Democracy in the "Asian century"

A shift of global power to the east exposes the west's domestic as well as international weaknesses, say Ernesto Gallo & Giovanni Biava.

Ernesto Gallo Giovanni Biava
18 February 2014

Thailand’s deep political unrest, dominated by protests in Bangkok that began in October 2013, may appear a solely national issue. It does of course reflect particular national problems. But it also resembles what is happening in domestic and international politics at the global level.

In a sense, the protest can be seen as an effort to channel the voice of millions of disaffected Thai citizens. It could thus be seen as an embodiment of more-or-less conscious democratic spirit. Although the protesters are based mainly in Bangkok, not all of them belong to a supposedly anti-democratic elite, as much of the western media initially reported; the opposition has also gained support among the city’s working classes. A crucial point, however, is that their demands remain rather generic and not particularly constructive. 

It's intriguing to note that the protesters' invitation to a press briefing was accepted only by two countries, Switzerland and...Russia. The government, meanwhile - a populist and corrupt democracy, headed by the sister of the billionaire media tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra - has been supported by the United States. The parallel with the current world order is striking: on the one hand, there are various forms of flawed democracy, often controlled by financial oligarchies; on the other, a rising tide of protests which often lack coherent political design and include authoritarian tendencies. In this context, the US’s ineffectiveness and the failures of the European Union have made a negative contribution.

An Asia-centric world

During recent months, American foreign policy has overall focused mainly on economic projects and initiatives. Washington is driven by the misguided conviction that free trade and the market will bring about democracy, rights and the rule of law. Barack Obama's administration is at present keen on fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a free-trade agreement of countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the negotiations for which (on the US’s side) started in 2008.

Even on this issue, however, Washington has demonstrated weak political leadership. Only Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore are currently parties to the agreement. South Korea, on 10 January 2014, expressed its preference for a free-trade agreement with China, raising the question of whether this would mean China's exclusion from the TPP.  The latter would be a big mistake: direct negotiations could provide Washington and Beijing with a real opportunity to start a dialogue on practical issues, while an intercontinental commercial deal would leave China’s leading financial and trade centres outside.

The TPP has also been heavily criticised on both sides of the Atlantic by workers’ organisations which fear social rights would be put in jeopardy; Joseph Stiglitz, recipient of economics' equivalent of the Nobel prize winner, warned the negotiators about severe risks in areas of copyright and intellectual property. In the same early weeks of 2014, China announced its intention to speed up the signing of a free-trade agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, which are major oil exporters and whose trade with China is worth more than $150 billion a year. Beijing, for its part, is unleashing momentous plans in the form of two "economic silk roads" - one overland via central Asia, the other across the Indian Ocean towards the Mediterranean. China’s key interest lies in energy sources, but a by-product might be the strengthening of authoritarian regimes in all the regions involved: east Asia, central Asia, and the middle east.

The larger picture is that increasingly, "Asian" international politics is and will be controlled by Asian countries (or better, "Eurasian", if Russia is included). In itself this is a positive step, but what will be the effects on democracy? What too will be the impact on relations with countries in other world regions; are Asian states promoting their own version of a "Monroe doctrine" - effectively a politics of "Asia for the Asians"?

A lost west

In this respect, 2014 is be a crucial year. Nato forces are withdrawing from Afghanistan, and the foreign secretaries of Russia, China, and India have started coordinating efforts to support "peace and stability" in that country. The "three-powers' alliance" was originally proposed by the former Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov, who as early as the 1990s aimed at forging a counterbalancing power to US hegemony. Almost twenty years later, the three states have become far more powerful, but Russia has evolved in an authoritarian way, and only India, despite evident problems (including rising economic inequality) can be called a democracy. The country holds national elections by the end of May 2014: the likely victory of the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the BJP, will intensify questions about the future of Indian democracy.    

Across the world, millions of citizens are increasingly dissatisfied and angry - and ever more willing to take to the streets. This is evident in Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, and of course Thailand. People are voicing protest against what they perceive as corrupt, oligarchic, pseudo-democratic regimes, which are in fact controlled by military, economic or financial elites. However, many protests lack a positive vision. 

It may seem paradoxical, but the west might have something to learn even from authoritarian states like China and Russia. After all, western democracies in the recent past adopted social-democratic models in part as a response to, and in a compromise with, the Soviet Union. Where Russia is concerned, the events of 2013-14 show the strength of a planned and strongly directed foreign policy; even though its contents can be questioned, its coherence contrasts with the US’s improvisations and the EU’s tragicomic weakness. China over the last two decades has lifted tens of millions of people out of poverty; this is a social achievement which the west cannot ignore, and should try to reproduce while using in democratic forms.

A strong democracy should not fear anything and be brave enough to selectively imitate other political forms. Perhaps European and American governments should be humble and take note; 21st-century democracy will require innovative ideas, strength, and a sense of purpose, all of which are in short supply in the west.

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