Asian democracy: glass half-full or half-empty?



Many observers been assuming that China’s rise is loading the dice against democracy in Asia and is part of a global authoritarian resurgence, notes Maiko Ichihara, an associate professor at Hitotsubashi University in Japan and a member of Carnegie’s Rising Democracies Network. But emergent dynamics in Asia indicate a more complex picture. China’s increasing strategic preponderance certainly seems to have negative implications for democracy, but this dynamic, in some ways, is coinciding with a more galvanized focus on democracy among other regional actors, she writes:

This trend can be seen on three levels. First, civic movements in places like Hong Kong and Taiwan are applying greater pressure to deepen democratic practices as a defense against Chinese influence. Second, many Asian democracies are beginning to forge greater security cooperation among themselves, sometimes in an apparent attempt to offset China’s military power. And third, several Asian democracies are exploring ways to strengthen democracy support across borders…..Increasingly, several Asian countries are taking steps to defend democracy not simply as a positive force in its own right but also as a corrective to assertive Chinese authoritarianism.

“That said, much more can be done. While several Asian governments talk of deepening democratic cooperation, their practical commitments have lagged behind their rhetoric,” Ichihara adds. “Since the mid-2000s, platforms for such Asian cooperation have been established but have stalled. Examples include the Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia, the Forum Asia Democracy, and the World Forum for Democratization in Asia. Currently functioning platforms should be fully utilized before new ones are created.”

In the Philippines as in Thailand, the chief challenge to the old order is not full-blooded democracy, but populism, notes The Economist:

But the Philippines is not the only country in South-East Asia with an entrenched establishment presiding over profound inequality. Most are blighted by single-party rule, or by a political churn which does not seem to have much impact on local power structures. Thailand, with a monarchy manipulated by the elites, is a case in point. The purpose of 12 military coups, two in the past 12 years, has been, as Michael Vatikiotis argues in “Blood and Silk”, a perceptive new book on the region, to maintain “an imposing if arcane edifice of power and [cultivate] a conservative mindset that has prevented the devolution of power and autonomy to ordinary people.”

Five areas to watch

Regional trends hold the keys to the success of the democratic movement, according to International IDEA’s Leena Rikkila Tamang and Mette Bakken, providing a roundup of five key elements in The Diplomat:

  • Safeguarding pluralism: Politics in Asia must set the bar high when it comes to accounting for pluralism. Ethnic and religious as well as caste or clan systems form the basis of most societies in the region, but allowing the politicization of such divides puts democracy (and ultimately stability) at risk. …
  • Cultivating democracy from the bottom up: Democracy in Asia must be able to deliver in order to gain support for the democratic project “from below.” It must demonstrate the ability to pay off. While rarely hitting international news, the advancement of local structures – that are closer to local challenges, better equipped to identify local solutions and easier to hold to account by citizens – is vital. …
  • Building on technological innovations: Internet and social media have expanded information sharing around the globe and dramatically changed the political scene. In the coming years, these developments will strongly influence political life in Asia. .. While  the Asian region has an active social media penetration of 47 percent compared to 37 percent for the world average, Freedom House findings on internet freedoms in the region, only one out of 14 countries scrutinized was given the thumbs up. This is a steep hill to climb….
  • Capitalizing on growing cities: The attraction of cities to realize the potentials of the citizens is here to stay. Together with Africa, Asia is urbanizing faster than other global regions and the urban population is estimated to increase from 48 percent today to 68 percent by 2050. …
  • Benefiting from youth: The growing youth population is – if treated with care – presenting a unique opportunity for advancing the democratic agenda. In countries like Bangladesh and India, young people account for around 20 percent of the total population whereas in East Asia the population is aging. …Mind you, young people in the region tend to pick integrity over corruption and are critical to how corruption has impacted on development.



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