America's strategic interests in Asia go hand in hand with democratic values. Not by accident, all of our formal security allies in Asia - Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Thailand - are democracies. And events are trending further in this direction.
Taiwan recently conducted its fifth direct presidential election since 1996, further proof of democracy's hold there. While many Americans may squirm at the "pro-China" characterization given its now two-term president, Ma Ying-jeou, the process that returned him to office is in itself a strategic advantage. Taiwan has one of the most highly polarized electorates in the world. Yet the democratic process has produced a bottom line on the most contentious issue - Taiwan's relationship with the People's Republic of China.
Mr. Ma represents all Taiwanese - those who supported him and those who did not. His electoral mandate revolves around what he has called the "three no's": no unification, no independence and no use of force to resolve differences with China. This is not a formulation the Chinese, who remain fixated on unification, can live with for long. It is, however, the formulation preferred for years by Taiwan's citizenry, as expressed at the ballot box and in public polling.
In Burma, skepticism certainly remains in order. Yet evidence of real political liberalization is mounting. Sen. Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, the Senate's conscience on Burma, have opened the door to a phased lifting of sanctions, hinging most prominently on the conduct of upcoming by-elections in which Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her party have registered to compete.
As long as Congress (the author and enforcer of America's Burma policy), the administration and Miss Suu Kyi remain coordinated on their response, a major realignment of influence could be under way not just in Burma, but in Southeast Asia broadly.
Half of the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are already "free" or "partly free," according to Freedom House. Half are "not free." A democratic Burma will tip ASEAN in favor of liberty.
And Burma is not the only democratic story unfolding in Southeast Asia. The "partly free" are becoming more free. Singapore held what were, for it, remarkably competitive elections last year. And in a shocking turn of events, just weeks ago, the Kuala Lumpur High Court gave the Malaysian political opposition a boost by acquitting its leader, Anwar Ibrahim, of charges that could have prevented him from leading his coalition in national elections later this year.
A democracy-majority ASEAN will look at the world differently, increasingly live up to the commitment to democracy and human rights enshrined in its charter, and be better inclined toward the interests of the U.S. and other democracies in the region.
The United States and China are engaged in the early stages of a great geopolitical struggle for predominance in the Western Pacific. There may be areas of mutual tactical interest, global economic issues, maritime security and nonproliferation for instance, where we can work together. We certainly have an interest in avoiding armed conflict.
The horizons of U.S.-China relations, however, are severely limited by the contrast in their political systems.
Washington-based experts often dismiss consideration of "ideology" in Asia policy as unsophisticated. Yet as Princeton professor Aaron L. Friedberg lays out in his new book, "A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia," ideology is alive and well in U.S.-China relations. In fact, it drives the rivalry's defining feature - "mistrust and volatility"- largely because democracy constitutes an American strategic advantage.
The ideological trends at work in East Asia - and thus the geopolitical trends - favor America. Democratic peoples in East Asia will increasingly define their interests in sympathy with others who govern themselves. And they will demand their governments do the same. That change will increasingly press the "not free" of Asia, including China.
Walter Lohman is director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation
First appeared in The Washington Times