Wednesday’s storming of the US Capitol by a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters, described by president-elect Joe Biden as an attempted “insurrection”, will forever be a stain on American democracy – and Asian nations have taken note.
Hours after the event, after which President Trump begrudgingly called on the rampaging rioters to return home, the US Senate formally named Biden the next president and Twitter locked down Trump’s account, messages from world leaders were still rolling in.
The response was a mixed hue of condemnation, criticism of Trump and consolation over the degradation of US democracy.
But some of America’s authoritarian opponents, many lambasted by Washington for years for their lack of democracy and rights, responded with thinly-veiled mockery and triumphant finger-pointing.
Analysts and observers suggest that America’s prestige in many parts of Asia will take time to recover from the chaotic events, and that its reputation as a beacon and defender of democracy could be permanently tainted by the siege.
“It’s certainly a black eye for the United States – there’s no way around it,” said Bradley Murg, senior advisor and distinguished senior research fellow at the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace in Phnom Penh.
“I expect authoritarian regimes in Asia at present are more concerned with preparing for engagement with the new Democratic administration than attempting to score short-term political points for domestic audiences,” he added. “And if they aren’t, they should be.”
Russia’s first deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Dmitry Polyansky, said that the scenes looked “Maidan-style,” a reference to the peaceful protests that brought down Ukraine’s Moscow-friendly President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, and which Russia claims fronted for a US-backed coup.
“We call on all parties in the US to maintain restraint and prudence. We believe the US will overcome this internal political crisis in a mature manner,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement, a comment that one would ordinarily expect from the US State Department regarding events abroad.
Sok Eysan, a senator and spokesman for the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party – whose conduct at the 2018 elections was described by the White House as “neither free nor fair” and which has been rebuked by Washington for its close alliance with China – was quoted as asking, “If the US has election fraud and corruption, which country is cleaner?”
The autocratic likes of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen have yet to publicly comment on the incident.
Global Times, the jingoistic Chinese state-run tabloid, tweeted photos comparing the scenes to the Hong Kong protesters who occupied the city’s Legislative Council in July 2019 in an attempt to denigrate the city’s pro-democracy protests. The tweets came on the same day that over 50 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were arrested by authorities.
Several Chinese media outlets mocked Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi for her comment made in June 2019 that the Hong Kong protests were “a beautiful sight to behold.” Global Times retorted: “It remains yet to be seen whether she will say the same about the recent developments in Capitol Hill.”
Official channels in communist-run Vietnam – one of the last Southeast Asian states to congratulate Biden on his electoral victory – have yet to comment, but its state-run newspapers have for the most part covered events without any connection to its anti-democratic domestic politics.
There have been four confirmed deaths and dozens of arrests related to the US Capitol riots. Police also found pipe bombs at the offices of the Republican and Democratic national committees.
Even America’s democratic allies have noted the dire symbolism of the event. The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell wrote on Twitter: “In the eyes of the world, American democracy tonight appears under siege.”
India’s twice-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi offered his democratic advice in a tweet saying: “Distressed to see news about rioting and violence in Washington DC. Orderly and peaceful transfer of power must continue. The democratic process cannot be subverted through unlawful protests.”
Charles Santiago, an opposition lawmaker in Malaysia who is also the chair of Southeast Asian bloc’s Parliamentarians for Human Rights, commented that to some it appears “the US has lost its moral authority to preach democracy and human rights to other countries.”
He told the Washington Post: “the coming together of the Republicans and Democrats in condemning these despicable actions, and the continuation of confirming Joe Biden as America’s next president, shows us that all is not lost, and highlights the crucial role parliaments play in safeguarding against assaults on democracy.”
Once Biden is inaugurated on January 20, he will certainly face an uphill struggle to convince the rest of the world that the US remains a model of democratic values, whilst his authoritarian opponents in Russia, China, Turkey and Southeast Asia won’t likely miss a beat to remind of the events of January 6.
Analysts are divided on whether the dramatic siege will have a lasting impact on America’s global reputation and standing.
It is certainly true that the narratives set by politicians and the media in authoritarian states will continue to hark back to these events for some time, lambasting Washington for hypocrisy if it criticizes another government’s actions and adding yet another string to the bow of so-called “whataboutism.”
Beijing is now quickly trying to establish a narrative that the Hong Kong pro-democracy protestors are directly analogous to the pro-Trump rioters, a claim that can be easily rebuked but which will likely be disseminated so frequently over Chinese Communist Party channels that it significantly sways popular opinion.
The next time the US criticizes another state’s rigged election or a crackdown on protests, chances are that footage of riots at the US Capitol will be shown to accuse Washington of hypocrisy.
Biden pledged during the presidential campaign to make human rights a priority of his administration’s foreign policy after the Trump administration paid little attention to and at times seemed to encourage the world’s noted democratic deterioration since 2017.
The Capitol Hill siege, some observers reckon, will make such a shift in US foreign policy that much harder. Others, however, aver that the chaotic event will reinvigorate America’s faith in the importance of global democracy and human rights, noting that democratic processes finally showed Trump the door.