After the Miracle: The End of the Asian Century?



East Timor is voting for a new president in an election that will test Asia‘s newest and poorest nation, VOA reports. Meanwhile, Cambodia’s ongoing crackdown against opposition politicians and activists has cast a “dark shadow” ahead of upcoming elections – part of a wider authoritarian “disease” infecting the region, Southeast Asian politicians warned on Monday:

Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, a group made up of former and serving Southeast Asian lawmakers, said Hun Sen has “created a climate of fear, which casts a dark shadow over all of Cambodian society” adding that there was “an ongoing assault on parliamentary democracy”.

Despite the depressing trend of increased authoritarianism, Thailand’s current regime is not without weaknesses, notes Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, an assistant professor at Thammasat University. The new king is less revered by the Thai public than his father. The ideological façade of the ruling elites may be weakened, he writes in a new Carnegie report on Global Civic Activism in Flux:

In addition, the regime has promised to hold a national election by the end of 2017. This opens an opportunity for social movements and political parties to craft an election campaign that can defeat representatives of the regime. While the color-coded divide remains the key obstacle for collaboration across the aisle, some groups—including students, for instance—are trying to reach out to disappointed regime supporters. The coming election will be a test of whether this civic endeavor to bridge the gap of political division can succeed.

The United States has repeatedly been surprised by major developments in Asia, sometimes catastrophically so, notes The Wall Street Journal’s David Feith. Michael R. Auslin’s ‘The End of the Asian Century’ seeks to prevent Americans from again being surprised by the disruptions that still might come in Asia. Part of the challenge is that so much news from the region in recent decades has been good, he writes for Commentary:

The Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan democratized peacefully in the 1980s, as did Indonesia after 1998. Meanwhile more than 500 million people have lifted themselves out of poverty, largely since China embraced partial economic liberalization in 1978 and India followed in 1991…Auslin recommends a raft of sensible policies to help keep the peace, including more U.S. firepower in the region and more cooperation with allies. He also underscores the importance of expanding free-trade links and supporting liberal political institutions where they are lacking.

“He suggests that the U.S. complement its traditional Asian alliances by deepening ties with countries that sit along two concentric triangles,” Feith adds. “The outer triangle spans the continent, linking Japan, South Korea, India, and Australia, all powerful democracies. The inner triangle spans the South China Sea, linking the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, a more diverse crew.”

The US has responded to recent authoritarian threats to the liberal world order by trying to create a liberal order 2.0, and by pursuing a strategic pivot to salvage the status quo in Asia, notes Yong Deng, Professor in Political Science at the US Naval Academy. Many observers have focused on America’s goal of preventing Chinese regional dominance, he writes for Project Syndicate:

But the US also wants to defend and strengthen the principles that made post-war Asia’s success possible – what former US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell calls Asia’s “operating system.” Thus, the Obama administration pursued democracy promotion in Myanmar; enforced rules protecting freedom of navigation at sea; and concluded the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement between the US and 11 other Pacific Rim countries.

But China will face a unique set of problems as it tries to carry the torch of economic globalization forward, Deng adds:

  • For starters, it is still a developing country, and its domestic landscape is fraught with political perils and economic uncertainties. Xi’s government is struggling to maintain domestic stability as it moves China away from labor-intensive, investment-heavy economic growth toward a model based on domestic consumption and services. The primacy of this domestic agenda means that China’s attempt to lead global change will lack a clear vision and coherent strategy.
  • A second problem stems from China’s incomplete transition on the world stage. After prevailing in World War II, the US immediately and undeniably dominated the globe. China, in seeking to lead the next stage of economic globalization, enjoys no such geopolitical power and legitimacy.

At the end of Chen Shui-bian’s two terms as the president of Taiwan, his tenure was widely viewed as a disappointment, if not an outright failure, according to Larry Diamond and Kharis Templeman book, “Taiwan’s Democracy Challenged: The Chen Shui-bian Years.”

“Today, the Chen years (2000-2008) are remembered mostly for relentless partisan fighting over cross-Strait relations and national identity questions, prolonged political gridlock, and damaging corruption scandals—as an era that challenged, rather than helped consolidate, Taiwan’s young democracy and squandered most of the promise with which it began,” they add. “Yet, this conventional narrative obscures a more complex and more positive story.”

Nearly 60 percent of the world’s population lives in Asia – with 40 percent concentrated in China and India alone, The Asia Foundation notes:

Over the past two decades, economic growth in India, Myanmar, and Thailand has helped lift millions of people out of poverty. Yet, despite this progress, these countries continue to face daunting challenges. Prospects for political reform remain constrained by widespread corruption, lack of accountability and transparency, and ineffective systems of justice. Further, the closing space for civil society across Asia continues to limits citizens’ voice and participation in the political process.

The Asia Foundation recently hosted a dynamic panel discussion on the current state of democratic governance and future prospects for political reform in Asia, featuring Diamond, a co-editor of the National Endowment for Democracy’s Journal of Democracy. RTWT


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