Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#859】Democracy Summit Deviates from Strategic Thinking

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2021.12.01 (Wed)

November 29, 2021

Washington has released a list of countries invited to participate in a virtual democracy summit that U.S. President Joe Biden will host in early December. While including Taiwan, the list excludes many countries in Southeast Asia where the United States and China compete for expanding influence, as well as those in the Middle East, Africa and Central Asia. The summit may deviate far from strategic thinking to unite countries opposing Chinese and Russian authoritarianism.

Some allies and friends excluded from the list

President Biden pledged the Summit for Democracy during 2020 U.S. presidential campaigns. Washington has invited 111 countries and regions to participate in the online summit on December 9 and 10. The summit aims at defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights. According to the State Department, participants in the summit will announce specific actions and commitments to reforms and initiatives that advance the goals. In one year, a face-to-face summit will be held to check progress toward the goals.

The invitation of Taiwan works to back up Taiwan against China that attempts to isolate Taiwan from the international community. China’s opposition to the invitation had been expected. Washington has also invited the Philippines that faces growing tensions with China over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. This may also be useful for warning against China.

But the problem is that only three out of 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations where Washington and Beijing have sent senior officials in a race to gain local favor have been invited to participate in the democracy summit. Among them are Indonesia and Malaysia, as well as the Philippines. U.S. ally Thailand was not invited due apparently to its military-led government. Singapore might have been considered under a de facto single-party rule. Vietnam under a communist regime has also been excluded from the summit. Given that Vietnam has approached the United States recent years while confronting with China over a territorial dispute, Washington could have invited Vietnam an observer or a guest if the United States values China strategy.

No country has been invited from Central Asia that has historically belonged to Russia’s sphere of influence and now become increasingly under the influence of China through its Belt and Road Initiative. Middle Eastern countries invited to participate in the summit are limited to sworn U.S. ally Israel and Iraq. Saudi Arabia, an Arab regional power and archrival of anti-American Iran, has been excluded apparently because it is an absolute monarchy.

The list of countries invited to the summit shows that the Biden administration has selected existing and emerging democracies under own standards with little geopolitical consideration.

Selection could benefit China and Russia

“The Biden-Harris administration is committed to putting democracy and human rights at the heart of U.S. foreign policy,” said Uzra Zeya, under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights, in a press briefing on the coming democracy summit. She thus indicated that the administration would place emphasis on human-rights diplomacy. The Biden administration may lack the idea of Real Politique in the first place that prioritizes real national interests over ideals or ethics.

About 80 out of 193 United Nations member countries have been excluded from the democracy camp due to the U.S. administration’s unilateral selection. I am concerned that the excluded countries might be encouraged to move closer to China or Russia.

Yasushi Tomiyama is a senior research fellow and Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and a former foreign news editor and bureau chief in Washington, D.C., London and Bangkok for the Jiji Press.