Executive summary

  • The United States’ Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy puts forward a vision for the region in which states are free to make sovereign economic and strategic decisions without coercion, where liberal values and good governance principles are practiced, where freedom of the commons is respected, and where open trade and investment environments are maintained.
  • The core aim of the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy is to defend the post-World War II US-led liberal democratic order from being eroded in the region as a result of actions and policies of autocratic states. The US National Security Strategy of 2017 names China as the principal ‘revisionist’ actor in the region whose actions and policies have already challenged key aspects of the liberal order.
  • Although Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper does not specifically use the terms ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ it advocates a very similar vision for a rules-based order in the region based on complementary principles.
  • To promote the virtues of its authoritarian model as a superior alternative for developing nations, China has supported autocratic regimes around the world, including throughout the Indo-Pacific where its efforts are underwriting autocratic resilience and democratic stagnation.
  • Democracy promotion is an important and currently underappreciated counter-strategy to China’s autocracy promotion, a trend which undermines key elements of the common US and Australian vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
  • In terms of an increased emphasis on democracy promotion as an element of statecraft, Southeast Asia is the major regional battleground 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. 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.
  • In Southeast Asia, Australia should focus on partnering with Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand to strengthen the institutions referred to above for strategic, institutional and resourcing reasons.
DownloadDemocracy promotion: ANZUS and the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy


In December 2017, the Donald Trump administration released its first National Security Strategy (NSS). There the administration 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”.1 Chief among these anti-democratic agents, it observes, are Russia and China, with both described as “revisionist powers” who “want to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests”.2 In the Indo-Pacific, it is China that “seeks to displace the United States…, expand the reaches of its state-driven economic model, and re-order the region in its favour”.3 More than a simple struggle for power, what the administration’s strategy describes is an emerging contest between the existing US-led international order based on liberal-democratic and institutionalist principles, and a burgeoning Chinese-led authoritarian model of governance and economic development.

While Australia is less forthright about naming authoritarian regimes as revisionist competitors, the November 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper elevates the importance of democracy in Canberra’s foreign policy. In a striking passage, the White Paper commits Australia to “work more closely with the region’s democracies” to support a “balance in the Indo-Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive rules-based region”.4 Without overtly naming China, Canberra makes clear that the current US-led liberal order is being contested by actions that implicate Beijing, with allusions made to states that “use ‘measures short of war’ to pursue political and security objectives” and “are active in asserting authoritarian models in opposition to open, democratic governance”.5 It is also clear there is a sense of urgency in these pronouncements, and that active steps are now needed to ensure that the current order is not eroded.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,  January 2019
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne shakes hands with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, January 2019Source: Getty

These developments in thinking on the part of US and Australian policymakers are taking place in the context of three worrying anti-liberal democratic trends in the regional environment. These include: authoritarian resilience and democratic backsliding in the polities of two American allies, Thailand and the Philippines; the emergence of survey data indicating declining faith and domestic support for democracy in many Indo-Pacific countries; and the rise of a more ideologically assertive China under President Xi Jinping that is actively promoting its authoritarian-capitalist governance model as a credible alternative for developing countries to follow.

Given these challenges to the liberal democratic order, this paper 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, albeit with national differences in approaches and emphasis. Thus far, there has not been a clear articulation in Australian policy on the role, if any, that democracy promotion — or the use of foreign policy tools to support or encourage liberal democratic governance in other states — will or should play in Australia’s regional policy. Indeed, the United States itself has only recently begun to re-examine this question. An Australian policy of democracy promotion should consist of actions such as international monitoring of election processes, democracy assistance through foreign aid, diplomatic advocacy, democratic conditionality in the form of incentives and, in rare cases, economic sanctions. It should not include democracy promotion by force of the kind practiced by the George W. Bush administration in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In developing this argument, the paper begins by identifying the objectives of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy and the extent to which democracy promotion is — or is not — currently viewed as a viable tool to achieve these objectives. It then assesses the claims that the liberal order is being challenged by policies and strategies that promote autocracy around the world. It will be argued that there is evidence to support these claims and that democracy promotion is a direct counter to this challenge which should be prioritised as a key plank of Australia’s free and open Indo-Pacific strategy.

Canberra will need to approach this strategy with sensitivity and diplomatic skill. Democracy promotion can cause angst in a region sensitive about external interference in other states’ political affairs. The key will be to partner and work with countries that already have some commitment to the virtues of democracy and have institutions in place which are somewhat liberal in nature, albeit in need of strengthening. The last section makes the case that Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand fit this description and should be given greatest priority when it comes to Australian and US efforts to support liberal democratic practices in the region.

A free and open Indo-Pacific: US and Australian objectives

To deal with challenges to the region’s liberal democratic order, the Trump administration has put forward a Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy. There have been a number of articulations of the strategy by senior members of the administration since President Trump first introduced it in a speech at the APEC CEO Summit in Vietnam on 10 November 2017.6 All speak of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy as a vision or end-state for the region in three realms: economics, governance and security.7

Freedom is defined in terms of both security and political values. In security terms, freedom means the ability of states in the region to make sovereign economic and strategic decisions free from coercion.8 In political terms, the FOIP aims to support free societies within the Indo-Pacific, which are states that protect traditional liberal rights and values, practice good governance, and “adhere to the shared values of the United Nations Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.9

An “open” Indo-Pacific also has a dual meaning. Economically, the strategy advocates for fair and reciprocal trade — applied mostly, but not exclusively to China — open investment environments, protection of intellectual property, transparency of inter-state agreements on investment and trade, and improved connectivity in the region.10 Openness also refers to a region where states enjoy unfettered access to the seas and airways, and where territorial and maritime disputes are resolved peacefully. An “open” Indo-Pacific, then, is one that supports the conditions for free trade to work successfully, particularly the maintenance of peace and stability, free access by all to the global commons, the protection of individual and corporate rights to property, open market access and a fundamental respect for reciprocity in trade which underpins the World Trade system.

Whilst Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper avoids naming China as a strategic competitor or revisionist power, Beijing is implicated as a primary actor globally, and certainly the primary actor in the Indo-Pacific region, contesting the rules of the current international order.

Australia has not formally adopted the Trump administration’s FOIP moniker, but Canberra has advocated very similar concepts in its 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, released a month before the National Security Strategy.11 There the Australian government spoke of upholding a rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific, as opposed to one based on the exercise of “coercive power”.12 Canberra’s preferred rules-based order for the region is also one based on typical liberal democratic and liberal internationalist principles, including “an open global economy… an evolution of the international system that is anchored in international law, support for the rights and freedoms in United Nations declarations, and the principles of good governance, transparency and accountability”.13 Australia too declares that it will “act to preserve” free access to the global commons14 which is essential to its interests as a strong trading nation with an open liberalised economy.

Whilst Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper avoids naming China as a strategic competitor or revisionist power, Beijing is implicated as a primary actor globally, and certainly the primary actor in the Indo-Pacific region, contesting the rules of the current international order. In referring to acts of contestation, the White Paper includes activities such as the assertion of “authoritarian models in opposition to open, democratic governance”, and the increased use of “measures short of war” to pursue political and security objectives,15 the latter being a likely reference to Beijing’s effective use of ‘grey-zone’ tactics to extend its control over disputed islands in the South China Sea. It also makes a not so oblique reference to the debt-trap diplomacy now associated with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, warning of the use of “economic power… for strategic ends” in the context of “increased competition over regional economic integration, including in the financing of infrastructure projects”.16

Democracy promotion within the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy

In this paper the term ‘democracy promotion’ refers to liberal democracy promotion or activities to foster, improve and sustain a liberal democratic model of governance by states in their foreign policy toward others.17 There is a broad consensus that this involves the promotion of three mutually reinforcing and overlapping elements of this model: the free, fair and periodic election of governments; strong domestic institutions of accountability; and commitment to liberal values within society.18 The logic for this triple definition is clear: focusing only on universal suffrage is unlikely to produce better economic outcomes or lead to the strengthening of civil society and order which ought to be the objectives of any democracy promotion agenda. Conversely, the strongest selling point of democracy is the peaceful removal of out of favour governments by the people. Focusing only on liberal institutions and commitment to liberal values — and not universal suffrage — denies this ability to citizens of the state.

The first component of a liberal democratic model is the institution of electoral procedures to ensure that governments are freely and fairly elected by the people and must periodically face electoral accountability at the ballot box. For this to occur, political parties must be able to compete with each other for votes without interference, whilst broad-based electoral participation by the adult population, freedom of political association and freedom of the press need to be respected.19

The second aspect of the liberal democratic model involves the construction of strong institutions designed to place constitutional limits on the power of elected governments. The primary purpose of these limits is to protect the freedom of individual citizens. This is based on the liberal view that unconstrained state power will inevitably expand and impede the ability of individuals to enjoy core rights and freedoms such as the right to life, property, religion and speech. Liberal democracy promoters would seek to support the constitutional separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary, guarantee of the rule of law, and the separation of religion from politics.20

Finally, democracy scholars emphasise that the long-term consolidation of a liberal democratic model in a particular state depends on the depth to which a liberal democratic culture has become entrenched within society. Democracy promoters would seek to promote the respect for core liberal values among the population and political class such as individual rights, tolerance of opposing beliefs, the legitimacy of periodic elections, rule via consensus, and the reconciliation of competing interests through an open political process.21 It is the absence of a liberal democratic culture that is implicated in the rise of what Fareed Zakaria famously observed as “illiberal” democracies.22

Whilst the traditional work of US diplomats to discourage democratic reversals and support democratic openings abroad was continued during the first two years of his administration, President Trump repeatedly criticised many of America’s democratic allies, showed disdain at home for the free press and rule of law, and reinvigorated relationships with the leaders of autocratic allies in Thailand, Egypt, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and UAE. Autocratic foes such as Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and even President Xi were complimented despite their anti-democratic practices.23

A shift in the Trump administration’s approach to democracy promotion was articulated during a major speech by Vice President Mike Pence at the 2018 APEC CEO Summit, and evidenced in the initiatives announced soon thereafter.

A shift in the Trump administration’s approach, however, was articulated during a major speech by Vice President Mike Pence at the 2018 APEC CEO Summit, and evidenced in the initiatives announced soon thereafter. Pence gave a strong endorsement of US activities to “promote civil society, the rule of law and transparent and accountable government across the region” as a central element of the administration’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy. He laid out a number of arguments justifying the importance of democracy promotion, stating that liberal values and institutions are “the building blocks of progress” and “the bulwarks of independence” — implicitly suggesting that strengthening good governance would limit the ability of regimes from making strategic or economic decisions that were self-serving at the expense of national autonomy.24 However, whilst Pence launched a new Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative to support good governance, backed by US$400 million over two years,25 the modesty of this sum does not yet suggest a fundamental shift in the administration’s priorities to position democracy promotion as a key policy tool for resisting the actions of revisionist autocratic competitors.

Canberra, for its part, has traditionally placed little emphasis on overt democracy promotion as an objective of foreign policy. The overriding aim of Australia’s aid program is poverty reduction through sustainable economic growth, with the Pacific Islands followed by Southeast Asia having geographic priority.26 Aid policy is concerned with issues of governance only insofar as this affects the trajectory of economic development and poverty reduction. Australia’s “Effective Governance Strategy”, for example, mentions many objectives of good governance such as accountability, prevention of corruption and support for the rule of law; but it does not identify any political model — such as liberal democracy — as the preferred means to achieve these objectives.27

In keeping with this tradition, Australia’s Foreign Policy White Paper shows a reticence toward using diplomatic, economic and strategic tools to influence domestic political processes within other states. Like the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, the White Paper makes clear that “[w]e do not seek to impose values on others”, describing Australia as a “pragmatic” but “determined advocate of liberal institutions, universal values and human rights”.28 Its only foray into the policy debate about values is a vague statement acknowledging “Australia’s development assistance program similarly reflects our values while supporting our interests” and that such “investment in the stability and resilience of developing countries works to improve our own security and prosperity”.29

Where the White Paper does strikingly depart from previous policy is in overtly committing Australia to “work more closely with the region’s major democracies bilaterally and in small groupings” to “support a balance in the Indo-Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive and rules-based region”.30 The United States, Japan, Indonesia, India and the Republic of Korea are named as potential partners in this project.31 Australia’s renewed support for quadrilateral security cooperation with the United States, India and Japan is an obvious manifestation of this agenda with more coordinated diplomatic advocacy of the liberal order within regional institutions, as well as responses to actions which contest free access to the global commons, international law or rules of free trade being sought among the four. Democracy promotion itself, however, is not advocated.

Understanding the authoritarian challenge to these objectives in Asia

In 2018, Freedom House reported that the number of countries with free or partly free political systems around the world had declined for the 13th consecutive year, representing a “roll back” from the third wave of democratisation that began in the early 1970s and peaked in 2005. More recently, the global share of “not free” countries has risen to 26 per cent, while the share of “free” countries declined to 44 per cent.32 For many, this represents empirical evidence that the US-led liberal democratic order is in decline. The question is whether autocratic regimes are implicated in the decline of democracy through their activities to promote autocracy around the world.

There are at least four ways in which support for autocracy could be promoted externally by autocratic regimes. Each differs in terms of the actor’s level of intent to promote autocracy specifically, as well as the level of priority it gives to autocracy promotion relative to other foreign policy objectives. These include:

  • The deliberate attempt by an autocratic regime to use instruments of power to undermine democratic tendencies, or support authoritarian ones, in another state as a major aim of foreign policy;
  • The diffusion of authoritarian values externally resulting in the adoption of authoritarian models of governance by other states. The positive intent to diffuse such values may or may not be present;
  • Autocratic resistance activities i.e. deliberate assistance by autocrats to other regimes to oppose efforts by external democracy promoters to adopt liberal democratic rule;
  • Conducting ‘business as usual’ with a government giving it greater scope to choose its political path, including the choice to maintain or consolidate authoritarian rule. Support for autocracy by the external party is a by-product of policies aimed at achieving other higher priority foreign policy objectives.33

Deliberate autocracy promotion

Unlike their democratic counterparts, autocratic governments do not openly broadcast their intent to promote autocratic rule. However, where deliberate autocracy promotion is concerned, there are a number of recent documented instances of efforts by autocrats to assist one another to consolidate their rule, neutralise vulnerabilities to democratising forces, and roll back democratic trends particularly in their own neighbourhood.

In the Indo-Pacific, deliberate autocracy promotion can be observed in China’s support to Burma’s military Junta from 1990 onward and ongoing economic and diplomatic support for Laos and even Vietnam, despite the latter being a strategic rival. Beijing’s long-standing and ongoing support for North Korea’s Kim dynasty to prevent that country’s collapse and likely re-unification with South Korea on terms favourable to the West is another clear case of deliberate autocracy promotion. Cambodia provides a current example. There the ruling Cambodian People’s Party has steadily eroded multi-party liberal democracy in the country while receiving China’s strong diplomatic support and around US$9 billion in aid between 2010 and 2016.34 This is significant in a country with a GDP of US$22 billion in 2017.35 Preceding the 2018 election, the country’s main opposition party was banned by the Supreme Court, whilst its leader was imprisoned for treason, both of which were endorsed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as an effort to “protect political stability and achieve economic development”.36 Since then, China has announced a further US$600 million in aid, which has given the regime a level of immunity from threats of sanction by the European Union and the United States.37

Autocratic regimes also tend to learn from each other and copy techniques and laws which have been successful in suppressing rebellion, including information-blocking technology, laws curbing the operation of NGOs, and coordinated sponsorship of their own endorsed election monitoring organisations.38 The most alarming observed trend is the march of digital authoritarianism, led by China. In 2018, Freedom House documented China’s large-scale training of foreign officials on how to adopt its “Great Firewall” system of censorship and surveillance, and export of artificial intelligence, facial recognition technology and other real time big-data sifting tools to monitor and suppress opposition on the internet. This included training on “socialist journalism” for media officials from the Philippines, and the role of “new media” or information management within China’s development model for officials from Thailand.39

Chinese President Xi Jinping walks on stage to deliver his speech for the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation,  April 2019
Chinese President Xi Jinping walks on stage to deliver his speech for the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, April 2019Source: Getty

The diffusion of autocratic values

China’s rapid economic development has provided states with an alternative political and economic development model to Western backed liberal democracy.40 The ‘China model’ or ‘Beijing Consensus’, which marries centralised political control with a supervised market economy, is increasingly viewed as an alternative path to modernity41 and development.

Many admirers of China’s authoritarian brand of capitalism praise the ability of elites to govern efficiently, to “make decisions quickly, ensure that they are enforced, and to direct investment into what appears to be long-term growth”.42 Thus, authoritarian capitalism increasingly has the right building blocks for successful diffusion abroad, that is, positive perceptions of its legitimacy43 and effectiveness.44

In many countries, an openness to alternative forms of governance to representative democracy already appears to exist, creating opportunities for authoritarian ‘diffusion’. The results of a 2017 Pew Research Center survey which polled respondents in 38-nations on their views of five competing approaches to governing — representative democracy, direct democracy, rule by experts, and rule by a strong leader — is instructive on this point. Whilst a median of 78 per cent of respondents thought that representative democracy was a very or somewhat good way to govern,45 only a median of 23 per cent were committed democrats, meaning that they rejected alternatives to representative democracy outright. A median of 47 per cent were less committed democrats, entertaining at least one non-democratic form of government.46 Of the developing countries surveyed in the Indo-Pacific, only 15 per cent or less of those surveyed from the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and India were committed democrats.

Where alternatives to democratic rule was at issue, respondents from India, Indonesia, Philippines and Vietnam held autocracy in relatively high esteem with 55, 52, 50 and 42 per cent respectively assessing a strong-leader system as very or somewhat good. Further, around 70 per cent of Vietnamese and Indonesian respondents thought the same about military rule, as did 53 per cent of Indians, and 41 per cent of Filipinos.47 In these same countries, an average of 63 per cent thought it would be a good idea for technocrats rather than elected officials to make political decisions,48 suggesting a frustration with government delivery of services and the pace of development in many of these countries.

Under Xi Jinping, China is directly challenging the narrative that liberal democracy is the only and most effective path to prosperity for developing countries.

These survey results confirm a relatively shallow commitment to democracy, an openness to centralised rule — including autocracy and military rule — as well as an acceptance of government by technocrats rather than elected leaders among developing countries in the Indo-Pacific. This is particularly the case in developing Asian countries, where democracy is more likely to be judged in instrumental terms where order and economic advancement are highly valued. The region’s youth population born after 1981 have had “no direct experience with the ‘hard authoritarianism’ that characterised much of Asia in the decades after World War II” and “[w]hereas committed democrats will blame the party in power for suboptimal outcomes that do not meet popular expectations, uncommitted democratic societies may well blame the system itself for perceived failures”.49

Under Xi Jinping, China is directly challenging the narrative that liberal democracy is the only and most effective path to prosperity for developing countries. Praise and advocacy of the authoritarian model featured in President Xi’s speech at the 19th Congress of the CCP in October 2017 where he also announced the removal of constitutional limits that prevented him from holding office for life. Xi asserted that China’s political model of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation” and that “it offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence” based on “Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems of mankind”.50

China’s official state news agency, Xinhua has openly derided liberal democracy as characterised by “endless political backbiting, bickering and policy reversals” which “have retarded economic and social progress and ignored the interests of most citizens”.51 As Xi has argued, China’s CCP-led “socialist democracy” avoids the flaws of other systems such as “power rotation and nasty competition among multiple political parties” and “aims to create a form of democracy that is broader and more effective”.52 Whilst it is difficult to conclusively point to cases of successful diffusion of the China model outside of former communist countries so far,53 the intent to diffuse is now an open one.

Autocratic resistance and business as usual

Beyond rhetorical efforts to diffuse the China model globally, Beijing has increasingly turned its considerable economic resources towards supporting autocratic regimes by proactively contributing to autocratic resistance or, more passively, by pursuing a ‘business as usual’ approach to interstate relations that advantages autocrats. Whilst it is difficult to distinguish between these two forms of autocracy promotion, both have the effect of shoring up existing autocracies and stemming the tide of further democratisation. China has recently become a major world financial player as a provider of development assistance54 and non-concessional loans55 committing a combined US$68.3 billion between 2000-2008, compared to US$229.1 billion between 2009-2014 according to research by AidData.56

Where intent to enable autocratic resistance is concerned, it is notable that autocratic regimes are significantly overrepresented as recipients of Chinese financing. In the period from 2000 to 2014, of the top ten recipients of Chinese development assistance, six were dictatorships, and three were ‘competitive authoritarian’ regimes where electoral processes exist but are engineered to avert power transfers from the ruling group.57 Forty per cent of the total amount of development assistance was directed to these nine states. Where non-concessional loans are concerned, half of the top ten recipients were autocracies, three were competitive authoritarian regimes, and only two were democracies (Ecuador and Brazil).58

Around 70 per cent of these financial commitments over this period have been directed towards energy, transport and construction projects of benefit to Chinese interests, providing autocratic regimes with foreign investment and aid without conditions that would otherwise be imposed by the IMF and World Bank. These latter conditions usually include demands for good governance, respect for human rights, and market and liberal political reforms.59 China’s propensity to conduct ‘business as usual’ with otherwise pariah regimes is justified as consistent with a strict respect for non-interference in the internal affairs of other states,60 and is undoubtedly attractive as a means of providing elites with resources to insulate themselves from democratising pressures.

China’s propensity to conduct ‘business as usual’ with otherwise pariah regimes is justified as consistent with a strict respect for non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, and is undoubtedly attractive as a means of providing elites with resources to insulate themselves from democratising pressures.

Firstly, examples of this effect have been observed in case studies of Chinese investment in Africa, Cambodia and Laos, which has been backed up more recently by studies examining a wide cross-section of states. One study of the effect of aid on democratisation using data for 122 countries between 1972 and 2011 found that “[a]id from Arab donors and China is associated with subsequent decreases in the level of recipient country democracy”.61 Similarly, an empirical analysis of the effect of Chinese aid on democratisation in Africa covering 1975-2008 found that Chinese aid has diminished the democratising effects of the OECD’s development aid (i.e. efforts to tie aid to liberal democratic reforms are effectively neutered where China offers a no strings attached alternative).62 Concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — given its intended vast size and geographic scale — should be understood in this context.

Secondly, the successful export of China’s surveillance state apparatus, now being rolled out within China, to new markets as part of the ‘digital silk road’ arm of the BRI, will expand the ability of other autocratic regimes to attain a much greater level of social control over their populations, and more effectively monitor and suppress democratic opposition. Within China the CCP’s security organs, in partnership with private companies, are developing an algorithmic surveillance system to construct a “citizen score” for each citizen by 2020 to “incentivise ‘good’ behaviour”, drawing from online data as well as a growing network of surveillance cameras using advanced facial recognition technology.63 Huawei is leading the export of this kind of technology and command systems under what it markets as “safe cities” platforms, ostensibly as a tool of law enforcement but with obvious uses for authoritarian regimes. It is notable that some of the first buyers of Huawei’s safe cities products and services were authoritarian regimes including Russia, Pakistan, Venezuela, Laos, Angola64 and Ethiopia.65

Thirdly, the vulnerability of BRI countries to debt distress makes them particular targets of debt trap diplomacy, which allows China to extend diplomatic leverage over debtor states into the long-term.66 The experience of Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port has become the exemplar of how BRI funding is used to exploit and exacerbate ongoing corruption and existing institutional weaknesses in democratic states, as well as the compromises to state sovereignty extracted by Beijing where countries struggle to repay their BRI debts. Here Sri Lanka’s new government was forced to hand over a controlling equity stake in the port and 15,000 acres of surrounding land for 99 years to China in return for absolving US$1.12 billion in debt owed for the project in December 2017.67 China has denied accusations that it had created a debt trap for Sri Lanka, despite the fact that the port project was deemed unviable by previous feasibility studies by the Sri Lankan government itself.68

Democracy promotion as a counter to the authoritarian challenge

There is mounting evidence that the liberal democratic order is facing direct competition from great power autocratic regimes whose foreign policies directly or indirectly promote autocratic governance around the world. This has helped other autocratic regimes repel democratic uprisings, resist external democratising pressures and undermine democratic transitions and fragile democracies. China has emerged as the region’s most powerful autocratic agent — advocating and providing a living example of an alternative autocratic capitalist development model that is both attractive to other autocratic regimes and undermines progressive trends in fragile democracies whose populations seek order and economic development above other values. Beyond being an example for emulation, China is actively using its economic resources as carrots and sticks to achieve its interests in ways that subvert accountability processes, allowing ruling regimes to make decisions contrary to the sovereign will and long-term national interest of their citizens. By extending its sphere of influence through the Belt and Road Initiative, China is simultaneously consolidating and expanding autocracy as a mode of government, making the world ‘safer for autocracies’.69

Only countries with liberal democratic institutions in place have been able to resist the worrying aspects of the Belt and Road Initiative and other projects to ensure they operate under terms beneficial for the long-term interests of a country.

Democracy promotion can provide a direct counter to this project by undermining the mechanisms by which China extends its influence over regional states. Only countries with liberal democratic institutions in place have been able to resist the worrying aspects of the BRI70 and other projects to ensure they operate under terms beneficial for the long-term interests of a country. In the absence of liberal democratic institutions of accountability, projects can be fast tracked without transparency, open competition for tenders, adherence to labour and environmental standards, or scrutiny of the overall national benefit. Regimes that do not have strong accountability mechanisms can more easily secure self-interested gains whilst compromising the sovereign independence of the state in the long term.

The ouster of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak and the United Malay Organisation from power came about because of the exposure of massive personal corruption, as well as the perception that Razak had sold out Malaysia’s interests to foreign governments, including China, for personal gain.71 This is a salient lesson: even Malaysia’s compromised democracy was able to push back against Chinese influence. The Malaysian example gives credibility to Vice President Pence’s characterisation of liberal democratic principles as “bulwarks of [sovereign] independence”,72 linking democracy promotion to a key aim of the FOIP strategy to “secure nation’s autonomy from foreign coercion”.73

Southeast Asia: Identifying high priority partner states

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. In this region, Freedom House’s assessments of the respect for civil and political rights is troubling. In 2019, only Timor Leste was judged as “free”, with Myanmar, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore designated as “partly free”. The rest — Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos — are designated as “not free”, with Laos scoring 14/100 and Vietnam 20/100, both barely higher than China on 11/100.74

Given limited diplomatic and economic resources, which countries should be prioritised with respect to democracy promotion efforts, and what kind of democracy promotion activities should be undertaken? The United States and Australia have strong or rapidly improving relationships with many states in the region which are not perfect democracies (such as Singapore and Malaysia) or are authoritarian states (such as Vietnam). However, with respect to democracy promotion in Southeast Asia, both should prioritise efforts to shore up liberal democratic processes in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand for five reasons.

Given limited diplomatic and economic resources, which countries should be prioritised with respect to democracy promotion efforts, and what kind of democracy promotion activities should be undertaken?

Firstly, as it is with domestic politics, foreign policy is about the art of the possible. Focusing on these states would maximise the return on effort in a shorter timeframe because all have liberal democratic institutions already in place. It would be far more feasible for Australia and the United States to assist these countries to buttress even weak institutional foundations, than to build institutions and liberal agents (i.e., free press, civil society groups) from ground zero. In societies familiar with liberal institutions and democracy, some liberal democratic norms, practices and expectations have become embedded within the population, making it more difficult for governing elites to ignore or trample them without some level of opposition. Relatedly, democracy promoters will have greater prospects of success where there are existing individuals and organisations — such as the free press, labour unions, human rights activists, development organisations and other civil society groups — that can be supported as agents for ensuring government accountability as well as encouraging the development of a liberal democratic culture more broadly within society.

Secondly, as these three states profess to be democracies, they are more likely to be open to and welcoming of assistance from the United States and Australia to strengthen their governance systems. The Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte does not claim to be seeking to transform his country into an autocracy, and gains legitimacy from electoral mandate and continued popular support. Even the military government in Thailand always maintained that its goal was to return Thailand to democracy as soon as possible. For officials in Australia and the United States, supporting democratic institution-building in countries that are self-proclaimed democracies is consistent with the principle that values should not be imposed on others from the outside.

Third, one can argue that the successful development and consolidation of liberal democratic institutions in these states is more likely to influence others in the region via the desire for emulation. Each of them — for reasons of history, culture, self-identity, ethnicity, and/or economic size and level of development — are widely accepted as three of the more significant states in ASEAN and have a strong influence over political developments within their region. The “free” status of Timor Leste, for example, has much less regional impact than the consolidation of democracy in Indonesia. Given the latter’s large population size, level of development, complex ethnic composition, religion and history of military rule, states and populations in the region with similar characteristics may be more likely to view the Indonesian democracy story as relatable and powerful, making it a potential candidate for emulation.

One can argue that the successful development and consolidation of liberal democratic institutions in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand is more likely to influence others in the region via the desire for emulation

Fourth, each has strategic importance for the United States and Australia insofar as the overall aims of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy are concerned — either as a direct ally of the United States in the case of Thailand and the Philippines, or because of its geostrategic location and status as a regional leader in the case of Indonesia. China’s ability to contest the current rules of international order is made easier if key allies such as Thailand and the Philippines were to fall within its sphere of influence. Indonesia, whilst not a treaty ally of the United States is a key swing state that could tip the balance toward the current liberal order because of its large and growing economy, strategic location vis-a-vis the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Strait, and status as the largest democracy in ASEAN.

Fifth, for those who argue that democracy promotion would have the contrary effect of pushing these states into China’s orbit, it should be remembered that elites and publics in all three have a healthy level of wariness about China’s hegemonic intentions and a growing awareness of the compromises to national sovereignty associated with Chinese investment. Jakarta and Manila are both embroiled in maritime disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea, leading them to view like-minded states like Australia as valuable security partners. Economically, public discourse in all three countries is increasingly turning to question the national benefit of Chinese investment projects, including a greater awareness of the debt implications, the consequences of imported Chinese labour, and the benefits of using Chinese rather than local firms to deliver infrastructure projects.75 US and Australian foreign investment and aid spending, even if conditional on liberal governance practices, is likely to be preferable to the alternative.

It is for these reasons that Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand should be considered high priorities. Each are listed in order of degree of difficulty with 2019 Freedom House scores of 62/100, 61/100 and 30/100 respectively. Each has experienced a decline in respect for liberal democratic institutions and values and faces different obstacles to democratic entrenchment and consolidation. Prospects and avenues for democracy promotion will be different in each case.


Indonesia is an important battleground. The consolidation of democracy in Indonesia since the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998 has been remarkable. Free and fair multi-party elections with smooth transitions of power have occurred a number of times since then, civil liberties are generally respected76 as are press freedoms and freedom of individual expression. Positive constitutional reforms have occurred including the introduction of direct elections of the presidency, the setting of term limits for the president, a devolution of power from the capital to the provincial and local levels, the establishment of an independent electoral commission, and the abolition of seats for the military in the nation’s parliament.77

Even so, and as recently as 2014, Indonesia came very close to an authoritarian revival, with Prabowo Subianto, a former member of the army and son-in-law of Suharto, almost winning the presidency despite being discharged from the army for serious human rights violations against political activists during Suharto’s reign. Subianto was able to win 46.9 per cent of the vote (with the winner Joko Widodo taking 53.1 per cent) running on a populist strongman platform promising to restore order, prevent the sell-off of national resources to foreigners and to reinvigorate the economy.78

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a meeting in Bogor, August 2018
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison with Indonesian President Joko Widodo during a meeting in Bogor, August 2018Source: Getty

Of major concern was Subianto’s platform to reverse the constitutional reforms that had been instituted since 1998, advocating a return to the 1945 constitution that allowed Suharto’s authoritarian regime to govern. The seeming ambivalence of large sections of the voting population towards this threat to democracy, despite the fact that 83 per cent of Indonesians expressed a strong support for democracy in 2014,79 points to the frustrations felt by the voters in regard to persistent problems of poverty, inequality and rampant corruption. Indonesia’s status as “partly free” as judged by Freedom House is due in large part to this corruption at all levels of government — in the parliament, civil service, judiciary and police — with many cases of high-profile individuals escaping prosecution.80

Democracy promotion efforts should be directed towards addressing weaknesses in the institutional accountability of elected officials and corruption in the judicial system. If public confidence in the ability of liberal institutions to underpin law and order fails, then support for democracy is invariably undermined.81 The 15-year prison sentence given by Indonesian courts to People’s Representative Council speaker and Golkar party chairman Setya Novanto for the theft of $170 million of public funds in April 201882 is a welcome example of the effective operation of accountability mechanisms and should be encouraged and supported.

Promotion activities should also be directed to existing strengths of the political system, particularly the unusually high levels of participation in civic associations and communal sociability occurring within Indonesian society. As leading experts have argued, “[v]igorous sociability and participation facilitate effective popular collective action in politics, enabling Indonesians to defend their rights and constrain elites”.83 Indeed, it was the ability of Widodo’s campaign to mobilise support directly from citizen driven grassroots organisations that is assessed as contributing to his eventual electoral success, acting to balance out the greater resources of the “oligarchic machine politics” behind his opponent.84 Supporting civil society participation in Indonesian politics will help to prevent an authoritarian reversal in what is still the region’s most successful example of a democratic transition.


In the Philippines, the 2016 election of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency has led to the fear that the Philippines is now on a path to competitive authoritarianism. Duterte has ridden to power on the back of popular dissatisfaction with elite politics, a rising perception of domestic disorder and, more significantly, a deep lack of faith in existing judicial institutions to deal with the problem. There is now a risk that the following observation is coming true: “Law can be a means to secure order, but if the law fails, then extra-legal means become justified.”85

Duterte’s law and order pitch has a basis in official crime statistics. These showed a large increase in serious crimes and a notable drop in the rate of cases solved by police in the last term of the previous Benigno Aquino administration, including an increase in the number of reported crimes of 46 per cent in the first five months of 2015, compared to the previous year. Drug use is also widespread.86 His war against drugs — involving the extrajudicial killings of at least 4,000 people (the official number) and at most 12,000 — remains widely supported by the electorate, particularly by elites and the urban middle classes.87

The institutional roots of Duterte’s electoral success stem from serious weaknesses in institutions of accountability. Freedom House describes the Philippines as having a crisis of the rule of law, apart from the extrajudicial nature of the war on drugs. This includes a judiciary undermined by “inefficiency, low pay, intimidation, corruption, and high vacancy rates” with “[j]udges and lawyers often depend[ing] on local power holders for basic resources and salaries, which can lead to compromised verdicts”.88 Anti-corruption agencies such as the Office of the Ombudsman are under-resourced and overloaded leading to long delays in prosecution, which creates perceptions of impunity. The police and military are implicated in widespread corruption, extortion and racketeering with police suspected of using watch lists to remove opponents.

Democracy promotion to arrest the descent of the Philippines, a US ally, into electoral authoritarianism should be a priority for Washington and Canberra.

Duterte has combined his war on drugs with a new war on critics, using strong rhetoric declaring open season on journalists and civil society activists who oppose his tactics.89 Just as troubling is the targeting of political opponents critical of Duterte’s extrajudicial methods. The February 2017 arrest and imprisonment of Senator Leila de Lima, a prominent and fierce critic of President Duterte, on drugs charges is widely viewed as politically motivated.

Democracy promotion to arrest the descent of the Philippines, a US ally, into electoral authoritarianism should be a priority for Washington and Canberra. This could come in the form of increased support for civil society actors, a free press and the rule of law; as well as judicial reform and training, which would help to bolster institutions of accountability that were already weak and enabled the rise of strongman politics. With the president’s supporters also demanding economic growth, a reduction of wealth inequality and improvement in infrastructure,90 attracting foreign direct investment could be used as both a carrot and a stick when it comes to democracy promotion in the Philippines.

There are strategic issues at stake. Duterte has already sought to improve relations with China, including by downplaying the July 2016 UN Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling in Manila’s favour over territorial and maritime disputes with Beijing in the South China Sea. His government has also sought to push joint development of oil and gas fields in disputed territories and has officially joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative with several MOUs for infrastructure projects being signed.91 A strengthening of transparency in government decision-making and institutions of accountability gain greater importance in ensuring the administration does not compromise Filipino sovereignty in the long-term.


Thailand is the most difficult of the three countries as a target for democracy promotion. For decades, Thailand has swung back and forth from democracy to military dictatorship several times. In recent times, Thai politics have been characterised by the struggle between the forces of the old guard — a ‘royal political nexus’ representing a coalition between the monarchy, military, judiciary, bureaucracy and urban middle classes — and the new guard — represented by Thaksin and Yingluk Shinawatra as populist champions of marginalised rural voters and middle classes from the regions, and who seek a fairer share of economic and political resources.92 Since the last coup in 2014, the military government has set about thwarting the electoral return of the new guard due to their popularity and certain victory.

In so doing, the military has suppressed liberal freedoms and corrupted Thai institutions of accountability further than ever. This has involved repeatedly dissolving the political parties led by the Shinawatras,93 measures banning the formation of new political parties without government approval, wholesale censorship and intimidation of the press, laws outlawing the “malicious” criticism of the government, the political use of lèse-majesté, prohibitions on political gatherings of five or more people, with security forces paying attention to any gathering focused on the defence of human rights.

Prayut Chan-O-Cha before the royal endorsement ceremony officially appointing him as the new prime minister of Thailand,  June 2019
Prayut Chan-O-Cha before the royal endorsement ceremony officially appointing him as the new prime minister of Thailand, June 2019Source: Getty

Thailand’s new constitution, accepted by a referendum of the people in 2017, makes it difficult for one party to rule with a majority — designed to avoid a repeat of the Shinawatras’ electoral success — whilst the upper house will be appointed by the military for the first five-year term, and reserve six seats for senior military officials.94 No true separation of powers exists between the executive, the judiciary and the monarchy; and neither can the people count on the independence of the judiciary which has become thoroughly politicised.95

The return of elections to Thailand on 24 March 2019 was a long-awaited step toward the restoration of democracy that should be a cause for optimism. However, elections in and of themselves are not sufficient to ensure an accountable government emerges that is capable of balancing the interests of the old and new guard. Thailand’s military rulers should not be given the impression that an election alone, without efforts to loosen control over civic participation in government, freedom of expression and association, free press and respect for the separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary, will allow for normal relations with the West to resume. Such steps are needed to avoid the return of an illiberal rather than liberal democracy, a consideration which applies equally to the old and new guard.

Whilst some will argue that democracy promotion in this vein will push Thailand into China’s strategic orbit, the Thai military is wary of becoming beholden to a great power, particularly one in its neighbourhood.96 From an economic perspective, Thailand’s political troubles are fuelled by gross economic inequality, with one of the least equitable wealth distributions in the world — ahead of Russia, Turkey and India according to Credit Suisse.97 Having access to foreign investment and aid from the United States and allies such as Australia should not be underestimated as a means for Thailand’s rulers — whoever they may be — to achieve legitimacy from their population. The same is true of the Philippines. Both the United States and Australia should not be reticent in pointing out the deep compromises to sovereignty that China has extracted from other states in the region.


Australia and the United States have a variety of tools at their disposal to encourage good governance in these states. These include unconditional assistance to support civil society participation, technical assistance to improve the integrity of decision-making processes, assistance for legal and judicial training, as well as attaching conditionality to various forms of aid and financial assistance, including military assistance. Both should also work together with other regional democracies, such as Japan, to coordinate common approaches to democracy promotion in these three countries. The overall objective should be to increase the perception and resilience of democratic governance as the most effective model in the Indo-Pacific. Working with others to “preserve even imperfect institutions” is more effective than adopting blunt instruments like sanctions.98

Both the United States and Australia have existing agencies that are highly experienced and effective in undertaking democracy promotion activities in Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. What now needs to be understood is that democracy promotion is not merely a humanitarian activity or Cold War legacy project, but an element of statecraft which — if properly resourced — can play a key role in advancing US and Australian strategy for a free and open Indo-Pacific. There is an urgent need for allies and partners to take confident steps toward countering the activities of China and other authoritarian states that are actively contesting the US-led liberal democratic order. Failure to do so will lead to a world that is much safer for autocracies than it is for democracies.