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The ascendency of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines is just one of the shifts away from liberalism in southeast Asia. Reuters/Lean Daval Jr

Differences on liberalism provide Asia’s latest faultline

Since winning the Philippines presidential election by a comfortable margin, Rodrigo Duterte has made good on his promise to unleash lawless vigilantism to tackle the country’s very real problem with drugs. Due process and human rights went out the window. In three months more than 2,000 people have been killed with the blessing of the Malacanang Palace.

In Thailand, more than two years on from a “temporary” military coup, the Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong was prevented from entering the country, evidently at Beijing’s behest.

Debate about Asia’s international politics is dominated by the nascent strategic competition between the US and China. This division is real, as both great powers have different and potentially irreconcilable visions for the region’s strategic order.

But there is a second and more complex cleavage that is important not only for the lives of Asia’s people and for that strategic contest: between liberal and illiberal Asia.

After decades of breakneck economic growth, east Asian states and societies have never been more prosperous. But the hope that this would prompt a flowering of liberalism has proven illusory. Following the rapid democratisation of several southeast Asian countries in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the forces of illiberalism have been on the march.

Thailand has fallen back to military rule. The Philippines has a proto-authoritarian strongman in power who cares little for liberal niceties. Malaysia is mired in political crisis, with the reformasi hopes from 1998 as far from view as ever. Meanwhile, in Japan, the Abe government has attacked media freedom and curtailed human rights in disconcerting ways.

The only positive story in recent years is the as-yet incomplete democratisation in Myanmar.

The liberal ideas to which I refer are not a synonym for democracy in the narrow electoral sense, but relate to key principles that underpin society. The most important of these relate to the impartial rule of law, rights to free expression and association that are respected and enforced, limits on state power, and the prevalence of markets in determining the shape of the society’s economy.

Countries like Indonesia and Australia are plainly liberal. China, North Korea and Laos are not. But most countries in the region exist somewhere on a continuum between those extremes, with illiberal forces more dominant than they were.

East Asia does not have the kind of clear division that defined European experience in the Cold War, in which geopolitical division mapped identically the political divide. Instead, the US has alliances and partnerships with countries that are liberal democracies, illiberal democracies, and authoritarian dictatorships among others.

In the contest for strategic influence, the US and its allies may see eye to eye. But real tensions exist among these partners on matters that are fundamental, at least in principle, to the underlying vision the US has for the region.

The recent tensions between Barack Obama and Duterte are only the most visible manifestation of this. If the Philippines does break with the US it will be in part because of differing views about the two governments’ approach to human rights and the rule of law.

The region has entered a period of open contestation. Most have tended to focus purely on the geopolitical aspects of this, but the contest is in fact much greater and more challenging. These circumstances make the US’ efforts to use liberal ideas like the rule of law and human rights to advance its interests and ambitions in the region much more complex.

Dealing with Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea is not just about managing spheres of influence and distributions of force. It requires aligning a disparate community of states and people, with differing cultures and political systems, behind ideas with which they are plainly uneasy.

Put bluntly, liberal ideas about Asia’s future are easier for China and others to resist with illiberalism so prevalent in the region.

The vision the US and its allies have for the region is at its most compelling when it is grounded not just in the abstractions of the balance of power and the strategic status quo, but when it entails the expansive conception of a genuinely liberal region.

An East Asia in which people can flourish, with their freedoms respected and powerful states checked by ideas and institutions, and in which military power works to protect and expand those freedoms, is a future to which we should all aspire. But first, we have to recognise how far we are from that being realised.

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