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A man stands in a crowd of protestors holding a lit candle at night.
Protestors at a pro-democracy rally in Bangkok, Thailand on February 4, 2021.

In Southeast Asia, democracy is under acute threat from rising authoritarianism, while U.S.-China competition has brought the region into sharp focus in Washington. However, despite the Biden administration’s embrace of democracy promotion, it has seemingly downplayed democracy and human rights in its relations with Southeast Asian allies and partners. There are two reasons for this: one, a desire to avoid alienating less democratic allies and partners, and two, a lukewarm commitment within the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue for a full-throated pro-democracy agenda. Indeed, as experts have debated in recent weeks, democracy promotion has its merits but also drawbacks that could complicate overall U.S. interests. However, there is a path forward within these limitations. Expanding a low-profile, ground-level approach to democracy programs could help square the circle and allow for a sustained, long-term strategy of promoting democracy in Southeast Asia that minimizes risks to other interests.

Democratic Decline and U.S. Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia

From military coups—in 2014 in Thailand and February 2021 in Myanmar—to a gradual rise in authoritarianism in places like the Philippines, democracy has suffered severe blows throughout Southeast Asia over the past decade. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) remains hamstrung by the Myanmar crisis, pro-democracy protests periodically erupt in Thailand, and a region-widecrackdown on civil society, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and the press threatens pro-democracy activists and institutions. According to Freedom House, all mainland Southeast Asian countries now rank as “unfree” (i.e., authoritarian countries), and only Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore constitute “partly free” (i.e. flawed) democracies. In this context, which countries in Southeast Asia will attend the Biden administration’s Democracy Summit in December 2021 presents a thorny question.

Additionally, the authoritarian trend is exacerbated and sharpened by U.S. China competition. To be sure, great power competition does not mean a contest solely defined by “democracy versus authoritarianism”—as close American ties to Vietnam and previously warm China-National League for Democracy relations attest. Yet, ideology does indeed play a role in the overall rivalry. A newly confident Beijing has adopted a decidedly anti-democratic bent and pragmatically aligned itself closely with fellow authoritarians in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. This means that, regardless of concern that an ideological approach is harmful to some interests, the United States cannot easily abandon concerns for human rights and democracy, nor escape the ideological dimension of U.S.-China competition.

However, U.S. efforts to promote democracy sometimes collide with the need to work with authoritarian and reluctant allies and partners in an era of great power competition. After a hiatus during the Trump administration when the United States largely sidelined democracy promotion, the Biden administration again placed support for democratic norms and values at the forefront of foreign policy, as well as an emphasis on reinvigoration at home. On the other hand, its overall approach also hinges on revitalizing alliances and partnerships, which is where the United States runs into trouble in Southeast Asia. Many of these allies and partners are either shades of authoritarian themselves or reticent about promoting democracy.

Relations with ASEAN, Authoritarians, and Flawed Democracies

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s July trip to Southeast Asia brings home the fact that the United States needs ASEAN and its regional allies and partners—both autocracies and flawed democracies—and it has prioritized relations with them over democracy promotion. In Singapore, Secretary Austin firmly reiterated the U.S. role in Southeast Asia, its support for its allies and partners, and criticized China’s aggressive foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. His second stopover in Vietnam featured similarly strong language on China. Perhaps most importantly, his visit to the Philippines secured (for now, at least) the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that enables U.S. troops to operate on Philippine territory and had been threatened repeatedly by President Rodrigo Duterte as part of his administration’s outreach to China.

Considering that threatened U.S. Magnitsky sanctions contributed to the scuffle over the VFA, Secretary Austin ignored tensions over Duterte’s backsliding to make only a cursory mention of U.S.-Philippine shared democratic values to instead focus on security ties and other regional threats. Criticizing Duterte and his government for its authoritarianism or the ongoing drug war would, of course, be poor diplomacy and unlikely to encourage the Duterte administration to align with the United States—or shore up its own democracy. It should therefore come as no surprise that Secretary Austin made only a few mentions of promoting democracy during the trip and instead focused on reassuring ASEAN and making short-term gains in alliance and partnership management. From the standpoint of shoring up these relationships, Secretary Austin’s efforts and follow-on work by Secretary of State Antony Blinken were successful but arguably minimized democracy promotion.

