- By Daniel TwiningDaniel Twining is Counselor and Asia Director at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Last week’s coup in Thailand reminds us that conflict in Asia is not limited to disputes between nations over history and territory. Internal cleavages can cause as much insecurity as arms races between countries. Once America’s main ally in Southeast Asia, Thailand is in no position to contribute to regional stability as it degenerates into strongman rule at home. An army trying to run a country cannot protect it at the same time.
Asian democracy elsewhere certainly has its discontents: the persecution of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, restrictions on speech and association in Singapore, corruption in the Philippines and India, and weak leadership in Indonesia. But free politics are an underappreciated source of regional security and prosperity.
Asian societies governed by accountability and law produce security not only for their people, but for their region. Democracies that abide by basic rules at home are more likely to uphold and strengthen them abroad. It is no coincidence that China, Asia’s principal revisionist power, is not subject to democratic control at home.
Beyond Thailand and Myanmar, internal conflicts are no longer the dominant security challenge confronting Asian nations. More people live under free institutions in Asia than anywhere else, helping resolve the civil discord that once afflicted key regional powers. This has had a positive spillover effect on regional security and catalyzed the Asian economic miracle.
In Indonesia, internal repression, civil war, and secessionism under strongman rule have given way to a durable political settlement under democracy. Political transitions no longer result in mass bloodshed; regions enjoy autonomy rather than seeking independence through force of arms; a professionalized army maintains external security rather than repressing dissidents; and rule of law has produced broad-based prosperity. Indonesia has launched the Bali Democracy Forum to help neighbors strengthen good governance.
Myanmar’s political opening followed decades of repression, stagnation, and civil war that produced a failing state. Its security and that of its region were diminished by Myanmar’s isolation, self-impoverishment, armed insurgencies, outbound flows of illegal narcotics, and desperate refugees. Myanmar’s penetration by China undermined its sovereignty and alarmed its neighbors. Although there is a long way to go, reform has strengthened the country’s resilience and made it a better neighbor.
Democracy in Asia reinforces America’s role as a guarantor of peace. It is true that U.S. alliances with South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand were forged when they were run by autocrats.
But there is no question that the U.S.-ROK alliance is more durable now that South Korea is a vibrant democracy, with American forces no longer defending an unelected government in Seoul against an unelected government in Pyongyang. Part of the problem in the Philippines was the popular view that Washington was too chummy with strongmen in Manila; today, elected leaders have invited American forces to return after a 20-year absence.
Although the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has shifted dangerously in Beijing’s favor, it is clear that democracy strengthens Taiwan’s claim to its own identity and underscores why Washington remains committed to the defense of this free society against unprovoked Chinese aggression.
By contrast, Hanoi’s repression of peaceful political activity will remain an obstacle to closer partnership with Washington — at precisely the time when China’s encroachment on Vietnam’s territorial waters means it could use a powerful ally.
Thailand’s praetorian army is putting its U.S. alliance at risk. The Thai and American navies were exercising together even as the generals seized control in Bangkok. Not only those exercises but U.S. military and civilian assistance to Thailand have been suspended. At a time when countries across Asia are coming under military pressure from China, how exactly does Bangkok’s split from Washington serve Thai interests?
Democracy in Asia strengthens regional institutions. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is more effective thanks to the democratization of its dominant member state, its adoption of a Human Rights Charter, and the political opening in Myanmar, once a cancer at the heart of the regional grouping. ASEAN’s democracies have joined Japan, America, Australia, and India to oppose China’s gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea by supporting a peaceful code of conduct.
Democracy has sparked security cooperation between Asian powers. Recent years have seen the deepening of strategic ties between India and Japan, Japan and Australia, India and Australia, South Korea and India, and Japan and the Philippines. Asian leaders understand that "shared values and shared interests" are mutually reinforcing, as the leaders of both India and Japan have put it.
China itself is far more likely to rise peacefully in a region anchored by strong market democracies that cooperate to sustain a liberal order. A democratic China could become the natural leader of Asia. But anxious neighbors will not consent to dominion by an authoritarian superpower.
The transformation of Asia’s closed regimes into open societies would make more likely the peaceful settlement of conflicts over territory and history that otherwise risk exploding. For the sake of its security and prosperity, and that of its wider region, Thailand must pursue a constitutional settlement that returns control to elected politicians soon.