Democratic engagement must remain independent of geopolitics

Author: Maiko Ichihara, Hitotsubashi University

South and Southeast Asia have experienced a sharp decline in liberal democracy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Under the pretext of fighting COVID-19, the Philippines and Thailand suppressed free speech, while Indonesia concentrated power in the hands of the government. India has promoted a COVID-19 tracking app that violates privacy as Myanmar’s military coup overturned the November 2020 democratic elections.

With the decline of democracy in Asia, the future of the liberal international order is at stake.

The impetus to stem this crisis of liberal democracy did not come from Asia but from the United States. The Biden administration’s explicit recognition of the importance of defending and revitalizing democracy around the world – especially after four years of democratic retreat at home under Donald Trump – is a step in defending standards. The current crisis of democracy threatens to end the cascade of democratic norms which began in the mid-1970s. The renewed commitment to democratic standards in the United States – a symbol of democracy – is significant.

The Biden administration has taken concrete steps to protect democratic values, including issuing national strategies on gender equality, regaining his place on the United Nations Human Rights Council and impose sanctions for cases of serious human rights violations in Belarus, Burma, North Korea and China.

Despite Biden’s best efforts, it has become clear that defending and revitalizing democracy is a more difficult task than expected. One obstacle to this has been the priority given to security policies.

A central theme of the Biden administration was’democracy versus autocracy‘, with the American-Chinese confrontation at its heart. Unlike Trump who viewed the US-China rivalry primarily as a zero-sum trade toll, Biden has revisited the China issue in response to growing security concerns. Democracy is now a banner to strengthen alliance networks against the Chinese threat. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, and the AUKUS nuclear pact are important manifestations of this in current US foreign policy.

Associating American-Chinese competition with the question of the type of political regime has made democracy an ideological tool of diplomacy. People suspect that democracy is an empty concept used arbitrarily by the United States.

Since democracy is a universal value, the defense of democracy must be separated from the US-China confrontation and addressed both nationally and internationally. This is particularly important for countries in Southeast Asia which have close economic ties with China while also handling territorial disputes with the country. They don’t want to be drawn into the US-China confrontation and don’t want to be forced to choose between the two camps.

From December 9 to 10, 2021, the Summit for Democracy was held by bringing together countries from across Asia and the rest of the world. The importance of this summit will depend on the quality of the commitment to democratic values ​​and norms in the coming year of action.

At the summit, participants proposed measures to strengthen their own democracies and the situation abroad, whether or not they are in a geopolitical position to be useful in the competition against China. The materialization of these proposals is at stake until the second summit. For Asia, a framework that countries in the region can use to advocate for democratic governance should be developed. Although there is a sense of caution about the generic terms of human rights and democracy, Asian countries have accepted standards related to good governance, such as transparency, accountability and anti-corruption. corruption. These standards are essential to defend and promote democratic governance.

The media must also play a role in helping to prevent the public debate following the Democracy Summit from becoming overtly politicized. Immediately after the White House released the list of participants for the summit, the media focused on Taiwan’s invitation. While it was undeniably eye-catching, it centered some discussions around the summit on the US-China rivalry. Instead, the media should have covered the summit comprehensively, including what it is trying to accomplish, what the big tent approach of inviting 111 countries and regions means, and how the follow-up process should be designed.

The center of gravity of international politics is in Asia. Asia’s ability to protect and revive liberal democracy will be crucial in determining the future of liberal international order around the world.

Maiko Ichihara is Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law and the Faculty of International and Public Policy, Hitotsubashi University.