Khoo Ying Hooi stresses the urgent need to link the salvaging of the economy to the restoration of democracy and human rights.
Amid the United States (US)-China rivalry amid Covid-19, observers have speculated about the future geopolitical implications of this pandemic for South East Asia.
Some suggest this may reshape the global order: China’s position is expected to be elevated at the expense of the US. Others are sceptical that China has the capability of emerging as a dominant global power (Cimmino, Kroenig, and Pavel, 1 June 2020; Shin, 27 April 2020).
Guided by this debate, this commentary will look at how US-China rivalry will affect human rights and democracy in South East Asia.
Before the pandemic, Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was among the central issues in the region popularly debated under the framework of the expansion of China’s soft power (Gong, 2019; Beeson, 2018), to the detriment of US influence; and how it may have affect human rights. The recent US announcement giving China 72 hours to shut its Houston consulate (Griffiths and Gaouette, 22 July 2020) shows the enhanced rivalry between the two powers.
Amid the Covid-19, the Chinese government has pivoted to providing assistance, popularly known as “mask diplomacy” (Wong, 25 March 2020), particularly focusing on South East Asian countries. Although some have criticised China’s approach, Chinese aid and diplomacy have seemed to be better publicised and received in South East Asia than US aid.
Before we move on to answer how US-China rivalry will affect human rights and democracy in South East Asia, we need to first understand why there is a ‘war’ between the two powers on human rights.
The US is conventionally known as a democracy, while China is seen as more authoritarian and autocratic (Ambrosio, 2012). Reasons for the disagreement between the two on human rights lie in the different levels of economic development and divergent cultures and fundamental values.
All these are due to the competing perspectives deeply rooted in the different historical, ideological, political and social conditions characteristic of each country (De Graaff and Apeldoorn, 2018; Yin, 2007). Such differences are glaring when we compare the approaches of the two countries amid the Covid-19.
Thus far, none of the Asean member states has openly criticised both countries on their initial handling of the pandemic. Most have demonstrated the diplomacy of solidarity.
Prior to the pandemic, the State of Southeast Asia: 2020 Survey Report by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (Iseas) showed that 53.6% of Asean elites generally chose to align with the US.
However, country-level data present a more complex picture as seven Asean member states have chosen to align themselves with China: Laos, Brunei, Myanmar, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia.
Vietnam, Singapore and the Philippines have chosen to align themselves with the US.
Such a trend is expected to remain more or less the same in the post-pandemic era.
In South East Asia, the economic factor is a key concern in shaping its leaders’ decisions on critical issues that divide Washington and Beijing.
Covid-19 has been devastating for South East Asia’s economies. Millions are unemployed.
Widespread perceptions hold that authoritarian system could be better at handling the crisis than democracies. This is worrying as people may look toward a system outside of democracy.
How leaders and their citizens interact with one another during the pandemic will provide some clues to the future exercise of power. For now, the coronavirus pandemic seems to suggest an affirmation of ‘support’ for undemocratic government in Southeast Asia.
In all, will human rights suffer amid the US-China rivalry during this pandemic? While it is premature to make any generalisation and conclude that crisis management works better in a particular government system, there is a need to urgently address the correlation between salvaging the economy and the restoration of democracy and human rights.
Source: Strengthening Human Rights And Peace Research And Education in Asean/South East Asia (Shape-Sea)