Foreign policy13 April 2024

Aligning values and interests: Japanese and Australian democracy support in the Pacific and Southeast Asia

world map
Source: Getty
Report by
  • lavina-lee.jpg

    Dr Lavina Lee

    Non-Resident Senior Fellow

    United States Studies Centre

  • Chikako Kodama

    Chikako Kodama

    PhD candidate, Graduate School of Law, Hitotsubashi University

  • john-lee.jpg

    Dr John Lee

    Senior Fellow

    Hudson Institute

  • Dr Yuki Miyoda

    Dr Yuki Miyoda

    Project Researcher, Graduate School of Frontier Sciences, University of Tokyo

  • Professor Hiroaki Shiga

    Professor Hiroaki Shiga

    Professor at the Graduate School of International Social Sciences, Yokohama National University


Dr Michael J. Green
Chief Executive Officer, United States Studies Centre

With the end of the Cold War the United States, Australia, and Japan had the luxury of taking widely different approaches to democracy and development in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. The collapse of the Soviet Union and opening and reform in China seemed to remove the threat of revolution and falling dominoes. American air and naval power in maritime Asia ensured that regime change anywhere in the region did not threaten overall deterrence and stability. While the three countries adhered to the norms of the advanced industrialised democracies, they also diverged and sometimes clashed. In the early 1990s, Japan challenged the so-called “Washington consensus” at the World Bank and claimed to speak for Asian values and non-interference in domestic affairs. The US Congress moved to condition diplomatic and trade relations more on human rights without having to fear the geopolitical consequences of blowback in the region. Australia sought to straddle the Anglo-American “Washington consensus” and the imperative to be a good neighbour in Asia. There were disagreements and clashes, but geopolitics did not hang in the balance.

That has changed, of course. Xi Jinping has articulated a vision for Chinese regional hegemony built on normative leadership and a Global Civilisational Initiative meant to deny the universality of “Western” democratic norms. The Peoples’ Liberation Army Navy and Air Force are contesting US air and naval dominance in the region and coercing maritime rivals from Japan to Indonesia and India. Beijing is exploiting weak governance and rule of law in smaller states to build influence and dual-use civil-military ports and facilities on the back of “elite capture.” The stand-off between the United States and its allies on the one hand and China and Russia on the other is creating a permissive environment for egregious human rights violations in Myanmar and North Korea and democratic backsliding elsewhere. This only reinforces a dangerous spiral.

Geopolitics, democratic values, and development are intersecting with sudden velocity. And in this emerging geopolitical contest and struggle to define democracy and development strategies, Japan and Australia will remain first movers in terms of shaping approaches among other democracies, including the United States.

The United States has always had strong constituencies for advancing human rights and democracy in Congress, civil society, and the federal government itself. But President Joe Biden was the first president since George W Bush to make democracy support a national priority, going even further than Bush by framing it in terms of a clash with world autocracies. Japan began emphasising democratic norms two decades earlier when then-Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro announced in January 2002 in Singapore that democracy and human rights should be considered Asian values and would be priorities for Japan, something reaffirmed with the 2022 National Security Strategy. Yet on the ground, Japanese policies on democracy support have not shifted to reflect this new strategic framing, nor has Tokyo been entirely comfortable with the Biden administration’s more Manichean formulation. The Australian Government was equally uncomfortable with the US framing and in contrast to Japan has muted the emphasis on democratic norms as Canberra braces for an onslaught of PRC money and diplomatic overtures to the Pacific Islands. Yet Australian aid policies are probably closer to the approach taken by the United States than the policies of Japan, since Canberra has long provided support for NGOs to build civil society whereas Japan still largely looks to host governments to approve projects.

In this emerging geopolitical contest and struggle to define democracy and development strategies, Japan and Australia will remain first movers in terms of shaping approaches among other democracies, including the United States.

These differences matter. The point is not that the United States, Japan, and Australia can or should follow the same strategies for democracy and development in a contested Asia. US history, size, and system of checks and balances all produce enthusiasm and capacity for democracy support that would not come as easily for either Japan or Australia. But Japan and Australia will be the two most critical partners in this endeavour for Washington. And in terms of political system, size, and impact, Australia and Japan may have a stronger likelihood of aligning approaches with each other than either would with Washington.

For these reasons, the United States Studies Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney is delighted to publish this collection of analytical essays on Japan’s and Australia’s respective approaches to geopolitics, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands, and the overlay of democracy on development and diplomacy towards those subregions. There are no comparable studies available, and policymakers and scholars alike will find this volume a valuable blueprint to strengthen Japan-Australia strategic cooperation on democracy and development — and by extension both countries’ influence on US strategy and ultimately the approaches of other key donor countries like Korea, Canada or the European Union. In short, Japan-Australia cooperation could be the catalyst for a more successful alignment of international approaches to democracy in a contested Indo-Pacific.

USSC Non-Resident Senior Fellow and distinguished scholar of Asian international relations Dr Lavina Lee designed this study, recruited a top-flight collection of authors, and then produced actionable recommendations from the findings. This work builds on the USSC hosting of the Sunnylands Initiative on Democracy in the Indo-Pacific in Sydney in 2023, where thought leaders from across the Indo-Pacific gathered to articulate a vision for democratic unity in a regional context. The Centre will do additional research and policy analysis in this area on the back of this excellent collection of essays. It is our hope that other institutes, scholars, policymakers and legislators will be inspired to do the same.

DownloadAligning values and interests: Japanese and Australian democracy support in the Pacific and Southeast Asia


Dr Lavina Lee

In its annual report for 2023, Freedom House found that global freedom declined for the 18th consecutive year. Political rights and civil liberties diminished in 52 countries and improved in only 21, affecting one-fifth of the world’s population. Among the leading causes of democratic decline in the last year was the manipulation of elections: by incumbent governments to create an uneven playing field for opposition parties (e.g. Cambodia, Poland and Turkey), altering election results after voting has taken place (e.g. Guatemala, Thailand and Zimbabwe), military coups overthrowing civilian governments (e.g. Niger), electoral violence (e.g. Nigeria), political interference and military coercion during electoral campaigns by foreign authoritarian governments (e.g. Taiwan) and the denial of civil and political rights in disputed territories (e.g. occupied Ukraine). The Indo-Pacific is not immune to these trends with democracy coming under direct assault in Hong Kong, Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Taiwan, widespread disinformation becoming a feature of public discourse, expanding digital authoritarianism being used by governments to suppress free expression, whilst embedded corruption continues to undermine confidence in democratic systems.

Democratic decline and growing authoritarianism in the world are occurring at a time of intensifying geostrategic competition between the United States (and its allies and partners), China and Russia. This competition is viewed as a comprehensive one, encompassing technology, trade, investment, climate change, green transformation, defence and security. It goes beyond the material, however, and includes contestation over ideas — over the rules governing inter-state behaviour, the principles underpinning global institutions, standard setting for investment, trade and digital governance, as well as the internal political systems of states. China is actively courting the Global South with its alternative non-liberal vision of a “global community of shared future” through the Global Development Initiative (GDI), the Global Security Initiative (GSI), and the Global Civilisation Initiative (GCI).

Beijing directly supports other autocracies to consolidate their rule, sharing best practices and technological tools on how to surveil and suppress domestic opposition, providing aid and investment, shielding autocrats from scrutiny and condemnation in international forums, and actively promoting China’s authoritarian brand of capitalism as superior to liberal democracy. Over time, it has become more obvious that the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is more than an infrastructure investment vehicle but also a means to extend influence over regional states by means which exacerbate corruption and exploit weak democratic institutions and the rule of law. China’s “no-limits partnership” with Russia and diplomatic and economic support for the latter in its war on democratic Ukraine takes this one step further.

Japan and Australia have both adopted a broadly ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ (FOIP) strategy or vision, representing a values-based turn in their foreign policies. Japan, under Shinzo Abe, was the first to adopt a FOIP strategy as a response to a more aggressive China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping. They have joined with the United States in forums like the G7, NATO and the Quad to develop strategies to support the existing liberal rules-based order across the issue areas mentioned above. They have not, however, followed the United States in taking on this ideological competition beyond state borders. Japan and Australia’s FOIP strategies focus on the liberal rules-based-order as it applies to relations between states (the international rule of law, freedom of navigation and the seas, freedom from coercion and the threat/use of force) but less in terms of shaping liberal and democratic practices and institutions within states.

The report makes the case for why Japan and Australia should place greater emphasis on democracy support in their foreign policies to achieve both the objectives of their respective FOIP strategies, as well as their aid objectives of reducing poverty and creating conditions for sustainable development.

The United States has a proud tradition of promoting democratic values in its foreign policy, even if it has not been historically emphasised consistently by different administrations. USAID is the largest provider of democracy assistance in the world — defined as funding to support independent media, the rule of law, judicial reform, human rights, good governance, civil society, pluralistic political parties and free and fair elections. The US Congress actively supports democratic programs around the world through the work of the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute. Whilst the United States has had its own struggles with democracy at home, the Biden administration openly describes the international context as one of an overarching struggle between democracy and autocracy and has set out to support democracy as a major foreign policy priority, including increased funding and efforts to demonstrate that democracy can deliver.

In contrast, Australia and Japan have traditionally been reluctant to overtly provide democracy support or assistance in their aid programs. Neither directly promotes the value of liberal democratic systems nor assists on the basis that democracy goes beyond elections and also requires the fostering of a democratic culture within society and the participation of a diverse range of stakeholders. They have been sensitive to perceptions that they might be attempting to impose Western values on their neighbours rather than respecting their sovereignty and individual choices.

However, whilst both democracies tie their hands, fearing to offend, China is using various foreign policy tools to exert greater influence in regions of strategic priority, to support authoritarian states, promote authoritarian values and provide infrastructure investment and development assistance in democratic states using means that are untransparent, non-competitive, and shielded from scrutiny within democratic nations from opposition parties, constituents, and the media. Such investment and aid have provided opportunities for elected leaders to personally or politically profit from these transactions and with such corruption degrading already weak democratic institutions and practices.

There are a large number of democracies in the two most important geographic areas of strategic interest for both Japan and Australia: Southeast Asia and the Pacific. It should be of concern to both that democratic backsliding is often associated with greater acceptance of China’s preferred interests, norms and institutions. Countering democratic backsliding should therefore be an essential pillar of the Australian and Japanese FOIP strategies.

