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Asia’s Wake-Up Call

Asia’s Wake-Up Call

U.S. democracy, standing but battered, can still use its experience to support fellow democrats in Asia.

Maiko Ichihara, Lynn Lee

Since World War II, the United States has led the world in promoting democracy, by supporting it abroad with foreign aid and technical assistance and by serving as an example at home, through its own progress on civil and human rights. The last four years, though, have been different: The United States has experienced a series of setbacks to its democratic institutions, with the country plunging in its ratings in various democracy indexes and with questions arising about the worldwide impact of the U.S. democratic regression.

Yet there is an upside to these developments: American vulnerability to these challenges, which are similar to challenges facing other democracies, is a wake-up call to all those in the international community who are concerned about human rights and democratic principles. The example of what has happened in the United States in the last four years has had a more powerful impact than all the media warnings of democratic regression over the past decade. Last year alone, Asia saw a sharp increase in coverage of the global democratic crisis, including a close focus on what was happening in the United States. Academic conferences in political science were flooded with research in the area, including the question of the threat to the liberal international order.

This attention has reminded proponents of Asian democracy that the remedy to the global crisis requires a collective response, which will depend on the success of a multilateral partnership that must include the United States.

Such a partnership for the restoration and defense of democracy is critical in the face of growing authoritarian influence worldwide. China and Russia, responding to the pandemic and the confusion around the U.S. presidential election, have expanded their international information warfare, including attacks on democratic norms and values. The spread of covid-19 in America, for example, is said by China’s propaganda outlets to be a sign that democratic systems have no advantage over authoritarian ones. Such propaganda diverts the attention of the audience from the fact that democracies like Australia, Finland, New Zealand, Norway, South Korea, and Taiwan have been relatively successful in controlling the pandemic.

China has taken other steps in the past decade to reshape ideas of human rights to suit its interests. At the December 2017 South-South Human Rights Forum, the Chinese Communist Party claimed that freedom of religion is possible only when accompanied by cultural assimilation. The expansion of China’s presence in several international bodies, including the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), is likely to foster the spread of Chinese discourse and re-interpretation of liberal values. In July of 2020, when the UNHRC issued two conflicting statements on the Hong Kong National Security Law, one supporting China and one criticizing China, more countries signed the “support China” statement.

An Abundance of Concern

China’s efforts to undermine democracy are especially active in the Indo-Pacific region, where the defense of democracy has been particularly challenging. Unlike Europe and the Americas, there has never been a consensus on democracy in Asia. Building on a Confucian-sourced culture, democracies in East Asia have traditionally tended to assume a vertical relationship between governments and their citizens. Governments have preserved their domestic power structures by pointing to their stability-oriented policies, claiming that this emphasis accords with Asian values. Some governments in South and Southeast Asia, influenced by their anti-colonialist legacy, have criticized Western countries’ emphasis on liberal values as cultural imperialism.

This kind of discourse has diverted attention from the vulnerable and marginalized who call for protecting civil liberties in Asian societies. As a result, Asian governments have been able to use crises and disasters to expand their powers, strengthen surveillance, and suppress pro-democracy activists, opposition politicians, and journalists. It is no surprise that the Asian region, especially South and Southeast Asia, experienced the world’s most severe democratic deterioration during the covid-19 pandemic.

These cultural tendencies and historical legacies have kept multilateral frameworks weak in defending democracy. True, there have been many developments in Asian pro-democracy multilateral frameworks since the end of the 2000s. They include the launch of the Bali Democracy Forum, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR), and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or “Quad”) among Australia, India, Japan, and the United States. The charters and declarations that have been adopted to embody these values include the ASEAN Charter, the SAARC Charter of Democracy, and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration. These documents do indeed endorse the values of freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and democracy.

Still, these arrangements do not have the operational mechanisms needed to support or defend democracy. The regional organizations rarely condemn serious degradations of democratic values in Asia. Even the AICHR allows each of its member nations a veto, which inhibits its ability to protect against member nations’ violations of human rights. Furthermore, non-governmental actors who actively advocate for liberal democracy and universal values are not recognized in these arrangements.

These issues are exacerbated by the geopolitical sensitivities facing countries in the region. While Asian countries are concerned about China’s negative impact on democracy and human rights, they do not want to see relations with their neighboring superpower deteriorate. All have strong economic ties with China, and many share borders as well. The Bali Democracy Forum has included authoritarian regimes; the inclusion has to some extent hollowed out the content of its discussions. ASEAN countries have been wary of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept promoted by Japan and the United States as part of the Quad, sensing that it is an anti-China mechanism; instead, they have developed their own ASEAN Outlook on the Indo-Pacific to distance themselves from the Quad while attempting to support democratic governance norms.

