Southeast Asia’s ’emboldened’ strongmen look to China in setback to democracy


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Chinese leaders have long sought to present themselves as equals to American presidents. Xi Jinping has wanted something more: a special relationship that sets China apart, as the other great power in an emerging bipolar world, The New York Times reports:

President Trump, who is traveling to Beijing this week after stops in Japan and South Korea, has often cast China as an unfair trade rival, and, after arriving in Japan on Sunday, he vowed to build a “free and open Indo-Pacific,” a phrase designed to emphasize America’s democratic allies in the region as a balance against China’s rise.

But Mr. Trump has also spoken of China in almost reverential terms and elevated Beijing as a critical player to resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff. And there are signs of mutual admiration between the two leaders — one a Communist Party princeling, the other a brash wheeler-dealer — both of whom see themselves as destined to restore their nations to greatness.

“China, for the first time, is not in a humble position regarding the United States,” said Yan Xuetong, a professor of international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “Usually the American president has the advantage. This is the first time there is an equal relationship between the two leaders.”

Recent developments have emboldened Asia’s strongmen leaders and delivered a setback to democracy, the South China Morning Post reports.

The recent shift in US foreign policy “has created a moral vacuum which China has moved to exploit, and to fill,” said Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society. “And they’re just much more sophisticated, and much more coordinated, about their foreign policy messaging than Trump is.”

“Publicly, China’s able to say, ‘We don’t care about your domestic issues, we just want to bring trade and prosperity a Pax Sinica, with Beijing at the center’,” he continued. “People who understand China know that it’s a lot more complicated – and one would say devious – than that. But we are losing the ability to say that this comes with a lot of human rights abuses, or moral externalities, so to speak.”

Asian leaders are seeking reassurance that the US will be a democratic ally in the Indo-Pacific, analyst Sam Roggeveen writes for the Lowy Institute.

But with the promotion of democracy no longer integral to U.S. foreign policy, avoiding discussion of rights violations in Beijing, Hanoi and Manila could embolden autocrats in the region and hurt Washington’s long-term interests, experts say.

“The absence of strong U.S. language endorsing democratic values and processes will be glaringly evident on Trump’s Asia trip,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in a recent report. But autocrats tend to be volatile and unreliable allies, he adds. “Autocratic or semi-democratic regimes tend to be more brittle, making them less valuable strategic partners,” said Kurlantzick, noting that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, for instance, “could easily turn against Washington”

The administration has “explicitly disowned values and human rights as a part of U.S. statecraft,” said researchers at the Center for American Progress in a report last week.

Insularity, isolationism, illiberalism and “a transactional, short-term view of diplomacy that willfully cedes U.S. influence and leverage …mean that the West is smashing its geopolitical might on the anvil of its own foolishness,” argues Brian Klaasa fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of The Despot’s Apprentice. “The authoritarian regimes in China and Russia are gleefully picking up the pieces.”

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China is also eclipsing the U.S. in Cambodia where opposition leader Kem Sokha was accused of plotting with Americans to organize a ‘color revolution’ like those that toppled eastern European strongmen, Reuters adds:

Among those forced out even before Kem Sokha’s arrest was the U.S. State Department funded National Democratic Institute [NDI – a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy], which spent 25 years on a democracy-building mission that cost an average $2 million a year for the past five years….NDI said that since the recent elections, 138 ruling party members had participated in NDI activities along with 153 members of the opposition.

China’s combination of firm rule, apparent political stability, and economic success is turning heads in Southeast Asia where political systems are under strain, The East Asia Forum adds:

Privately, Southeast Asian elites from the Philippines to Indonesia have long expressed admiration for China’s progress, and that admiration is now finding public expression. Following the CPC congress an editorial in the otherwise liberal-leaning Jakarta Post entitled ‘Lessons from the CPC Congress’ struck an approving tone of China’s advances, suggesting that Indonesia had much to learn from its northern neighbour, particularly in the fight against corruption. The Manilla Post also ran a piece asking whether other countries might learn from China’s development model.

Southeast Asia’s ‘trend towards illiberal politics and authoritarian leadership styles is a consequence of the perceived weaknesses of democratic politics, which has proven unable to eliminate poverty, crime, identity-based conflict or political instability’, Thomas Pepinsky argues.

Where democracy has arrived in Asia— as it did in Cambodia under the auspices of the UN in 1993 — it has in several cases quickly been subverted or demolished, The FT’s Victor Mallet notes in a review of Blood and Silk: Power and Conflict in Modern Southeast Asia, by Michael Vatikiotis. He identifies three main reasons for forebodings about Asian democracy:

  • First, inequality — and the selfishness of the business-political elites that have benefited disproportionately from economic growth both before and after Asia’s financial crisis. Just as populism has been fuelled by resentment over inequality in Trump’s America, in Brexit Britain and in oligarchical Hong Kong, so the 40 per cent of Indonesians clustered around a poverty earnings line of $2 a day are easy prey for demagogues. It is true that prosperity has also swollen the ranks of Asia’s middle class, but this aspiring and increasingly educated bourgeoisie is governed by the same set of authoritarian leaders and their coterie of tycoons.
  • The second reason is the erosion of tolerance and the rise of identity politics, whether the issue is religion or ethnicity. Vatikiotis cites figures showing that 1.6m Asians have died in “sub-national” conflicts (in other words, in wars within states and not between them) since 1947; more died in such conflicts in Asia in the decade to 2008 than in all other conflicts elsewhere in the world combined. As for religion, the increasing influence of extremist Sunni interpretations of Islam over the past 30 years is startlingly visible in the dress codes and religiosity of the Muslims who make up 40 per cent of the region’s population — and in the vilification and recent jailing for blasphemy of Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, the once-popular Christian and ethnic Chinese governor of Jakarta better known as Ahok. Buddhist extremism and intolerance is on the rise, too. …
  • Third and last, there are those outside forces: not only the intolerant, well-financed Islamism of the Gulf but also the rise of China as the latest imperialist superpower insensitive to the needs or wishes of its putative client states.
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