As resident powers, Australia and Japan have to work together to complement, but not necessarily always mirror US approaches. This report explores whether and how both countries can work more effectively — separately and together — to more directly support democracy as part of their FOIP strategies. The following report:

  • Investigates the similarities and differences between Australia and Japan in their approach to democracy support activities in their foreign policies;
  • Identifies why those differences in approach occur;
  • Explores how each country currently supports democratic principles and practices through their aid programs in Southeast Asia and the Pacific; and
  • Explains how liberal democratic norms and practices are being contested in each region by authoritarian states.

The report makes the case for why Japan and Australia should place greater emphasis on democracy support in their foreign policies to achieve both the objectives of their respective FOIP strategies, as well as their aid objectives of reducing poverty and creating conditions for sustainable development, with recommendations on how they might do so.

Executive summary

Both Australia and Japan have adopted Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategies in recent years based on the assessment that Chinese policy and actions have begun to erode the foundations of the post-Second World War US-led liberal order. Both have formed deeper partnerships with each other, and other democracies — including India and the United States through the Quad — to coordinate and collaborate on policy to counter these trends in the realms of critical technology, trade, infrastructure investment, standard-setting, digital transformation, health and climate change.

Whilst recognising that the Chinese challenge is also a normative challenge to international order, both have been slow to recognise how China’s strategic messaging, infrastructure funding, aid and business practices are contributing to democratic backsliding in the Indo-Pacific. Both have been reticent to overtly use democracy support within their aid programs as a tool of statecraft to counter this phenomenon within Southeast Asian and Pacific Island countries. They are more comfortable in emphasising threats to external aspects of the global order — in terms of the threat of coercion or actual use of force, and failure to respect the international rule of law — rather than the internal erosion of liberal democratic norms within states.

Australia and Japan are reluctant to commit to an explicit policy of supporting and strengthening democracy in the region. Unlike the United States, which is an active promoter of democratic practices as part of its foreign policy, Australia and Japan are not global powers. Their geographical proximity to both Southeast Asia and the Pacific makes these two countries reluctant to emphasise the importance of supporting and strengthening democracy in their dealings with regional states for fear of attracting criticism or hostility. Intensifying geostrategic competition has led both Canberra and Tokyo to put even greater emphasis on cultivating good relations and maximising influence vis-à-vis governments in these two sub-regions, regardless of regime type.

All the while, democratic backsliding in both the Pacific and Southeast Asia is occurring and is well documented. Chinese policies, practices and narratives are not the only cause of this phenomenon but are a significant factor.

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Quad Leaders’ Summit  in Japan, May 2022.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the Quad Leaders’ Summit in Japan, May 2022.Source: Getty

There is fertile ground for the promotion of authoritarianism in the region. In Southeast Asia, an existing problem is a relatively shallow commitment to democratic systems and liberal values. Public opinion surveys demonstrate that populations take an instrumentalist view of the virtues of democracy i.e. they judge democracy according to whether it can deliver economic development. Rather than blaming the party in power for inadequate economic outcomes, they blame the democratic system as failing. And in many cases, regular elections alone cannot overcome sub-optimal developmental outcomes resulting from poor separation of powers, inadequate checks on governmental power, limited civil society participation, restrictions on freedom of the press and corruption. This helps to account for both authoritarian resilience and democratic erosion in some countries. It provides fertile ground for Chinese messaging that its authoritarian model provides a superior alternative to democracy that is able to maintain social order and rapid economic development even if economic, social and political freedoms are restricted.

In the Pacific, but also in Southeast Asia, China is engaged in winning the favour of democratically elected leaders, known as ‘elite capture,’ by providing corrupt payments — used for personal gain, to reward patronage networks or to pay off opponents — in return for business and infrastructure contracts, access to natural resources or support for Beijing’s political and strategic objectives. These Chinese aid, investment and business practices — including via the Belt and Road Initiative — deliberately degrade or circumvent liberal norms such as transparency of government decision-making and financing arrangements, accountability of institutions and freedom of information, which may lead to a permanent erosion of democratic institutions and practices in some nations. In some cases, such as the Solomon Islands, the leadership has become even more dependent on the CCP to keep itself in power and emboldened it in delaying elections and suppressing free media.

Both Japan and Australia currently support democracy in their aid programs, but Australia does so to a significantly greater extent and includes a wider range of activities. For example, in 2021, 21 per cent of Australian aid to Southeast Asia was devoted to “governance.” In 2022, Japan directed 0.46 per cent of its total aid to Southeast Asia to “governance and civil society” whilst almost half of all aid from 2013–22 went to support economic infrastructure and services. Both countries support elections, judicial reform and legal capacity building, as well as efforts to strengthen good governance through programs which help to build the policy-making, technical and administrative capability of public officials.

Japan’s aid program has traditionally been delivered at the request of recipient governments and not directly to civil society groups. Recent changes to Japan’s 2023 Development Cooperation Charter may lead to a more proactive approach with the inclusion of “offer-type” development cooperation in collaboration with international and sub-national actors, including civil society organisations (CSO). Australia’s aid program is not similarly restricted and includes greater involvement of local civil society/NGO organisations to deliver services and programs, support for CSO voices, the promotion of gender equality, parliamentary exchanges and media training.

However, where governance-type activities are supported, the emphasis in both countries’ aid programs is on ‘state-building’ activities that improve government competence and service delivery with the intent to progress economic development and poverty reduction. It is hoped or assumed that in the longer term, this could lead to or deepen democratisation and cultures of democracy — of accountability, transparency, rule of law, and free and fair elections — as occurred post-Second World War in countries in East Asia, including Japan.

In essence, both take a passive approach to supporting democracy. In doing so, they are neglecting an important tool of statecraft that can directly counter the phenomenon of Chinese elite capture and the degradation of democratic practices and good governance that come with it. Stronger support for strengthening democratic institutions, the promotion of civic space, robust civil society participation and free media in the political process provides a direct counter to elite capture. The enabling of such alternative centres of power capable of advocating for multiple interests in society, and demanding transparency and accountability from government, indirectly shapes the political environment in which elites act and limits their political choices. Only populations in democratic countries — even those with weak institutions such as the Maldives, Sri Lanka and Malaysia — have been able to expose corruption, hold elites to account and ensure they work to the benefit of the long-term interests of their countries.

Greater support for democracy promotion within both Australia and Japan’s aid policies and programs can take place whilst being sensitive to the varying levels of commitment to democratic values in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Liberal democratic values should not be imposed on other countries in respect for their sovereignty. In any event, aid programs cannot be delivered without the consent and approval of recipient governments.

Approaches should be tailored according to the existing level of commitment to democracy in recipient states. Governments of countries that openly identify as democracies are more likely to welcome assistance from Australia and Japan to strengthen their democratic institutions and practices, and should be the focus. This could go beyond the conduct of elections and building the capacity of government officials and judiciaries to do their jobs well, to include direct support for civil society groups (including those involved in the political process), and independent media.

In illiberal or electoral democracies, wide-ranging democracy support activities beyond those that provide technical and policy capacity building for government officials and the judiciary are infeasible and are likely to undermine good bilateral relations. Both Japan and Australia undertake these activities currently and should continue to do so to generate goodwill and achieve long-term economic, social, and humanitarian outcomes. Under the principle of doing no harm, both countries should, however, be mindful that “good governance” activities in these countries might be merely enabling autocratic governments to become more competent, shielding them from bottom-up demands for greater freedoms.

Providing greater aid and concessional loans for infrastructure investment by Japan and Australia in Southeast Asia and the Pacific also indirectly safeguards democratic institutions and practices. They do so by offering an alternative to Chinese investment based on standards that promote open tendering, public transparency of contract terms, adherence to minimum labour standards, assessment of national benefits, and the consideration of environmental and social impacts. Telecommunications infrastructure and submarine cables should be an important area of aid and investment to safeguard data privacy and disruption by authoritarian actors.

Japan continues to lead the provision of ODA in Southeast Asia, whilst Australia leads in the Pacific. There is a significant opportunity to expand the scope of their individual and joint efforts in supporting projects improving connectivity, climate mitigation and adaptation, telecommunications and undersea cables, and digital transformation.


Joint recommendations for Australia and Japan

  • Both Australia and Japan should place greater emphasis on democracy support activities within their aid policies to further the poverty reduction and developmental objectives of these policies as well as their strategic objective of supporting a free, open and prosperous Indo-Pacific. Both governments should recognise that development assistance is being used by China in ways that undermine democratic institutions and circumvent government transparency and accountability whilst simultaneously undercutting their strategic influence in both Southeast Asia and the Pacific.
  • Japan and Australia should work together to jointly support infrastructure investment in Southeast Asia and the Pacific based on Japan’s ‘quality infrastructure principles’ (adopted by G20 countries in 2019) to provide an alternative to Chinese-led ODA and loans which are delivered by means that degrade democratic institutions and practices in recipient countries.
  • Strategic messaging is an essential tool of statecraft. Both Australia and Japan should engage in whole-of-government efforts to challenge Chinese narratives about the superiority of authoritarian systems to liberal democracies in the achievement of economic development and social order. The current reticence of both countries to openly explain the benefits of liberal and democratic institutions offers China uncontested space to promote its own authoritarian capitalist model as superior, without proper scrutiny of this claim.
  • Australia and Japan need democratic Southeast Asian partners. Indonesia is a prime candidate. It is the largest Muslim-majority democracy in the world and is proud of its tradition of South-South Cooperation (SSC) since the Bandung Conference of 1955 and internal consolidation of democracy since 1998. It is eager to share its experience of democratisation with developing countries in the form of SSC. Australia and Japan should work with Indonesian organisations and experts to explore principles and pathways to democratisation that are most suitable for Southeast Asian nations. This could utilise mechanisms such as the Bali Democracy Forum or the creation of new ones.
  • Australia and Japan should enhance coordination of democracy support activities with other like-minded democracies that provide aid for this purpose such as the United States, South Korea, the European Union, individual European countries and emerging donors such as India and Indonesia. This would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of democracy support programs and avoid duplication of effort.
  • Australia and Japan should play a greater role in providing a safe haven for young pro-democracy activists from Myanmar, Thailand, China, Hong Kong and elsewhere who have been forced to flee political persecution. Japan has a history of harbouring many Asian exiles, dissidents, and intellectuals who resisted colonial and dynastic rule, such as Sun Yat-sen (father of the Republic of China), Song Jiaoren (first leader of the Chinese Kuomintang), and Phan Boi Chau (leader of the Vietnamese independent movement). As such history teaches, current exiles may become future leaders of their country. Australia too has a history of supporting democracy activists in exile (e.g. East Timor and most recently Hong Kong) but could expand its activities.
  • Japan currently does not have a significant number of civil society organisations both willing and capable of supporting democratisation programs as part of ODA. Both Australia and Japan could work together to support capacity building for Japanese CSOs working in democracy support, the promotion of human rights and free media by creating a platform by which Japanese CSOs can build networks and regularly engage with other CSOs in the Indo-Pacific. This idea has already been developed by Yukio Takasu, former Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations, who has proposed the creation of an Indo-Pacific Platform for Universal Values to serve this role. It is worthy of support by both governments.
  • At the government-to-government level, both countries should provide greater support for more exchanges between Japanese and Australian parliamentarians and their counterparts in the region in order to expand understanding of — and exposure to — varieties of democratic parliamentary and legislative norms and practices.