Fundamentally, there is little appetite for democracy promotion in Southeast Asia or a new Cold War drawn along ideological battle lines. Treaty allies Thailand and the Philippines are respectively an autocracy and a swiftly backsliding democracy—as well as both being relatively warm to China. Vietnam, a crucial security partner, operates under single-party Communist rule. Meanwhile, even Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are only “partially free” under Freedom House’s rubric— and at the low end of that spectrum at that. No country in ASEAN scores higher than a 59 (Indonesia), and Jakarta itself declined over the past year. Too much emphasis on democracy promotion therefore risks alienating these geostrategic countries.

The Quad’s Reluctance to Promote Democracy

Beyond the ASEAN states, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue of Australia, India, Japan, and the United States could seemingly actively promotes democracy. In an earlier iteration of the grouping, it was pitched as a club for democracies, and the March 12th Leaders’ Summit statement prominently tied the free and open Indo-Pacific concept to “democratic values.” At that same meeting, the Quad countries sharply criticized the military takeover in Myanmar and demanded a return to democracy. On August 12, 2021, senior officials from all four countries “examined ways” to promote democracy and human rights, among other discussions.

However, while the Quad is a grouping of democracies (albeit, one that includes a backsliding government in India and courts authoritarian partners like Vietnam), its embrace of democracy promotion is largely symbolic. This is best exemplified in the lack of a collective policy response to Myanmar’s coup. Australia traditionally avoids direct democracy promotion, and it has thus far refrained from issuing sanctions against the junta to avoid losing influence. India, which remains concerned with security on its northeastern border, similarly refuses to follow the U.S. sanctions regime, even going so far as sending representatives to the junta’s military parade in March. Japan shares these ambivalent sentiments, and, like India and Australia, has extensive economic ties in Myanmar. Certainly, there has been some actions—Japan froze new development aid and made attempts at backdoor diplomacy—but little pressure has been placed on the junta in the end. Above all, it appears that worry about growing Chinese influence if the new regime becomes too isolated is more pressing than advancing democracy.

With both the ASEAN member states and the Quad reluctant to adopt an overtly democracy promotion strategy, the Biden administration’s democracy agenda in Southeast Asia is caught between a rock and a hard place. On its face, it would seem that, if the United States wishes to counteract expanding Chinese influence and power in Southeast Asia, it should disregard democracy promotion in the region. However, such a stance neglects the clear U.S. interest in advancing democracy and runs the risk of the United States appearing hypocritical on the issue. Furthermore, it overlooks the genuine popularity of democracy in Southeast Asia, as demonstrated in the (increasingly transnational) #MilkTeaAlliance movement and the indomitable resistance displayed by Myanmar’s people against the coup.

A Low-Profile, Ground-Level Approach to Democracy Promotion

As an alternative to sidelining democracy promotion, the United States could instead expand its deployment of low-profile, ground-level democracy programs for civil society. Supporting democratization abroad is not only about high-level diplomacy, vocal statements, naming and shaming, targeted sanctions, or publicly calling for elections but support for civil society. To be sure, what exactly constitutes civil society is complex and dependent on context, but, as prominent democracy scholar Larry Diamond argues, civil society is the “entire range of organized groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant.” Civil society—particularly if the definition is expanded beyond professional NGOs to grassroots groups and other actors, like unions—is vital in supporting democratic transition and keeping it once it is achieved. Expanding support and funding for civil society in backsliding societies can therefore ensure the long-term establishment and expansion of democracy and is thus a policy option for a United States concerned about alienating allies and partners.

