For Australia, President Biden’s Summit for Democracy raises the perennial question: how do we support democratic systems, institutions and practices in the Indo-Pacific region without compromising important relationships with government and non-government partners? Recent efforts to reframe Australia’s international engagement as aligned with those who ‘favour freedom’ suggest early efforts to respond are under way. But libertarian ideals of individual freedoms may not be the right starting point for regional ears.
There is broad support across much of Asia for the idea of democracy, with a recent Alliance of Democracies Foundation poll finding 70 to 80 percent of respondents view democracy as important in most of the 13 countries surveyed. But democracy means different things to different peoples, and the diversity of global attitudes to democratic principles illustrates this point. A recent Pew Center perception survey nicely captures the diversity of opinions on democracy. It shows, for instance, that gender equality is highly valued in Australia and the Philippines, more so than regularly held elections or free speech. While freedom of religion is highly valued in Indonesia and India – in India almost twice as much as free speech and in Indonesia over three times as much as free opposition parties – it is of very little importance in Japan.
Freedom of assembly, association and speech are recognised cornerstones of democracy. However, democracy encompasses other principles that are often accorded less attention in research of this kind, such as inclusiveness, pluralism, accountability, equity and minority rights. Democracy that starts from the formal legal rights of individuals may not always resonate in countries where communitarian attitudes are strong, or where justice systems are either corrupt or inaccessible. For Australia, an understanding of this diversity, and recognition of the importance of engaging on certain principles that may differ in priority from the Australian experience, is key to being a valued neighbour and effective partner.
What should the contours of Australia’s engagement on democracy in the region look like? As a starting point, it should self-evidently be tailored to the local context, and thus reject the traditional approach that has characterised much of the democracy promotion efforts of the US, Europe and other Western powers since the end of the Cold War. The emergence of electoral autocracies highlights the shortcomings of such efforts. A focus on electoral system support and political party development fails to acknowledge evolving concentrations of power that are maintained as much through informal means as secured through formal mechanisms.
To its credit, Australia’s development programming has generally avoided some of the cruder elements of this approach, instead formulating a more nuanced path to addressing democratic governance challenges. These efforts understand and respect local political dynamics and recognise that sustainable positive outcomes often require Australia’s role in their achievement to be inconspicuous. Governance – not just efficient but participatory, inclusive and equitable – has long been one of the largest sectoral investments within the Australian aid program. Australia’s response to democratic backsliding in the neighbourhood should start from that commitment to systemic changes in policy and decision-making.
Some of Australia’s most effective democratic governance investments in Asia support local civil society actors to address policy reforms that are politically feasible and championed by those within government with sufficient influence to bring about change. They utilise Australia’s convening power to promote policy dialogue, help elevate key advocacy agendas and provide practical support to a variety of non-government actors working on these reforms. Multiple examples exist. The MAMPU program supports over 100 local organisations to collaborate with the Indonesian government on improved access to services for women. The Fiji Women’s Fund, now an independent entity mobilising funds for women’s rights organisations, started as an Australian-funded small grants mechanism. And in the Philippines, Australia funds the Coalitions for Change program which encourages civil society actors to work entrepreneurially with government to achieve targeted policy reforms.
In a welcome shift, the Biden administration adjusted its language on the US’s credentials when it comes to democracy promotion, striking a humble note in describing the purpose of the Summit as “showcas[ing] one of democracy’s unique strengths: the ability to acknowledge its weaknesses and imperfections and confront them openly and transparently”. Leveraging this shift, Australia should also take the opportunity to reflect on our democratic credentials and how we are perceived by and engage with our regional neighbours. The Prime Minister went some way to acknowledging this recently, stating “liberal democracies will always be, in our view, most persuasive based on the power of our example, not our pitch or our preaching”.
This is a step in the right direction. For a decade, Australia’s overseas engagement has been grounded on a very narrow interpretation of ‘the national interest’, frequently reduced to Australian economic opportunities, security challenges or the education export market. The Biden Summit, and the dialogue to follow in the coming months, are an opportunity for Australia to bolster the fact that a more democratic Indo-Pacific is in Australia’s national interests.
The Summit is also an opportunity for Australia to think much more creatively about coalition building among countries and populations in the region. The Australian government should invest in understanding existing democratic reform momentum in the region from formal political parties, to decentralisation and community-led local governance, to youth-led protest movements – such as the regional Milk Tea Alliance – and identify ways to sustain it.
Australia is well positioned to facilitate small groups of countries organised according to the issues they have in common – ‘minilateralism’. As a prominent middle power, facilitating minilateral dialogues among governments and non-government actors is something Australia is ideally placed to do creatively and with a deep understanding of the region, its commonalities and differences. Importantly, these dialogues need to go beyond government actors. The region’s civic spaces – in which a diversity of pro-democracy actors advocate, debate, contest, investigate and collaborate in advancing the public good – are in dire need of support. While they understand and can progress local democratic reform, almost without exception their operating spaces are closing. This matters if Australia wants to engage with accountable governments in our region. Obviously, getting behind democratic reform is not without controversy, but this can be effectively overcome by being transparent about interests, intentional in representation and deliberate in supporting local coalitions.
Leveraging its vast networks of non-government partners, Australia can facilitate stronger links and networks between pro-democracy actors and movements, even those who would not choose to label themselves as such. The government would do well to elevate the depth of knowledge of the region’s many civic spaces that its vast networks of non-government organisations afford. By understanding local democratic priorities and connecting with those positioned to realise them, Australia can use its political and financial capital to strengthen contextually grounded reforms. At home, a dedicated institution supported by government to provide thought leadership on Australia’s democratic engagement in the Indo-Pacific – perhaps a thoroughly modernised Centre for Democratic Institutions – would be a worthy investment.
One concern among observers is that the Summit will produce a new ‘democratic club’ that will be mired in debates over who is in and who is out. This has already occurred in coverage of who has been invited to the Summit, with great interest in the inclusion of Taiwan and the lack of invitations to countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Such a club could be polarising on a geopolitical scale. As Michael Wesley points out, Southeast Asian states are not interested in participating in “the democratic-versus-authoritarian framing that Australia, the US, Japan, India and many European states are using to admonish China”. That framing only serves to diminish the global discussion on democracy. As a regional middle-power Australia has an opportunity to challenge this narrative and demonstrate that it is about more than ‘countering China’, yet there is a question over whether it can convince others of its sincerity in doing so.
Australia should get behind the Summit for Democracy and do its part to ensure that the event is much more than a self-congratulatory echo-chamber. Australia has a unique understanding of how democracy is valued and practiced in its region and can use this to chart a more sophisticated way forward beyond superfluous epithets about ‘freedom’. While a whole-of-government effort would be a good start, the government’s international cadre is weakened by a decade of restructures, under-investment and narrow policy settings. To make this a meaningful future exercise, the government cannot go it alone. It needs to signal that it is ready to engage in more robust debate around the nature of democracy – its strengths, weaknesses, and ability to underpin equitable social and economic development – and to seek out informed voices to strengthen Australia’s own democratic model as it seeks to strengthen that of others.
Dr Nicola Nixon is Director for Governance, The Asia Foundation.
Peter Yates is Associate Director for Governance, The Asia Foundation.