Recommendations for Japan

  • Japanese ODA directed towards democracy support activities is too low and has been in decline in recent years. Japan has both moral (poverty reduction and economic development) and strategic imperatives to support democracy more substantially in its ODA program as a direct counter to the degradation of democratic practices in regions of strategic priority i.e. Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Japan currently supports capacity building for government officials, elections, and support for judicial training and legislative reform. These activities should continue and be expanded substantially.
  • Japan should be less reticent to offer democracy support programs in countries that identify as democracies with existing societal expectations of universal suffrage, relatively free and fair elections, independent media and civil society participation. Assisting these countries more robustly with elections, technical capacity building, judicial reform, and legislative, media, civil society and parliamentary capacity building will likely be welcomed and not viewed as the imposition of Western values.
  • Japanese ODA for the provision of infrastructure should continue but should also be framed in terms of providing indirect support for democratic and accountable governance practices in the Indo-Pacific. The selection of projects should have democracy support in mind to further Japan’s strategic objective of supporting a free and open Indo-Pacific. For example, Japan’s 2023 decision to join with Australia and the United States to build an undersea cable between Micronesia, Nauru and Kiribati supports economic development in these countries, whilst also ensuring that critical infrastructure is operated under democratic principles.
  • Now that the 2023 Development Cooperation Charter opens the possibility for “offer-based” ODA programs, Japan should consider going beyond supporting initiatives focused on climate change/green transformation, economic sustainability and digital transformation to also support initiatives to expand the number and build the capacity of Japanese CSOs to deliver democracy support programs within the region.

Recommendations for Australia

  • The Australian Government needs to formally accept that development assistance is being used by countries such as China to change governance institutions and norms in recipient countries. In addition to maintaining high ethical and technical standards, Australian development assistance also needs to be deployed to influence elite behaviour, develop transparent and accountable governance institutions, and expand civil society and free media participation in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Strategies and specific projects should be selected and designed to include this geopolitical and normative purpose.
  • Australia already currently provides significant support for the development of good governance practices in the Pacific and Southeast Asia. This is mostly directed towards ‘state-building’ efforts i.e. building the capacity of government officials to improve technical and policymaking capabilities and improved service delivery to achieve economic development. These are worthy programs. However, greater support for the development of democratic practices and a culture of transparency and accountability in society should be prioritised within the aid program to counter opportunities for elite capture and prevent the degradation of democratic institutions and practices. Australia should increase the weighting of aid for support to local CSOs with a view to building their capacity to advocate for their constituencies and enter the political process.
  • Australia should provide greater ODA to directly support training for journalists and the operation of independent media organisations in the Pacific. Currently, Chinese state media companies have begun to operate in the Pacific, and there is evidence of Chinese influence over independent media companies being achieved with small outlays. Direct support for independent media would counter these activities and ensure it can play a role in providing factual reporting and holding decision-makers to account.
  • Australia should significantly expand support for the training of journalists in both the Pacific and Southeast Asia as a key means of supporting democracy at a time when misinformation and disinformation through social media platforms have become commonplace. This could involve the expansion of supported traineeships and internships in Australia.
  • The Australian Government and related entities should provide support for non-governmental entities and experts to explore the causal importance and impacts on economic development of bottom-up liberal institutions and practices and to directly interrogate assumptions about authoritarian competence applied to Southeast Asia and developing economies in general. While these conversations led by independent entities and experts will not always align with Australian Government messaging, entering and occupying ground currently dominated by those championing authoritarian competence is a step in the right direction.

Democracy support in Australian foreign policy

Dr Lavina Lee

Traditionally, Australia has not followed the United States in the overt promotion of democracy in its foreign policy. Even so, historically liberal values have influenced Australia’s preference for multilateralism, support for global institutions and the allies and partners it has chosen to pursue its national interests. In this sense, Australia’s foreign policy identity is based on its own domestic commitment to liberal democracy and a global order based on liberal internationalist principles. Since 2017, Australia has implicitly embraced a version of Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy designed to counter Chinese policy and actions that have begun to erode the foundations of the post-Second World War US-led liberal order. It has done so in partnership with the United States, Japan and India, the three most capable and forward-leaning Indo-Pacific democracies, via the Quad and other bilateral and trilateral arrangements. Australia recognises that China represents an economic, technological, military/strategic, institutional and normative challenge to the liberal global order. Yet, supporting democratic values and practices through foreign policy instruments such as development aid, has not played a major role in Canberra’s FOIP strategy. There is still a reticence to pierce the veil of sovereignty to support what might be regarded as ‘Western values’ even as Chinese practices are eroding already weak or fragile regional democracies. This chapter discusses the historical role of liberal democratic values in Australian foreign policy, the values-based turn in Australia’s current FOIP strategy, and the current role of democracy support in Australia’s development assistance policy. It then makes the case for greater emphasis on democracy support activities as an underappreciated means to counter authoritarian trends in Australia’s neighbourhood.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during a press conference at Parliament House, May 2022.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Penny Wong and Prime Minister Anthony Albanese during a press conference at Parliament House, May 2022. Source: Getty

Democracy and liberal values in Australian foreign policy

Liberal values have always underpinned Australian foreign policy, even if its leaders have not always emphasised them as guiding principles. The two enduring traditions in Australian foreign policy — dependence on an alliance with a non-resident great-power and ‘middle-power’ activism — are both strongly influenced by Australia’s liberal identity. Australia’s two alliance partners since federation in 1901 — Britain until the fall of Singapore in 1942 and since then, the United States — share similar characteristics. This goes beyond a common Anglo-Saxon heritage and includes the capacity to maintain open sea lines of communication and balance against or suppress any expansionist tendencies of a rising great power in the Far East.1 The strength of these alliances draws from the shared commitment to liberal democratic values, institutions and practices and an aversion to authoritarian political systems.

Australian foreign policy has also been characterised as ‘middle-power diplomacy’ or ‘activism.’2 Australia has been a strong supporter of global institutions based on liberal internationalist principles. This includes the United Nations since its inception, the Bretton Woods institutions, human rights treaties, nuclear non-proliferation, the World Trade Organization, and the rule of law through adherence to treaties like UNCLOS and the ICJ. Middle power diplomacy was most strongly associated with Gareth Evans, Australia’s foreign minister from 1988 to 1996. Evans’ brand of middle power diplomacy is associated with “coalition building with ‘like-minded’ countries” within existing multilateral institutions, but also building new institutions to pursue liberal internationalist interests and values such as trade liberalisation, WMD non-proliferation and post-conflict diplomacy.3 It involves notions of being a ‘good international citizen’ through the provision of humanitarian aid which, in Evans’ words, Australia’s “democratic community expects its government to pursue” to create “just and tolerant societies.”4 The subsequent Howard government in turn espoused a liberal formula for state-building based on “security and the rule of law; transparent and efficient bureaucratic institutions; the provision of essential services to the population; the operation of democratic processes and norms; and the fostering of conditions for market-led development.”5

Nevertheless, Australian governments have remained wary of too overtly promoting or supporting democracy in the Asia-Pacific region even as the third wave of democratisation washed over Southeast and East Asia at the end of the Cold War. This is attributed to strong push-back in parts of the region against the idea that liberal democratic values are universal, rather than a Western construct incompatible with distinct Asian values.6 In the late 1980s and 1990s prominent Southeast Asian prime ministers Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore and Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia argued that successful Asian economic development rested on the privileging of communal interests rather than individual rights, order over personal freedom, respect for political leaders, a culture of hard work and thrift and an intertwining of government and business.7 It was Mahathir who for years thwarted Australia’s attempts to join ASEAN-led institutions such as the East Asian Summit and its predecessors on the grounds of identity, famously saying “[Australians] are Europeans, they cannot be Asians.”8 Pragmatically, the Howard government downplayed this perceived difference in values and identity as the price of entry to Asian regional institutions.9 The promotion of liberal values had become an impediment to Australia’s acceptance among Asian countries as belonging to and having a legitimate stake in the region. The Howard government also distanced itself from ‘middle-power’ diplomacy as a concept as one too closely associated with Labor. In circumstances where US foreign policy itself preferred unilateral approaches to multilateral ones, ultimately the Howard government chose the US alliance over middle-power diplomacy, supporting the United States in both Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Nevertheless, in its framing of the greatest threat to Australian security — Islamic terrorism — the Howard government too saw these challenges as ideological, threatening liberal freedoms within the state.

With the rise of China however, there has been a distinct and more obvious values-based turn in Australian foreign policy noticeable first in the 2016 Defence White Paper and its emphasis on defending a ‘rules-based order’ and then more prominently in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The latter is upfront about liberal values being the foundation of Australian foreign policy, stating: “Our support for political, economic and religious freedoms, liberal democracy, the rule of law, racial and gender equality and mutual respect reflect who we are and how we approach the world.”10 A recurring theme is the contestation and erosion of the prevailing US-led liberal order as being contested by actions which implicated China, with allusions made to states that “are active in asserting authoritarian models in opposition to open, democratic governance,”11 and the increased use of “measures short of war” to pursue political and security objectives.12 To safeguard the ‘rules-based order’ the 2017 Foreign Policy 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.”13

The return of liberal values expressed in both documents reflects changing threat assessments in response to increasing Chinese aggression and ambition under the leadership of Xi Jinping from 2012 onward. This included its expanding territorial claims and aggressive actions toward rival claimant states to exert de facto control over vast swathes of international waters and disputed features of the South and East China Seas. Added to this was Beijing’s refusal to abide by the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling invalidating its nine-dash line claim in the South China Sea and growing apprehension about the scale, ambition and strategic consequences of the Belt and Road Initiative (i.e. the emergence of ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy). It was also during this period that the federal government began investigating the extent of foreign interference within Australia, including the activities of United Front organisations, as well as the security implications of Chinese investment (by both Chinese state-owned enterprises and private firms) in critical infrastructure. No doubt, Australian policy approaches were also influenced by the Abe administration as the first official creator and promoter of the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ concept in 2016.

