Fragile Democracy, Authoritarian Persistence and Strategic Competition in the Western Pacific Rim.

That is the title of the talk I will be giving at the AUT Pacific Media Centre in Auckland on Friday February 12 at 5PM. I am starting to formulate the bases of the talk now because I arrive in Auckland just a couple of days before it happens, so I thought that I would kill two birds with one stone by outlining my thoughts on the matter here. Call it a trial run.

For all the comment about growth, Asian Values and a geopolitical shift towards the East, SE Asia (Indochina) and the Western Pacific are a region suffering from poor governance, primordial divisions and simmering conflict. All of this is influenced by the US-China competition for influence in the Western Pacific, and has significant consequences for the long-term future of places like New Zealand.  Let me outline the major reasons why.

1) Democracy. Where and such as it exists, democracy in SE Asia and the Pacific is a joke. Looking from the South China Sea southwards, the “democracies” in question–Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand (if it can be called that),  the Philippines, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and those grouped under the rubric of the Pacific Island Forum, are hotbeds of populist demagoguery, corruption, criminal influence, ethno- religious division and electoral manipulation. With the exception of Indonesia, which has made good strides towards holding legitimately open and competitive elections and which has seen the “democratization” of civil-military relations for the first time in its history (but which below the procedural level remains profoundly authoritarian), the state of democracy throughout the Western Pacific Rim is pallorous to say the least. Taiwan is essentially rule by organised crime with a semi-civilised electoral facade using Cold War ideological precepts as dividing points (the same corporate/criminal networks fund and provide organisational support to both major parties and economic prosperity buys off any pointed examination of the regime). The Philippines and Malaysia are oligarchic rule with populist veneers in which ethnic and religious appeals contribute to centrifugal, often outright conflictual political competition (Malaysia still has Sultanates who lord over their geographic areas and the Philippines has regional overlords who rule as neo-feudal political bosses). Thailand is a certifiable basket case on too many levels to count (e.g., thieving politicians, sectarian mobs, a comatose monarch that cannot be criticised because of purportedly god-like attributes, a seriously fractured military hierarchy involved in political skullduggery and murder). East Timor is a failed state that has shown little or no signs of development in spite of millions of dollars of UN aid and a contingent of Kiwi, Australian and Portuguese peacekeepers and civilian nation-building advisers. The Cooks, New Caledonia and Tahiti are post-colonial protectorates in which what gets protected is the corporate interests and life-style of the servitor local elite. Or in other words, the Pacific Island democracies are oligarchic or crony rule by another name.

That gives legitimacy to the authoritarians in their midst. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Singapore are all relatively “soft” authoritarian regimes with electoral facades. Myanmar is a hard authoritarian regime whose best trading partners are its authoritarian neighbors (especially Singapore, and to the North, China). Brunei is a semi-medieval oil Sultanate. Fiji is a military-bureaucratic regime, Tonga is a degenerate monarchy that Samoa is working hard to emulate.  All of these dictatorships, be they junta, party, personalist or elected in nature, point to the inefficiencies and disorder of their democratic neighbours as “proof” that Western style (read: liberal) democracy is ill-suited for Asian/Pacific societies. Often couched in “Asian Value” or “Island style” arguments (which is no more than an ideological justification based on revisionist historical interpretations by authoritarian elites that have no basis in current actual fact), the authoritarian claim is that the Asian and Pacific Island psyche and civil society (such as it exists) is simply not amenable to Western-imposed democratic standards. There may be some truth to the Asian civil society argument, because there is a noticeable absence of volunteerism and solidarity with non-ethnic, religious or linguistic kin regardless of common nationality. But that is not the issue. Whatever the root cause, the bottom line is that the quality of democracy in the Pacific Rim is poor at best, miserable at worst, and in all cases a comparative justification for authoritarians throughout the region writ large.

