24 November 2021
South-East Asia’s two oldest democracies – the Philippines and Malaysia – appear to be succumbing to less liberal political forces from their pasts as campaigning gets under way for elections next year.
Last week, the son of former Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos – Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr – emerged as the frontrunner to win the country’s presidential election in May 2022.
And on Saturday, the once-dominant United Malays National Organisation won a crushing victory in the Malacca state election, leading to speculation that Malaysia will bring forward the national election it is due to hold in 2023.
Ferdinand Marcos Sr ruled the Philippines, partly under martial law, from 1965 until 1986, when he was forced out by a people-power movement.
The exiled Marcos family returned to the Philippines in the 1990s, allowing Ferdinand Jr and his sister to rebuild their father’s political base in the north. Ferdinand Jr narrowly lost the vice-presidential election in 2016.
A UMNO-led coalition ruled Malaysia for six decades prior to its electoral defeat in 2018, and the party was returned to leadership in August after a period of political crisis that saw two successive coalition governments collapse.
While the specific circumstances of the Philippines and Malaysia are different, in both countries the well-funded forces of their political pasts are capitalising on voters’ post-COVID uncertainty and dissatisfaction with populist and reformist parties.
Meanwhile, the Morrison government has been trying to build closer relations with South-East Asian countries to help it manage a more assertive China. To this end, it signed a new security partnership with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last month.
But recent military coups in Thailand and Myanmar have cast a shadow over the state of democracy in the region.
If these anti-democratic trends are seen to gain ground in the Philippines and Malaysia, it may not be helpful to Australian efforts to build stronger regional partnerships.
China and sport
China has been trying to defuse international concern about the wellbeing of Chinese tennis champion Peng Shuai, who has not been seen in public since she alleged on 2 November that China’s former vice-premier Zhang Gaoli sexually assaulted her.
Over the weekend, state media released what it claimed were current photos of Peng, and International Olympic Committee officials reported that they have spoken to her via video call.
The Women’s Tennis Association says it still holds fears about Peng’s safety. It has been forthright about its support for Peng and has threatened to withhold future WTA events from China if the matter is not resolved.
Due to its internment of Uighur people, the Chinese government is also facing a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022. China previously won international praise for its relative openness as the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics.
Despite a positive online meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping last week, US president Joe Biden said he is considering whether to support the boycott.
Authoritarian countries, notably in the Middle East, are increasingly using their financial clout to host global sporting events and win kudos, often with the complicity of international sports bodies. But the WTA’s support of Peng and the planned diplomatic boycott of the Beijing games suggests that such exercises in soft power may become more contested.
Meanwhile, Australia faces a particular dilemma over whether to support the diplomatic boycott. It recently became the latest country to be awarded the Olympics imprimatur, with Brisbane set to host the Summer Olympics in 2032.
The Australian government has been urged to prioritise relations with Japan to meet global challenges such as rising tensions between the United States and China.
A new report from ANU’s Australia–Japan Research Centre calls Japan “Australia’s … strategic anchor in Asia” but warns that previous approaches to the relationship will no longer work.
“The Japan relationship must be reimagined if it is to deliver its full potential and cope with accelerating economic, environmental and social changes in both countries and a dramatically changing geopolitical environment,” it says.
Instead, the government must look beyond its traditional security and economic ties with Japan and focus on new commonalities such as education, culture and sport, and the joint management of their respective demographic changes and transitions to greener energy sources.
The report also calls for Japan to be declared a “most favoured partner”, which means Australia would give it “equal-best treatment” with any other country – a significant change to Australia’s diplomatic pecking order.
The Morrison government has already been emphasising Japan’s importance in strengthening the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, containing China’s influence in the Asia-Pacific and replacing declining Chinese investments.
But the research centre argues that Australia and Japan have an interest in keeping China fully engaged in the region. Instead of decoupling its economy from China’s, Australia must accept that trade supply chain resilience will “have to be achieved with China, not from China”, it says.