Whilst AUKUS is focused on developing cutting-edge military capabilities to deter adversaries from using force to realise expansive territorial ambitions, the broad agenda of the Quad is about demonstrating that democracies can deliver on the greatest challenges of our time and join in defence of liberal norms.

Australia’s embrace of the Quad — as a grouping of the four most formidable democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific joined together in pursuit of a “free, open and inclusive” regional order — is the direct manifestation of this. Another is the creation of the AUKUS partnership which joins Australia with its historical allies to create a potent technological and military-industrial partnership. Both entities are viewed as essential to a collective democratic pushback and reassertion of democratic power, relevance, and strategic agency. Whilst AUKUS is focused on developing cutting-edge military capabilities to deter adversaries from using force to realise expansive territorial ambitions, the broad agenda of the Quad — covering vaccine delivery, infrastructure and digital standard-setting, maritime domain awareness, and green technology — is about demonstrating that democracies can deliver on the greatest challenges of our time and join in defence of liberal norms.

These activities have taken on a higher level of urgency with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 and the emergence of the China-Russia ‘no-limits’ partnership, which then-Prime Minister Scott Morrison described as a “new arc of autocracy” that is “instinctively aligning to challenge and reset the world order in their own image.”14 The Albanese government has dampened rhetoric on the deepening competition between autocracies and democracies, returning to an emphasis on the external aspects of a ‘rules-based’ order that are still under threat by authoritarian practices, but which appeal to small and middle-powers regardless of their political system i.e. respect for the rule of law and right of states to exercise sovereignty without the threat or the use of force those stronger than them.15

Yet Canberra clearly recognises that strategic competition between democracies and autocracies is intensifying at all levels, that a Russian victory in Ukraine has direct implications for Chinese ambitions to unify with Taiwan by force, and that the deepening influence of Beijing in Southeast Asia and the Pacific is occurring at the expense of Australian interests. It continues to forge ahead with Quad-based initiatives, as well as deepening bilateral and trilateral cooperation with the same Quad partners. The latest “strategic direction statement” of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from May 2023 states for example that:

Australia now faces the most challenging strategic circumstances of the post-war period, circumstances with require unprecedented coordination and ambition in our statecraft. Our region — the Indo-Pacific — is being reshaped amid rapid strategic and economic change, with increasing risk of miscalculation or conflict. Australia’s objective is to contribute to a regional balance of power that bolsters peace and stability, by shaping an open, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific. To achieve that, Australia must harness all elements of national power.16

That is, the pace and scale of increasing Chinese influence in the Indo-Pacific requires a whole of government response, that utilises multiple tools of statecraft. This includes for example investment in diplomacy and strategic messaging, building military capability, cooperation with allies on intelligence sharing, joint development of high technology, coordination of policy with allies on semiconductors, AI, climate technologies, trade, investment and export policies, and promotion of standards supportive of liberal values covering 5G and ‘quality infrastructure’ etc. Even so, there has not been a clear articulation of the role, if any, that democracy support — i.e. the use of foreign policy tools to assist or encourage liberal democratic governance in other states — should have as a tool of Australian statecraft or as part of a push-back agenda with like-minded democratic partners.

Australia’s response to Chinese strategic competition: Tools of statecraft in the Pacific and Southeast Asia

Australia’s primary areas of geo-strategic interest within the Indo-Pacific are the Pacific Islands and Southeast Asia. The Second World War demonstrated the strategic importance of the Pacific to Australian security. Since then, it has worked to maintain a position of pre-eminence as the preferred development and security partner of most Pacific Island nations (excluding French Polynesia; the US Compact of Free Association states; and the Cook Islands and Niue which receive most aid from New Zealand). It is a member of the Pacific Islands Forum, and between 2008–21 was the largest development partner of the region accounting for almost 40 per cent of the total ODF of around US$17 billion in disbursed funds. It is also the largest provider of grant funding, with around 95 per cent of Australian funding coming in this form.17 Over the same period the next closest providers of official development finance have provided less than US$5 billion each and in descending order are the Asian Development Bank, China (US$3.9 billion disbursed), Japan, New Zealand, the United States, the World Bank and the European Union.18

On taking office in May 2022, the Labor government received an immediate wake-up call on Chinese ambitions in the Pacific, including the establishment of a foothold for the PLAN. In April 2022, the Solomon Islands signed a security agreement with China, marking the first agreement of its type between a Pacific Islands nation and Beijing. The agreement itself was not made public, but a leaked draft provided for the deployment of Chinese “police, armed police, military personnel and other law enforcement forces” to the Solomons to “assist in maintaining social order” and for PLAN warships to gain access to ports for stop-overs and replenishment.19 This opened the door to a greater Chinese military presence less than 2000 km from the northeast of Australia.20 Ahead of the May 2022 federal election, the then Labor opposition accused their government opponents of severely neglecting Australia’s diplomatic relationships in the Pacific, describing the pact as the “worst foreign policy blunder in the Pacific since the end of World War II.”21 Worse still was the Chinese proposal put to the second China-Pacific Foreign Ministers meeting in May 2022 for a comprehensive China-Pacific Islands economic and security agreement. This would cover trade, finance and investment, tourism, public health, Chinese language and cultural exchanges, training and scholarships, and a significant expansion in Chinese training of Pacific police forces, along the lines of the Solomons agreement. Whilst the deal was rejected by Pacific Island nations — many of whom sought to protect the Pacific from heated geopolitical competition — it made clear China’s ambition to further increase its economic and security sector influence in a region where it already dominates resource extraction industries.22 The risk of a Chinese security presence in the Pacific for Australia has not passed, with reports that China pursued PLAN access to ports in Vanuatu and PNG in 2018, and Kiribati in 2021. Its diplomatic influence within the Pacific Islands Forum continues to grow after persuading the Solomons and Kiribati to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China in 2019 and Nauru to do the same in January 2023 just after Taiwan’s national election.

The Albanese government has put considerable energy and resources into arresting its declining influence in the Pacific using multiple tools of statecraft. To signal the renewed priority given to Australia’s ‘Pacific family’ within the first year of taking office, government ministers have visited every Pacific Islands Forum member, including multiple visits by the Foreign Minister Penny Wong, Minister for International Development and the Pacific Pat Conroy, and the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese.23 The message delivered during these visits was that Australia was listening to Pacific priorities — including action on climate change adaptation and mitigation — whilst seeking to maintain its status as the Pacific’s ‘partner of choice’ and ‘principal security partner.’

The Albanese government has put considerable energy and resources into arresting its declining influence in the Pacific using multiple tools of statecraft.

In May 2023, the government announced a comprehensive package titled ‘Enhancing Pacific Engagement’ allocating A$1.9 billion over four years which mixes multiple elements of statecraft to meet Pacific needs: from aid and development, infrastructure, defence and security. This includes an estimated A$1.27 billion to develop Pacific Island nations’ security infrastructure and maritime security capability (e.g. maritime surveillance capacity to protect the Pacific’s large EEZs, providing patrol boats, and infrastructure upgrades) as well as cooperation on law enforcement involving the Australian Federal Police. Another component is A$370 million for an expansion of the Pacific Australia Labour Mobility (PALM) scheme which allows Australian businesses to hire workers from nine Pacific Island countries and Timor Leste in sectors of workforce shortage, further enmeshing the economies of the Pacific with that of Australia. A further A$114 million is provided over four years to support the development of regional architecture primarily via the Pacific Islands Forum to assist in humanitarian relief, disaster preparedness, diplomatic capability, and security priorities with climate change foremost, followed by natural disasters, gender-based violence, illegal unreported and unregulated fishing, cybercrime and transnational organised crime.24 Outside of this program, in an effort to offer an alternative to Chinese infrastructure funds, in 2022 the government doubled the lending pool of the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) from A$1.5 billion to A$3 billion. This facility is focused on supporting ‘high-quality, sustainable infrastructure,’ and had at that time finalised financing of over A$700 million for investment in airports, ports, submarine cables and solar farms.25 Finally, in 2023–24 ODA funding for Pacific countries stood at A$1.43 billion, representing around 30 per cent of the total aid budget with the top four recipients being Papua New Guinea (A$616 million), Solomon Islands (A$171 million), Fiji (A$88 million) and Vanuatu (A$85 million).26

Southeast Asia is Australia’s second most important region of strategic interest and another sphere where Chinese influence has grown exponentially. The current Albanese government has elevated the significance of Southeast Asia in Australia’s foreign policy. In 2023–24 it boosted spending on enhancing Australian diplomatic capability by A$55.7 million over four years to facilitate increased diplomatic visits and business engagement to the region.27 Southeast Asia receives the second highest proportion of Australia’s aid funding after the Pacific and has done so for many years, with A$775 million allocated in 2023-24.28 Australia has worked hard to become more enmeshed in the economic and security architecture of the region (particularly as a comprehensive strategic partner of ASEAN and a member of the East Asian Summit), pays due deference to ASEAN centrality, and has developed deeper defence, security and economic ties with Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Indonesia is Australia’s highest Southeast Asian aid recipient in 2023–24 at A$324 million, followed by Myanmar (A$121 million), Vietnam (A$95 million) and the Philippines (A$90 million).29 Given the greater size and complexity of Southeast Asia than the Pacific and the lower level of aid dependence there overall, Australia alone cannot decisively tilt the regional balance in material or normative terms without closer cooperation with its allies and partners.

How Australia’s aid program can help in the fight against elite capture

The Albanese government took office with the intent to increase the role of ODA as a tool of Australian statecraft, boosting ODA to A$4.77 billion in 2023–2430 from A$4.55 billion the previous year31 and committing to increase the budget by 2.5 per cent per year on an ongoing basis from 2026–27.32 Australia adheres to the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee (DAC) aid standards and delivers aid directly to recipient governments, through multinational organisations, in cooperation with other countries (like New Zealand) and working directly with Australian, local and international NGOs.33 In August 2023, the government released a new International Development Policy (AIDP) — replacing the previous policy released in 2014 — in response to the “the most challenging strategic circumstances in the post-war period.”34 According to the AIDP, the objective of Australia’s program “is to advance an Indo-Pacific that is peaceful, stable, and prosperous… To achieve this requires sustainable development and lifting people out of poverty.”35 In other words, sustainable development and poverty alleviation are the route to a peaceful, stable and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Whilst the AIDP does not mention Australia’s fears of a Chinese military presence in the Pacific, the subtext is that somehow aid can be used to arrest the decline in Australia’s regional influence. Yet, as mentioned above, Australia is already by far the largest aid provider to the Pacific Islands providing 40 per cent of all aid since 2008 and has already generated considerable goodwill among Pacific Islander peoples from its generosity, particularly by providing direct budget support during the COVID pandemic. In contrast, China’s expanding clout in the Pacific has come about via a much lower level of ODF, at around nine per cent over the same period.36 After a peak in development financing in 2016, China’s loan disbursements fell to US$241 million in 2021, below the pre-pandemic average of US$285 million since 2021.37 China has managed to achieve more of its strategic objectives, with a lot less.

