A summit for democracy sounds like a great idea on one level; but whether it is good for democracy in the Indo-Pacific, in practice, is another matter, particularly if it is an imposed one-size-fits-all external model. Now that is not a sure bet. It doesn’t necessarily serve Australia’s interests to hitch too loudly to the US democracy bandwagon. But the strategic rationale for why Australia should care about democratic governance in the region is as clear as day.
Like Churchill, I subscribe to the idea that parliamentary democracy is the worst form of government – apart from all the other forms, that is. It’s messy, dynamic and sometimes unpredictable. It involves collaboration and contestation. But it is the best formula our region has for allowing civil society to emerge and for political differences to be thrashed out without the literal or metaphorical killing of each other. History tells us that the diffusion of power in a state, separating legislative, executive and judicial powers and state and federal level is both a strength and a weakness. But over time, this diffusion of power precludes the emergence of a dictator who may initially appear benevolent but who over time, more often than not, becomes malevolent.
Arguably all countries in Southeast Asia and the Pacific have some form of democracy – a degree of obligation for leaders to be seen to be representative of their people and to seek an electoral mandate. Of course, variations between states on corruption, inequality, abuse of power, transparency and accountability are plenty. The most extreme example we are witnessing in Myanmar, where the will of the people was revoked by the military, resulting in a horrific spiral into violence and potential civil war. So the concept of democratic governance in its principles ought not be controversial for the majority of leaders in the Indo-Pacific.
I remain wary of a Western alliance pushing for a democratic model that fashions itself on itself. It fails to account for local religion, culture, demography, economic models, trade relationships, geography, mix of identity, history and legal frameworks. These elements make for unique concoctions of governance that are complex.
And in the face of this nuance amongst and between our neighbours, it would be clumsy to think that we can simply export US, Australian, UK or any other specific model of democracy. The legacy of this approach is front and centre of strategic minds following Afghanistan and Iraq. The democratic model in the US relies on a fine balance between the executive, legislative and judiciary that is out of kilter right now. And there are critics aplenty of the Westminster system of federal bicameral distribution of power like we have in Australia. Not to mention the values-laden geostrategic overlay of US-China ideological and literal competition keenly observed by leaders in the Indo-Pacific.
We have to work the common ground – the issues where we find common cause, over interest and values with our neighbours, irrespective of ideology. Strengthening essential human security in the region without appearing haughty is key. This can be pursued through economic cooperation, educational exchange and policy cooperation. Australia can position itself as a useful partner of choice by bolstering capabilities of governments and communities in our near neighbourhood.
In Australia we live in societies where we take the essentials for granted – being alive, with shelter, employment and healthcare available and food to eat. But for parts of lower and middle income countries in our region, human security is not so assured. And for leaders of these countries, governance is less about the values and ideals touted amidst the geopolitical contestation as much as it is about whether basic services can be delivered to people, economies can recover, and stability can be maintained. This is fertile ground upon which Australia can be a practical partner.
Because governance challenges in the Indo-Pacific are a national security threat to Australia. We need to be clear-headed about why effective governance (not necessarily perfect democracy) in our neighbourhood matters so much. Unfold a map of the Indo-Pacific and you will find Australia firmly nestled between Southeast Asia and the Pacific. This geography has not changed since 1942 when the Japanese attempted to dominate Guadalcanal and capture Port Moresby (Australian territory at the time) in pursuit of a strategy aimed at carving out a sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. It would effectively cut Australia off from its allies.
Today, China has no overt policy to militarise its investment in the Pacific in places like the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. However, the fact that it has done so in the South China Sea means it is not unreasonable to think that the same is possible in the South Pacific. Australia has an interest in preventing that, and fostering open and accountable governments which want to engage with Australia is a key foundation. This has been most recently demonstrated in the Solomon Islands.
What is more, Australia has a lot to give. Many countries in the Pacific share language, law and constitutional commonalities with democracies like Australia, New Zealand and the UK. There are also a number of Pacific states with strong links to France. The cultural commonalities of Pacific populations with Australia, notably reflected in schooling and language, provide a natural advantage for Australia to consolidate and capitalise on ties in pursuit of its national interests and the interests of the region.
Australia has decades of experience engaging in sensitive governance issues in the region and a world-class cadre of governance experts within our development ecosystem (in government, academia and civil society organisations). It has also learned a host of lessons from experience gained in Timor Leste, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and in supporting the governance aspirations of leaders in places like Indonesia. We certainly have made mistakes. We need to be more genuine and empathetic and less cynical. The missteps resulting in broken trust in Timor Leste have not gone unnoticed, and Australia can be accused of overemphasising investments in formal state-based governance systems at a cost to effective subnational governance and vibrant civil society.
Is it an easy thing to do, to support complex political and bureaucratic systems of accountability in countries with different histories, beliefs, languages and values to our own? Of course not. There are minefields both literal and metaphoric aplenty. But with 50 years of experience under our belts, it’s worth thinking about what doesn’t work first: (1) exporting our systems unadjusted to local circumstances, (2) short-termism, and (3) failing to recognise how our partners view their security in both state and human security terms, and meeting them where they’re at.
When it comes to the United States, Australia has a unique opportunity to be the voice of moderation on how the democracy debate plays out in the Indo-Pacific. As a US ally, we have a trusted reputation as a reliable and enduing security partner with a valid contribution to make; we have earned the right to speak frankly and honestly about the way things are in our patch.
John Blaxland is professor of international security and intelligence studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.