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. Â 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), Â 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, theÂ 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. Â 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), Â with some like Singapore allocating 6% of GDP to Â 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),Â 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 MalaysianÂ 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 Â and beware of the temptation of Â 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.