Shadow Government

Thailand's Coup Puts Pressure on Asia's Fragile Peace

Last week's coup in Thailand reminds us that conflict in Asia is not limited to disputes between nations over history and territory. Internal cleavages can cause as much insecurity as arms races between countries. Once America's main ally in Southeast Asia, Thailand is in no position to contribute to regional stability as it degenerates into strongman rule at home. An army trying to run a country cannot protect it at the same time.

Asian democracy elsewhere certainly has its discontents: the persecution of Anwar Ibrahim in Malaysia, restrictions on speech and association in Singapore, corruption in the Philippines and India, and weak leadership in Indonesia. But free politics are an underappreciated source of regional security and prosperity.

Asian societies governed by accountability and law produce security not only for their people, but for their region. Democracies that abide by basic rules at home are more likely to uphold and strengthen them abroad. It is no coincidence that China, Asia's principal revisionist power, is not subject to democratic control at home.

Beyond Thailand and Myanmar, internal conflicts are no longer the dominant security challenge confronting Asian nations. More people live under free institutions in Asia than anywhere else, helping resolve the civil discord that once afflicted key regional powers. This has had a positive spillover effect on regional security and catalyzed the Asian economic miracle.

In Indonesia, internal repression, civil war, and secessionism under strongman rule have given way to a durable political settlement under democracy. Political transitions no longer result in mass bloodshed; regions enjoy autonomy rather than seeking independence through force of arms; a professionalized army maintains external security rather than repressing dissidents; and rule of law has produced broad-based prosperity. Indonesia has launched the Bali Democracy Forum to help neighbors strengthen good governance.

Myanmar's political opening followed decades of repression, stagnation, and civil war that produced a failing state. Its security and that of its region were diminished by Myanmar's isolation, self-impoverishment, armed insurgencies, outbound flows of illegal narcotics, and desperate refugees. Myanmar's penetration by China undermined its sovereignty and alarmed its neighbors. Although there is a long way to go, reform has strengthened the country's resilience and made it a better neighbor.

Democracy in Asia reinforces America's role as a guarantor of peace. It is true that U.S. alliances with South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Thailand were forged when they were run by autocrats.

But there is no question that the U.S.-ROK alliance is more durable now that South Korea is a vibrant democracy, with American forces no longer defending an unelected government in Seoul against an unelected government in Pyongyang. Part of the problem in the Philippines was the popular view that Washington was too chummy with strongmen in Manila; today, elected leaders have invited American forces to return after a 20-year absence.

Although the military balance across the Taiwan Strait has shifted dangerously in Beijing's favor, it is clear that democracy strengthens Taiwan's claim to its own identity and underscores why Washington remains committed to the defense of this free society against unprovoked Chinese aggression.

By contrast, Hanoi's repression of peaceful political activity will remain an obstacle to closer partnership with Washington -- at precisely the time when China's encroachment on Vietnam's territorial waters means it could use a powerful ally.

Thailand's praetorian army is putting its U.S. alliance at risk. The Thai and American navies were exercising together even as the generals seized control in Bangkok. Not only those exercises but U.S. military and civilian assistance to Thailand have been suspended. At a time when countries across Asia are coming under military pressure from China, how exactly does Bangkok's split from Washington serve Thai interests?

Democracy in Asia strengthens regional institutions. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is more effective thanks to the democratization of its dominant member state, its adoption of a Human Rights Charter, and the political opening in Myanmar, once a cancer at the heart of the regional grouping. ASEAN's democracies have joined Japan, America, Australia, and India to oppose China's gunboat diplomacy in the South China Sea by supporting a peaceful code of conduct.

Democracy has sparked security cooperation between Asian powers. Recent years have seen the deepening of strategic ties between India and Japan, Japan and Australia, India and Australia, South Korea and India, and Japan and the Philippines. Asian leaders understand that "shared values and shared interests" are mutually reinforcing, as the leaders of both India and Japan have put it.

