Argument

It’s Not All Doom And Gloom in Southeast Asia

The U.S. pivot to Asia has led to a lot of hand-wringing about the region’s democratic shortcomings. In reality, it’s looking pretty good.

People look for their names on a master list prior to casting their ballot in the presidential election at a polling station in the Quezon City district in suburban Manila on May 9, 2016.
The Philippines on May 9 launched elections to elect a new president with anti-establishment firebrand Rodrigo Duterte the shock favourite after an incendiary campaign full of profanity-laced threats to kill criminals.
  / AFP / TED ALJIBE        (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)
People look for their names on a master list prior to casting their ballot in the presidential election at a polling station in the Quezon City district in suburban Manila on May 9, 2016. The Philippines on May 9 launched elections to elect a new president with anti-establishment firebrand Rodrigo Duterte the shock favourite after an incendiary campaign full of profanity-laced threats to kill criminals. / AFP / TED ALJIBE (Photo credit should read TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images)

Wherever you look, the American media seems to be decrying Southeast Asia’s political retrogression. According to the headlines, there’s “no end in sight” to the junta in Thailand, “religious tyranny” is on the rise in Malaysia, Filipinos live in fear of their new president, and Indonesia is itching to execute foreigners.

These stories aren’t entirely wrong, and they certainly point to a number of serious challenges for the region’s democrats. The problem is that the litany of bad news gives one the impression that democracy in Southeast Asia must be in free-fall. In fact, this is not the case.

The sheer volume of negative press — as well as increased criticism from the think tank world — is a side effect of Washington’s newfound obsession with Southeast Asia. It is the United States’ increased attention to the region (the so-called “pivot to Asia”) that is making commentators more aware of its shortcomings. And as Southeast Asian regimes face greater scrutiny, their imperfections are thrust into the media spotlight. As a result, even seasoned observers — not to mention casual readers — may fail to pay sufficient attention to the underlying trends, which are overwhelmingly positive.

It’s no surprise that the pivot has attracted the backing of some within the American government who would like to contain China. Washington fears it is losing sway to Beijing, which is carrying out a massive investment campaign across Southeast Asia and is even building new islands in the South China Sea. India and Japan, both of which tend to see China as a rival, are the United States’ natural allies in this effort. The Southeast Asian countries, on the other hand, occupy a more ambiguous position. Their inhabitants find themselves balancing strong economic and geographical ties with China against a longing for closer association with the West.

Think tanks and human rights groups are keen to highlight the region’s political regression and persecution of dissidents. Major publications describe it as politically unstable, in democratic recession, and ridden with dictators. But we should treat such wholesale condemnation carefully, as it is often exaggerated and driven more by increased scrutiny than by facts on the ground.

The increased focus on Southeast Asia’s problems creates a tendency to overlook its long-term positive advances. In fact, the region is much more stable and democratic now than it was just 30 years ago. Back then, Burma and the Philippines were led, respectively, by a junta and a dictator. Indonesia was ruled by a military regime that was carrying out a violent occupation of neighboring East Timor. Further north in mainland Southeast Asia, Vietnam — which had not yet normalized relations with the United States — was propping up a proxy government in war-torn Cambodia.

Since then, the region has seen a host of improvements. Burma has emerged from more than 50 years of military misrule and brought a party led by a Nobel-prize-winning dissident into power. Indonesia and the Philippines have held several rounds of democratic elections after decades of ruthless dictatorship. And East Timor has held two national elections since its independence in 2002, emerging as a promising democracy.

International indices confirm that, viewed over the longer term, the region has advanced. According to Freedom House, Southeast Asian countries have generally improved in terms of civil liberties and political rights since 1972. Similarly, the Polity IV research project indicates that the region’s democracy rankings have trended upwards over the last 30 years.

And, despite setbacks in several countries (particularly Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand), there’s no reason to believe the positive developments described above are over. As standards of living across the region improve — and they have dramatically over the last few decades — its growing middle classes will continue to demand more meaningful political participation.

It is in this context that we must understand news reports about Southeast Asia’s democratic setbacks. Otherwise, the stream of bad news risks obscuring the region’s long-term gains. This can be especially detrimental when it affects U.S. foreign policy — leading, for example, to excessive criticism that may only drive the region’s governments into the arms of China. It’s a pretty obvious choice: When two superpowers are competing to win you over, why not go with Beijing, the one that refrains from hassling you over your democratic shortcomings?

Nowhere is this tension more obvious than in the case of Thailand. Washington has repeatedly reproached the generals in Bangkok since the 2014 coup, while Beijing has offered to sell them military hardware and to invest in large infrastructure projects. Unsurprisingly, Thailand has chosen to shift its allegiance towards the Chinese. Thai leaders are understandably miffed; their country has gone through more than a dozen coups in its modern history, but none has affected bilateral relations with the United States as severely as this one. Now the fact that the Thais are cozying up to Beijing is exacerbating the harsh reaction from Washington.

Despite the political setbacks in some countries, strategic thinkers in the U.S. government are betting that, in the long run, authoritarian regimes will ultimately choose to side with the liberal order. According to this view, we should be careful not to overestimate the impact of democratic shortcomings, which aren’t representative of the region’s overall political direction.

The stress on Southeast Asia’s political regression is fueled less by what is happening in the region than by developments in the United States. Americans need to pursue a smart foreign policy that is not based on a Manichean worldview that sees the world in terms of “good” and “bad” states. Instead, we need a more nuanced understanding of the area’s political trends.

This is not to say Southeast Asia does not have serious problems worth debating. Of course it does. But let’s avoid exaggerating them, and remember instead how far the countries of the region have advanced. Southeast Asia isn’t going to hell in a handbasket. Don’t be duped into thinking so.

In the photo, people look for their names on a master list prior to casting their ballots in the presidential election at a polling station in Manila, Philippines on May 9.

Photo credit: TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

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