The Siege of Capitol Hill
America is NOT Back—The View from Asia - Richard Chen
Last week’s turmoil in the U.S. capital sent a clear message that reverberated through the rest of the Free World, and in particular to new democracies in Asia, not to mention America’s adversaries in the region. In fact, America is unfortunately not back yet. At least not anytime soon.
How it Happened
On January 6th, a Trump rally that started from the lawn of the White House ended in violence and chaos in the U.S. Capitol building, the legislative branch of the U.S. government. The attack on Capitol Hill was nothing short of an assault on democratic institutions across the world, more consequential however, it was a degradation to America’s standing and legitimacy as a global force for good as well as its character as a nation. The nearly four hours of anarchic dysfunction within the very granite of American heritage shocked the world by putting on display America’s “failure of institutions, protocols, and planning that [were] supposed to protect the first branch of our federal government”, stated Rep. Mitch McConnell, the outgoing Senate Majority Leader.
The aftermath of such unprecedented rampage on the physical and subliminal collective of American society, led to a self-imposed exodus of staffers close to the President. Not to mention the mass distancing campaign from rank-and-file Republicans, who disavowed Trump’s actions in inciting the riot of last Wednesday. From the eyewitness account of Jaimie Stiehm, a political columnist in the Capitol building when premises were breached, later recounted: “I have seen a lot as a journalist, but this was something more. This was the collective public sphere being undermined, assaulted, [and] degraded…”. What then, does the seemingly never-ending trend of rioting in the U.S. mean for America’s global leadership status?
The View from Asia
From the other side of the globe, beyond America’s sea to shining sea, Asian nations one after another, offered their best in terms of statements to understand this almost otherworldly event that took place in Washington. Official statements from Pacific nations showed that the incidents of last week went far beyond just the borders of America, but was put under the spotlight for the world to see. For democracies in Asia, it beckons a more cautious and wary-eyed attitude with which others will approach the United States moving forward. For China on the other hand, this event was the perfect opportunity to point out the alleged inconsistencies and double standard that the U.S. has constantly held Beijing accountable to. Beijing even going insofar as to compare the Capitol Hill riot to the demonstrations in Hong Kong from 2019. Allies of the U.S., even though offering a far less aggressive/sarcastic tone of reckoning, across the board showed dismay as they witnessed the flamed torch of Lady Liberty flicker into feeble wisps. Rightfully so, democratic nations around the world find themselves dumbstruck with how fragile and incompetent the United States has been over the past years as the list of domestic mismanagement and foreign policy fumbles continue to accrue.
Media outlets from the region are no strangers to reporting on the riots and protests in America at this point, harkening back to the George Floyd protests just last year. This time around with the storming of the Capitol building—the representation of democracy of our time—and seat of American heritage and power, most were as aghast as ever, if not even more troubled at the implications. With most media channels in Asia echoing the sentiment of stunning disbelief that they would ever bear sight of such scenes being reported from the U.S., a long-time model for new Asian democracies.
- Japan’s NHK released a video, a day after the incursion, titled “US Democracy Under Attack”.
- Nikkei Asia published a piece pointing that other ASEAN nations such as Thailand and Indonesia seem to place their bet on the incoming Biden administration reverting the current state of U.S.-induced chaos and “bring back trust”.
- Singapore’s Channel News Asia article, “Guns and Tear Gas in U.S. Capitol” provided a readout of the mayhem and chaos that unfolded, complete with images and clips of how it happened.
- In South Korea, the general public’s reactions upon viewing the riot on their screens question whether America can still be a model for their own democracy, reported VOA from Seoul.
- SCMP quickly dubbed the response from Chinese state media and news commentators as an atmosphere of “mockery”, referring to the “double standards” and “American hypocrisy”.
- The Sydney Morning Herald’s headline that day affirmed, “Democracy is a mindset and Americans are losing it”.
Here in Taiwan, arguably one of the governments in Asia that has most cozied up to the Trump administration during these past four years, braces itself for a rebalancing of its own U.S. policy. Despite the recent move from the Pompeo State Department to nullify and pull back past decades of diplomatic restrictions with Taiwan, the island nation stands yet again at a crossroad of uncertainty facing increasingly dubious odds. For one, being constantly at the whim and looming specter of invasion from the Mainland, any change in the status quo would be effectively a swing of the pendulum in either direction, drawing ire and vitriol responses (through a plethora of means) from Beijing, or gradually at the risk losing its national characteristics of being uniquely separate from the less-than-democratic Mainland China. The alacrity of the Tsai Ing-Wen administration’s policies towards the U.S., sprinkled with local public opinion towards President Trump on the island-nation (highest approval rating amongst Asian nations, a survey from UK-based market research firm—YouGov—shows) puts Taiwan in quite an unsettling position as it heads into the next few weeks, the final weeks of this current U.S. administration.
Where Do We Go from Here?
In terms of regional geopolitical dynamics and how the national perspectives of key players in the Indo-Pacific could be impacted by the events that took place in Washington last week, the chaos in the halls of democracy deals a substantial blow on confidence in the U.S. and on its democratic institutions. A more enduring and problematic issue, however, would be how the perception of the liberal agenda America espouses survives and continues, much less maintaining its status as the “leader” of the Free World. There will not be a markedly stark nor abrupt dealignment from the U.S. in terms of partnerships in the region, however, the U.S. seems to be continuingly sowing seeds of doubt and uncertainty in the minds of its allies abroad. America is NOT back, but it still could be. The question is when, and by what means.