Governance, leadership and legitimacy in East Asia

This report from the UK think tank Chatham House examines the political and government systems in East Asia in the wider context of the growth of populism worldwide.

This report argues that the countries of the region should seek multilateral solutions to global and regional problems. There are growing challenges to the assumption that the optimal method of government is representative parliamentary democracy. Questions of governance, legitimacy and leadership are therefore increasingly relevant. The political chaos in the UK since the Brexit referendum shows how democratic principles can buckle under the strain if these questions are unresolved. In East Asia, such issues are reflected in rivalry between nations as well as through competition for influence between different actors within specific countries. Japan, South Korea and China have different political traditions and post-war experiences, and this has led to conflicting political models.

Japan’s transition to representative democracy came in the aftermath of the Second World War: the effectiveness of its government’s leadership is seen as depending more on its economic management than plans for constitutional ‘reform’. Korea’s democratic transition is more recent, and after decades of strong economic growth, younger voters are moving towards more value-driven politics. China remains an authoritarian country, whose leadership derives legitimacy from its ability to deliver continual economic expansion. The historical memory of the Second World War remains contested, although relations between China and Japan have improved from their nadir in 2012–13. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s attempt to ‘turn the page’ in his 2015 statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war was broadly welcomed in Japan without inciting a destabilizing level of Chinese opposition. Japan/South Korea relations, however, have not seen this level of relative rapprochement.

The US remains the key actor in the region helping to maintain stability: the erratic nature of the Donald Trump administration, along with the president’s substituting of transactional acts for any seriously strategic approach, is potentially destabilizing in a region which is already a security flashpoint. There is no alternative but for the countries of the region to continue to improve confidencebuilding measures and seek multilateral solutions to global and regional problems.

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