2) Arms races. SE Asia is in the midst of a dramatic arms race. Fueled by strong economic growth and spurred by emerging power rivals China and India’s military modernization programs, every single country in SE Asia is upgrading and expanding its military capabilities. All of the SE Asian countries spend more than 3% of GDP on “defense,” (in line with Chinese and Indian outlays as a percentage of GDP),  with some like Singapore allocating 6% of GDP to  its military. Beyond the controversial US weapons sale to Taiwan that has the Chinese in a snit, Malaysia has ordered new submarines and an entire tactical air wing from European and Russian suppliers. The Singaporeans, Thais, Filipinos and Indonesians are preferred US weapons customers all in the midst of major force upgrades, whereas Myanmar purchases a mix of Chinese, North Korean and Western weaponry (often using Singapore as a conduit and middleman). In the case of the authoritarians, defense expenditures include regime defense as well as external threat deterrence and countervailing. The democracies focus more on a mix of internal security and traditional external concerns. This has led, among other things, to a counter-insurgency focus in the Philippines and Thailand (in which Islamicist insurgencies show no signs of being defeated), with external defense taking a secondary role, whereas in Indonesia and Malaysia the external defense role is now paramount. Among other things, the mix of strategic perspectives and push to rearm has led to armed border clashes between Thailand and Cambodia (over the border placement of a temple), Vietnam and Cambodia, and Myanmar and Cambodia (one might argue from this that the Cambodians have issues). Malaysia has picked arguments with both Indonesia and Singapore about relative weapons capabilities, piracy and border controls. The reason why these fragile democracies act belligerently is that irresponsible politicians pursuing electoral agendas engage in both domestic ethnic/religious/race-baiting as well as jingoistic appeals in order to consolidate popular support. Be it originated in government or opposition, these appeals have a corrosive effect on both domestic democratic tolerance as well as regional peace. Even piracy, a problem that all of the region’s governments agree is a common scourge, is in fact abetted by willful government inaction–for example, Malaysian pirates ply the Eastern Malaysian coast with some impunity (especially east of Tiomen Island and North of Sabah (Malaysian Borneo), while Indonesian pirates do the same in the Western reaches of the Malaccan Straits. In each case the pursuit of pirates is seen by rivals as a drain on military resources better spent elsewhere, which makes passive facilitation of pirate activity a neat form of low-level proxy attritional warfare. The same goes for cross-border guerrilla havens (say, in northern Malaysia or Sabah), where insurgents are provided sanctuary by governments with ethno-religious rather than national interests at the heart of their concerns.

3) The China-US strategic competition. Since I have written about this before I shall not repeat myself. The bottom line here is that the competition between the US and China over strategic influence in the Western Pacific Rim has seen both powers increasingly disregard issues of good governance in favor of straight influence-peddling. This adds to the issues mentioned above, as arms and influence buy favors in a measure that principled support for democracy does not. Beyond so-called cash diplomacy, foreign aid and military-to-military relations, this includes ostensibly “free” trade relations with authoritarians or weak democrats whose interests are more self-serving than what the language of trade agreements suggests, and who use the legitimating mantle of trade with liberal democratic states as further proof that their rule is just.

I shall leave aside for the moment the role of organised crime in all of this, particularly with regard to its relationship to trade and elected government. Suffice it to say that the picture is not pretty.

Thus my tentative prognosis is that, rather than moving towards an era of peace, stability and growth in the Western Pacific, we are about to find out what the dark side of globalisation looks like, at least in terms of its manifestation in this part of the world. And that can be summed up in one word: conflict, both of an internal as well as of a cross-border sort.

Lesson for the NZ government (not that it would listen): Know exactly who you are dealing with and the context in which your dealings occur. Be risk adverse, pragmatic and principled in your approach to medium term futures. Hedge against uncertainty  and beware of the temptation of  positive short-term economic horizons that are divorced from the political risk environments in which they occur. Do not allow ideological belief to blind you to the political, social and economic realities on the ground. This is not a Lehman Brothers world–and it ain’t Confucian either.

10 thoughts on “Fragile Democracy, Authoritarian Persistence and Strategic Competition in the Western Pacific Rim.

