Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, India, Bhutan, Nepal, India, Tibet (in exile) and, maybe soon, even Burma. Connect these locations on a map, and you have an almost complete arc of (mostly) democracies encircling the Middle Kingdom from its east to its southwest.
Tomorrow, Taiwanese citizens go to the polls to vote for their next president. The election is apparently a toss-up between the incumbent, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) party and Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive party (DPP). A third candidate, James Soong of the People First party, could draw votes that could determine the winner.
This will be the fifth popular vote for Taiwan’s head of state since its turn to democracy in the 1990s. These elections give the communist leaders in Beijing fits, as they represent free elections in a Chinese polity denied to those on the mainland and give Taiwanese a tool to self-identify. More importantly, they offer uncertainty and the possibility of a victory by the pro-independence DPP (which was in power from 2000-2008). It is no secret that Beijing favors the re-election of President Ma for the sake of “stability” and because of the KMT’s pro-unification stand. It must be noted that the U.S. – quite unofficially – is also said to favor Ma for “stability.”
In the past, Beijing meddled in Taiwan’s elections, but has had to reel back, as evidence of interference could help the DPP. This is an important point. Democracy, in itself, is serving as an obstacle to the Chinese Communist Party’s ability to advance its own interests. As the circle of democracies widens, Beijing may encounter this obstacle with more frequency. Concurrently, to the extent that other nations (including the U.S.) worry about countering the apparent expansionist trends in Chinese foreign and military policies, they should look to democracy as an integral tool.
In Burma, developments are happening fast. Just today, Burma President Thein Sein announced the release of hundreds of political prisoners, as well as a ceasefire agreement with the Karen National Union. In a statement, President Obama called it a “substantial step forward for democratic reform,” and restored full diplomatic relations. This follows the government decision to allow Aung San Suu Kyi’s previously banned National League for Democracy to re-register and take part in elections in April 2012.
It is too early to call Burma a democracy, but the trend is in the right direction. What does this mean for China? Recall that a few months ago, Burma announced the cancellation of a controversial hydroelectric dam project to be built by a Chinese state-run company. This was credited to both civic opposition and nervousness in Nay Pyi Taw about Beijing’s influence inside Burma. This combined assertion of constituent responsiveness and sovereign concern can’t be a comfort in Beijing.
Let’s look at the rest of the circle. Japan is East Asia’s oldest democracy. South Korea and the Philippines joined the club around the same time as Taiwan. Like Taipei, Seoul has its own complicated domestic politics of reunification to deal with. Manila is now dealing with Beijing’s new territorial assertions in the South China Sea (or as they call it, the West Philippine Sea).
To the south/southwest, India wears its democracy (however imperfect) as a badge of honor, defining its national identity in part through a distinct contrast with the other country of a billion-plus people.
Since 2006, both Bhutan and Nepal have made steps toward democracy. The Bhutanese King willingly ceded his seat to his son and power to democratic institutions. Nepal, recovering from civil war, disestablished its monarchy and became a republic. While political paralysis in the interim government has hampered progress, all parties appear committed to instituting a full democracy.
And of course there is Dharamsala. Last year, the Dalai Lama ended his formal role in the Central Tibetan Administration, handing over all governmental responsibilities to the elected parliament and executive branch. Like the Bhutanese King, his decision represents a willful yielding of power to the people, concept as alien as it is poisonous to the Chinese Communist Party.
Concurrently, the Tibetan exile population successfully conducted free and fair elections for a new Kalon Tripa, Lobsang Sangay, and a new parliament. This democratic transformation has not only a moral motivation, but a strategic one as well. The 14th Dalai Lama has served as the unifying force for Tibetans for decades. He wants democratic values to be a unifying force once he is gone, a binding agent for the Tibetan struggle for freedom into the future. Again, not a desired development for Beijing.
Unlike the rest of the nations in the circle, Tibetans don’t rule their own country. What they do share is a common experience, a common cause, and a common commitment to the universal values of democracy and the right to determine one’s own leaders and future. This dynamic should not be understated as we monitor trends in Asia. Just as Chinese military assertiveness in the waters of the East China and South China seas had the effect of driving nations on its seaboard periphery (plus the United States) closer together, perhaps we are seeing a similar reaction, under the banner of democracy, as a response to Chinese political, economic and cultural assertiveness.
Our challenge is to make sure that policy-makers see, and include, Tibet in that analysis.