The Deja Vu of Rising Autocracy

The Deja Vu of Rising Autocracy
Graphics: MaiMai/Luat Khoa Magazine

During the past few days, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been at the center of attention for the international community. This concern, however, has  not been limited to the geopolitical boundaries of Europe or North America. Many international security specialists are worried about the implications of the invasion on the Asia-Pacific region.

With China - Russia’s close ally -  watching the invasion unfold, many fear that China is also going to become a problem for Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries that have disputes with China in the South China Sea. Despite Beijing’s seemingly neutral stance, which is surprising for a close ally of Russia, there is a fear that China will interpret Russia’s invasion as well as the West’s lackluster military response as a green light for China to play up its sphere of influence in Asia.

Security specialists disagree about such a possibility. Derek Grossman of the RAND Corporation, an American think tank, warns of China’s aggression. From China’s perspective, if the West is not going to intervene militarily to help Ukraine, it will not do so to help Taiwan as Ukraine is seen as more “legitimate” (i.e., being recognized internationally as a sovereign nation).

Meanwhile, David Sacks of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks that it is not possible for the United States to stay out of Taiwan regardless. Similarly, the Atlantic Council’s Michael Schuman believes that China - in its dealings with Taiwan and other Asian countries - will more likely play the long game of expanding its economic influence on these smaller countries rather than following what Russian President Vladimir Putin is doing with Ukraine right now.

While much has been said about the security implications of the invasion, there is one part of the story that has attracted less attention. Regardless of China’s actions in Asia, the Russian invasion is part of  a worrying trend in the last few decades of the rise of autocracy and authoritarian leaders worldwide - and especially in Southeast Asia.

The Russian invasion is a deja vu to the way that autocracy and authoritarianism has continuously grown in the past few decades.  It is becoming increasingly clear that “dictators aren’t pretending anymore,” and this is probably a devastating sign for democracy in Vietnam.  

Worrying Trend Worldwide

In the aftermath of the Cold War, many were optimistic about the future of democracy worldwide. With the Soviet Union erased from the geopolitical equation and the subsequent triumph of Western liberal democracy, it seemed like developing countries had no choice but to democratize and join the global capitalists.

American presidents from Clinton to Bush were also optimistic. Bill Clinton said in 1997 that China will “increase the spirit of liberty over time,” while George W. Bush two years later said that “economic freedom creates habits of liberty.”

Indeed, with the exception of North Korea, communist countries in Asia, including China and Vietnam, underwent free market reforms to insert themselves into the globalized world. Many believed that this was a sign that China and Vietnam would inevitably embrace liberal democracy.

This post-Cold War optimistic outlook could not have been more wrong. Since the early 2000s, the world has continuously been in a “democratic recession,” meaning that the number of democratic countries and countries attempting to democratize have only been decreasing over time.

There are two main phenomena that are responsible for this trend: democracy backsliding and democracy despondency. The former refers to countries that have long enjoyed democracy, but have been experiencing events that could harm their democracy. For instance, the United States is among the world’s strongest democracies, but the country’s democratic institutions still suffered attacks over the last year, most notably the Capitol Riot of January 6, which aimed to blatantly reject a democratically elected leader.

On the other hand, “democracy despondency” refers to the declining number of countries wanting to democratize. Last year, Myanmar, a country that had experienced democracy, fell back into the dictatorial hands of a military junta.

Coincedently, the 2022 report by Freedom House on the trend of democracy worldwide was released shortly before the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In this report, entitled “The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule,” Freedom House paid special attention to Russia, China, and Myanmar.

Freedom House reported that instead of being isolated from the global economy, autocratic regimes are actively collaborating with each other to limit the damage of sanctions from democratic countries.

For example, Russia and China have been providing investments and trade to Venezuela, which greatly helped Nicolás Maduro’s government in the face of sanctions against his rigged election. Similarly, China prevented the United Nations Security Council from punishing Myanmar’s military junta while Russia advanced more economic ties with it.

In other words, even if a regime decides to become a violent authoritarian regime, it will not face a lot of adversaries. The economic prosperity of democracies is no longer a strong appeal to advance democracy worldwide.

Freedom House’s recent findings align with the observation of democracy scholars in recent years.

