The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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Democracy and the Balance of Power in Asia

Democratic ideals, not raw geopolitics, are shaping Asia’s future.

Published on September 1, 2006

Since the electoral success of Hamas in the Palestinian territories and the strong showing of religious parties in Egypt and Iraq, the Bush Administration’s focus on democracy as an organizing strategic principle for U.S. foreign policy has come under increasing fire. Realists are chortling at the failure of the ballot box to reverse the tide of Muslim extremism. The Democratic Party leadership in Congress, meanwhile, has produced a foreign policy strategy document (“Real Security”) completely devoid of any mention of democracy promotion. For its part, the Administration is forging ahead with President Bush’s Freedom Agenda, including a request for $75 million from Congress to encourage democratic change within Iran.

Time will tell whether a strategy of democratization can transform the broader Middle East. But developments in the Far East are proving right now that the advance of democratic ideals can indeed shape great power relations and advance not only American ideals but America’s strategic interests as well.

In 1945 there were only two democracies in Asia: Australia and New Zealand. Today there are dozens, and the continued momentum behind the expansion of freedom in Asia is unmistakable. South Korea and Taiwan have moved from authoritarianism to competitive liberal democracy. Under Junichiro Koizumi and Manmohan Singh, Japan and India have undergone internal political and economic realignment and have increasingly trumpeted democracy as the centerpiece of their international identity and purpose. The same is becoming true for Indonesia after the election of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in 2005. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a new generation of leaders is focusing on the risks of poor governance in neighboring states and has begun pressing repressive regimes like Burma to reverse anti-democratic policies. Despite all the churning across Asia today—from nationalism, pan-Asianism and Islamic radicalism to resource competition and military modernization—leaders across the region have increasingly come to see democracy and the rule of law as central to their national identity, social stability and economic success.

Yet democracy faces formidable challenges and challengers. In Japan voices for a stronger values-based foreign policy vie with residual mercantilists and pan-Asianists. In India those championing democracy-promotion abroad face decades of ingrained non-alignment ideology in the Ministry of External Affairs and in many of India’s political parties. In Southeast Asia democracy advocates must contend with ASEAN’s rusty but entrenched principle of “non-interference in internal affairs.” Meanwhile, the political systems in Thailand, the Philippines and Taiwan struggle with dysfunctionalities that may discourage their neighbors from wanting to abandon a predictable if stultifying authoritarianism. In China civil-society activists face state-sponsored suppression of non-governmental organizations and house churches. Across the region authoritarian governments are proposing new regional groupings that would enshrine the principle of non-interference in internal affairs as a buffer against globalization, peaceful evolution or “color revolutions” in Asian garb.

What all this tells us is that a contest is emerging in Asia—a balance of ideas no less important than the balance of power. This contest of ideas will determine whether the future regional architecture in Asia is inclusive and based on universal values, or instead excludes the United States and undermines its interests. It will determine whether China’s future converges with the region’s dominant democratization trend, or whether Beijing seeks to use its commercial power to game the international system and delay internal political change. That contest of ideas, too, will determine whether the region’s major powers can work together to strengthen governance in developing nations, or whether failed states and human rights abuses proliferate. And it will determine whether our allies’ growing nationalism and ambition will be channeled to transform the region based on shared norms, or reignite the tragic conflicts of the past.

This is not a time for the United States to become complacent or to doubt its own ideals. The Administration should continue to push for an expanded regional agenda based on good governance, democratic principles and the rule of law. However, the Freedom Agenda will falter in Asia if we do not build a broader coalition that makes democracy promotion an Asian agenda advanced by Asians themselves. As our allies and partners in the region increasingly embrace democratic principles and the rule of law, we must challenge them to live up to those ideals by promoting them among their neighbors. America must also help those nations struggling with democratic governance to succeed so that they do not discourage others from democratic transition. And we must continue to urge all democrats and decent people across the region to speak out against violations of basic human rights in places like North Korea and Burma, while recognizing that we will only succeed in these hardest cases if we win the broader contest of ideas. And this is a contest that democrats working together can win.

