Lukewarm Asia America’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ scheduled to take place online on 9 and 10 December has elicited a lukewarm response in Asia. Some of it has to do with the fact that democracy ~ and its concomitant notion of human rights ~ has not exactly been a priority in President Joe Biden’s handling of alliance relations in Asia.
That the ‘Asian Values’ debate of the 1990s ~ which posited that the ‘cultural values’ of Asia place a premium on the good of the community/social cohesion over unfettered individual rights ~ has been resurrected and is gaining significant traction across swathes of the continent, is also a factor in the underwhelming response to Mr Biden’s marquee foreign policy event. Unlike European participants who have been vocal in praising the summit, Washington’s Asian partners have chosen to stay relatively silent.
Foreign policy expert Andrew Yeo points out that the Quad, whose members include the United States, Japan, Australia, and India ~ collectively forming a “democratic security diamond” in the Indo-Pacific ~ has offered aspirational statements to “build democratic resilience in the region” but has yet to develop a concrete democracy agenda that might complement Summit goals. Among other US Asian allies, South Korea, despite its status as a consolidated democracy, has not expressed much enthusiasm either.
The Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose members include a mix of democracies in a manner of speaking and non-democracies, has never been gung-ho on pushing human rights issues given the grouping’s commitment to principles of sovereignty and non-interference.
There is consensus among the strategic community that the ill-defined objectives of the Summit and the marked wariness among Asian participants towards being pulled into an anti-China coalition given their economic and/or security interests have ensured the Summit is highly unlikely to produce any substantive outcomes.
Local factors in countries such as the Philippines and South Korea, both of which are heading into presidential elections in the first half of 2022, are also in play in limiting the support America can expect from Asia. USA’s ‘comprehensive partnership’ with ally Vietnam, meanwhile, has required the Biden Administration to tread cautiously in tackling the suppression of free speech and labour violations in that country.
Ironically, many experts believe that as US-China competition shows signs of escalating into non-military conflict it would give America’s Asian allies more room to resist calls for strengthening democratic institutions as their strategic importance for Washington will increase exponentially.
In sum, even if one were to assume that the Democracy Summit is being organised with the noblest of intentions, President Biden will find it difficult to square strategic goals with democratic principles in Asia. It would help if the goals for the Summit were more clearly defined and realistic.