Ruling parties in Southeast Asia pose problem for Biden’s democratic agenda
In its dealings with Asia, the Biden administration attempts to accomplish three feats at once. He wants to complete the “pivot to Asia” of the Obama-Biden years, forge stronger partnerships and emphasize shared democratic values. There is little tension between these three goals in Northeast Asia, where Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are long-standing American allies as well as established democracies. But in Southeast Asia, where democratic partners are painfully difficult to find, how can these goals be reconciled?
These tensions cannot be eliminated, but they can be managed. The starting point should be a question of modesty. It has to be about how much America can hope to change in Southeast Asia, a region historically recalcitrant to external pressures and democratization trends. Partnership with authoritarian regimes is inevitable if America wants partners in Southeast Asia.
From a distance, Southeast Asia could look like a zero point in a 21st century struggle between democracy and dictatorship. China’s footprint in the region has grown while America’s influence has receded. Southeast Asia appears to be located precisely at the turbulent confluence of US-Chinese rivalry and global competition between democratic and authoritarian regimes.
Up close, Southeast Asia is unlike anything like it. The region is on fire with the coronavirus and inundated with autocracy. This makes it difficult to find democratic partners to work with, let alone demonstrate Biden’s argument that democracies will prove their advantages for good governance over authoritarian regimes in the years to come. In a corner of Southeast Asia, Myanmar’s fragile democratic experiment that began in 2011 – a rare democratic breakthrough coinciding with the Obama-Biden years – has collapsed in yet another episode of brutal military rule. In another corner, Southeast Asia’s largest democracy, Indonesia, is fighting the coronavirus so powerfully that neither Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin nor Vice President Kamala Harris have been able to place the hub country on their summer itineraries in Southeast Asia.
Tellingly, the only two countries Austin and Harris have included in their summer tours are not democracies at all: Singapore and Vietnam. In both places, America does not associate with democracies, but with dominant parties that have ruled uninterrupted and virtually unchallenged since the 1950s.
Yet some authoritarian regimes make more sane and defensible partners than others. And Singapore and Vietnam both qualify extensively. When commanded by ruling parties rather than dominant military or personalist sects, as is the case in Singapore and Vietnam, authoritarian regimes can often enjoy considerable national legitimacy. They can also produce impressive development results and offer reliable partners in maintaining a peaceful international status quo.
In addition, authoritarian ruling parties can lay a solid institutional basis for peaceful and progressive democratic transitions: indeed, dominant ruling parties have historically been key players in building democracy in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. from South. The dominant parties in Southeast Asia are certainly a poor match for Biden’s democratic platform today, but perhaps not tomorrow.
Against the grain of democratization
Unlike Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia has never been fertile democratic ground. The region’s democratic nadir came from 1976 to 1986, when Southeast Asia was not home to a single democratic regime. This dark decade for democracy was ushered in by a brutal coup in Thailand. History may well prove that Myanmar’s recent coup was the start of an equally dark period in the 2020s.
Southeast Asia also does not tend to follow global democratization trends. The democratic destiny of the region was at its worst in a decade when the global democratic outlook was improving dramatically. Even as the third wave of democratization began to spread around the world, following the Carnation Revolution in Portugal in 1974, Southeast Asia became more deeply authoritarian in all areas. A sign of Southeast Asia’s general resistance to broader democratization trends, the Portuguese revolution did not bring new winds of liberalization to Southeast Asia; it only brought about the brutal occupation of East Timor by Indonesia after escaping Portuguese rule.
Even the end of the Cold War did not bring democratic gains. The year was a coup d’état in Thailand (which was canceled) in 1991 and there was one in Cambodia (which still has not been) in 1997. Popular movements to overthrow dictators in Philippines and Indonesia followed their own national pace, not that of the world. rhythms. Born in 1986, “People Power” in the Philippines arrived early. Erupted in 1998, “Reformasi” in Indonesia arrived late. If these two countries have followed any global trend, it has been the trend of democratic retreat and erosion during the 2010s.