Japan: An Alliance of Ideals

Important changes in Japan’s and India’s strategic cultures offer a starting point for advancing the democratic agenda in Asia. This is particularly true in Japan, where there has been a marked shift away from Asian exceptionalism and toward the advancement of universal norms, albeit still in the beginning stages. Only a decade ago, Japanese economists and leading intellectuals were advancing “Asian values” of harmony, stability and lifetime employment as a buffer against the “Washington consensus” and the “global values” of the United States. Typical in this period was Eisuke Sakakibara’s famous March 1990 thesis, Shihonshugi wo Koeta Nippon (“A Japanese Economy That Has Surpassed Capitalism”). By the time Junichiro Koizumi became prime minister in April 2001, however, Japan’s economic model and Sakakibara’s thesis had collapsed. Koizumi spent his five years in office dismantling not only the vestiges of that model, such as the postal savings system, but also the Liberal Democratic Party’s ossified political factions that had propped it up.

Eisuke Sakakibara

Over the same period, Japan increasingly focused on the threat to its strategic position posed by China’s growing clout. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Tokyo found that traditional economic tools of aid and investment were ineffective in dissuading China from testing nuclear weapons, bracketing the Taiwan Strait with missiles, or sending submarines and destroyers into contested waters. Japan’s identity in Asia also came under pressure from China’s use of the history card and by its growing assertiveness in forming regional multilateral groupings favorable to Beijing, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Leading politicians and strategic thinkers in Tokyo seized on one undeniable truth in their search for a response to the China conundrum: Japan is a democracy, and China is not. For Tokyo ideas really began to matter. Thanks to a combination of external power shifts and internal political and economic restructuring, Japan’s leaders have begun to articulate their national interest in ways that resonate with global values.

The first striking example of this was Prime Minister Koizumi’s effort to sell a new regional integration plan during a visit to Southeast Asia in 2001. Called the Initiative for Development of Economies of Asia (IDEA), the plan focused on good governance, the rule of law and economic transparency—hardly unique “Asian” norms. The Japanese Foreign Ministry did a poor job of coordinating the IDEA plan with Southeast Asian capitals and Washington, and it ultimately collapsed. Nevertheless, it established a new center for Japanese diplomacy in Southeast Asia, moving beyond the 1977 Fukuda Doctrine of trade, aid and friendship with all nations. IDEA was based on a recognition that Tokyo’s comparative advantage lay in helping nations choose a path to economic development based on standards that had more in common with the International Monetary Fund’s thinking than the industrial policies that the Ministry of International Trade and Industry once advanced in Asia under the theory of the “flying geese.”

Koizumi also gave clear voice to the democratic norms underpinning Japan’s role in Asia in his April 2005 speech to the fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Bandung Asia-Africa Summit. He argued there that “we should all play an active role in preventing disorderly trade in weapons, as well as in disseminating universal values such as the rule of law, freedom and democracy.”

It’s not just Koizumi, of course. Two of the major contenders to replace him as prime minister later this year have also articulated a values-based foreign policy. Foreign Minister Taro Aso highlighted this theme in a December 7, 2005, speech in which he argued that Japan is a model for the rest of Asia because its success flows from its adherence to the principles of market economics and democracy. Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe, the leading contender to replace Koizumi, has also emphasized partnerships with India and Australia to encourage democratic change within China.

It would be tempting to dismiss these speeches as rhetorical devices intended to counter China’s use of the history card, and to some extent they are. But Japan is beginning to institutionalize these norms in its foreign policy practice. When China pushed in late 2004 to create, design and host an East Asia Summit, Japan worked with Singapore to pull in India, Australia and New Zealand as participants to balance Chinese influence and to increase the number of countries that share democratic values with Japan. In 2006 the Prime Minister’s office commissioned a blue ribbon panel on “Overseas Economic Cooperation” which argued that “for the first time it is possible in today’s international system to center international relations on a collection of countries with shared values and ideals.” Based on the panel’s recommendation, the Prime Minister’s office created a National Security Council equivalent to oversee development strategy abroad and to ensure that “democracy, freedom and the rule of law” become central priorities.

Of course, the institutionalization of these norms in Japanese foreign policy is still incomplete. There is another face to Japanese nationalism—anti-globalist and anti-American—as captured in bestsellers like Kokka no Hinkaku (“The Nation’s Qualities”). Meanwhile, pan-Asianism still appeals to many as a buffer against the United States—part of the reason Tokyo chose to recruit India, but not Washington, to join the East Asia Summit. And in Burma, Tokyo still sometimes opposes the pro-democracy approach of the United States and Europe, focusing on countering Chinese diplomatic influence rather than advancing ideals that are ultimately more important for Japan’s overall position in the region. Nevertheless, in the longer run the balance-of-power contest with China is likely to strengthen Japan’s focus on the balance of ideas.

