The coup in Myanmar is a reminder that there is a contest going on with two teams choosing up sides. As far as East Asia and the Pacific are concerned, the captains are Joe and Xi. The US President has his job made harder by the departing captain for the USA. Ex-president Trump was partial to authoritarianism but President Biden has made clear public statements that US foreign policy will be defending democracy. Xi Jinping, on the other hand, has demonstrated that he “doesn’t have a democratic bone in his body,” to quote Biden’s now famous declaration. Xi takes pride in taking control to get things done his way.
So the captains are lining up their teams. Min Aung Hlaing, Senior General of the Myanmar armed forces and the new “dictator” of Burma, is counting on China to help. That help came a few days ago when the United Nations debated how to respond to the coup in Burma; China and Russia vetoed action by the UN. Despite China’s persistent usurpation of area in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte can’t bring himself to go with the USA. Trump praised Duterte for his drug war and appreciated his authoritarianism, which has reduced civil rights but the Philippine President doesn’t think he’ll get real help from Biden if it’s needed, so he’s expecting trade with China to trump Xi’s territorial expansionism. Other authoritarian regimes in the area are going to play on China’s team for the time being, as long as it stays away from anything with guns and rockets.
The other authoritarian mega-state in this part of the world is India under the current leadership of Narendra Modi. India’s relationship with China is constantly on the brink of war over some chunk of mountains or another. Modi was thrilled to have Trump line up with him, and he hopes Biden will not spoil this alliance. Aside from India, Team Democracy counts on Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan along with Australia and New Zealand. The team with its US captain, however, has some pretty tainted democrats. It would be best to admit that democracy is not the guiding principle in agreeing to have Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand on Biden’s line-up. Indonesia and Malaysia are trying to stay on the bench but will try to choose which positions to take if they have to.
On the whole, “Asian democracies sank to their lowest level in nearly a decade on the Economist Intelligence Unit’s annual democracy index,” according to James Crabtree of the National University of Singapore in a February 10 op-ed piece in NikkeiAsia. It can be argued that the USA has lost it’s standing as a full-fledged democracy and has become an oligarchy, as former President Jimmy Carter lamented a couple of years ago. Still, there may yet be time for Joe Biden to restore some of the priorities held by democratic nations outside the Asia-Pacific region including aggressive action on COVID-19 and climate change. If he can do that without resorting to covert authoritarianism it’ll be a major accomplishment, and a surprise.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.