The darkest recent trend in Southeast Asia, again somewhat against the grain of the world, has been the re-emergence of outright military rule. Myanmar is the most egregious example since its coup in February. The Thai military has made only hesitant and partial steps towards sharing authority with elected civilians since its last coup in 2014. In Indonesia and the Philippines, too, civilian presidents-elect have increasingly been elected. more about the military to fight against their opponents. The legacies of military politicization under former authoritarian regimes loom large in both places.
Southeast Asia is also home to authoritarian regimes where the ruling parties, rather than the ruling armed forces, dominate the scene. Hun Sen’s Cambodia is becoming increasingly closed politically after three decades in power. Malaysia appeared to take decisive democratic action in 2018 by eliminating its long-ruling party, but the old guard has never been moved and appears poised to make a comeback. And then there’s Singapore and Vietnam: the two most enduring authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia and the two key targets of the Biden administration’s regional charm offensive.
This clearly presents a difficult political ecosystem for the Biden administration to find democratic partners. And yet, the new president is determined to bring democracy to the forefront of America. So why prioritize the two most enduring authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia, of all possible partners, for special attention?
There are two main reasons, neither of which is difficult to understand. The first is that all the autocracy and the coronavirus that is spreading in the region has left the Biden administration with few options. Indonesia would have been an obvious stop for Austin and Harris without the coronavirus. Thailand would also be an obvious stop without its latest outbreak of repressive military rule. After all, he is an ally of the United States. And the Philippines would have been the most obvious stop of all, had it not been for its combination of spreading coronavirus and a president inclined to greet Americans with licks rather than gusts of wind.
The second reason is a simple geopolitics, devoid of normative traps. Singapore and Vietnam are the two countries most interested in seeing America play a revitalized role in Southeast Asia, and least afraid to say so openly without fear of a domestic backlash. For Vietnam, much of that embrace of America is about countering China. For Singapore, which like almost every country in Southeast Asia, generally praises China’s growing role as a major economic player in the region, the main thing is to keep the stability and buzzing around. of the former open and dynamic Asia-Pacific economy.
There will be no revival of opposition to embracing America in either country, as neither party in power faces strong opposition to begin with. This is the most obvious characteristic that Singapore and Vietnam have in common, despite the very different ways in which these ruling parties came to power. The Vietnamese Communist Party (PCV) had expelled the French in the mid-1950s and the Americans in the mid-1970s. It is the consummate revolutionary regime. Singapore’s People Action Party (PAP) first won the election in 1959, then ousted its left-wing faction in the early 1960s and has since won overwhelming electoral victories as an authoritarian conservative regime. It is the paradigmatic counter-revolutionary regime.
These different origins have produced lasting differences. Vietnam no longer has a socialist planned economy, but it is still a one-party regime. While most one-party regimes turned into multi-party systems with competitive elections after the Cold War, Vietnam failed to do so. Singapore has always been a multi-party system, but only the PAP gets the power. Party opposition and independent civil society are legally permitted but also strictly limited. Neither the VCP nor the PAP face opposition that could possibly replace it, or even criticize its tight embrace with Washington in a way that could give it headaches. The same cannot be said for countries in Southeast Asia where political opposition and anti-American sentiment are both much stronger, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.
The ruling parties in Singapore and Vietnam are as similar in why they rule as they are in how they rule. Both are firmly committed to political stability and national economic development, above all, and at all costs for political and civil liberties. Of course, this also means securing their own mandate; but that’s not all it means. The main reason Singapore and Vietnam face no significant internal opposition is not because they have been overly repressive, as authoritarian regimes do. They reign unmistakably because they have succeeded in bringing both peace and development to countries sorely lacking in it: Vietnam during its long wars from 1945 to 1975 and Singapore during its tumultuous period of decolonization from 1945 to 1965. More that everywhere else in Southeast Asia, the ruling parties in Singapore and Vietnam have obtained a national monopoly on political legitimacy.