Democratic Korea and Taiwan

The Republic of Korea is one of the greatest success stories for democracy in Asia, and yet the common wisdom is that Seoul is drifting away from identification with U.S. values. This impression is reinforced by the worldview brought to office by the current left-of-center Korean government, which is drawn largely from the “386” generation that was radicalized against the United States during the era of authoritarian rule in the 1970s and 1980s. Nevertheless, these former student activists know from their own struggles the importance of liberal political institutions, which is why they agreed to host the Community of Democracies summit in November 2002.

If the current generation of South Korean democrats wears blinders, it is when they gaze at North Korea’s atrocious human rights record. But the reasons are clear. Their own formative experiences include being imprisoned under national security laws that used the threat from the North as a tool to suppress political dissent in the South. As a result, their struggle for democracy became intertwined with a desire for reconciliation with the North. The reality of power tends to change perspectives, however, and many South Korean progressives are coming to recognize that their own struggle for democracy in the South is inconsistent with the tolerance of human rights abuses in the North. Moreover, the next generation of South Koreans carries little of the old baggage about the United States or the North. They are now becoming the center of gravity in the battle to improve human rights in North Korea and to determine the balance of ideas in the South.

Taiwan is the other success story in Northeast Asia’s democratic development. And yet most policymakers in the United States and in the region tend to think of Taiwan’s democracy as a source of irritation in the U.S. relationship with Beijing rather than as an asset to regional stability. This is largely Taipei’s fault. The ruling “pan-Green” camp has pushed the rhetorical limit in advocating de jure independence for the island. By focusing on the symbolic and legal trappings of the state, Taipei has allowed Beijing to change the subject away from democracy, and this in turn has caused both internal polarization within Taiwan and a rupture with Washington. Political leaders in Taipei have also undermined the power of their own democratic example by engaging in a debilitating and polarizing debate that has locked the legislative Yuan in paralysis and led (literally) to fights between the major parties.

Taiwanese lawmakers fight during a committee hearing as Sun Yat-sen looks on.
Che Ji-chang/AP Photo

Taiwan’s real strategic center of gravity is its democracy, and it is critical to the balance of ideas in Asia that Taipei stay on message—in terms of rhetoric, by overcoming its internal legislative deadlock, and by working with other democratic countries to promote good governance and democracy abroad. Taiwan’s first ever National Security Strategy document, promulgated in May 2006, acknowledges these strategic imperatives and, as with South Korea, there are good prospects that the next generation of political leadership will be more pragmatic and less polarized.

Southeast Asia: Battleground for Asia’s Big Ideas

Southeast Asia is the most contested front in efforts to define Asia’s future agenda. The good news is that the democracy agenda is quietly winning with the first-ever direct election of Indonesia’s president, and as economic growth has brought more pressure for political competition in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Meanwhile, ASEAN’s traditional adherence to non-interference in internal affairs is rapidly fraying as Burma publicly rebuffs its neighbors’ attempts to encourage better behavior.

The steady shift in ASEAN’s ideational center of gravity over the past few years has been clear in the articulation of democracy and universal values as regional goals in numerous recent summit documents such as the 2003 Declaration of ASEAN Concord II, and as a key theme in ASEAN’s preparation for its thirtieth anniversary charter in 2007. This is a far cry from the “Asian values” arguments used by Malaysia’s Mahathir or Indonesia’s authoritarian Suharto to justify resistance to international pressures to democratize in the 1980s and 1990s.

Despite the momentum behind democracy, Southeast Asia remains awash in other ideational currents and eddies, and governance remains uneven across the region. Beijing finds common cause in Cambodia, Laos and Burma for its goal of an Asian regional architecture that enshrines the principle of non-interference, and it has used ASEAN’s predisposition for lowest-common-denominator consensus to advance China’s agenda through those proxies. Nevertheless, the momentum in Southeast Asia is definitely behind a balance of ideas that favors freedom. Southeast Asian leaders like Yudhoyono of Indonesia and Badawi of Malaysia are increasingly finding ways of talking about universal norms without making it sound like they are talking about “Western” norms. Greater consolidation of democracy in Northeast Asia and steady shifts in Japanese and Indian strategic cultures will help to further that momentum. However, that still leaves the gravitational pull of the alternative vision of Asian norms being advanced by Beijing.

