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Author: Dan Slater, University of Michigan

The end of the Cold War promised the global spread of wealthy democracies. After three decades, this promise has been disappointingly unfulfilled.

In the mid-1990s, Adam Przeworski remarked that Eastern Europe and Latin America were seeking the ’Northwest Passage’: a route to joining the rich economies and solid democracies of Western Europe and North America. This Northwest Passage has proven elusive. Wealthy democracy has emerged nowhere new in the so-called West.

Spin your globe to the East and the story is similar. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were Asia’s only wealthy democracies at Cold War’s end. They remain so today.

Why has Asia’s ‘Northeast Passage’ to wealthy democracy proven as hard to locate as Przeworski’s ‘Northwest Passage’? An easy answer is that the Northeast Passage leads toward China, not Japan. But that story only goes so far. Besides the exceptional case of Hong Kong and formerly socialist Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, no Asian society is seeing its destiny defined by China — at least not yet.

The problem is that obstacles to late Asian development are combining with obstacles to late Asian democratisation. Those obstacles keep states weak. And in a mutually reinforcing fashion, those weak states lack the capacity to overcome either obstacle.

Strong economies and strong democracies clearly require strong states. What is less clear is why states remain weak in the first place, and how developmental and democratic weakness reinforce each other.

States remain weak because state-building is politically hard and risky. Unless political leaders must strengthen the state for urgent purposes of national defence, or to hold together broad coalitions through rapid growth and downward distribution, they are unlikely to do so. Such states tend to remain fragmented, captured by oligarchic capitalists who demand narrow property rights for their own investments in low-technology and natural-resource dependent sectors.

Captured states are incapable of fostering the technological upgrading necessary to forge national wealth. Nor do they provide democratic health.

Stable democracy rests on lasting economic bargains. Only once the state has gained economic centrality and authority will the question of who holds political office carry major economic stakes for voters.

States unable to foster transformative economic development are also unable to craft transformative distributive bargains with society. Without those stable bargains, democracy is not about the economy at all. Elections are about personalities, charisma and narrow clientelist promises.

Economies fail to upgrade; democracies fail to consolidate.

Only four Asian countries have reached high-income status while building states that command national economic life. Three are the democratic developmental states that traversed the Northeast Passage: Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

The fourth is Singapore. Although the People’s Action Party is hardly progressive, it is effective and authoritative. Citizens know what to expect when they vote for it and the Party works mightily to deliver the economic growth and social programs they promise. Lasting economic bargains have stabilised authoritarianism in Singapore, while entrenching democracy in Northeast Asia.

The same cannot be said for those Southeast Asian countries that once seemed most primed to find the Northeast Passage: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand.

Malaysia has come closest. In the wake of ethnic riots in 1969, Malaysia’s Barisan Nasional coalition built a stronger, more distributive state to prevent their repetition. Upholding this coalition required faster growth. By the 1980s, prime minister Mahathir Mohamad began to ’Look East’ toward Japan. While Mahathir’s Malaysia enjoyed moderate economic success, his authoritarian inclinations stymied democratic headway.

Unlike Asia’s four ’core’ economies, Malaysia remains in the economic ’semi-periphery’. Its main export is electrical machinery, but three of its top five exports are petroleum, palm oil and rubber. Even its abundant manufactured exports rely heavily on foreign technologies from the ’core’. Malaysia’s dependent development has incubated a class of inefficient business oligarchs with little interest in state-strengthening or in stable distributive bargains.

Like Malaysia, Thailand saw its best chance of crossing the Northeast Passage interrupted by authoritarian and oligarchic forces by the early 2000s. During Thaksin Shinawatra’s brief reign, democratic elections had real economic stakes. But Thailand’s old conservative alliance of militarists and monarchists prevented further transformations, both democratic and developmental. Three of Thailand’s top five exports are manufactures, with gems and rubber rounding out the top five. Growth persists, but economic upgrading remains elusive.

Indonesia tells a similar story. Machinery exports now outpace fuel and oil exports in Malaysia, but not Indonesia. Coal, gas, palm oil and precious metals remain leading exports. Democracy has had a surprisingly good run. Yet elections are mostly about religious identity, clientelist credibility and the candidate popularity that arises from creatively combining the two. Indonesia’s voters do not enjoy the option of choosing among parties offering differently transformative developmental and distributive bargains.

No Asian country captures the syndrome of state weakness, developmental sluggishness and economically insubstantial elections better than the Philippines. Among its top five exports, fruits, nuts and metal ores exemplify the Philippines’ enduring semi-peripheral position. Little state capacity is needed to retain openness to inward investment from technologically advanced firms. Elections rarely have major economic implications. This year’s incestuous battle royale among family dynasties to succeed strongman Rodrigo Duterte is a consummate example.

While the world’s attention focuses on the rising authoritarian developmental state of China and the eroding liberal democracy of the United States, we need to recognise the hybrid regimes and middle-income economies like Southeast Asia’s. They remain stuck in both a developmental and a democratic rut.

Dan Slater is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies at the University of Michigan.

This article appears in the most recent edition of News JU Quarterly, ‘East Asia’s Economic Agreement’, Vol 14, No 1.

The post Asia no arc toward wealthy democracy first appeared on News JU.

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