  1. So…, cautiously optimistic?

    I defer to your expertise here, but please don’t let that—or my sarcasm—detract from my “hear hear” in response to your last paragraph, which might be summarized thus: act sensibly.

  2. I wouldn’t worry to much. New Zealand’s liberal middle class will happily trade our paid-for-in-blood alliances with like states for client state status with China if it assuages their knee jerk anti-Americanism, whilst ensuring we stay completely disarmed so that no one will take us seriously anyway.

  3. Thank you for putting your thoughts on here. I intended to come and listen to you on 12th at AUT, but have visitors.

    With China and the US at daggers drawn over the Dalai Lama and arms deals with Taiwan, New Zealand has already chosen a side – this government will do anything, agree to anything to get a free trade deal with America, which will gain NZ as little equity in trade as Australia gained a few years back.

    Next step, more military, eventually international war agreements from this government with America; already tv audiences are being groomed to think war is exciting and will attract the power seekers. China isn’t gonna like that. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about China or America. Their politics are warlike, misogynist, controlling and greedy. Their intentions towards us are acquisitive. Neither country is our friend.

    We simply understand America a little better than the inscrutible Chinese so tend to side with them, as we have done in past wars. Future wars will be no different, and because of the nature of men, there will be future wars.

  4. I cannot say that I am feeling optimistic about medium future prospects in the West Pac, and I fear that the NZ government is not doing enough critical assessments of future trends such as that which I have tried to outline above.

    The bottom line is this: after two decades of democratization of national politics, and a corresponding effort to democratize international relations by promoting multilateralism, etc (often using the so-called “democratic peace thesis”), since 2001 the world has slid back towards authoritarian approaches to national as well as international politics (the reasons are several but the date tells you what the major precipitant was). “Good” governance no longer means transparency, equality, representation and voice, but instead is equated with economic efficiency, growth and “order.” This approach to national politics now extends into the field of international relations, where trade for trade’s sake, military influence and raw power politics have replaced the multilateralist ethos of the 1990s. This means, as I suggested above, that big powers no longer use their strength to promote human rights and civil liberties in smaller states (no matter what they say), but instead cast a blind eye on old or new authoritarian practices and sham democracies in order to pursue economic and diplomatic advantage within the context of great power strategic competition. Under National, NZ now appears to have adopted a small state version of this approach to foreign affairs: trade with anyone regardless of the nature of their rule, curry favour with larger partners in pursuit or in maintenance of trade deals, and soft-peddle or abandon the long-established independent foreign policy approach in favour for a fence-straddling and opportunistic policy that forsakes long-term benefit and autonomy for short-term gain (although I should point out that the seeds for this shift were sown by the 5th Labour government and its trade policies).

  5. I would have thought our trade policies were a result of having adopted free trade ourselves unilaterally and the failure of the WTO to catch up.

    On the wider issue, the peaceful resolution on one issue, which has a profound impact on the whole regaion, is for China to simply offer Taiwan autonomy, democratic self-government within China.

    In the end, the issue is on what terms Taiwan becomes associated with China and the current struggle over negotiating strength is actually more trouble than the it’s worth of itself.

    This speaks to power plays within China on the issue of choosing to assert their will and conflict with the USA (self interest by the military within the party or the party desiring a strong military with a purpose to assert their national will as a means to maintain popular support). Which, if so, means the issue is not the issue but the means to an end preservation of party political power over their own people.

  6. I can only rely on my experiences, and I’m certainly not an expert like you, but I wonder if sabres being sharpened and rattled are still good harbingers.

    I’m nowhere near as pessimistic about the region as you are. Whilst corruption and incompetence can blight politics of these nations, such behavior is not unique to the region, and may not reflect citizens aspirations for their nation.

    Reading your comments, I would correlate imminent Asian political landscape with recent central Africa political history, whereas my perception would be that, with the exception of states like Myanmar, Asians tolerate any government provided economic growth is delivering 21st century lifestyle and accoutrements.

