In December 2017, the Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy and issued an unequivocal assessment that the world has entered an era of outright geostrategic competition between “those who favour repressive systems and those who favour free societies”. Australia has been less forthright about naming authoritarian regimes as revisionist competitors, but the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper elevates the importance of democracy in Canberra’s foreign policy.

Given the challenges to the liberal democratic order, a new report from the United States Studies Centre argues that democracy promotion ought to be an essential component of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy — a strategy that is being promoted by the United States, Australia, Japan and, increasingly, India.

Author of the report, Dr Lavina Lee, recommends increased emphasis on democracy promotion as an element of statecraft, and names Southeast Asia as a region of high importance to the United States and Australia, given recent anti-democratic trends.

"Strengthening institutions which enhance accountability, good governance, civil participation and national resilience in vulnerable liberal democratic states in Southeast Asia is key," says Dr Lee.

"This reduces the opportunity for autocratic governments to use foreign aid and investment to exert geopolitical and strategic influence over the sovereign decisions of recipient governments in ways that compromise the long-term national interest of that country."

Key points

  • There is an urgent need for allies to take confident steps toward countering the activities of China and other authoritarian states that are actively contesting the US-led liberal democratic order.
  • Southeast Asia is a key battleground when it comes to countering the appeal of China’s autocratic capitalist development model and reducing opportunities for Beijing to exploit and exacerbate weak liberal democratic institutions in many countries for geopolitical and strategic gain.​
  • Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand should be considered high priorities. Each has experienced a decline in respect for liberal democratic institutions and values and faces different obstacles to democratic entrenchment and consolidation.

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