Elite capture

How then, has Beijing been able to create this outsized level of influence at Australia’s expense? It has done so by using a strategy of elite capture i.e. directly targeting the personal and political interests of a small number of Pacific elites in positions of power. China has shifted from a “loud and brash” to a “small and beautiful” and “politically targeted” approach to ODF directly rewarding those politicians and countries that officially recognise the PRC rather than Taiwan.38 In the Solomon Islands, China has financed the US$53 million 2023 Pacific Games stadium and other sports facilities, as well as committing loan funds to build 161 mobile communication towers supplied by Huawei.39 There are also numerous reported instances of Chinese aid being used to make direct and indirect payments to governing elites in return for business contracts, access to natural resources or support for Beijing’s political preferences. In 2018, a large-scale example was the use of Chinese aid to make a A$1 million bribe to Sir Michael Somare, the former prime minister of PNG.According to PNG authorities and Singaporean anti-corruption investigators, these funds came from a A$4.7 million slush fund established by Chinese phone company ZTE in 2010 to ensure it was awarded a contract in PNG.40 Prior to the signing of the Solomons-China security pact in 2022, credible media reports suggested that Prime Minister Sogavare used a Chinese-supplied slush fund to pay A$44,000 each to a number of MPs to avert a likely no-confidence vote in parliament. This vote of no-confidence arose after violent riots in the capital by protesters dissatisfied with his government and its decision to switch recognition from Taiwan to China.41 China’s use of Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) funding to exploit and exacerbate ongoing corruption and existing institutional weaknesses in democratic states has been documented in the Maldives,42 Sri Lanka with the now infamous ‘debt trap’ diplomacy associated with Hambantota Port in 2017,43 and Malaysia’s 1MDB corruption scandal that led to the fall of the Razak government.44

Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, October 2019.
Solomon Islands’ Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, October 2019. Source: Getty

The decline in Australian influence in the Pacific has come about largely through Chinese elite capture and the subversion of democratic processes. Beijing is actively using economic resources to achieve its interests in ways that open up opportunities for corruption and subvert accountability processes, allowing ruling regimes to make decisions contrary to the will and long-term national interest of their citizens. Pacific Islanders are very unlikely to welcome a Chinese military presence and the heightened geo-strategic tension this would entail. Expending ever larger amounts of Australian aid in the Pacific, however, does not address these causes of democratic backsliding, and the erosion of the very good governance practices that are needed to achieve sustainable development and poverty alleviation that are the core goals of the Australian Aid program.

Democracy support can provide a direct counter to these trends by undermining the mechanisms by which China extends its influence over regional states. For example, only countries with liberal democratic institutions in place have been able to resist the worst aspects of Chinese lending through the BRI and to ensure that they operate under terms beneficial for the long-term interests of a country. In the absence of liberal democratic institutions that impose accountability and transparency in decision-making, projects can be fast-tracked without transparency, open competition for tenders, adherence to labour and environmental standards, or scrutiny of the overall national benefit. Without such transparency and open competition, BRI projects present opportunities for corruption among government elites. The ouster of Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak and the United Malays National Organisation from power in 2018 occurred because of the exposure of massive personal corruption, as well as the perception that he had sold out Malaysia’s interest to a foreign government for personal gain. Even Malaysia’s weak democratic institutions were able to push back against Chinese influence.

Australia and other democracies like Japan cannot enter the game of elite capture by providing direct personal or political benefits to elites to achieve strategic objectives. To do so would be unacceptable to their own publics, betray their liberal values, and undermine the long-term objective of aid policy of building effective and accountable states that will one day no longer need assistance. Development aid initiatives can, however, have an indirect influence on elite decision-making by shaping the political environment in which they act. This can occur by enabling alternative centres of political power with interests, values and goals that are aligned with ideas associated with democracy and good governance — transparency and accountability in political decision-making — that constrain the menu of political choices from which elites are able to choose. They can support the development of stronger institutions based on a separation of powers and the rule of law. Empowering civil society and the media to advocate for various community interests, and to demand transparency and accountability from governments plays an essential role in countering elite capture.

Democracy support and Australian aid policy and programming

Yet, there is no mention of democracy support in Australia’s aid policy. This absence may be explained by the desire not to “impose values on others,” as expressed in the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.45

Some aspects of liberal governance are mentioned such as supporting partners to “build effective, accountable states that drive their own development,” new commitments to “support local leadership and local actors” through a new Civil Society Partnerships Fund,46 and the introduction of mandated targets for the inclusion of gender equality in development programs.47 The significant emphasis on women’s empowerment is an important component in building strong democratic norms, as is the participation of civil society. However, when looking at the details of what building “effective and accountable states” might look like, there is no mention of the word “democratic” to describe those states. The primary objective here appears to be effectiveness in terms of government capacity and service delivery to alleviate poverty and inequality. This is implied by the emphasis on “improving essential services,” efforts to “strengthen social protection systems,” support for “reform, service delivery and system strengthening,” and “structural reforms” that “can improve economic performance.”48

The closest one gets to supporting aspects of liberal democracy is the commitment to “respect and promote civic space, recognising the distinct nature and value of civil society in each country,” but without explaining why civil society participation in the political process might be connected to effective, transparent and accountable governance. There is one mention of “transparent, accessible and responsive governance” as benefiting effective states and citizens, which mixes cause and effect i.e. it is the principle of transparency that is essential to building effective and responsive governance. It is also unclear how much money will be allocated to the Civil Society Partnerships Fund, what kind of work it will do and whether democracy support will form part of its objectives. In her pitch to improve Australia’s standing in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s emphasis on “listening” to regional priorities, and pledge that Australia’s partnership will not come with “strings attached,” sends mixed signals about just how important building transparent and accountable governance is to Australia within its aid program.49 The overall impression is of a government reluctant to use the word democracy or explain the virtues of a liberal democratic model of governance.

In terms of spending, Australia’s aid budget devotes a significant portion to the sector “governance” which refers to “investments supporting the stronger operation of the public sector and civil society.”50 In 2021–22, this represented 25 per cent (A$425 million) of its aid to the Pacific, and 21 per cent (A$241 million) to Southeast Asia.51 Within these large figures, it is difficult to assess exactly how much funding is allocated towards democracy support i.e. to directly supporting free and fair elections, building robust democratic institutions, transparency and accountability in government decision-making, participation by civil society actors and the media in the political process including by demanding transparency and accountability from governments. “Governance” as a category is defined very broadly to include “public sector policy and management, public financial management, domestic revenue mobilisation, legal and judicial development, elections, media and free flow of information, human rights, ending violence against women and girls, social protection, employment creation, and housing policy, culture and recreation,” only some of which can properly be described as democracy support.

Figure 1. Australian official development assistance, region of benefit by sector group, 2021-2022

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. 2022. Australia’s Official Development Assistance: Statistical Summary 2021-22. Commonwealth of Australia. p. 23.

In a 2023 submission to the parliamentary inquiry into “supporting democracy in our region,” it becomes apparent that what DFAT considers programs that support democracy includes many examples that are more accurately described as capacity building for service delivery and technical support for bureaucracies and other arms of government.52 Examples include capacity building in public financial management, state-owned enterprise reform, tax administration in Laos (under the Mekong-Australia partnership), A$178 million from 2015–22 for a poverty reduction program in Indonesia (KOMPAK), A$87 million over five years to assist Cambodia’s policy reform agenda in agriculture, trade, enterprise development and infrastructure, A$11 million from 2015–23 for support for social protection reform in the Philippines, and A$45 million over eight years for a governance and economic growth program in Samoa (Governance for Economic Growth Program — ‘Tautai’). Other programs include capacity building for courts and judiciaries, such as A$44 million over 2003–22 to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia, technical training on victim-sensitivity for judges in Laos, and cyber-crime and anti-corruption training to Kiribati officials and police.

In the absence of a clear democracy support policy, only a very small percentage of a very large pool of funds for ‘governance’ is actually directed towards building transparency and accountability of governments, civil society political participation, and a robust independent media capable of holding governments to account.

When it comes to traditional democracy support activities, support for elections is strong, including programs in Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand, Fiji, Nauru, PNG, Marshall Islands, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Australia does provide a region-wide training program for journalists and media organisations in the Pacific, but there are none for Southeast Asia. And whilst Australia’s aid programs are largely delivered through Australian and local NGOs (a quarter of Australia’s 2000 local partners were civil society organisations in 2021-22) it is unclear how many are delivering humanitarian programs in education and health, and how many are given support to become stronger advocates for particular constituencies or to hold governments to account. In other words, in the absence of a clear democracy support policy, only a very small percentage of a very large pool of funds for ‘governance’ is actually directed towards building transparency and accountability of governments, civil society political participation, and a robust independent media capable of holding governments to account.


Liberal values have historically underpinned the enduring traditions in Australian foreign policy, dependence on an alliance with a liberal-democratic non-resident great power and middle power activism. Australia has long been an active supporter of liberal international institutions, multilateralism and the idea of a global rule of law. Nevertheless, Australia has also been historically wary of overtly promoting or supporting democracy which may be interpreted as imposing Western values on others, as well as feeding perceptions that Australia and its values were separate and incompatible with those of cultures in its neighbourhood. However, over the last ten years, a distinct values-based turn can be observed in Australian foreign policy, with Canberra assessing that the US-led liberal international order that it has prospered under is being contested and eroded as China has gained power and expanded its ambitions. Australia has turned once again to liberal democratic allies and partners foremost to coordinate policy and counter authoritarian trends via AUKUS, the Quad, the G7 and on an ad hoc basis in various issue areas. The current Albanese government has emphasised external aspects of a Westphalian order that are not only supported by liberal democratic states i.e. respect for sovereignty and international law. It still, however, recognises that Australia is facing the most serious deterioration in its strategic circumstances since the Second World War. China’s authoritarian challenge is not just to the external aspects of international order, but also to liberal democratic practices within Indo-Pacific states. Chinese tools of statecraft, particularly in trade and investment vehicles such as the BRI, directly exploit and exacerbate weak democratic institutions, providing opportunities for corruption to capture elites. In doing so, this further erodes liberal institutions and commitment to democratic principles and practices in the region, with potentially lasting consequences.

A woman casts her ballot for Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections at a polling station in Banda Aceh, February 2024.
A woman casts her ballot for Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections at a polling station in Banda Aceh, February 2024.Source: Getty

Yet, Australia continues to shy away from supporting liberal democratic principles overtly in its aid policy and instead focuses on capacity building, service delivery and economic development on the assumption that cultures of democracy — of accountability, transparency, rule of law, free and fair elections — will necessarily follow. Whilst Australia is the largest aid provider in the Pacific, far greater than China, it has lost relative strategic influence because of Beijing’s strategy of providing direct personal or political benefits to elites. The missing link in countering the phenomenon of elite capture is a greater emphasis on democracy support within aid policy. Stronger support for strengthening democratic institutions, the promotion of civic space, robust civil society participation and media in the political process provides a direct counter to elite capture. Democracy support initiatives indirectly shape the political environment that elites act within, enabling alternative centres of power capable of advocating for multiple interests in society, demanding transparency and accountability from government and thereby constraining the menu of political choices elites are able to choose from. In the past, the consequences of taking a softer — even avoidant approach — to supporting democratic practices had less immediate effects on Australia’s national interest. It was a moral issue that Australian aid appeared to be merely alleviating poverty from year to year and propping up struggling governments that made slow progress moving up the development chain. Now the consequences of avoiding support for democratic practices directly impacts Australia’s influence in our neighbourhood and undermines the very aims of our aid policy i.e. achieving sustainable development and poverty reduction by building effective and accountable states in our neighbourhood. With these conclusions in mind, two recommendations are offered.

Recommendation 1

Australian aid policy should more clearly reflect a commitment to supporting democratic principles and practices in its aid programs — transparency and accountability of government, civil society participation and free media — as essential to achieving the objectives of sustainable development and poverty reduction.

Recommendation 2

Australia should provide stronger support for strengthening democratic institutions, the promotion of civic space, robust civil society participation and independent media in its aid programming.

Australian democracy support in Southeast Asia

Dr John Lee


Southeast Asia is commonly referred to as a central battleground or swing region when it comes to the geopolitical competition between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and China and its authoritarian network on the other.53 Along with the South Pacific, Southeast Asia is identified as Australia’s primary sub-region of strategic interest.54 The Australian core interest derives from the permanence of geography. It is also increasingly driven by intensifying Chinese activities in Southeast Asia which span from the economic and military to institutional and normative. The Chinese material and non-material interests and activities in this sub-region are deepening the concern for Australia and its other democratic allies and partners. Even so, promoting liberal and democratic institutions, practices, and norms seems to be underdone when it comes to Australian statecraft.

This chapter looks at the Australian mindset and approach in Southeast Asia and offers some explanation and assessment of it. The paper then argues that the low emphasis on supporting liberal and democratic institutions, practices, and norms is not just a lost opportunity for Canberra but is counterproductive to its stated interests and even dangerous in some circumstances. It ends with some suggestions about how Australia can better improve this element of its statecraft whilst avoiding the mistakes and overreach that have characterised some democracy promotion efforts of Western allies.

Australian mindset and approach

Australia is a proud democracy and promotes its political institutions and values as a virtue and example to its partners in Southeast Asia. There is also official and widespread consensus that “Authoritarianism is becoming entrenched in mainland Southeast Asia, while electoral democracies in maritime Southeast Asia are increasingly illiberal.”55

Even so, there is a reluctance to engage more actively and explicitly in ‘democracy support’ with these same countries. As a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade submission to the 2023 parliamentary inquiry into “supporting democracy in our region” puts it, “in the [Southeast Asian] region, governing systems range from established (but varied types of) democracies to authoritarian regimes. Australia’s approach to supporting democracy and governance in the Asian region is therefore highly differentiated — politically and practically.”56 This causes Canberra to be “respectful of different types of political and governance systems”57 as Australia “cannot and should not seek to impose change.”58

Indeed, expert commentators and observers of Australian foreign policy (especially those focusing on Southeast Asia) warn against a ‘systems competition’ between democracy and autocracy given the diverse range of ‘democratic’ institutions in Southeast Asia. The argument is based on the notion that drawing a hard distinction between democratic and autocratic regimes is not a useful one when it comes to political ethics and policy. Illiberal societies can have democratic institutions while relatively liberal societies might not enjoy what one might consider ‘free and fair elections.’ Moreover, adopting an ideologically-driven ‘democracy promotion’ framework and approach is “likely to create distance between the world’s democracies and the regional countries Washington (and Canberra) wants to assist.”59

Voters mark their ballots during a revote for Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections in Surabaya, 24 February 2024.
Voters mark their ballots during a revote for Indonesia’s presidential and legislative elections in Surabaya, 24 February 2024.Source: Getty

Additionally, the Australian approach cannot be glibly characterised and dismissed simply as a desire ‘not to offend’ Southeast Asian regimes and populations, even though an element of this holds true. Unlike more distant and powerful countries such as the United States, Australia is not a superpower and its proximity to Southeast Asia renders it exposed and vulnerable to any deterioration in its relationships, especially with the maritime Southeast Asian states. For example, Australia could not afford the downturn in relations with Thailand which the United States endured after the Obama administration downgraded relations following the 2014 military coup in Bangkok. It is for this reason that Australia takes a self-described ‘pragmatic’ rather than ideological approach in the region.60

The ‘pragmatic’ approach has several characteristics which have endured over several decades up to the current Albanese government. In Southeast Asia, democracy promotion or support appears to be subsumed under the broader umbrella of ‘state-building’ with the explicit promotion of democracy not being a significant objective. Within the framework of ‘state-building’ in Southeast Asia (which is the author’s nomenclature), there seem to be six broad elements which are listed below (not necessarily in order of prioritisation):

  1. Election support: election monitoring, logistics support for elections, and technical assistance to strengthen election bodies.
  2. Strengthening governance and accountability institutions: support to audit offices, ombudsmen, parliaments, service delivery, regulatory and law enforcement agencies, anti-corruption work, public financial management, and economic governance and reform.
  3. Support for civil society organisations and voices: support for media skills and responsible reporting, facilitating civil society dialogue, strengthening civil society organisations and networks, support for transparency and transparency-focused organisations, and NGO program delivery.
  4. Gender equality, diversity, and social inclusion: assistance to women’s rights organisations, building institutional capacities to better respond to the needs and rights of women, girls, those with disabilities, and marginalised or vulnerable groups.
  5. Human rights: protecting and advocating for respect for human rights in multilateral, regional and bilateral engagements and supporting related programs.
  6. People-to-people links: parliamentary and media exchanges and scholarships, fellowships and short courses, alumni engagement, and building coalitions for change.

Note that any bilateral or multilateral (such as through Association of Southeast Asian Nations mechanisms) Australian nation-building initiatives and activities will almost always be conditional on the consent of the host government or regime in power. This means that the host government or regime largely set the nature and boundaries of the Australian assistance — and to a large extent, the potential of the Australian assistance and its effects on political and other politically relevant institutions in that country.

Moreover, much of the Australian state-building activities are carried out through the country’s aid and development programs, which by construction, require the explicit approval of the host government or regime. For these reasons, the term ‘state-building’ is being used as many of these Australian initiatives do not have an explicit or implicit political purpose to them. They exist to promote better social and humanitarian outcomes and are seen as important Australian contributions regardless of whether they strengthen democratic values and institutions in that receiving country.

Table 1. Australian official development assistance to Southeast and East Asia

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Southeast Asia Regional Development Cooperation Factsheet, February 202461

Figure 2. Australian official development assistance to Southeast
and East Asia by sector group, budget estimate 2023-2024

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Southeast Asia Regional Development Cooperation Factsheet, February 202462

A different and plausible assessment of Australia’s approach in this context is that robust and enduring democracies need strong liberal institutions and practices, and developing these institutions and practices is a long-term project. For this reason, almost all the above activities serve the objective of ‘democracy promotion’ in some sense as they help gradually advance liberal institutions and practices over time without damaging relations with the existing government or regime. Damaging those relationships will only reduce Australia’s capacity to engage and contribute, thereby worsening any prospect of helping to promote democracy in that country.

Almost all the state-building activities serve the objective of ‘democracy promotion’ in some sense as they help gradually advance liberal institutions and practices over time without damaging relations with the existing government or regime.

Indeed, this seems to be behind what the author perceives as an Australian reluctance to allow the Quad (consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia) to move too quickly or explicitly into a geopolitical security-driven organisation or grouping, at least when it comes to the public-facing interaction of the organisation in the region. In this context, Australia is at the forefront of promoting the state-building elements of the Quad, such as efforts to combat climate change, sustainably managing ocean resources, financial integrity, and infrastructure financing and quality (with the latter being an indirect response to China’s Belt and Road Initiative). But the author assesses that Canberra is seemingly reluctant to shift the Quad’s focus to maritime security and military cooperation, or bulk up the democracy promotion elements of the grouping, on the basis that doing so might weaken Southeast Asian support for and comfort with the Quad.

Those supporting the current cautious Australian approach might also argue that Australia has limited capacity to influence the evolution of democratic institutions and practices in any neighbouring country and Canberra is better placed to focus on state-building assistance and delivery as the primary approach. If that advances democracy promotion, then all the better. But democracy promotion should not overshadow or distract from other state-building elements and objectives.

In short, the argument against putting too much emphasis or resources towards a democracy promotion agenda might be that Australia should support democracy promotion when invited to do so by the host government and build up the liberal elements of civil society where possible. However, taking a too ideological or geopolitical approach will fail and leave Australia in a poorer position vis-à-vis that government or regime. Besides, there is an inconclusive correlation between regime type and strategic alignment in Southeast Asia. For example, Vietnam has authoritarian institutions but views China as its primary challenge. Malaysia has relatively democratic institutions but seems more comfortable with a Chinese presence and influence than many of its neighbours. If so, taking too ideological or geopolitical an approach would only lead to confused and ineffective strategic and bilateral policies.