China itself is far more likely to rise peacefully in a region anchored by strong market democracies that cooperate to sustain a liberal order. A democratic China could become the natural leader of Asia. But anxious neighbors will not consent to dominion by an authoritarian superpower.

The transformation of Asia's closed regimes into open societies would make more likely the peaceful settlement of conflicts over territory and history that otherwise risk exploding. For the sake of its security and prosperity, and that of its wider region, Thailand must pursue a constitutional settlement that returns control to elected politicians soon.

A version of this post appeared in the Nikkei Asian Review.

Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The EU Elections Were a Cry for Reform

The headlines in London heralded the jubilant Euro-skeptic parties' surging success in this weekend's European Union Parliamentary elections and the political "earthquake" that has shaken the continent. Anti-EU parties received the most votes here in the United Kingdom, and were the top choice in Denmark, France, and Greece as well.

Many analysts have pointed to anti-immigrant, anti-EU, anti-incumbent, anti-austerity, partisan preference, or a desire to regain sovereignty as drivers of the skeptics' support. However, a deeper analysis suggests that at its core, the results represent a cry for collaborative action to achieve pro-growth reforms.

At first glance this appears to be driven by concerns about the EU's pan-European mobility of labor requirements that are a draw to newly admitted Eastern European countries. Many prosperous member nations view this policy as a burden, rather than as a bridge to a more robust economic future.

Those complaints come from people at varied socioeconomic strata. My Bangladeshi taxi driver said the result was due to frustrations that the "Polish and Romanians" were "taking all the jobs because they are willing to work for less." He made a point to add "and they are all on benefits you know." My dinner guest, an executive, scoffed at the Polish guy on British TV complaining about the "Eastern Europeans" coming and "taking our jobs!" He went on to express his belief that the voters for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), only know where its leader stands on one issue: immigration.

But while anti-EU and anti-immigration expressions are the primary symptoms we witness, the cause is deeper.

The United Kingdom's ruling Conservatives lost seven seats while the opposition Labour Party gained seven. This result should refute the claim that it is all about anti-EU feelings because the Tories are promising a referendum on EU membership, an action that Labour currently opposes.

There is no doubt that faced with prolonged economic conditions that suppress wages despite rising costs, people are less generous in their feelings towards new entrants to the labor force. Yet the root cause of their rising frustrations and pessimism about the future is the lack of economic growth.

Others seek to attribute the results to an anti-incumbent mood. This was the first election in over a century in the UK that was not won by either the Conservatives or Labour. In Spain, the two major parties' -- Popular and Socialist -- garnered only 49 percent, losing vote share to upstarts. French President Francois Hollande's Socialist party took a beating as well, getting just 14 percent of the vote.

It wasn't all bad news for incumbents, however. German Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right party held off aspirants and remains the most popular faction in the nation and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's center-left coalition held off a renegade leftist party run by comic Beppe Grillo.

While Germany's result might not provide proof against the desire for sovereignty argument -- many perceive Germany as the new EU sovereign -- the strong results in Italy do.

Italy's outcome undermines the anti-austerity argument as the Renzi government's platform is more focused on radical economic reforms as the path to growth instead of a reversal of austerity measures.

The fact that center-right governments suffered dearly in the UK and not in Germany, together with center-left stumble in France and success in Italy suggests this was not a partisan statement either.

A deeper analysis is required. What then is the explanation that addresses the contrasting results in Europe's four largest countries?

What do the winners have in common? Those that rejected the idea that the only path to reform is a reversal of austerity measures and instead focused on making their nations more competitive and instilling a sense of hope won. Those who did not, lost.

Both Merkel and Renzi have appealed to both sides to relieve burdens on investment and foster job growth. France's Hollande stormed into office with an aggressive agenda in the opposite direction: more taxes and more regulations. He was perhaps the continent's biggest loser.

If politicians on either side or the Atlantic are looking for a response to the jolt of EU Parliamentary elections, the answer is clear: face reality and collaborate to implement reforms that remove impediments to the initiative, risk taking, and investment required to return to vibrant economic growth.

PIERRE ANDRIEU/AFP/Getty Images