Stalled progress in a decades-long trend toward democratization in Southeast Asia poses serious challenges for U.S. foreign policy. The region’s strategic importance has risen sharply in recent years, raising the stakes for how the United States can advance both its strategic interests and its values in Southeast Asia.
Indeed, this region of more than 600 million people and 10 distinct countries has become a central focus of trade and foreign policy for major global powers, including the United States and Japan. Southeast Asia’s rapidly growing $2.4 trillion economy, its location at the crossroads of the Indian and Pacific Oceans, and the ability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, to significantly shape the rules of the road for the broader Asia-Pacific region make it an area of great strategic importance.
In recent decades, there has been a trend toward political liberalization in Southeast Asia. As a result, the democratic values that the United States and Japan—both liberal democracies—espouse as central to their foreign policies have been more inline with ASEAN countries than ever before. This has diminished previous contradictions that the United States and Japan may have faced between supporting oftentimes non-democratic countries and pursuing their growing strategic interests in the region.
However, democratic regression appears now to have taken hold in much of the region. Concerning developments in Thailand and Myanmar top the list, but troubles also abound in Malaysia, Cambodia, and elsewhere. This retrograde trend raises questions about whether the United States and other like-minded democracies, including Japan, can live up to their professed values of democratization and individual freedoms while pursuing their national interests in the region.
Of foremost concern is Thailand, where a military junta overthrew a democratically elected government in May 2014. It shows no signs of allowing a return to electoral democracy, and the military junta has claimed sweeping powers to “strengthen public unity and harmony” and suppress act that “undermines public peace and order.” With the junta drafting a new constitution that doesn’t require the post of prime minister to be publicly elected, and parliamentary elections nowhere on the horizon, Thailand’s turbulent, fragile democracy seems on indefinite hold.
In Myanmar, where an extraordinary process of opening and reform began in 2010 after the military junta opened the political system to other powers, there are now disturbing signs that progress has crested. The government is failing to enshrine newfound freedoms, such as the right to assembly, into law. Furthermore, there appears little hope that elections scheduled for late 2015 will reduce the role of the military in politics, which controls a veto-proof 25 percent of seats in parliament.
Signs of trouble are not limited to Thailand and Myanmar. In Malaysia, Prime Minister Najib Razak appears to be circling the wagons to ensure his political future, playing politics with the rule of law and possibly supporting the introduction of strict Islamic jurisprudence as the criminal justice law in some states. In Cambodia, free and fair multi-party elections and the development of independent institutions seem like a distant dream, as massive electoral fraud in 2013 demonstrated. Only Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia rank as even “partly free,” according to Freedom House.
At a recent Center for American Progress symposium, the distinct ways in which the United States and Japan approach this balance was on full display. U.S. participants—including a former director for Southeast Asia policy at the Pentagon, Christel Fonzo-Eberhard—described the U.S. policy approach as one that dials up engagement based on progress and dials it down based on bad behavior. Specifically in Myanmar, the United States took a hardline approach, imposing strict sanctions until 2011 when reforms in Myanmar began and the United States developed a step-by-step engagement plan to support progress. Furthermore, despite a warming of ties due to Myanmar’s reforms and U.S. re-engagement, the United States has continued to publicly criticize the current state of stalled reforms.
Likewise, in Thailand, the United States has suspended aid and reduced military exercises and exchanges since the May 2014 coup. Derek Chollet, former assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, argued at the same Center for American Progress symposium that having “accountability and enunciating moral clarity” in its foreign policy differentiates the United States from countries without values-based diplomacy, such as China and Russia. Taking a clear position on democratic values in the world, he said, “preserves American power” and “enhances our legitimacy.” This has certainty been the case with Thailand, where, virtually alone, the United States has spoken out again the junta’s actions and criticized Thailand’s martial law.
Japan, East Asia’s leading democracy and one of the biggest investors in Southeast Asia, also holds the expansion of democratic values as a key foreign policy tenet. However, Japan has followed a very different approach than the United States. Japanese foreign policy focuses on economic development first, with democratization as a secondary result.
For example, in Myanmar, Japan has practiced an engagement-based approach with reward-oriented measures. During Myanmar’s long period of military rule, Japan was its largest donor. After Myanmar began to open in 2011, Japan cancelled $3 billion of Myanmar’s debt to Japan, refinanced $2 billion more, and opted not to publically criticize Myanmar’s current constitution, which fails to enshrine personal freedoms in law and grants the military a veto on constitutional changes. Japan has followed a similar approach in Thailand. Following the May 2014 coup, Japan initially suspended high-level exchanges with Thai officials. But soon after, the two held summits at the prime ministerial level and resumed economic projects, notably in the construction of a high-speed railway that would connect Myanmar and Cambodia via Thailand.
This approach fits within a broader framework described at the CAP symposium by former Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Hitoshi Tanaka, who argued that Japan is less inclined to view values promotion as its prerogative, explaining Japan’s post-World War II legacy and its pacifist constitution limit Japan’s authority to impose values in other countries. Therefore, Japan has found alternative pathways to support democratization, including focusing on economic development as a stepping-stone. Maiko Ichihara, assistant professor at Kansai Gaidai University, argued that in support of Japan’s indirect approach to encouraging democratization through economic engagement and development, advocates cite South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia as success stories. In these examples, massive Japanese investments promoted economic success and arguably created conditions for democratic transitions.
President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have recently highlighted enhanced U.S.-Japan cooperation in Southeast Asia as a priority for alliance cooperation, and the United States and Japan have agreed at the highest levels to more closely coordinate policy in Southeast Asia. Both countries have enormous interests and similar objectives in the region: to support ASEAN integration, to enhance regional connectivity, to safeguard sea lanes of communication, and to support human security in all respects. While the United States and Japan also share an interest in expanding human freedoms and participatory democracy, reconciling the respective approaches will inevitably be a challenge. The values-first approach of the United States—particularly Washington’s tendency to use economic engagement as a reward rather than as a starting point for engagement—will be difficult to square with the Japanese engagement-first approach.
As Prime Minster Abe arrives in Washington this week on a visit that includes a high-profile address to Congress, Abe likely will seek to highlight Japan’s considerable contributions to the stability and economic success of the Asia-Pacific region since the end of World War II. He is also likely to present a forward-looking case for deeper U.S.-Japan collaboration in the region, with a particular focus on Southeast Asia. While there is a great deal to celebrate and reason to collaborate more closely, both sides should be mindful of this particular divergence and manage expectations appropriately.
But both the United States and Japan should be flexible and practical. Recently, Japan has developed a deep reservoir of goodwill in the region and significant financial clout as an investor. But Japan should recognize it has the political capital to do more to publicly stand up for its liberal democratic values without significantly damaging its relations with governments in the region. Likewise, the U.S. government would be wise to take a cue from its Japanese partners in maintaining high-level dialogue even when reforms stall, while continuing to speak out publicly and candidly. Regardless, close communication and coordination is essential, as strong ties to Southeast Asia are in the mutual interests of both the United States and Japan.
Brian Harding is Director for East and Southeast Asia for the National Security and International Policy team at American Progress. Katherine Blakeley is a Policy Analyst with the National Security and International Policy team. Angela Luh was an intern with the National Security and International Policy team in spring 2015.