A Turn to Action

During the Trump Administration’s U.S.-China confrontation, which became a decoupling, most Asian countries distanced themselves from the superpower rivalry. This trend has made it difficult to build a partnership to strengthen democratic norms in the region. In recent years, democratic actors and stakeholders in Asia who were hesitant to endorse regional human rights and democracy arrangements have felt an ever increasing sense of urgency around the fragile state of democracy and the rules-based order that has maintained regional stability. This sense, in turn, has led to a growing awareness of the need to develop a multilateral framework that promotes a dialogue among those concerned about the erosion of the liberal international order and fosters a regional process for maintaining shared norms and values.

One outcome of this growing awareness is the Sunnylands Initiative. It was launched in 2019 at Sunnylands, formerly the estate of Walter Annenberg, by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Annenberg Foundation Trust with the aim of bringing together U.S. and Asian leaders to protect liberal norms and defend democracy in the Indo-Pacific, while also collectively addressing the concerns that have inhibited such a regional initiative. In July of 2020, the meeting issued the “Sunnylands Principles on Enhancing Democratic Partnership in the Indo-Pacific Region,” laying out first principles.

The Sunnylands framework includes four major points. First, it states a commitment to the defense of democratic norms. ASEAN and the Bali Democracy Forum, by including authoritarian governments, have a weakened focus on democratic principles. To avoid this shortcoming, the Sunnylands Initiative emphasizes an affirmation of shared pro-democratic principles.

Second, the initiative aims to engage former high-ranking government officials and other prominent civil society members who maintain solid relationships with their nations’ foreign policy communities. There are already transnational civil society networks in Asia, like the Asia Democracy Network. Lacking in the region, though, is a means of enabling such individuals to engage with and even gain support from governments on issues of human rights and democracy. Participants in the Sunnylands Initiative include the former foreign minister of Indonesia, Marty Natalegawa; the former Japanese ambassador to the United Nations, Yukio Takasu; and the former South Korean ambassador to Japan, Shin Kak-Soo. These individuals still maintain strong ties to the executive and legislative branches of their countries’ governments and can be expected to play important roles in engaging these governments in the Sunnylands Initiative.

Despite the increased urgency in the region, it will be difficult for governments of Asian democracies to pursue the promotion of democracy while remaining mindful of sovereignty norms and juggling other competing national interests. Civil society members with access to government officials, who can advocate without some of these constraints on behalf of freedom, human rights, and the rule of law, may be able to fill a critical role in advancing the initiative’s purpose.

Third, the role of U.S. actors in the Initiative has been and will continue to be significant. Although many potential Asian actors remain reluctant to be seen as “taking sides” between America and China, they know that the United States, as their oldest democratic friend, needs to be a strategic partner in efforts to bolster democratic norms in the region. For Asian actors who are easily locked into passive positions because of historical and cultural strings, working with Americans who are not subject to the same constraints can help them modify their “hedging and balancing” strategy. Previous democracy initiatives for the region have not included this component; the Sunnylands Initiative aims to bring it to the forefront of its operations.

Fourth and finally, the Sunnylands Initiative, recognizing the geopolitical concerns of its Asian partners and considering the lessons learned from the Free and Open Indo-Pacific concept, is taking care not to be seen as an exclusionary network designed as a weapon against authoritarian countries. Both the U.S. and the Asian partners hope to see the initiative evolve into a regional institution that will function effectively in defense of democracy, and thus it has emphasized the ideas of “partnership” and “shared norms and principles” endorsed by regional partners and rooted in universal values, not ideological contestation. It clearly hopes to garner broader buy-in from those concerned about liberal norms and a rules-based order in the region.


The Biden Administration has said that in order to defend democratic values, it intends to re-engage with the world through multilateral means, including a Summit for Democracy. In Asia, where the formation of regional frameworks to support democracy has lagged behind that in other regions, Asian democracies need to step up, overcome the biases and challenges that have hindered previous regional multilateral efforts, and take ownership of the responsibility to protect shared values and principles.

In order to expand the scale of this initiative in the region and make it an effective approach, it is crucial to promote a sense of ownership among Asian actors. Thus, it would be valuable to emphasize measures that Asian partners feel are within their capacity and comfort level in light of acceptable democratic governance for Asian countries and feasible ways to achieve it.

The Biden Administration means to reassure its Asian partners of U.S. commitment in the Indo-Pacific region and its intention to renew a norms-based partnership. The Sunnylands Initiative offers a platform through which U.S. policymakers and democracy advocates can restore relations and re-engage with Asian civil society and government partners in a meaningful way. We should look forward to the administration’s cooperation with it.

Maiko Ichihara is associate professor in the Graduate School of Law and the School of International and Public Affairs at Hitotsubashi University, Japan, and a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Lynn Lee is associate director for Asia at the National Endowment for Democracy.

AsiaDemocracyU.S. Foreign Policy

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