May 24, 2020

The Age of Populism in Asia: Different Continent, Same Story?

By Tim Hildebrandt

The label given to the time we live in is “The Age of Populism” (Ricci 2020, 1). From a Western perspective, the consequences of the rise of populism seem clear at first. This may perhaps be due to the fact that our time (at least from a Western point of view) was marked by two events. Firstly, the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America and secondly, the British decision to leave the European Union. Given the Brexit and foreign economic policy of Trump’s government, the postulate can be made that populism has a negative effect on regional integration (Bacaria 2017, 19-21). The rejection of regional integration includes the rejection of economic globalization. For example, the Trump government has actively opposed the implementation of planned free trade agreements (e.g. TTIP) (EEAG 2017, 56). The rise of populism (could) therefore jeopardizes exports and cross-border trade. Since populism is a global phenomenon, it is worth looking at Asia and the implications of the age of populism there. The question is whether populism in Asia is affecting the export economy to the same extent as the Western perspective suggests.

Populism in Asia – A Stocktaking

In some Asian countries, state leaders can be categorized as populists, or populists are on the rise. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be described as the embodiment of the populist leader and is often compared to Donald Trump (Plagemann 2017, 7). The situation in Myanmar is certainly complex, but the politics/policies of the (military) government can be described as populist and majoritarian (Win 2018, 27). The former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin can be categorized as a populist. Although he was overthrown by a military coup in 2006, he still enjoys great popularity. The dismissal of Taksin overshadows Thai politics until today. (Plagemann 2017, 3-4). The situation in Indonesia is increasingly tense. The processes in the country can be described as Islamic populism (Ali-Fauzi 2018, 35). Moreover, Rodrigo Duterte (President of the Philippines) can be called a populist, and there are even observers who see a populist in Xi Jinping the President of China (Mendoz 2020, 266).

Regional Integration in Asia

In Asia, unlike for example in Europe, there is no (true) pan-Asian organization. Instead, there are a large number of (sub) regional organizations. The most important are APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation), ARF (ASEAN Regional Forum), ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization). Although regional integration in Asia is characterized by features such as informality and a generally small apparatus, it nevertheless has considerable advantages (Karns 2015, 205-207).

For example, ASEAN plays an important role in maintaining regional peace in Southeast Asia. In addition, the AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Area) is affiliated to ASEAN. The goal of AFTA is the establishment of a single market (Karns 2015, 209-2017). Besides AFTA, there is also APTA (Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement). The aim of APTA is to promote interregional trade through liberalization and economic cooperation. In contrast to the AFTA, the APTA is not limited to Southeast Asia, but also includes a wide range of South, Southeast, East and North Asian countries (UNESCAP 2018). Even if regional co-operation in Asia is not as formalized as in Europe, it is important not to underestimate the enormous economic benefits and the role of regional integration for security in the region.

By using an integration index, it becomes clear that Asia is the second most integrated part of the world in terms of money/finance and trade/investments. The importance of trade (especially for the countries of South East Asia) becomes even clearer when looking at the statistics. Apart from the absolute importance of trade and exports for Asian countries, attention must be paid to intra-Asian trade. This is the second-largest intra-regional trade after Europe, accounting for 16.8% (2014) of world exports of goods (Bpb 2017).

Populism, Regional Integration and Economic Globalization: As in the West, so in the East?

A series of empirical papers shows the connection between economic globalization and the rise of populists (Rodrik 2018). The backlash we are currently experiencing has a substantially negative impact on regional integration (at least in the “West”) and thus poses a considerable challenge to many economic actors. Populists like Trump are in explicit opposition to free trade agreements (EEAG 2017, 50). Brexit is even directly opposed to regional integration and thus attempts to create considerable problems for the interregional movement of goods in Europe. In view of the fact that populists have also established themselves in Asia, the observer must ask himself what impact this has on regional integration in Asia and thus on interregional trade.

The developments of recent decades have led to the (economic) rise of Asia. Already at the end of the 1990s the 21st century was declared the “Asian century” (Kaiser 1996). Countries like the People’s Republic of China have risen within a few years. Millions of people have been lifted from peasants to workers and thus out of poverty (Rodrik 2018). Wouldn’t it be a contradiction if the rise of populists led to a rejection of economic globalization and regional integration in the very region that has profited massively from economic globalization?

The populists of the Global South (which includes Asia) are by no means opponents of multilateralism. It is important to understand that populism is usually underpinned by a thick and thin Ideology. In fact, the thin ideology is very similar globally (e.g. the idea of a uniform popular will). However, the thick ideology varies from country to country and can take forms such as Hindu nationalism (Plagemann 2020, 87). It can by no means be assumed that the implications of the age of populism for cross-border economic activities will have the same impact globally. The rise of populism in Asia does not necessarily have to have negative consequences for regional integration or (economic) globalization. Here a differentiated consideration of the phenomenon of Populism is necessary to understand its consequences.


Ali-Fauzi, Ihsan (2018): Rising Nationalism and Islamic Populism in Indonesia. In: Nationalism and Populisms in Asia. Perspectives: Political Analysis and Commentary, Issue 7. Heinrich Böll Stiftung. p. 33-36.

Bacaria, Jordi (2017): Populism and its Impact on Multilateral Institutions and Economics Trade. In: CIDOB REPORT, # 01 – 2017. p. 19-21.

Bpb (2017): Intra- und Interregionaler Warenhandel. Available at: Retrieved on: 23.05.2020.

EEAG (2017): Economic Policy and the Rise of Populism – It’s not so Simple. In: The EEAG Report on the European Economy. Munich. p. 50-66.

Kaiser, Karl (1996): Vorbereiten auf das „asiatische Jahrhundert“. Zeit Nr. 06/1996. Available at: Retrieved on: 23.05.2020.

Karns, Margaret P./Mingst, Karen A./Stiles, Kendall W. (2015): International Organizations: The Politics & Processes of Global Governance. London, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc.

Mendoz, Ronald U. (2020): Is Duterte A Populist?. In: The Populism Issue. Horizons: Journal of International Relations and Sustainable Development. Issue No. 15, p. 266-279

Plagemann, Johannes/Ufen, Andre (2017): Spielarten des Populismus in Asien. GIGA Fokus Asien. Nummer 7.

Plagemann, Johannes (2020): Populisten und Außenpolitik. In: Internationale Politik. Nr. 3. S. 87-91.

Ricci, David M. (2020): A Political Science Manifesto for the Age of Populism. Challenging Growth, Markets, Inequality, and Resentment. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Rodrik, Dani (2017): Populism and the economics of globalization. In: Journal of International Business Policy.

UNESCAP (2018): Asia-Pacific Trade Agreement (APTA). United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Available at: Retrieved on: 23.05.2020.

Win, Khin Zaw (2018): “Anything Goes” Populism: Holding on to Power in Myanmar. In: Nationalism and Populisms in Asia. Perspectives: Political Analysis and Commentary, Issue 7. Heinrich Böll Stiftung. p. 25-28.

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