    Most Asians I’ve met highly value education, and educated citizens, along with accessible global electronic communications, are the strongest bulwark against unfettered imperialistic tendencies of leaders.

    Many of the individual citizens that I met when I’ve travelled through the region in the 70s and 80s valued democracy as a concept that was not alway relevant to their nation. They didn’t care about politicians honesty, provided they delivered a desired lifestyle improvement and promoted national identity.

    Given the pragmatism of Asians I met, if regional trade is nurtured, national belligerence for internal consumption will still remain, but any actions will not compromise economic development.

    Several of those countries economies appear to have advanced quicker than NZs, yielding appreciable lifestyle gains. Just because citizens tolerate leaders we would view very suspiciously doesn’t mean progress has been abandoned, or that unfettered incompetence and corruption is tolerated.

    Citizens will change governments if they feel national future is threatened, however time scales of decades may be required.

    There are religious and cultural attitudes that westerners don’t understand, and I wonder if you have adequately considered their more pragmatic approach to the roles of national identity and politicians in their own lives.

    As with most regions in the world, it’s the selfish meddling of external aspirating superpowers that can convert regions into war zones. India and China politicians may be more responsible than some recent European/American politically-motivated excursions into the region.

  7. Bruce: You missed the point of the essay. It is not about culture, it is abut governance, political socialisation and threat. I live and teach in SE Asia, and have already blogged several times about the bogus justifications for elite rule in this region. I believe that I have engaged you in the discussion of those posts. I stand by my expressed opinions.

    Let me spell it out to you again: people are not born authoritarian or democratic, just as they are not born money-grubbing or dole bludgers. They are socialised to believe that one or the other is preferable, until they are exposed to other ideas about “good” or proper governance and social conduct. Just as US citizens are told that their foreign wars are to defend “freedom” and thus all US wars are just ( as if), the mass of Asians are told that economic well-being is only achievable by authoritarian means or overtly manipulated electoral contestation in farce democracies (including Japan). Anything that challenges that view (and I include the bogus US “defense of freedom” BS in this) is suppressed from birth, childhood, in schools, society and most definitely in politics. It is not that they “want” authoritarian or elite democracy as the preferred order–they have no choice. The material cooptation in places like Hong Kong, Japan and SIngapore actually does not travel well to the majority in other countries (if you do not believe this just take a trip to Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia or Vietnam and stay outside of the white touirst-oriented resorts).

    As for your comparison with Sub-Saharan Africa ( I would add Arab Africa to the mix), I reject it totally because it is spurious on a number of demographic and socio-economic grounds and therefore invalid (I have also written on spurious comparisons but apparently you choose to ignore that essay as well). The bottom line: you are using your anecdotal experience to make ridiculous generalisations. This is not the place to do that.

    As for the meddling of foreign powers: I agree that it is not optimal, but do you really wish to equate Chinese (or Japanese) imperialism with that of the Yanks? Ask the South Koreans, Filipinos or Malays about that. It may be all bad (and there is debate about that), but there are definite shades of imperialism: French, Spanish, Portuguese, Belgian, English, Dutch, German. Surely you get the difference and the implications of each….

    I have posted about these ” Asian” issues several times so it is disappointing that you would would comment without being fully informed about how I came to my tentative conclusions on this subject. Either that, or you have read my previous posts (as I suspect), and are being willfully ignorant in your provocation. Either way, it leaves you a wee bit exposed. Just because a person is Asian ( or Tamil, Haitian or Latin American) does not mean that they accept, much less prefer authoritarian or elite democratic governance to full representation no matter how efficient the non-democratic default may be. I believe that part of the human spirit is the need for voice–the ability to have a real say in at least one’s immediate existence–as much if not more than material need. The two go hand in hand and on that score (i.e. for people to be achieve full potential), all of Asia is sorely lacking.

  8. Either way, it leaves you a wee bit exposed. Just because a person is Asian ( or Tamil, Haitian or Latin American) does not mean that they accept, much less prefer authoritarian or elite democratic governance to full representation no matter how efficient the non-democratic default may be.

