Strong states fading out across Asia


From Myanmar to South Korea, Indonesia to China, the once strong states of Asia are fading. Previously capable of driving rapid major policy reform, almost every country in the region now faces greater constraint on the executive branch of government. One driver is institutional change, such as the increased power of legislatures and courts. Another is shifts in political preferences away from an emphasis on national security and economic growth. Others include the transformation of markets for information and heightened global engagement. The pace of change varies, but the direction is clear.

Are the strong states fading, or are states changing but while remaining strong? In Vietnam (and similarly, albeit not identically, China), the state can still implement major policy shifts if it determines them to be in its interest. The real difference, I would argue, lies in how the state determines its interests. "Where you stand is where you sit," the dictum goes, and officials sit in more and more diverse places today than they used to. Decentralization of the economy, foreign investment and trade have created more power centers and more diverse loci of bargaining power. How the state determines what is in its interest has therefore changed, but once it has been determined, the state remains strong enough to implement its policies. The question then is, is a state weak because it has a more complex decision-making structure? The developmental state theorists said a strong state is one that does not have to take civil society or opposition movements into account, but can make decisions internally. That still seems to be the case to a large degree in China and Vietnam. As for Myanmar/Burma, I think the jury is out how real the changes are. The elite wants to obtain rents from their grip on power. They didn't get much and took a different approach. It will take more than one election to see whether the military steps back (in Dahl's words, ceases to be an unelected tutelary force) and whether cronies of the regime (and/or the military) cease to dominate the economy.
Thomas Jandl 5 years 2 weeks ago

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