimistic. I don’t see the region breaking down into chaotic disorder. I do think that Southeast Asia has a great deal of resistance, of opportunities for people to improve their lives and the lives of their children.

It is a real shame that all of this great potential in terms of economic growth and prosperity has not been able to overcome these problems. And there is a surprising amount of suffering, hardship and conflict, in spite of thirty years of prosperity.

The only way I can see this being overcome is through the forces of decentralization and community action. I don’t think that governments are going to improve, and that elites will change. In the book, I argue that it is hard to see effective anti-corruption policies succeeding. If you’re a member of the ruling elite in these countries, why would you get rid of corruption. It would mean having to queue up and losing access to privilege. So, there’s a real drag on top-down action and solutions.

But I do think that communities are increasingly finding the means to improve their own lives.


In your recent talk to the Hong Kong Royal Geographical Society, you mentioned that the links between Southeast Asia and Hong Kong used to be a lot tighter than they are now. How have these connections loosened?


In the period since the Handover, the relationship with China has become much more important. In the Seventies and Eighties, Hong Kong looked south, but increasingly it’s been able to, and it’s been forced to, look north. The opportunities in China, its growth and development, and access to its economy have increased tremendously in the last twenty to thirty years.

At the same time, we’ve seen the rise of Singapore as an alternative financial center. Hong Kong is no longer the only choice of independent financial center. Arbitration can now take place in Singapore (though Hong Kong may argue that its arbitration is of a higher quality). You have choices in Southeast Asia which you didn’t have twenty to thirty years ago.

There was a time you would walk into the bar at the Hong Kong Foreign Correspondent’s Club and see that most people would have been concerned with or covering stories in Southeast Asia. Now, if people want to cover Southeast Asia, they will go there, not just as journalists but as professionals.


You’d go to Singapore.


You’d go to Singapore.

Nicholas Gordon has an MPhil from Oxford in International Relations and a BA from Harvard. He works at a think tank in Hong Kong. His writing has also appeared in The South China Morning Post, The Diplomat, China Daily and Caixin.