Author: Editorial Board, ANU
Francis Fukuyama said the challenge of building modern economic and political structures was, in a nutshell, one of how to ‘get to Denmark’. An Asian democrat of a similar teleological bent to Fukuyama, limiting their visions of political-economic nirvana to their own region, might ask: how do we ‘get to Taiwan (or Japan or South Korea)?’
That’s the starting point of Dan Slater’s stocktake of Asian democracy in this week’s lead article, drawn from a longer essay in the latest edition of the News JU Quarterly. Slater puts the interactions between economic and political structures front and centre, with a focus on a set of economically ascendant countries — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand — that have failed to chart what he dubs the ‘Northeast Passage’ to the wealthy, strong-state liberal democracy enjoyed by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
These Southeast Asian nations are emblematic of how ‘obstacles to late Asian development are combining with obstacles to late Asian democratisation’ — namely, the persistence of spotty rule of law, fragmented state authority, and economies held back by rent-seeking and stunted industrial upgrading.
It’s too often forgotten that politicians’ ability to compete on detailed policy agendas is underpinned by the infrastructure of a rich and robust state; take that away, and they can’t credibly promise to deliver transformative reforms using whatever levers of government are necessary. ‘Only once the state has gained economic centrality and authority will the question of who holds political office carry major economic stakes for voters’ says Slater; otherwise, ‘[e]lections are about personalities, charisma and narrow clientelist promises’.
The three Northeast Asian democracies are far from perfect Asian Denmarks. The Liberal Democratic Party of Japan has been in power since 1955 except for brief stints in opposition in 1993 and 2009 to 2012. Over half of all living former South Korean presidents have been jailed. Taiwan’s parliament is famous for its violent fights. They do have free and relatively fair elections, a free press and free speech, and have avoided the nationalism and populism of some Western democracies. It’s no coincidence either that the three are high income countries.
The politics of ‘getting to Taiwan, Japan, or South Korea’ are as hard as the economics. The risks of state-strengthening for incumbent leaders all come in the short term: building the rule of law and the tax bases that underpin strong states involves taking on elites with a vested interest in the messy status quo. The payoffs come over the longer term — which is why relatively few leaders of Asia’s weak states, whether democratic or not, have succeeded in doing it.
At a time when more and more attention is being paid to the geopolitics of democracy and autocracy, as China emerges as an authoritarian great power (and, some worry, a regional hegemon), Slater emphasises that ‘[b]esides 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.’
That should be caution to the politicians and commentators in the west who overrate the influence outside forces have on the political character of Asian states. And it raises the broader question of whether countries’ domestic political character influences the role they play in shaping the emerging regional order, or whether it ought to.
In March Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned of an ‘arc of autocracy’ ascendant in the Indo-Pacific. The recent US Indo-Pacific Strategy name-checked ‘democratic institutions, a free press, and a vibrant civil society’ as key buffers in not only building ‘open societies’ but ‘[ensuring] Indo-Pacific governments can make independent political choices free from coercion’. Not only will containing China make Asia safe for democracy, it seems, but supporting democracies will keep Asia ‘safe’ from China.
You don’t have to be a doctrinaire structural realist to recognise that it isn’t all quite so straightforward as that.
In democratic Indonesia, for instance, elite opinion is overall fairly sanguine about China’s growing power, seeing Beijing primarily as a partner in rapid economic development. Whatever the long-term risks posed by China’s regional leadership ambitions, they struggle to achieve salience when the benefits of close commercial ties to China are so immediate.
In Vietnam and Singapore, meanwhile, the dual absence of democracy and personal rule has arguably enabled relative ‘long-termism’ on China’s rise and its potential risks, leading to sophisticated strategies of hedging and pushback with efforts to keep the United States engaged in the region.
Things get more complicated still in the Asian response to the other half of Scott Morrison’s ‘arc of autocracy’ after it invaded Ukraine. Singapore has joined democratic US allies in Northeast Asia at the forefront of censuring and sanctioning Russia. Democratic Indonesia has dismayed international observers by its inaction, likewise India, game to participate in initiatives like the Quad to counterbalance China, but giving its Russian friends a pass on Ukraine. Regardless of the solidarity — sincere and justified as it may be — of developed-world democracies in isolating Russia, the big democracies of the Global South are by and large hedging their bets, seeing their interests best served by non-alignment.
Two key lessons emerge for Western democracies seeking to shape a regional order in Asia.
The first is to be realistic about the ability of external powers to propagate democracy or autocracy. Despite some efforts to promote CCP-style governance abroad, China’s track record in exporting authoritarianism is dubious — and despite its extensive sponsorship of democracy promotion initiatives the United States always has, and always will, cooperate with authoritarian regimes with which it shares key strategic interests.
The second is to not fall for one’s own rhetoric about ‘shared values’ as the basis for cooperation between Asian and Western powers in shoring up the rules-based regional order. The commitment of many of the region’s democratically elected elites to liberal principles on the home front is paper-thin. And on the world stage, it is perceived interests, not professed ‘values’, that primarily shape how Asian countries position themselves in the great power rivalry now in play.
The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
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