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Myanmar coup reveals Asia's new democratic divide

US must balance democracy promotion against regional aversion to finger-wagging

| Myanmar
Riot police stand guard as protesters approach a barricade in Yangonon Feb. 7: the deck was stacked against Myanmar from the start.   © Getty Images

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

Myanmar's return to the military rule makes it look as if democracy in Asia is hitting the skids. Juntas now rule once again in Naypyitaw and Bangkok. Democratic backsliding and creeping illiberalism seem to be on the march everywhere from Manila to New Delhi.

But that is just half the story, and one restricted largely to the region's developing nations. In Asia's prosperous corners, democratic governance appears to be doing well, or at worst, holding steady. Rather than a uniform picture of decline, a new Asian democratic divide is opening up instead -- and one with far-reaching geopolitical implications, not least for U.S. President Joe Biden's agenda of global democratic renewal.

In Myanmar, ongoing street protests are unlikely to reverse the recent military takeover, while odds of a crackdown are rising. With scant prospects for fair elections, the outlook for the country's incipient democratic transition looks bleak. In retrospect, recent events were also less surprising than they seemed. Transitions from dictatorships to democracies are perilously difficult for poorer countries, as political scientist Adam Przeworski has shown. Peaceful power transfers remain relatively rare in modern history too, as Przeworski's research also suggests, and especially for young democracies holding their first or second polls. The deck was stacked against Myanmar from the start.

Myanmar's travails do encapsulate a broader pattern of regional democratic decay, however, notably in South and Southeast Asia. Following its 2014 coup d'etat, Thailand's politics are still marred by military meddling, fiddled elections and street protests. Well-entrenched autocracies dot the map elsewhere, from China to Cambodia and Vietnam.

Populists like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines and India's Narendra Modi remain highly popular with voters. But they are also presiding over declines in freedoms, according to the Varieties of Democracy project at Sweden's University of Gothenburg.

Ostensible democratic successes like Malaysia and Indonesia recently show some worryingly similar trends, albeit to a much lesser degree. Looked at as a whole, Asian democracies sank to their lowest level in nearly a decade on the Economist Intelligence Unit's annual democracy index -- driven down in part by emergency pandemic measures that ended up restricting civil liberties.

This declinist narrative is seductive, but not entirely accurate, given improving democratic conditions elsewhere. Both Japan and South Korea were promoted from "flawed" to "full" democracy status by the EIU. Taiwan made an even more impressive jump, joining the world's top 10 most democratic nations.

Singapore's position is more complex: data show the city-state ranks well below its rich East Asian peers on measures of liberal democracy, although its rating is at least not declining, again according to V-DEM data. Meanwhile, Australia and New Zealand are cementing their position as among the world's most democratic and well-run nations.

There is a more general pattern here in which those Asian nations that performed well during the pandemic also seem to be doing better at governance in the round. At the very least, Asia's advanced democracies have mostly avoided the democratic recessions that dog so many rich Western nations, as well as some of their own emerging Asian neighbors.

Asia's new democratic divide presents an opportunity for President Biden, but several problems too. After recently pledging to rebuild "the muscle of democratic alliances that have atrophied over the past few years," Biden is now pushing for a full leader's meeting of the Quad grouping of democracies that would bring him together with counterparts from Australia, Japan and India to counter China's growing regional preeminence. The fact that many of Asia's advanced democracies are in good health makes Biden's task easier, giving him a range of partners with whom to work as he seeks to rebuild traditional U.S. ties.

But at least two big dilemmas remain, the first being that any U.S. democracy promotion agenda remains deeply unpopular around most of Asia. Even U.S. allies like Japan and South Korea dislike finger-wagging over cases like Myanmar, given that their leaders know they have to coexist in a region whose political systems are far more diverse than Europe or North America. For this reason, there is already a backlash brewing against Western plans to punish Myanmar. "Sanctions may make you feel good morally but it is counterproductive," as Tommy Koh, a respected Singaporean former diplomatic, put it recently on social media.

More importantly, there is likely only to be one winner from U.S. attempts to push back hard against Asian democratic backsliding, namely China. Autocrats and populists who find themselves scolded by the advanced democratic world often end up drifting toward less critical friends in Beijing. Myanmar's military has a complex and, at times, antagonistic historical relationship with China. But with few other friends, Min Aung Hlaing, the military's commander in chief Senior General who led Myanmar's coup, may still be forced to seek closer ties with Beijing nonetheless.

Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, left, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during their meeting in Naypyitaw, pictured on Jan. 12: autocrats often end up drifting toward less critical friends in Beijing.   © Myanmar Military Information Team/AP

Put another way, Biden must now juggle awkwardly two major Asian priorities: pushing back against autocracies on the one hand, and assembling a broad coalition to uphold the current rules-based regional order against China on the other.

Ultimately the latter is likely to win out. Traditionally the U.S. has had few qualms making exceptions to its democratic rhetoric when circumstances dictate, as its ever-closer ties with Modi's India show, not to mention communist Vietnam. If Asia's democratic divide continues to deepen, more such award compromises are soon likely to be needed.

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