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Democracy and Human Rights Shouldn’t Take a Backseat in US Southeast Asia Policy

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The Debate

Democracy and Human Rights Shouldn’t Take a Backseat in US Southeast Asia Policy

“As the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States can and should do more to support Southeast Asia’s democracies.”

Democracy and Human Rights Shouldn’t Take a Backseat in US Southeast Asia Policy
Credit: U.S. State Department photo

With last month’s observation of International Human Rights Day and the upcoming inauguration of Donald J. Trump, an avowed human rights agnostic, as U.S. president, it is worth taking stock of the role democracy and human rights play in the American foreign policy toolbox. The incoming Trump administration should note that democratic values facilitate U.S. engagement with global partners and represent a net asset for American world leadership.

In Southeast Asia, citizens increasingly demand transparency and respect for individual rights from their governments. From mass protests in Cambodia following the May 2016 killing of dissident Kem Ley, to the Bersih (literally “clean”) movement roiling Malaysia’s political establishment, to hundreds taking to the streets of Bangkok to protest for land rights, regional strongmen have reason to fear their power is under siege. As the world’s most powerful democracy, the United States can and should do more to support Southeast Asia’s democracies.

With renewed U.S. engagement in the region during the Obama presidency, some critics questioned American involvement with undemocratic regimes. But unlike the Middle East, where Washington relies on dictators to support its military operations and protect oil and gas supplies, in Southeast Asia Washington has the ability to support democracy by working with partners that respect shared values like human rights and free trade.

Following recent, violent crackdowns in Turkey and Egypt, Washington has avoided criticizing the actions of regional autocrats for fear of losing influence. Instead, the U.S. has sided with strongmen and ignored democratic values in favor of security interests, which could ultimately undermine its influence in the region.

Unfortunately, the United States is making the same error in the Asia-Pacific. Washington is short-changing democracy and human rights while ramping up defense spending for the outgoing Obama administration’s Pivot. Democracy programs for East Asia and the Pacific in 2017 amounted to significantly less than any other regional bureau. Meanwhile, the Department of Defense last year unveiled a new $425 million Maritime Security Initiative to boost Southeast Asia’s capacity for maritime defense in the South China Sea; it has committed to shifting 60 percent of its aircraft carrier fleet to the Pacific by 2020; and it has signed a plethora of upgraded strategic partnerships with defense partners in the region. While U.S. security commitments may stabilize a contested Pacific, Washington should ensure that they do not come at the expense of democracy promotion, which undergirds U.S. security and trade architecture.

Southeast Asia’s largely benign security environment affords Washington more flexibility to pursue an agenda that prioritizes values over a hard power calculus. Due to the region’s relative calm (despite tensions in the East and South China Sea, there are no major interstate conflicts) U.S. decision-makers can give preference to partners that respect human rights and democracy, important elements of American soft power abroad. Asia’s general preference for a continued U.S. presence to counterbalance an increasingly assertive Beijing, and the broad popularity of the United States, provide an ideal environment to reinvigorate efforts on the democracy front.

Not only does soft power facilitate diplomacy, it lowers the cost of U.S. engagement in the region. Southeast Asian students, entrepreneurs, and rising leaders welcome the United States’ footprint in the region with programs such as the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative.

The common argument that China’s expanding influence in Southeast Asia requires the United States to put democracy and rights on the backburner is facile. It assumes that if Washington pushes a country too hard on human rights, China will simply buy its favor with unconditional investments. This line of thinking neglects Washington’s strong economic engagement in the region and exaggerates China’s soft power appeal.

On close inspection, the United States is faring well commercially and even outpacing China in Southeast Asia. For example, in the Philippines and Singapore the United States accounts for more foreign direct investment (FDI) than China. In 2013, American FDI in Southeast Asia amounted to $204 billion, while that of China totaled only $35.7 billion. And despite robust trade with China, the strong recent performance of the U.S. economy compared to China’s led five out of the six largest economies in ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) to increase exports to the U.S. market in the first quarter of 2016.

Myanmar offers a revealing case study: long regarded as a Chinese proxy, the country’s leaders became convinced that overreliance on Beijing’s diplomatic clout and economic investment undermined its sovereignty. The Myanmar people’s long-denied political and economic aspirations forced the junta to open up and launch democratic reforms. The new civilian government now seeks to balance relations with Washington and neighboring China.

Democracy and human rights promotion require difficult trade-offs given geopolitical shifts. Nevertheless, the relative peace in Asia affords Washington flexibility in choosing partners that bolster liberal order. In Asia, the number of elected governments and widespread appeal of American soft power refute critics who would jettison democracy and human rights in favor of a realist strategy based on hard power.

Democracy and human rights are not alien concepts in the region. American allies in Asia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, are democracies. Democracy is integral to the national identity of Indonesia and the Philippines, both of which emerged from decades of military dictatorship following democratic struggles. Myanmar’s leaders now look to Indonesia’s gradual transition from military rule, beginning in 1998, as a precedent for their own democratization.

Furthermore, Washington’s democratic allies and partners in Asia are crucial to its regional security presence. Japan, Korea, and Guam host tens of thousands of U.S. troops on their soil, while the Philippines and Australia have recently agreed to rotate U.S. soldiers on their bases as well. Singapore, which boasts multi-party elections, also signed an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with Washington in 2015, paving the way for greater military assistance and technical exchange.

Despite the prevailing stability in Southeast Asia, authoritarian pushback, such as we are seeing in the Philippines and Malaysia, risks stunting economic and social development and breeding political discord. Undemocratic governments face the central fact that among wealthy countries, relatively few have made the desired social and economic gains without liberal politics. Thailand’s negative economic growth rates, tied to ruinous economic management flowing from its 2014 military coup, are a case in point.

Over time, undemocratic countries face the unavoidable momentum of liberalization (this factor is compounded when illiberal regimes border democratic states). Already the United States has bolstered regional democratic consolidation, strengthening its relationships with democratic partners such as Indonesia and Myanmar, and advocating for further reform in countries like Vietnam.

These moves signify a concerted effort to secure the prevailing U.S.-led security architecture along democratic lines. Ultimately, shared values of democracy and human rights facilitate U.S. influence by lowering the barriers to cross-cultural diplomacy. Common political and economic preferences enhance the free flow of ideas, people, and commerce, benefiting both sides.

The incoming administration should not turn its back on liberal values and democratic norms in Southeast Asia. Uncertainty over Trump’s commitment to these principles has already led to concerns about returning to a “sphere-of-influence world” marked by episodes of instability and repression. The next president can cement U.S. influence if he chooses to double down on promoting individual rights and participatory government in Asia. Ultimately, this option represents the best path to safeguard peace and prosperity in Southeast Asia, and continued U.S. engagement across the Pacific.

Michael Larkin is the Asia-Pacific Program Officer for Young Professionals in International Affairs. Follow him @MikeLarkinYPIA. Hunter Marston is an independent Southeast Asia analyst in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @hmarston4.