May 26, 2014 7:00 pm JST

Daniel Twining: Thailand's coup puts a crack in Asia's fragile democracy

DANIEL TWINING

The 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 international arms races. Once America's main ally in Southeast Asia, Thailand is in no position to contribute to regional stability now that the strongmen have taken over. An army trying to run a country cannot protect it at the same time. 

     Asian democracy elsewhere certainly has its problems: 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 often underappreciated. 

     Asian societies governed by accountability and law produce security not only for their people but for the 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. 

Transformations

Beyond Thailand and Myanmar, internal conflicts are no longer the dominant security challenge confronting Asian nations. More people now live under free institutions in Asia than in any other region of the world. 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 authoritarian rule have given way to a durable 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. Rule of law has produced broad-based prosperity.

     Indonesia has even 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. The country's own security and that of the surrounding region were diminished by isolation, self-impoverishment, armed insurgencies, outbound flows of illegal narcotics and desperate refugees. China's penetration of Myanmar undermined the Southeast Asian nation's sovereignty and alarmed its neighbors.

     Although there is a long way to go, reform has strengthened Myanmar's resilience and made it a better neighbor.   

Peace guarantor

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 the partners were run by autocrats. But there is no question that the U.S.-South Korea alliance is more durable now that the latter 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 of yesteryear was the popular view that Washington was too close to Manila's strongmen. 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 persecution of peaceful dissidents will remain an obstacle to a 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 army is putting its relationship with the U.S. 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 assistances 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?

Democratic bonds

Democracy strengthens Asia's regional institutions as well. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is more effective thanks to the democratization of its dominant member states, the bloc's adoption of a Human Rights Charter and the political opening in Myanmar. Southeast Asia's democracies have joined Japan, the U.S., Australia and India to oppose China's gunboat diplomacy and promote a peaceful code of conduct.

     Recent years have also brought 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 raise the likelihood of peaceful settlements to conflicts over territory and history -- conflicts that otherwise risk exploding. For the sake of its own security and prosperity, and that of the wider region, Thailand must pursue a constitutional settlement that returns control to elected politicians soon.

Daniel Twining is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.