Crucially, this expanded effort would maintain a low-profile and ground-level approach. In order to continue making the near-term gains that the United States has achieved with Secretary Austin’s visit to Southeast Asia, the United States will need to keep its democracy programming low-profile while expanding their scope. The National Endowment for Democracy is particularly adept at working in closed environments, and it operates separately from the U.S. government, which minimizes some diplomatic and legal hurdles that accompany USAID or State Department projects. The key elements are a low-profile to minimize the risk for diplomatic incidents with authoritarian and reluctant allies and partners and a ground-level approach that reaches a wide swathe of civil society actors.

Expanded low-profile and ground-level U.S. democracy programs would focus on a variety of initiatives—many of them non-political and thus lower risk—depending on context, security situation, and diplomatic concerns. These could include providing capacity building and training for local activists and groups focused on a range of political and social issues, developing cooperative networks within countries and regionally, enhancing security measures in high-risk environments, and—crucially—expanding funding for a range of groups, from those at the local level to nation-wide, high capacity NGOs, among other activities. U.S.-supported programs should also be inclusive and diverse. This is particularly important, as a study by scholar Jasmin Lorch suggests that elite capture of an otherwise vibrant civil society space in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and Thailand contributed to recent authoritarian backsliding. Moreover, as many civil society groups are low-capacity in Southeast Asia, sustained and effective training in financial management practices and organizational capacity would better enable them to compete for U.S. government and other sources of international funding, which is vital for sustainability long-term.

To be sure, low-profile democracy programs are not a panacea. Authoritarian governments view independent civil society as deeply threatening, doubly so when it is funded or supported by outside governments. For example, China commonly alleges that the National Endowment for Democracy is part of an American plot against the Communist Party, and it has issued sanctions against it in recent years. Furthermore, the growing proliferation of anti-NGO laws and other types of direct repression substantially elevates the physical, mental, and legal risks to personnel and partners. Additionally, the United States runs the risk of alienating target countries if its programs draw too much attention or focus on high-sensitivity issues.

Mitigating risks to both partners and wider U.S. objectives will necessitate several measures. To alleviate concerns that U.S. democracy programs are perceived as “interference,” U.S.-supported programs should focus on supporting the establishment of non-partisan institutions, norms, and other non-political mechanisms developed in close consultation with local actors and in accordance with locally-identified needs. As USAID Administrator Samantha Power recently called for, supporting local leadership and decision-making is necessary for success going forward. Unilaterally dictating how things should be from afar with a paternalistic attitude is not a recipe for generating support for democracy. Finally, ensuring the safety and security of project partners in authoritarian environments will need to remain a priority throughout.  

A Long-Term Policy Option for Democracy Promotion

There are several recent examples of U.S. policy moving in this direction. During the Trump administration, Congress consistently kept funding for democracy programs at around $2.4 billion despite Executive Branch pressure to reduce it. In 2018, the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act appropriated $210 million each year for five years to support democracy promotion in the Indo-Pacific. In response to the rising challenge from China, the Senate passed the United States Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, which calls for $10,000,000 for democracy promotion in Hong Kong; emphasizes countering malign influence by supporting civil society and independent media; expands efforts to work with ASEAN on civil society, democracy, and human rights; and enhances engagement with civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean. As democracy promotion remains at the forefront of administration policy, we can expect to see similar initiatives in Congress in the future.

Ultimately, an expanded low-profile, ground-level approach to democracy programming in Southeast Asia provides a policy option for the United States to promote democracy in the region. This approach would aim to address the limited enthusiasm for the concept amongst U.S. allies and partners, while also advancing the cause of democracy and U.S. interest in opposing authoritarianism. Supporting civil society is a long-term effort that will take years, if not decades, to see results, and it will still require the occasional high-profile diplomatic pressure, naming and shaming, and economic sanctions on certain issues, such as the egregious human rights violations in Myanmar. Overall, democracy programs be the most sustainable path forward in a region beset by authoritarianism and an ambivalence towards U.S. government embrace of democracy promotion.


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The views expressed are the author's alone, and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government or the Wilson Center. Copyright 2020, Asia Program. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Lucas Myers

Lucas Myers

Program Coordinator and Associate for Southeast Asia, Asia Program
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Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more