The student protestors in Hong Kong may have been forcibly cleared from the streets, but their cause represents a clear warning sign for the future of democracy in Asia – and a crucial test for America’s grand strategy of a “Rebalance to Asia.” Beijing’s words and actions in response to the calls for meaningful representative democracy in Hong Kong have revealed the fundamental tensions at work that has made the idea of “One Country, Two Systems” a fiction. Authorities in Beijing will not accept a democratic system in which power resides in the citizenry and not hands of the Communist Party.
Mild acceptance of the crackdown in Hong Kong would send a clear signal that the United States would be ceding one of our most potent advantages in the geopolitical competition with China for influence in Asia: Our belief in and support for the empowerment of citizens and rise of democratic institutions across the world’s most dynamic region.
When the people of East Asia care enough to demand more accountability, transparency, and respect of the fundamental human rights as stated in the international agreements their very governments have signed, it is morally right for the United States and our allies to stand by their side. When democracy builds and becomes the norm and expectation in Asia as opposed to the “Beijing Way” of authoritarian political control, it is strategically smart for America. Hard-earned experience has taught us that in places where respect for human rights and the rule of law within democratic structures takes root, peace and prosperity are soon to follow.
There are clear examples of the Asian future that the United States should stand by and actively support. Japan embraced democracy wholeheartedly after the end of American occupation. South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan all emerged from decades of authoritarian rule to bloom into nations with open democratic systems where citizens have a voice. They have systems that respect and protect the human rights of their citizens as well as the rule of law.
In much of Asia however, ruling elites are looking to see which way the winds of change are blowing before agreeing to open the door to democracy. Burma has begun a process of reform, but the road is very slow and a true transition to democracy is far from assured. What message is sent to Burma’s leaders when they see how authorities were able to crush the democracy movement in Hong Kong? In May, Thailand experienced the second overthrow of its elected representatives by anti-democratic and violent means in less than a decade. What lessons do the new rulers in Bangkok take away from the suppression of the protestors in Hong Kong?
Some of the so-called “realists” found in think tanks and the corridors of power in Washington will say that respect for human rights and the promotion of democratic institutions in Asia will come at the expense of our strategic interests. Why upset Beijing by leveling criticism that might cause them to “lose face?” Why upset undemocratic rulers in Southeast Asia when we need to win them over in the competition for influence we have with China? These experts do not understand that a failure to stand up for the forces of democracy costs us our greatest strategic advantage vis-à-vis Beijing.
When America stands for and actively supports democracy in Asia, those nations who have made the democratic choice know they are part of a global community that is willing to protect that choice. When America speaks up for democracy and backs it up with supporting actions, everyday people from Bangkok to Beijing who yearn for another way know they are not forgotten.
There are smart strategic choices the United States can make in the months ahead to show that at the heart of our “pivot to the Pacific” is support for democratic values. No individual choice will be a panacea, we need to show our solidarity with those struggling to express, expand, or defend their rights worldwide, even when their attitudes or interests are not perfectly in line with our own.
We should put both Thailand and Burma on notice that progress on our economic and security relationships is contingent on progress in their advancement of the rule of law and human rights up to the level of their ASEAN neighbors. High-level U.S. officials should visit Taiwan to point out the glaring contrast between Taipei and Beijing on the issues of democratic development and the rights of the people. And President Obama should ensure that his next trip to China includes Hong Kong on the itinerary.
Similarly, we need to view our bilateral relationships in the context of a multilateral approach to the region. While we might naturally view favorably the territorial claims of our ally the Philippines, we must rely on international law – not American favoritism or Chinese bullying – to bring a resolution to that dispute, which requires ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea as soon as possible. We should also increase support for the efforts of democracy assistance NGO’s operating across Asia. They are short staffed and underfunded and could prove to be the best return on investment for U.S. national security interests in history.
In all of our affairs in the western Pacific, we must avoid the appearance, or worse, the reality, of hypocrisy. The crackdown on democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong should make clear to all where Beijing stands. Now it is time for America to be clear that we stand with the new democracies of Asia and with all who strive to follow their lead.
Scott Bates has worked on democracy assistance missions in ten nations and taught International Human Rights Law at the University of Indiana-Indianapolis School of Law. He is President of the Center for National Policy based in Washington, D.C.