The mediating role of national identity in democratization and lessons from post–Cold War foreign policy in Northeast Asia

Gilbert Rozman

Trade wars and security clashes are in the forefront across greater Asia, but we would be remiss to overlook the intensifying struggle over democratization as a factor in international relations. On the one side is China backed by Russia, both intent on foiling not only “color revolutions” but also democratic processes in general. On the other is the United States, despite the recent rhetorical inconsistency, encouraged by Japan and other countries in its support of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” To grasp the essence of this battle, we need an updated framework to analyze democratization as a continuum, subject to setbacks, and national identities as forces that form the backdrop for how democratization evolves. We can draw on case studies for lessons about past struggles over democratization in East Asia and for tests of how foreign relations, especially involving China, are impacting democratization. Great power competition has been more acute in Northeast Asia, our starting point, while it has recently intensified in South and Southeast Asia. This chapter seeks linkages between national identity and democratization, proposes a framework for analyzing how democratization proceeds within today’s foreign policy context, and draws on lessons from aspirations for advancing democracy in Northeast Asia after the Cold War ended.

Predictions of democratization in Asia grew more optimistic with the abrupt successes in South Korea and Taiwan and, just a few years later, the collapse of the communist bloc, opening space for Mongolia to turn toward democracy. Yet, optimism that China would follow this path failed to be vindicated, Russia’s Asian regions lost their autonomy to revived authoritarian tendencies, and competition resumed between rival scenarios for other parts of Asia. On the one hand, the Chinese and Russians hold up models of One Belt One Road leading toward a “community of common destiny” or of Greater Eurasia premised on rejection of democratization. On the other, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo became the first leader to press for a coalition of states committed to defend what became known as a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific.” As external pressure grows to join one or another great power-led coalition, it is timely to examine anew the ongoing challenges of pursuing democratization within the increasingly tightly contested regional context of East Asia.

In 1989, in light of the end of the Cold War and the Tiananmen demonstrations, many were optimistic that an irreversible wave of democratization was in progress. In 1992, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the further dismantlement of communist regimes, optimism soared that the ideological barriers to democratization were falling as economic globalization accelerated and the impending information revolution was giving unprecedented impetus to it. What was often missing in such reasoning was the fact that democracy is rarely an end in itself and usually a means that elites adopt only conditionally. If it is found to be at odds with personal and local interests, elites are likely to oppose it, appealing to various dimensions of the national identity, while taking the stance that democratization would prove antithetical to them. Thus, we can frame the pursuit of democratization also as a pathway to boosting one or another dimension of national identity, which is countered by attackers who label it an outrage that undermines the pillars of that national identity—all within the context of the newly polarizing foreign relations across the wide arc of maritime Asia. Since 2018, Sino-US relations have been aggravated, the United States’ thinking about democratization has been questioned, and the struggle has been deepening over democratization.

The analysis ahead can be clarified if we consider democratization to be the establishment and deepening of a cluster of elements (not always in synch with each other or reinforcing), setbacks to democratization as the weakening of any or all of them, national identity as a conglomeration of dimensions, any one of which can become linked to the advance of democratization but, more likely, can be cited as inimical to democratization, and the current foreign policy struggle in East Asia as identity oriented between China, on the one side, and the United States, with its allies and partners on the other. In this way, we simplify the conceptual narrative and lay the groundwork for comparisons of states on the frontline in Asia between two clashing approaches to democracy.

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