Modernisation theory and its (mis)application to Southeast Asia

There have been successes associated with the Australian softly-softly and less controversial, state-building approach. Australia has friendly and constructive relations with almost all Southeast Asian nations and is accepted as a leading partner of ASEAN. During difficult periods in the domestic affairs of countries such as the military coup in Thailand (2014) and the emergence of the anti-US Rodrigo Duterte government (2016–22), Canberra nevertheless enjoyed strong diplomatic and functional relationships with both Bangkok and Manila. There are clear benefits and virtues with respect to the less controversial state-building framework.

The notion that the gradual bottom-up building of liberal institutions and practices will eventually lead to greater momentum for genuine liberal democratic reform at the top took flight in the region following the historical examples of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. This causal argument — widely referred to as modernisation theory63 — was also being applied to China until the early part of the previous decade.64 The argument is in turn used to explain and justify the softly-softly and largely apolitical Australian approach to nation-building assistance in Southeast Asia when confronted with the question of why Australia does not pursue a more robust and explicit democracy promotion policy. As has been articulated in official documents, “Australia is respectful of different types of political and governance systems” and “trusted relationships over time are key to effective governance partnerships.”65 Therefore, the best way to do democracy promotion in the region, if that is one’s goal, is to walk towards reform at the same slow pace that the partner nation is comfortable with.

Even advocates of the contemporary Australian approach of accepting the parameters given to Australia by host governments and regimes, and quietly working with the host to build nations and national resilience from the bottom-up, will concede that the patient approach can be frustrating. However, there are two more fundamental problems with the softly-softly, state-building approach.

It is a problem related to the widespread observations regarding democratic backsliding in Southeast Asia in recent years. This is a view amongst many Southeast Asian elites that competence and outcomes rather than procedure and process ought to be the measure and benchmark of political values and institutional virtue. An authoritarian strongman who is competent and effective might well be preferable to a committed democrat who is incompetent and ineffective. Viewed in systemic terms, there is nothing inherently competent about a democratic system and nothing inherently incompetent about an authoritarian system.

To offer some context for this mindset, the celebrated (and controversial) American political scientist Samuel Huntington noted about the ‘Third Wave of Democratisation’ that 23 of the 30 countries which had democratised between 1974 and 1990 had previous experience of democracy. In Asia, only Japan and the Philippines had sustained experience with democratic governance prior to 1990.66 Although previous experience is not inherently an impediment to democratisation (otherwise democracy would have never occurred in any country), Huntington made the further observation that democratic transitions are vulnerable and reversible if ruling and other elites lack genuine commitment to democratic values. As he argues, “When they are out of power, political leaders have good reason to advocate democracy. The test of their democratic commitment comes once they are in office.”67

This deeply embedded instrumentalist view of democracy appears to help account for the phenomenon of both ‘authoritarian resilience’ and ‘democratic erosion’ in Asia in recent times.

An earlier, but still illuminating 2017 Pew Survey of citizens from the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia seems to confirm this thesis. The survey revealed that only 15 per cent, 12 per cent and eight per cent respectively were ‘committed democrats’ who favoured electoral democracy under any circumstances. The majority — 67 per cent, 75 per cent and 79 per cent respectively — had a positive view of electoral democracy but would consider less democratic governance by experts, a strong leader or the military under various circumstances.68 A more recent survey conducted in 2023 suggests that more than half the respondents from Singapore and Malaysia prefer a “leader with a strong hand” to a “democratic form of government” (and presumably a democratically elected leader).69

In other words, democracy is viewed in somewhat instrumental terms. This includes the majority of Southeast Asians who were born after 1981 and have no direct experience of the ‘hard authoritarianism’ which characterised much of Asia in the decades after the Second World War.70 Whereas committed democrats will blame the party in power for sub-optimal outcomes that do not meet popular expectations, uncommitted democratic societies tend to blame the democratic system for perceived failures. This is what occurred in Thailand and the Philippines. In this author’s conversations with Singaporean officials, they tend to laud the competence of their government rather than the inherent virtue of free and fair elections. Indeed, this deeply embedded instrumentalist view of democracy appears to help account for the phenomenon of both ‘authoritarian resilience’ and ‘democratic erosion’ in Asia in recent times.

Reassessing the ‘Do No Harm’ principle and the emergence of the China model

To be fair, one might respond that Australia has limited or no ability to change these Southeast Asian perceptions. Besides, the building of more accountable and better ground-up institutions and practices in Southeast Asian countries is an unavoidably slow and painstaking activity, but inherently worthy and noble. With limited ability to affect the pace or direction of democratisation in one’s partners, a more explicit and robust democracy promotion objective might do more harm to the bilateral relationship. Hence, the response might be that current Australian approaches at least are consistent with the ‘do no harm’ principle.

This approach was seemingly deployed during the Duterte administration in the Philippines, where the mindset seemed to be to ‘wait out’ Duterte whilst continuing to work with local partners to engage in ground-up nation-building projects.71 It might well be the approach considered should a relatively illiberal candidate win future elections in Indonesia, another Southeast Asian democratic partner enjoying free and fair elections. However, doing good work in civil society whilst ‘waiting out’ an illiberal head-of-state might not be a viable option in nations where free and fair elections are not yet entrenched and regularly held.

Furthermore, the apolitical mindset and quiet approach ignores the reality that a Chinese authoritarian model now explicitly presents itself as an alternative for Southeast Asia, notwithstanding the current structural economic problems faced by China. Beijing and other proponents begin from the basis that any political system ought to be assessed according to practical outcomes and that there is no intrinsic value to liberal-democratic systems that emphasise individual rights and freedoms. In China’s case, Beijing argues it has resolved the alleged contradiction between the subordination of individual rights and freedoms to one-party rule on the one hand and better social and economic outcomes on the other — a contradiction the Cold War era communist regimes failed to address. In the context of Southeast Asia, these and similar arguments for authoritarian approaches (and the case against democratisation) are highly persuasive to ruling and other elites in countries without a long-standing tradition of democracy. This is true for two reasons.

First, an overwhelming majority of countries in Asia are developing economies which are yet to fully industrialise. Only Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Australia and New Zealand could be considered fully industrialised economies. The rest are straining to become middle-income economies while only a small number of others such as Malaysia and Thailand are seeking to break out of the so-called ‘middle-income trap.’ Authoritarian systems have demonstrated an impressive capacity to generate rapid economic growth through the forced mobilisation of capital, land and even labour in undeveloped and developing economies. Although such approaches tend to become increasingly inefficient and ineffective over time,72 they have generated impressive GDP growth for some nations at the early stages of development.

Leaders attend the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, March 2024.
Leaders attend the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Melbourne, March 2024.

For developing economies and their governments in Southeast Asia, many with autocratic leanings, there is growing confidence that the lack of political freedom or reform need not result in economic stagnation. Their capacity to take advantage of economic opportunities is aided by changes to, or loosening up of, regulations and other laws to encourage foreign investment and enhance entrepreneurial initiative. For example, state-owned and other entities are encouraged to engage in market-based transactions with each other and international firms. State assets have been partially privatised to better participate in market activities. Even so, ruling elites continue to largely control the distribution of land, capital and contracts: political connections are the gateway to access commercial opportunity.73 This means that the relationship between the ruling party and commercial elites becomes more cosy and intimate, not less. The emergence of an independent middle class is retarded. Such an arrangement is clearly appealing to autocrats throughout Southeast Asia whose primary objective is to remain in power.

Second, the narrative that autocratic competence is outstripping democratic dysfunction has been and continues to be aggressively promoted.74 In contrast to democracy, China actively promotes its authoritarian model as one which is politically stable, technically superior, and better able to pursue sensible policies consistently.75 These messages are effective because achieving ‘order’ rather than guaranteeing ‘justice’ for the individual remains highly valued in Southeast Asia. Much of it goes back to the post-Second World War period when the greatest threat to many newly independent and fledging states was internal and external subversion and domestic disunity and disorder. The state-centred form of Confucianism which was propounded by Chinese emperors from the second century BC onward also gave rise to proponents of ‘Asian values’ in the last decade of the previous century. ‘Asian values’ included the notion of a social contract between rulers who provided for the well-being of citizens and the latter who offered obedience in return. Not surprisingly, China, Singapore and Malaysia were chief promulgators of different variations of ‘Asian values.’76

In contrast to democracy, China actively promotes its authoritarian model as one which is politically stable, technically superior, and better able to pursue sensible policies consistently. These messages are effective because achieving ‘order’ rather than guaranteeing ‘justice’ for the individual remains highly valued in Southeast Asia.

The point about the social contract in many developing Southeast Asian nations is that delivering on promises is highly prized regardless of the form of government. In Thailand, there have been at least 15 coups or coup attempts since the country became a constitutional monarchy in 1932. With respect to the latest coup in 2014, the junta experienced its highest approval ratings months after the coup as it was perceived that military leaders had a better chance of restoring order to Thai society and politics. In the Philippines, Duterte was initially elected on the promise that he would do whatever it takes to reverse rising crime rates, destroy the drug trade, reduce corruption and rebuild the country’s infrastructure.77 For a considerable period, his approval ratings were the highest of any president on record since the 1980s despite his illiberal tendencies (e.g., extra-judicial killings as part of the anti-drug campaign, intimidation of political opponents etc.). According to a January 2018 survey, 79 per cent of Filipino respondents were satisfied with Duterte’s performance, with only nine per cent dissatisfied. These high approval ratings are widely attributed to the perceived success of his anti-drugs campaign and the fulfilment of his ‘Build, Build, Build’ infrastructure promises.78

In both these recent case studies, the Thai and Filipino governments were explicitly promoting resolve in the form of prioritising ‘order before law’ to address widespread concerns of the citizenry.79 The promise to ‘get results’ through decisive action is an easier sell than the more abstract virtues of an impersonal liberal system of checks and balances vis-à-vis a polity with little or no history of having these institutions.

This should lead to a more acute appreciation of the dangers of ignoring this ideological contest or downplaying it as irrelevant or a lower priority for Australian state-building efforts in the region. The reluctance to openly and continually explain the benefits of liberal and democratic institutions and processes offers China uncontested space and opportunity to promote the alleged superiority of its authoritarian offerings and processes. At the same time, Southeast Asian governing elites receiving economic benefits and even largesse from Beijing will continue to happily pocket state-building contributions from democratic partners such as Australia without feeling the need or pressure to extol the virtues of liberal institutions and practices. One should also be cognisant that state-building through improving institutional and technical competencies might well advance the cause of developing more competent and adaptive autocrats if such Australian efforts remain determinedly apolitical for fear of offending existing regimes.