Helping China Succeed

Strategic thinkers in Beijing caught on to the emerging balance of ideas in Asia several years ago. Recognizing familiar Western strategies of “peaceful evolution” in the transformational language of the Freedom Agenda, conservative Chinese scholars have been warning for years now that the Chinese Communist Party must have a counterstrategy to prevent “color revolutions” from spreading to the Far East, and even within the borders of the Chinese state. They have also found common cause with an increasingly undemocratic Russia. In order to maintain a balance of ideas that favors the Chinese leadership’s own glacial timeline for political liberalization, Beijing has erected ideational buffers both at home and abroad.

At home, the Chinese leadership authorized a deliberate scrutinizing and suppression of Chinese civil-society organizations in 2005. It required all Western non-governmental organizations to have registered Chinese partners, and then it ensured that those partners could not work on anything remotely related to political liberalization. In this strategy, Beijing has been far more subtle than Moscow, but the chilling effect on civil society has been the same.

Externally, China has repeatedly championed the principle of non-interference in internal affairs—from the debates over Zimbabwe and Sudan in the United Nations to the agenda for the East Asia Summit and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. This principle has not been without appeal, particularly in those parts of South, Southeast and Central Asia that are also under pressure to adhere to universal values and best practices. Meanwhile, Beijing has made effective use of its commercial and soft power, offering non-threatening, watered-down trade agreements around the region. It has also set up “Confucius Institutes” in 23 countries to provide Chinese language and cultural resources.11.
See Bates Gill and Yanzhong Huang, “Sources and Limits of Chinese ‘Soft Power’”, Survival (Summer 2006).
Overall, Beijing has had considerable success in reassuring other Asian countries that, in the realm of ideas at least, China is the status quo superpower in the region.

China, however, is not about to promote anti-democratic revolutions in Asia based on an outdated affection for Westphalianism. Beijing’s vision for Asia is defensive, not transformational. Indeed, China’s own domestic society and strategic culture are heavily influenced by normative trends elsewhere in the world. It is entirely possible that just as China has shifted from passivity to assertiveness in international institutions like the United Nations, it will be increasingly socialized to the norms those institutions were designed to advance. For now Beijing’s strategy is to use multilateralism, trade and diplomacy to enable it to focus on “peaceful development” at home. But China’s many domestic social and political problems will eventually require adherence to norms Beijing now resists. China cannot continue to grow at the rate necessary to provide jobs and savings for its people without establishing greater rule of law, intellectual property rights, good governance and transparency. Nor will China be able to forestall further protests and societal disintegration without the pressure-release functions provided by an active civil society and freedom of worship.

The need for greater democratization and governance is not entirely lost on the leadership. In a June 30 speech on the 85th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, President Hu Jintao himself noted that the Party had to fight corruption, strengthen governance, and allow greater supervision from the top legislature, media and masses. This is not a call for liberal democracy, of course, but it clearly is a response to pressures and demands from the population for greater participation and accountability. And it turns out that the Chinese like to vote, as the Party found in 2005 when more than seventy million Chinese citizens voted by cell phone for their favorite candidate on the popular TV show “Super Girls.” (The Party quickly changed the format of the show.)

Even a partial shift in Chinese thinking about universal norms would have an immediate and positive effect on U.S. efforts to improve the human rights situations in North Korea, Burma and other areas of the world where China’s UN Security Council perch and mercantilism enable bad behavior. Indeed, without Beijing’s help those hardest cases will be difficult if not impossible to address. A change in the Chinese worldview could come from an understanding of the need for internal liberalization, but it is more likely to begin from a careful calculation of self-interest. Instability in Burma or North Korea, or in energy-producing parts of Africa and the Middle East, is clearly not in China’s interests. Beijing may soon come to see that a dose of good governance in those places is exactly what is needed. More important still will be how Beijing sees the other major Asian states addressing issues of governance and regional order.

