The Magazine

Bush's String of Firecrackers

From the March 28, 2005 issue: Time for some democratic noise in East Asia.

Mar 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 26 • By ROSS TERRILL
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"THE SURVIVAL OF LIBERTY in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands," President Bush declared on January 20. Yet influential opinion insists that an exception be carved out for East Asia. There, they say, freedom is optional, hierarchical "Asian values" reign, and democracy is a luxury. In taking this view, the foreign policy establishment could not be more mistaken. Indeed, as the Bush administration segues from an anti-terrorism to a pro-democracy emphasis, the timing is impeccable for pressure on East Asia's remaining dictatorships, and the opportunity is huge.

Starting with Singapore's leader Lee Kuan Yew in the 1970s, the Asian values chorus has sung the praises of economic growth under authoritarian governance, identifying this mix with Confucianism. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) always sat lightly to democracy, even before making the horrendous mistake of admitting Burma's dictatorship in 1997. Liberal American China-specialists consider the twice democratically elected president Chen Shui-bian of Taiwan "reckless." They prefer the predictability of the unelected Red Mandarins in Beijing. "Stability" they understand; "people power" scares them. If China's economy grows at 9 percent, they purr, why should it bother with the messy confusions of democracy?

Beijing's smooth spokesmen in dark suits and red ties imply that communism in China has slipped away in the middle of the night. "Peace and development are our twin goals," Beijing says, and its Western friends parrot the half-truth. Sinologues eschew the crude term "Chinese Communists" for the more genteel "Chinese elites." President Clinton in the 1990s twice referred to the People's Republic of China as a former Communist country. Yet China's political crisis still lies ahead. The nine engineers who run the politburo steer perilously between the Scylla of commercialization and the Charybdis of Leninism. The "success of liberty" is not yet at hand in China.

America's ties with dictatorships are never close and enduring like those with democracies. Japan, Australia, South Korea, the Philippines, and other democracies interact with Washington in rich ways that cannot occur with China and Vietnam. Heartening improvement marks Jakarta-Washington relations, as Indonesia firms up its long-awaited democracy. Look at U.S., Australian, and other military activity in Indonesia's Aceh province after the tsunami. China would never permit these (highly effective) operations to cope with disaster in, say, Tibet, where Beijing's political control is tight as a drum.

A dictatorship shields its society from international relations. No one can say what priority the Chinese people give to holding Tibet or grabbing Taiwan. Still less does the world know how many North Koreans would favor reunification of their peninsula under the Seoul regime. The Chinese and North Koreans have never been consulted on these matters.

Japan's experience displays the link between democracy and peace, and between democracy and true stability. Japan's first rise to international power ended in a disastrous fall, as a militaristic regime's adventures in the 1930s and 1940s turned Asia against Tokyo. After an American occupation that wrote a new Japanese constitution, Japan became a democracy and has proved a model international citizen. Generous out of all proportion to the loudness of its voice, Japan has become perhaps the most important security partner of the United States in the world, with a sizable military that nevertheless has not killed a single foreigner in six decades.

A similar lesson is implicit in the age of economics that has blessed East Asia since 1975. An era of wars culminated in Vietnam. Subsequently, with the American market as a magnet, and American treaties with the democracies of Japan, Australia, South Korea, and others as the security framework, a new middle-class East Asia stood up as consumers, professionals, and vacationers. The "dominos" of Maoist revolution did not fall; the attraction of liberty and the efficacy of free markets was too great. Instead of war, ASEAN leaders indulged in summits, sweet talk, and golf.

Prior to invading Iraq, President Bush said "a liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform that vital region." Critics in their haste to declare Iraq a failure did not weigh Bush's prediction. Proved wrong, they uttered a panicky new cry: "Which country is Bush going to invade next?" Gearing up to oppose a vividly imagined fresh war, they overlooked the string-of-firecrackers effect. Precisely because the first firecracker, Iraq, went off with such a big bang, heard around the Middle East and beyond, the next firecrackers need go off less dramatically.