It is hard to think of a region of the globe so packed with both threats and opportunities as East Asia. Of course, the Middle East is as strategically significant as it is combustible. But none of that region’s states have yet shown signs of the economic and political dynamism that we’ve seen in East Asia over the last 20 years. Strategically vital to the world economy, the region is home to some of the most vibrant new democracies as well as harsh tyrannies. South Korea and Taiwan, along with the Philippines in Southeast Asia, were in the vanguard when the Third Wave of democratization reached the region in the late 1980s. Significantly, their transitions occurred or began before the collapse of Soviet communism and in a regional context that was far from friendly to democratization. The new democracies of post-communist central and eastern Europe not only enjoyed at least some democratic traditions and experiences dating back to before communism, but benefited as well from the nearby gravitational pull – and financial subsidies – of the wealthy Western democracies making up the European Union. By contrast, East Asia’s nascent democracies have emerged in the shadow of the world’s most powerful authoritarian state, namely China, though admittedly with the intense involvement of the United States as a security guarantor and of Japan as an engine of economic growth.
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