Democracy as Asia’s Agenda

If the United States is to succeed in convincing China that greater political liberalization and adherence to the rule of law is in China’s national interests, Beijing will first have to see that other Asians broadly view the spread of democracy as a regional priority. Increasingly they do, and that gives the United States an unprecedented opportunity to tip the balance of ideas in Asia in the direction of universal norms and democratization. In so doing, we can transform the security landscape. This will only happen, however, if democracy is seen near and far in Asia not as America’s agenda, but as Asia’s own agenda. To succeed, therefore, we must draw on American idealism, but think like Asian realists.

First, U.S. strategy must encourage partnerships and a multipolarity of democracies. An aggressive unilateral U.S. strategy for democratization in Asia will only alienate our allies and cause bandwagoning with China by those transitional or recalcitrant states threatened by revolution and attracted to China’s agenda of non-interference in internal affairs. We must recognize that we carry certain baggage on the values front and that U.S. unipolarity will ever make this so.

It follows that the United States should complement its own democracy-promotion activities by coordinating them closely with other democracies, particularly India and Japan. We need to encourage these and other Asian democracies to take independent leadership roles in the region to advance the values we share. Thinking in a unipolar way will ultimately result in a bipolar system in Asia, with China seeking ways to veto U.S. action. Thinking in a multipolar way will lead to a regional dynamic in which China is encouraged to conform to a set of broadly embraced regional norms. The United States must take full advantage of the demonstration effect of other democracies succeeding, and that includes succeeding on their own as leaders in the region.

Second, U.S. strategy must appeal to the Asian search for stability and be harnessed to Asian nationalism. Asia’s leaders want success, but not revolution, rapid transformation or instability. When it comes to Schumpeter’s “creative destruction”, they lean heavily toward the creative part of the concept, and away from the destructive part. Elections should therefore not be the only focus of policy. In most cases elections are a necessary but insufficient ingredient. To encourage change in transitional states like China or Vietnam—or to sustain the success of shaky democratic states like the Philippines—it is more important to focus on the rule of law, governance and the development of civil society. The United States and other democracies can make a strong case that a more open civil society, freedom of religion and the rule of law will help countries like China and Vietnam weather the social transformations caused by their economic growth. In Japan, a values-based foreign policy will help Tokyo maintain its diplomatic weight in the region in ways that are far healthier than traditional balance-of-power calculations about China and North Korea.

Third, while any U.S. strategy will have to be tailored and evolutionary, it must be applied everywhere without exception. Japan and India must be challenged to match their new emphasis on democracy with action on the ground in Burma. China must be challenged to explain its mercantilist coddling of oil-rich, anti-democratic regimes, its treatment of North Korean refugees and its deliberate domestic strategy of suppressing NGO activities. Thailand and Taiwan must be challenged not to let internal polarization lead to illiberal behavior. South Korean progressives must be urged to apply their own principles of democratization and human rights to the North. The United States should work with other democracies to establish an agenda for democracy promotion and the rule of law in the region’s new multilateral forums, especially those like the East Asian Summit where we are not members.

Finally, the United States must continue to recognize that material power still matters in Asia. U.S. alliances, access to forward bases and freedom of navigation are all critical to deterring and dissuading others in the region from disrupting peace and stability. Open trade and financial flows are no less important. But rather than being seen as a distraction from maintaining U.S. military and economic power in the region, more subtle U.S. democracy promotion strategies should be seen as the force multipliers they are.

This is hard work. In many ways a more carefully drawn U.S. democracy-promotion strategy runs against the instincts of America’s diplomats on the front lines, who already have more than enough challenges before them just to maintain U.S. military and trade access in Asia. It also goes beyond the usual application of American soft power, where the focus has increasingly been on the marketing of the United States rather than of the universal principles that underpin our system and those of our key allies. And while common values have become a useful centerpiece for our partnerships with India and Japan, we have only just begun exploring ways to coordinate the application of those values in practice. But there should be no doubt that winning the contest of ideas in Asia is absolutely critical to U.S. strategic interests. The Freedom Agenda is working in Asia, and its fuller success there will reverberate around the world—perhaps even one day affecting the Middle East.

See Bates Gill and Yanzhong Huang, “Sources and Limits of Chinese ‘Soft Power’”, Survival (Summer 2006).

Michael J. Green served as special assistant to the President and senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council until December 2005. He is currently associate professor of international relations at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and senior advisor and Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC.