On Asia, democracy, and new norms

As it becomes more powerful, how will China and its 'authoritarian economy' impact international norms? A look at the return of the 'Asian Values' debate

By: /
August 18, 2015
Singapore
A video tribute to Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. Aug. 1, 2015. (Reuters)

In Singapore, the support for Lee Kuan Yew which was visible at his funeral and at the 50th anniversary celebrations of independence points to a potential revival in the normative challenge to the international system.

This system was built in the post-Cold War environment where the United States was dominant and democratic agendas expanded rapidly, leading some to proclaim the ‘End of History.’

History, however, did not end there and, over time, states such as Singapore have become wealthy without becoming democratic. The poor economic performance of the Soviet Union, when compared with the democratic states of the West, created a strong correlation between economic success and democracy.

Singapore, and now China, have challenged that view. During the 1990s, there was a debate within Asia over the nature of international norms and how these would apply within the region. The overarching position taken by proponents of the ‘Asian Values’ debate centred on a view of both moral relativism and a cultural interpretation that perceived the region’s states as culturally linked to authoritarianism.

This debate was based on an ideological link between the leaders of Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, and they pushed an anti-liberal alternative consensus. The debate they triggered was academically rejected and subsequently collapsed with the Asian Financial Crisis. The President of Indonesia fell, and Indonesia became a democracy; Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohammad of Malaysia retired; and only Lee survived with his reputation more or less in tact.

Although the debate collapsed at that point and it was widely viewed as a fig leaf for the leaders’ own authoritarian predispositions, the views they put forward have fallen more into torpor than death.

Now that debate is likely to return. The popular supportive reaction to the death of Lee Kuan Yew shows many people respected what they saw as his achievements and agreed with many of his political views.

The debate may have faded but has not been forgotten. Although China remained on the sidelines of the original discussion, leaving the heavy lifting to the ASEAN states, it is unlikely to do so if the discussion becomes public once again. China’s views quite closely mirror Singapore’s, preferring a guided authoritarian economy that entrenched the rule of a single party.

The power of China, when added to this normative debate, is likely to influence the success of these norms. We have already seen a moderate expansion in the numbers of authoritarian states, with several prominent democratic states backsliding. The powerful presence of China does not necessarily make this scenario more likely on its own, but the same normative space that it exists within also creates legitimacy where other states can reside.

This means that as China becomes more powerful, it will in turn shape the international system. However China does not necessarily resist all international norms – the reality is fundamentally more complex. China often completely aligns itself with international institutions; some it chooses to shape from within and others it openly resists. China is therefore neither a normative state nor a totally revisionist state.

Rather, China is like Singapore, a state that exists on a normative spectrum. It is worth considering what it means to have a state such as China sit powerfully in the grey area of international norms. Certainly, it enables the existence of totally revisionist states such as North Korea but it also means that its norms are not likely to remain forever outside of what is considered internationally normative. This challenges the fundamental narrative of the post-Cold War era in a way that the ‘Asian Values’ debate of the 90s never did.

The impact of adding China to that debate will, almost certainly, revive the open debate over norms and authoritarianism. Presently, China and its political scientists have begun this process. That discussion is ultimately destined for the mainstream, and is likely to link China to the vociferous supporters of the original ‘Asian Values’ debate that resolutely declared their continued existence during the funeral of Lee Kaun Yew.

The main thrust of the Asian Values debate may only just be beginning.

This article was first published with the Australian Institute of International Affairs.