The Biden Administration has gone big guns on promoting its values-based democracy agenda in the Indo-Pacific. It is time for a rethink.
Rebuilding democracy both at home and abroad is a prominent refrain in the Biden administration’s policy statements. Of note, democracy is the rallying cry in America’s contest with China as the Biden administration increasingly frames it as the “battle between democracies and autocracies”. After all, the democracy narrative resonates well at home, in Congress, and most importantly, with US allies and partners. The Group of Seven’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative — the latest US-led version of the West’s antidote to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — is also touted as promoting values-based infrastructure building.
Unsurprisingly, Myanmar was the only Southeast Asian country mentioned, not only once but twice, in Biden’s first foreign policy speech on 4 February 2021. The President said that America had to “meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism” and work with US partners to “support the restoration of democracy and the rule of law”. It should also “impose consequences on those responsible”, he said, with a pointed reference to the “coup in Burma” which took place just three days before Biden’s speech.
Such ideological overtones are not music to the ears of Southeast Asian ruling elites, most of whom have witnessed or administered democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation in their own countries. According to the State of Southeast Asia 2020 survey, mainland Southeast Asian countries, especially Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, registered significantly higher levels of concern than maritime states over the incompatibility in their political culture and worldview with that of the US.
However, Southeast Asian states need not be overly concerned because the Biden administration’s approach to Southeast Asia is more pragmatic and calibrated than its moral grandstanding would suggest. Broader security and strategic interests, not democratic values, were the overriding imperatives of the Southeast Asia trip by US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin in late July 2021. While it befits Austin’s defence portfolio to focus on security matters, his messaging throughout his trip suggests the broader directions of the Biden administration’s Southeast Asia policy.
The choice of Singapore, Vietnam and the Philippines for Austin’s visits suggests their importance as “critical Indo-Pacific partners” in the US Indo-Pacific strategy. The Philippines is the ally that must be embraced to keep the US military foothold in the region, no matter how disturbingly its leader Rodrigo Duterte has slid towards authoritarianism over the past five years. Vietnam has a one-party political system but is increasingly seen as a stalwart in Southeast Asia against China’s maritime expansionism in the South China Sea. Vietnam and the Philippines are among the top ten recipients of US Covid-19 vaccine donations as the Biden administration steps up its vaccine assistance worldwide.
Such ideological overtones are not music to the ears of Southeast Asian ruling elites, most of whom have witnessed or administered democratic backsliding and authoritarian consolidation in their own countries.
Meanwhile, Singapore is arguably Washington’s most reliable and substantive defence partner in the region. It is also notable that the administration’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance mentioned only Singapore and Vietnam, alongside “other ASEAN member states” (as well as New Zealand and India) as the partner nations that Washington will deeply engage in its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. To buttress the point, US Vice President Kamala Harris will visit Singapore and Vietnam later this month.
As for the Myanmar crisis, there are strong political and moral imperatives for Biden to act tough, given the blatancy of the coup and the military’s bloody crackdown on widespread public resistance. However, other than rhetorical condemnations and targeted sanctions against the Myanmar military regime, the Biden administration has thus far refrained from a more interventionist values-based approach. To begin with, Washington has limited economic and strategic leverage and interests in Myanmar. From a wider frame, the untold costs and abject failures of America’s democracy-building endeavours in the Middle East in the past two decades, from Iraq to Syria and now Afghanistan, must be greatly humbling for the American political establishment and the general public.
Instead, Washington is lending support to ASEAN to take the lead on the Myanmar issue. During his meeting with ASEAN foreign ministers in July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on ASEAN to take joint action to end violence and restore Myanmar’s democratic transition, noting that the grouping’s five-point consensus is an important step forward. Austin echoed his statement during the Fullerton Lecture. He even applauded ASEAN for its efforts in Myanmar even though the grouping has been widely criticised for its delayed and ineffective response. As noted by Bilahari Kausikan, riding on ASEAN serves as an “alibi” in “a situation where anybody sensible knows that there really isn’t anything effective or practical that can be done.”
Since the coup, the Tatmadaw-backed State Administration Council (SAC) has been attending all ASEAN meetings as the de facto representative while ASEAN has remained conspicuously silent on the issue of formal recognition. But this has not compelled the US to skip or downgrade its representation at high-level ASEAN meetings. Austin attended the ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) in June, and Blinken just finished the annual ASEAN-US Foreign Ministers Meeting and ASEAN Regional Forum. Taken together, this suggests that the Biden administration is not letting the Myanmar issue overshadow or undermine its broader engagement with the region, including ASEAN.
This pragmatic pursuit of American interests in Southeast Asia would be welcomed by all capitals in the region. Instead of engaging in the ideological discourse of “democracy versus autocracy”, Washington would do a better service to the region and its own interests by promoting good and effective governance in the region while decoupling it in practice, if not in rhetoric, from the democracy agenda. As suggested by Thomas Pepinsky in his latest research on governance trends in Southeast Asia, “there is little systematic evidence that democracy is associated with the quality of governance” in this region.
Hoang Thi Ha is Senior Fellow and Co-coordinator of the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Programme, ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.