John Lee, a researcher at the Hudson Institute, wrote in 2018 that autocrats and authoritarians such as China, Vietnam and Singapore, with their strong economic performance, are trying to push back the appeal of liberal democracy, arguing that authoritarianism results in better stability and economic development.

The prime example of this attempt is Lee Kuan Yew’s controversial “Asian values.” As a result, John Lee argues that these authoritarian regimes are advocating for the rights of autocratic countries to have their own definition of “human rights,” while rejecting the concept of universal freedom of press and free speech.

Autocracy in Vietnam

How are these trends related to Vietnam - a country that fell under neither “democracy backsliding” or “democracy despondency” models? How is Vietnam benefitting from the global expansion of authoritarianism?

Firstly, it is clear that Vietnam is an established contributor to the global trend of rising autocracy, as it has always been an authoritarian state since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, even with the market reform of Doi Moi.

From The assessment of the Economist Intelligence Unit to that of Freedom House, Vietnam has always been categorized as “authoritarian” and “not free” in all categories.

Vietnam does try to argue that it is compliant with the framework of human rights, but its conception of human rights is absurd. For instance, it once tried to equate internet access to democracy while completely ignoring the government’s internet censorship.

Vietnam’s weak attempt to convince the world of its development of human rights could be attributed to one of  two scenarios: Either Vietnam understands that compliance with human rights and democratic values is not important, or else it is just very incompetent in trying to sell its own regime as progressive. Regardless, it is not a good situation for human rights and democracy in the country.

Leaders and diplomats worldwide should also abandon the long debunked illusion that Vietnam will democratize solely on the basis of economic development. Since the beginning of the European Union-Vietnam Free Trade Agreement (EVFTA), Vietnam has not taken any policy decisions to strengthen its domestic civil society or to build democratic institutions.

Quite the contrary, the Vietnamese government has arrested NGO leaders (including Dang Dinh Bach, who was involved in supervising the implementation of EVFTA), despite these NGOs being “registered” in Vietnam, meaning that they are supposedly recognized as legitimate by the government. The Vietnamese authorities are known for interfering with elections and creating smear campaigns on the internet against truly independent candidates - the National Assembly election last year was no exception.

While Vietnam is seemingly neutral on the Russian invasion, the fact that Vietnam refused to call it an “invasion” or to call out Russia on its behavior shows that it aligns much less with the West than it does with other authoritarian regimes such as China or Russia.

While it could be argued that Vietnam is merely worried about its own security as a small power, the way Vietnam is responding to the crisis shows that it is still closely watching what China is doing and to a certain extent, mimicking these two countries. Vietnam’s growing military and economic ties to the West grew out of its own interest in securing its claims in the South China Sea, but to think that such ties will result in future democratization is mere optimism.

With the Russian invasion, and with China’s rise in the Asia-Pacific region, the Vietnamese government is hearing signals that it does not have to put up any facades that it cares about democracy anymore. After all, authoritarians are striking back, liberal democracy is becoming more and more of the minority rather than the norm, and authoritarians seem to do fine even after countless condemnations. Why should Vietnam endorse a system that is so out-of-trend in its region?

Some scholars are suggesting that the West, especially the United States, should simply respect Vietnam’s authoritarianism instead of trying to change it. “Dictators aren’t pretending anymore” is not only true for Russia and China, but also Vietnam.

But the rise of autocracy and authoritarianism does not mean that there is no hope for Vietnam. In its report, Freedom House put forward various recommendations for democracies and the private sector.

Among the most relevant to Vietnam are the recommendations that democratic states should work together to “scrutinize the export of technologies and other products that could be used to violate human rights,” and should “reject internet shutdowns and refrain from banning social media and messaging platforms, particularly during elections, protests, and periods of unrest.”

The report also encourages the private sector to play a larger role in democracy promotion, including speaking out against abuses of human rights and democracy in the countries where they operate, and resisting government orders to advance censorship.

These measures are a part of a long and hard fight against the spread of authoritarianism, and there is no guarantee that democratic governments and private companies will participate in it. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, should be a wake up call for everyone about the global rise of autocratic regimes and the fact that they are tirelessly striking back against democratic and human rights values. The failure to counter their influence is going to be devastating.


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