The Great Wall of China. Image by Jonathan Corbet on flickr.

Thinking outside the puzzle box

29 April 2013

In Asia democracy and wealth don’t always go hand in hand, writes CHERIE PARKES.

Imagine, for a second, that Asia – its countries, locations and politics – were all pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, one that you’ve pieced together many times before. The well-worn box and familiar layers and patterns of the pieces all add up to a comforting, traditional image of the region.

But one day, as you attempt to once again put the pieces together, you realise that something is awry. Those pieces which once fit together so snugly, with picture-perfect joins, suddenly look askew and wrong. When you finally place the last piece, the image you see is not the Asia of the jigsaw puzzle, but something quite different – with China at the centre.

For Benjamin Reilly from the Crawford School of Public Policy, thinking outside the box is a familiar experience. A recent paper by the professor of political science found that wealth and democracy aren’t natural bedfellows when it comes to Southeast Asia. Rather, the closer a country is to China, the less democratic it is.

This observation helps explain another puzzle: in Southeast Asia, unlike most other regions of the world, wealth and democracy do not go hand in hand. This turns years of political theory on its head, as experts have always believed there to be a strong relationship between a country’s wealth and the presence of democracy.

“I am proposing an alternative explanation for the presence or absence of democracy in Southeast Asia that doesn’t use conventional political science explanations such as how wealthy or developed a country is, but argues that it is proximity to China which explains much more about its level of democracy than these conventional measures,” he says.

According to Reilly, a country’s history of relations with China plays a major role in explaining the presence or absence of democracy in Southeast Asia, a political pattern that goes against the grain.

“Proximity to China is important in multiple ways. Historically, if we go back to the imperial period, we see the start of what is called the tributary relations period in Chinese history, where China developed to its south very strong asymmetric relations and demanded that its southern neighbours give the emperor of China tribute.

“As part of this, Chinese cultural practices and normative ideas, including ideas about politics, hugely influenced its border states. In particular, antipathy to some of the core tenets of representative democracy – political contestation, mass elections, and ability to throw out a government – were exported to China’s neighbours. But more distant states in maritime Southeast Asia were much less affected,” Reilly says.

This influence has continued more recently as well, as Reilly explains.

“The Chinese sphere of influence in Asia has these deep historical roots, but we also see a similar pattern during the Cold War, when it was the border states that succumbed to communism, and also in terms of economic development today. In each case, China’s southern border states experienced exponentially greater Chinese influence than those further away.”

Today, those connections include China leveraging its power over ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

“Of the member states of ASEAN, approximately half are maritime countries, half are mainland countries. So you have this basic division, which is now being accentuated and deepened by China’s very high levels of investment in its border countries, all of which are autocracies, compared to much larger but more distant democracies such as Indonesia and the Philippines.

“The implications of this process for ASEAN unity are not good. I think we are likely to see much greater division between its mainland and maritime states. We may be looking at a split in ASEAN sometime down the track,” says Reilly.

For Reilly, as the puzzle creates its unfamiliar picture, fault lines are appearing that indicate further fragmentation of the region.

“As China becomes ever more powerful, these deep roots of how close one is physically, geographically and also ideologically to China are becoming extremely important,” says Reilly.

This new picture of Chinese influence will significantly shape both ASEAN and the region’s future and allows geography and politics to fit together in the same jigsaw. The puzzle is almost complete.

Professor Reilly’s paper ‘Southeast Asia: In the Shadow of China’ was recently published in the Journal of Democracy.

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