    OK, I apologize that I haven’t gone back through the archives. From that point, I’ll just note that my perceptions didn’t just appear whilst I was asleep the other night, they reflect a couple of years of continuously travelling through Asia. Also, “tolerate” was not meant to imply unquestioned acceptance.

    Sorry that my post caused you so much angst, that wasn’t my intention – I was commenting on how your article appeared to me. Your imminent audience will probably also not be aware of that body of work.

    My point was not that Oceanians/Asians unquestioningly accept undemocratic governance, but that many communities have a higher threshold, perhaps because of non-violent cultural/religious grounds, but also because including superior sense of time and place ( which many western societies could benefit from ), and well-developed sense of humour.

    All of which tend to relegate national politics to a lower priority when citizens lives are improving. When a population wants to change, they will. In Asia/Oceania the timing and method can appear tortuous to westerners. Structured political change derived from dissatisfaction with economic circumstances, rather than ideology, may also be more durable.

    If those apparent “Asian Value and Island Style ” comments leave me exposed, so be it. It’s only my perception, so please just move on – nothing to see here.

  9. Sorry Bruce, if my response was pointed and curt.

    I get fed the “Asian Values-Asians are different” line by the authoritarian regime under which I currently live, read it constantly in the words of its sycophantic intellectuals, see it duplicated, mutatis mutandis, in the discourse of PI elites, which grates on me because it is clear that there is no such thing (recall my post “The False Promise of Asian Values” of a few months ago in which I draw the comparison with what used to be said about Latin/Catholic societies). It is just a legitimating cloak for ongoing despotism (be it outright authoritarian or elite “democratic” in political manifestation), something that is force fed to the subject populations in pursuit of conformity and resigned acceptance. That allows the population to be manipulated into believing that there is something innate or natural about their predicament, which reinforces the social codes and behavioural expectations imposed by the elite. At that point it helps to have a good sense of humor.

    I do agree that given the state of liberal democracy today, it is a bit hypocritical for so-called advanced democracies to point the finger of criticism on the issue of popular voice and legitimate channels of expression at their Asian and Pacific counterparts.

  10. Thank you for the response. FWIW, I don’t disagree with your perceptions – just that they seemed unduly pessimistic, and I personally would more heavily weigh some other attributes – correctly or not, for a more optimistic predicted outcome.

    The following may not be interest, but my perceptions would be more positive because of…

    1. Asians value education more highly than most societies, they also value entrepeneurship. Armed with knowledge, more of their society understands their circumstances, and will act at suitable times or under provocation, but they also can identify rhetoric and initiate pragmatic responses until time for change arrives.

    2. Economic consequences of proposed actions are considered carefully for assured benefits before the actions proceed. In NZ, the loudest lobbyist wins.

    3. Asian societies travel to the beat of different drums, which westerners see as a fault, but I see as a superior sense of time and place. Hard to define, but they seem to be able to adjust the beat to match circumstance and opportunity.

    It’s not just patience or inertia, but a pragmatic combination of informed perceptions with political and economic awareness.

    4. Asians have great appreciation of satire/humour – whether topical cartoons in Malaysia/Singapore, or subtle literary articles in India and China. These insidious art forms affect the status of targets, thus creating feedback control for the more outlandish public office holders. Sure, some rulers try to prevent such insidious publications, but the Internet is pervasive.

    Given all of the above, I feel NZ will struggle to compete economically ( our innate laziness and mainly unjustified arrogance about innovation skills ), or even to be wholeheartedly welcomed into the fold – as we don’t understand the cultural nuances, and tend to try and measure performance by our standards.

    However, it’s also likely that some Asian populations will exceed the tolerance thresholds and develop their own timelines and methods to implement necessary political and economic change.

    More of the public understand available options, and are too well-informed to fall into the armed revolution camp – even the religious forms. They also see what happens when a country becomes a war zone for outsiders.

    Outside influences and internal corruption are tolerated because they have been balanced against the current benefits and cost of correction. However they can, and will, be changed as the need arises.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *