When one mentions Asia, the refrain ‘freedom and democracy’ doesn’t naturally come to mind. It is true that Asia does have the world’s two largest democracies. There is India which in sheer numbers dwarves the entire European and American democracies put together. And we also have Indonesia, touted as the world’s largest Muslim democracy. But we know that the test of democracy is not in quantity but in quality.
And while we’re in the numbers game, let us not forget that Asia also has the world’s largest non-democracy. The dragon has awakened. It is now the fastest growing, and soon to be the largest economy in the world.
In his poem “The Statues”, William Butler Yeats was concerned with more than just calculations and numbers when he wrote about “All Asiatic vague immensities.” He appreciated the importance of the cultural and civilizational aspects of what we call soft power.
For in terms of size, there is still the trinity of the Orient: namely Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. They are quality democracies and they seem established enough to remain so. They have vibrant civil societies, some like Japan’s Sasakawa Peace Foundation, actively promoting freedom and democracy across the region. But, as nations, they seem to adopt a policy of political abstinence, eschewing any aspiration of being drivers of democracy for the rest of Asia.
The fact remains that autocratic regimes still litter the geopolitical landscape of Asia. They may be absolute monarchies, or dictatorships from a dynastic line, or autocracies that have monopolised power for years. They may also be so-called emerging economies with veneer of all the trappings of democracy but which, in truth, are mere sham democracies governed by political elites bent on retaining power.
A classic statement on democracy, almost a cliché, is attributed to Winston Churchill which I think is worth repeating. He said: “Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect… Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government – except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Democracy, freedom and justice in the Asian Century
As for the so-called “Asian Century”, there is no consensus on what the criteria are. Many would agree that impressive growth for the last three decades should count as a major indicator. In spite of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, Asia’s economic performance has been on the ascent and if it continues for another two decades, may well become a force that could bring about a power shift. And this seems to be sufficient precedent for establishing the Asian Century.
Of power shifts and Soft power
But when it comes to soft power, the jury is still out. For three decades, China had many opportunities to take a lead role in geopolitical affairs but it did not measure up to the challenge. Its priority has always remained economic growth. Who is to say that this is a right or wrong move? But in terms of its potential to garner soft power, this is counts as under achievement.
Nevertheless, some say that China is incapacitated from leading even Asia in geopolitical matters because of foundational issues of governance. In spite of a more open market and foreign direct investment growing by leaps and bounds, there should be no mistaking that it remains the world’s largest and most powerful autocracy. Well, Vladimir Putin may dispute that but that doesn’t change China’s track record as far as human rights and other fundamental liberties are concerned. This is quite apart from the border disputes that China is embroiled in that are now serious flashpoints of conflict in the East.
In the context of our discussion today on the Asian Century, this is indeed an intractable problem. As well as economic power, China may also be able to deliver on culture as one aspect of soft power but I doubt that will be enough to cloak China with moral authority.
So what about India? Given its track record in the political arena, India, with its vibrant democracy, seems a more obvious choice. Rule of law, independence of the judiciary, separation of powers, free and fair elections. These are all the plus points for India. But India’s economic infrastructure is still weak. And just like China, it is very protectionist.
Having said that, a small caveat is in order: in the Western media, when it comes to Asia, it is called “increasing protectionism” but when it’s the USA or Europe similar measures are called “economic patriotism”. The great Chinese Sage, Confucius or Master Kung, was absolutely spot-on in advocating the rectification of names. The proper designation of things ensures social harmony not just in domestic affairs but in international relations as well.
Still, while Asian countries can look at India respectfully for its economic performance, the greater focus should be on its democratic values and the principles of pluralism and inclusiveness. But as Amartya Sen has pointed out India has a glaring contradiction: the continuing grinding poverty of its masses contrasts sharply with its alleged economic success. After all, it was a poor economy coupled of course with recurrent corruption scandals that propelled the BJP to such a grand victory in the elections. Nevertheless, with the increasing gap between the rich and the poor, and growing demands for social justice, India’s prospects of being emulated by others will be dim until some major progress is made in this area.
Inequities of wealth distribution
To talk of democracy divorced from the social context would be pointless. We have seen Occupy movement that spread around the world. It is an example of the cracking of social cohesion and stability even in established democracies when wealth and economic opportunities are monopolized by the rich and powerful. The signs are already there in various parts of Asia. In another decades, one can imagine, how much deeper and wider this gap will be, unless some major redistribution is made to assure social justice.
It is true that issues about evolution of inequality and wealth concentration in the hands of a few are easier asked than answered. In his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge may not have led to inequalities of the scale warned of by Karl Marx, but the main driver of inequality is unbridled free market economics. This tends to generate returns on capital that exceed the rate of economic growth. Today, this threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values.
The problem of governance
Aside from the threat posed by extreme inequalities, I believe the problem of governance is the greatest impediment as Asian nations get richer and the reins of power continue to be concentrated in the hands of the upper echelons.
Though there is no correlation between corruption and geography, the scourge of corruption happens to be most rampant in Asia, Latin America and Africa. China and India have been hit by high profile corruption cases and many argue that one of the biggest factors that brought down the Indian National Congress party was corruption.
Southeast Asia, needless to say is riddled with corruption. This is an area Indonesia also must seriously examine. However, unlike its neighbours, Indonesia has taken many strides towards full democracy. Complaints of some localised incidents of vote buying notwithstanding, their elections are by far superior to others in the region in terms of being free and fair. In the last elections, there was no widespread systemic fraud and if challenged in the Constitutional court, unlike her neighbours, there is no question of a judiciary being subservient to the ruling party.
Corruption, however, remains a key issue. Yet, equally, we can see the earnestness and independence of the anti-corruption agency in discharging its duties without fear or favour.
Middle East, Turkey
As for Turkey, I believe that politically, the system is in place with the institutionalizing of democracy, the rule of law and proper governance. Economically, its growth trajectories are far better than its European counter parts, and in certain respects are as impressive as that of the Asian tigers and dragons. And with an increasingly more sophisticated middleclass, its potential in this regard cannot be underestimated.
It is true that recent events appear to have cast a negative light on the state of its democracy. But Turkey is facing exceptional circumstances caused in no small part by elements within the state bent on destabilize what is essentially a viable democracy under a progressive Muslim government.
Egypt, however, tells a different story. In the aftermath of the 3rd July 2013 military coup which toppled the democratically elected government of Morsi and the missteps in Libya and Bahrain, many have cynically dismissed the “Arab Spring” as an “Arab Winter”.
Indeed, now that the illegitimate government of Field Marshal al-Sisi is going into overdrive to ‘legitimize’ itself with the latest sham elections, all eyes are on America and the EU – how will they respond to this phase of what is essentially a protracted military coup. Will America and the EU repeat the errors they made for decades with Mubarak? That is a question begging for answer.
Speaking of military coups, let us not leave out Thailand which has fashionably slouched back to its old habits. In many ways, the people of Thailand are caught between Scylla and Charybdis. But as a firm believer in freedom and democracy, under whatever circumstances, the military has no business to be in government.
Tunisia, on the other hand, has managed to come out of the storm, walking tall as a new nation liberated from decades of virtual dictatorship. But the Arab spring not only brought down oppressive regimes. It shattered the misconceptions about Islam and democracy. The general view was that it would take some time before we could see a convergence of Islam and democracy in the Middle East. There was the history, the cultural conditioning and the prejudices on both sides of the proverbial divide that contributed to this general scepticism.
Turkey and Indonesia had already settled this issue, nevertheless, the Arab states were always seen as the exception. So, the case of Tunisia should put the matter to rest. It has crossed its first major hurdle with the ratification of its new constitution on 27 January 2014 and we await the general elections due by the end of 2014.
If an Asian century draws nigh, a power shift from the West to the East would appear to be on the horizon. But these are suppositions conditioned by many eventualities. To be worthy of the name such a century should be about more than exercising the fruits of growing economic power. It has to mean more than them or us calculations – calculations driven by insistence on a false dichotomy of West and East. An Asian Century should be built on the solid sustainable foundations of enhancing civil society, delivering good governance and increasingly liberties and freedoms to the people of Asia along with rising living standards. If it becomes a zero sum game of they win therefore we lose – everyone is the poorer. Invest in and support the quality and forget the width. Therein lies our best hope.