China Profits from Southeast Asia’s Democratic Deficits
Nikkei Asian Review
By Daniel Twining
The United Nations has appealed to Cambodian leader Hun Sen to scrap a ban on the main opposition party and allow it to stand in the coming parliamentary election. The call from Rhona Smith, U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, who this month urged Phnom Penh to permit full participation in the July vote “without fear or intimidation,” is only the latest bid to challenge the troubling spread of authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.
With China’s one-party state presiding over a strong if brittle economy and promoting its achievements across the region, the temptations are clear. But strongman rule cannot be the answer to the power diffusion and innovation revolution that will define the 21st century.
Nor can Chinese-style centralization offer solutions to diverse Southeast Asian societies that require political pluralism and inclusivity to sustain national cohesion — and to safeguard their sovereignty against the rising Asian giant. Although China’s developmental autocracy has produced an economic miracle, so did one-party rule in South Korea and Taiwan, until their middle classes demanded transitions to democracy.
In fact, most dictatorships historically end up destroying economic value — as did the rule of Mao Zedong in China and the former military junta in Myanmar. China’s developmental autocracy today has produced very strong growth over a sustained period, but as President Xi Jinping’s predecessor Hu Jintao warned, without political reform, China’s economic model is unsustainable.
In any case, while China may be one inspiration, Southeast Asia’s authoritarian turn is more about cementing political control than pursuing disciplined economic reform without democratic constraints. In Cambodia, the government has imprisoned opposition leader Kem Sokha and banned his party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
In the Philippines, the government of Rodrigo Duterte continues to prosecute a “war on drugs” it has used to justify thousands of extrajudicial killings. Thailand remains governed by a military regime that seized power in 2014, in the third army coup since 1990
Political leaders often justify autocratic measures as a necessary counterweight against internal or external threats. Exploiting social tensions and deep-seated bigotry, some governing officials are embracing religious discrimination to gain popular support. In Myanmar, security services stand accused of ethnic cleansing against Rohingya Muslims. Political mobilization by exploiting religious divisions is also underway in Malaysia, where the government supported controversial legislation strengthening Sharia courts.
Indonesia is undergoing a national debate over the role of Islam that has the potential to derail the country’s democratic progress. In 2017, opponents of the then-Jakarta governor, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, known as Ahok, led a religiously charged smear campaign against the Christian governor culminating in a prison sentence for blasphemy. The episode played into the hands of hardline Islamist groups — just as the Islamic State militant group was intensifying its recruitment drive in the region.
The success of the campaign against Purnama has emboldened Indonesian Islamists ahead of forthcoming local elections in June and presidential elections next year. Fissures have emerged within the country’s mainstream Islamic political parties over the country’s Muslim identity, dividing moderates at a time when they need to be united to effectively counter increasingly vocal Islamist parties. If hardliners can exploit these divisions, they may erode the country’s democratic norms and pave the way for a less pluralistic political culture.
Now more than ever, it is vital for Indonesia and the wider region to recommit to democratic values, including freedom of religion and religious tolerance. This is crucial for the stability and prosperity of the entire region — particularly as an increasingly aggressive China seeks to exploit weakened democracies for its own gain, carving out spheres of influence in areas like the South China Sea at their expense.
The necessity of strong democratic allies in Asia, able to effectively govern their citizens and safeguard their sovereignty, was implicit in U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration’s recent National Security Strategy — which identified China’s hegemonic ambitions as a core security challenge to global stability. There is a compelling requirement for the U.S. to join forces with regional allies — including Australia, India and Japan — to inoculate against attempts to subvert democracy in Southeast Asia.
Southeast Asian nations historically have prized the principle of non-interference by external powers in their internal affairs. But strongman rule, rather than hardening a country against foreign subversion, can actually make it more vulnerable to that danger.
In Cambodia, China has provided billions of dollars in aid to the Hun Sen regime, which has returned the favor by providing Chinese businesses with free land and other concessions that undermine Cambodian sovereignty and fuel local protests. In Sri Lanka, the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa regime compromised Sri Lankan sovereignty through concessions of strategic port infrastructure to Chinese interests, leading to a nationalist backlash that deposed him from power but continues to impose a dangerous burden of external debt.
In Myanmar, one reason the previous military regime agreed to elections that brought the democratic opposition to power was a nationalist reaction to China’s growing economic hold over their country
Ultimately, the countries that are most resistant to external influence are those with strong institutions that reflect the priorities of their citizens. It is not hard for a cash-rich foreign power to coopt an individual leader behind closed doors — but much harder for it to buy off an elected government that is accountable to its public.
That is not to suggest that democracies are invulnerable to external pressure. The dispute about Russian influence in the U.S. presidential election shows this is so even in a well-established democracy.
But history demonstrates that democracy is the system best equipped to deliver positive outcomes for populations as a whole rather than narrow elites — providing an escape valve for grievances that otherwise manifest as violence or oppression and creating more equitable opportunities for economic and social advancement.
China is defying political gravity as it personalizes political control over 1.3 billion people in one man. Its economic miracle is hardly replicable by smaller countries unable to achieve the same scale by protecting their domestic market, as China has done via its internet “Great Firewall” and by requiring foreign companies to transfer their technological crown jewels in return for access to the world’s biggest market.
China’s model of state-led authoritarian development produced the endemic official corruption that Xi himself identified as the greatest threat to Communist Party rule — before leading a crackdown against it that has generated so many internal enemies that he apparently feels he may never be able to retire from power.
Political risk is much lower in democracies than in an authoritarian regime governed by the whims of a single leader. Economic risk is lower in countries governed by rule of law and independent institutions. Protecting the sovereignty of Southeast Asian nations through democratic legitimacy is essential to build resilience against external interference.