The construction of phase 2 of the Mass Rapid Transit in Jakarta is a joint project between Indonesia and Japan.
The construction of phase 2 of the Mass Rapid Transit in Jakarta is a joint project between Indonesia and Japan.

It will also be the case that some Australian bottom-up efforts to quietly address some of the defects and consequences of opaque institutions and unaccountable practices will be cynically used by regional governing elites to cover up some of the undesirable consequences of their illiberal or corrupt behaviour. Additionally, a failure to openly extol and explain the virtues and practical benefits of liberal and democratic institutions and practices — and draw attention to the effects of poor governance standards — will fail to support local leaders and other voices seeking to make the argument that gradual liberalism and democratisation is the better path for their country than gradual illiberalism and authoritarianism. This is especially relevant to Southeast Asian nations where democracy has never genuinely taken hold. As Thomas Pepinsky observes, “it is the strength of durable authoritarianism in the non-democracies” that is characteristic of contemporary Southeast Asia.80

In this context, autocrats (in China and Southeast Asia) place few constraints on themselves to propound the success and superiority of their approaches in addition to manipulating elections, crafting advantageous narratives, controlling or suppressing information, attacking independent media, and intimidating critics.81 In the midst of an undoubted political, ideological, and moral contest, an apologetic or non-participatory approach to advocating for the material and instrumental efficacy and superiority of one’s liberal or democratic approach is the same as ceding the ground to autocratic proponents — with both geopolitical and societal ramifications. In this sense, opting out would be to inadvertently harm the cause of promoting better institutions and practices that eventually lead to better outcomes.

The art of diplomacy then becomes pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and possible within that system rather than the simple avoidance of offence and controversy.

The prudent diplomatic principle that Australia should remain respectful of different types of political and governance systems should not mean that Australia takes a wholly non-judgmental and relativistic view of different systems. Regime type and practices have consequences — for the people in that country and Australia’s interests. Comprehending the nuances and variations in political and governance systems ought to inform strategies and tactics, crafting narratives and messages, and shaping foreign and assistance policies that are best suited for that Southeast Asian country. Nevertheless, a key objective of any partnership and assistance should be to gently, but firmly, prod that country toward the closer embrace of liberal and democratic principles in forms that best suit the history and culture of that country. This will occasionally mean displeasing some governing and other elites in that country. The art of diplomacy then becomes pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable and possible within that system rather than the simple avoidance of offence and controversy.

Conclusion and recommendations

Democratisation itself does not improve endemic corruption and democracy does not guarantee that every elected government will perform well or even be competent. Democracy’s strongest selling point is the capacity of citizens to put pressure on governments to change policies or peacefully remove oppressive, corrupt, or poorly performing governments from power. The 2018 election of Mahathir Mohamad/Anwar Ibrahim to oust Najib Razak and the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) from power for the first time since Malaysian independence in 1959 is a case in point. Accused of extreme graft,82 the fact that Najib and UMNO could be removed from power through peaceful means demonstrates the virtue of even an imperfect democracy.

However, we need to deal with the reality that countries in Southeast Asia are at different stages of democratisation, and some have barely started that journey. Traditional democracy promotion, as practised by countries such as the United States, focuses too heavily and impatiently on supporting universal suffrage in that country. For countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines where universal suffrage is seen as an indispensable and invaluable political norm, assisting these countries with electoral processes and other technical needs associated with free and fair elections is an easy choice when Australia (and other partners) are invited to do so.

However, with respect to other ‘imperfect’ and ‘non-democratic’ developing Southeast Asian nations, focusing only on implementing universal suffrage will both fail and play into the hands of autocratic advocates and forces. This is due to the reality that democracies (as defined by polities holding periodic elections) with poor institutions cannot guarantee they will achieve better material and social outcomes compared to alternative systems. Besides, to directly criticise and seek to change the electoral processes of these countries would be a diplomatic bridge too far, risk unacceptable damage to the bilateral relationship, and achieve little of enduring value for the trouble.

Recommendation 1

Craft and promote strategic narratives on the virtues of democratic versus authoritarian approaches and systems — especially as they pertain to enduring benefits for developing nations.

For developing Southeast Asian nations with ‘imperfect’ or non-existent democratic processes, it will be better for Australia (and partners such as Japan) to:

  • Explicitly and more robustly make the case that bottom-up liberal and democratic institutions and practices can be adapted to nations at all stages of development and political reform to deliver superior and lasting outcomes.
  • Explicitly and more robustly make the case that authoritarian institutions and opaque practices deliver inferior and less enduring outcomes. This means directly taking on and refuting the narrative and argument about authoritarian competence.
  • The Australian Government and related entities should support non-governmental entities and experts to explore the issues of the causal importance and impacts of bottom-up liberal institutions and practices and to directly interrogate assumptions about authoritarian competence applied to Southeast Asia and developing economies in general. While these conversations led by independent entities and experts will not always align with Australian government messaging, entering and occupying ground currently dominated by those championing authoritarian competence is a step in the right direction. The conversation needs to be country-specific (i.e., what bottom-up institutions and practices are best suited to that particular country to achieve better material and social outcomes).
  • Australian assistance and research efforts on the ground in Southeast Asia need to be supported by whole-of-government efforts between Australia and Japan to challenge China’s narratives about authoritarian competence and suitability as well as Western and democratic unsuitability.
  • This requires a change in the Australian and allied government and policy mindset that they need to fully commit to prevailing in the realm of influence. Doing so involves crafting and relentlessly propagating effective strategic narratives applied to developments on the ground in Southeast Asia.83

Another conclusion and related recommendations pertain to Australian state-building efforts in Southeast Asia, which are largely carried out through its official aid and development programs. In August 2023, the Albanese government released Australia’s International Development Policy.84 While the policy recognises liberal virtues such as accountability, transparency, and equality as indispensable to proper state-building and more enduring material outcomes, its focus is on maintaining high standards in delivering development assistance. But there is less detail on how to use assistance to influence perception, behaviour, and norms in the recipient country and the policy remains largely silent when it comes to the struggle to entrench and advance liberal democratic institutions and practices, reverse democratic backsliding, or confront the championing of authoritarian competence that is taking root in various countries. Indeed, the framework seems to studiously avoid democracy promotion in any explicit form and offers no acknowledgement that geopolitics unavoidably frames and influences all such activities in the current age. Instead, the approach seems to suggest that the best Australia can do is maintain its own standards and values in delivering assistance and that it is better to avoid contamination that might come from linking development assistance with a broader geopolitical contest.

As this paper has argued, that contest is unavoidable and merely doing good works and maintaining high standards will not win the day or produce better material and governance outcomes which the framework identifies as a priority.

Recommendation 2

Aid strategy and specific projects should explicitly seek to promote democratic norms and institutions to achieve geopolitical and normative interests.

  • The Australian Government needs to formally accept that development assistance is being used by countries such as China to change governance institutions and norms in recipient countries. In addition to maintaining high ethical and technical standards, Australian development assistance also needs to be deployed to influence elite behaviour, governance institutions and norms in Southeast Asia. Strategies and specific projects should be selected and designed to include this geopolitical and normative purpose.

Strategic messaging is an essential component of statecraft. Beijing gives priority to strategic messaging through its official political warfare functions85 and contemporary initiatives, such as the Global Security Initiative and Global Development Initiative, to target developing Global South countries.86 With respect to Southeast Asia, Beijing is propagating the strategic narrative that elements of the Chinese model provide a unique and bespoke pathway for developing Southeast Asian nations while Western and liberal approaches are unsuited to the unique requirements of the region.87 Such narratives give elites greater cover to pursue non-liberal approaches.

Recommendation 3

Australia and Japan should forge a partnership with Indonesia to explore pathways for democratisation specific to Southeast Asia.

Australia needs Southeast Asian (in addition to Japanese) partners. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world and the largest Muslim-majority democracy in the world. It has also emerged as one of the few democratic ‘norm entrepreneurs’88 in Asia and the Global South.

  • Australia and partners like Japan should work with Indonesian organisations and experts to explore liberal principles and pathways to democratisation that are most suitable for Southeast Asian nations.
    This can be through existing mechanisms such as the Bali Democracy Forum or the creation of new ones for this purpose.
    The ASEAN Charter (Article 2, para. H) states that Members should adhere to “the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional government.”89 Australia (and Japan) should explore the possibilities of working with Indonesia to use ASEAN mechanisms to develop and propagate principles articulated in Article 2 to serve as a political and policy roadmap that is specifically designed for Southeast Asian nations.

Australian democracy promotion in the context of strategic competition in the Pacific

Learning from the Solomon Islands case study

Dr John Lee


In 2018, Australians were shocked by revelations that a Chinese-funded wharf in Luganville, Vanuatu could be converted into a Chinese naval outpost.90 The plan to do so was subsequently denied by both the Vanuatu and Chinese governments despite Australian national security and intelligence sources insisting that such plans had been discussed by the two countries. Since then, there have been reports of Chinese discussions with Kiribati to upgrade an airstrip that could be used by military vehicles,91 and most concerningly, a comprehensive security deal signed between China and the Solomon Islands.92

Prima facie, these and other agreements with China are sovereign decisions made by democratically elected Pacific Island nations. Indeed, all these island nations are democracies in that elections are held periodically.93 Ostensibly, and from this perspective, agreements they make with other countries might be against Australian and allied strategic interests, but might not appear to be problematic for those interested more specifically in democracy promotion.

Unfortunately, the situation is not so straightforward. While legitimately elected governments of sovereign nations have the right to make their own decisions, the problem is that Beijing has been deliberately degrading or circumventing liberal norms such as transparency of decision-making and financing arrangements, accountability of institutions, and freedom of information and expression — all pillars of a healthy and robust liberal democratic polity. In some instances, China is actively conspiring with and assisting democratically elected leaders to protect and preserve their position and regime by retarding or delaying normal democratic processes. This is done in return for comprehensive economic agreements with China that have serious security, military, and strategic implications for Australia and partners such as Japan. Australian strategists are justifiably alarmed by these developments. Democracy advocates should also be concerned as the consequences will be a permanent erosion of democratic institutions and practices in some of these Pacific Island nations.

This paper looks at how China is intentionally eroding democratic institutions and practices in some of these countries and what the Australian response has been. It concludes with some recommendations of what additional or different Australian responses should be to both advance its strategic interests on the one hand and protect and advance democracy in these nations on the other.

Enter China…

In an address to the China-Pacific Island Countries Economic Development and Cooperation Forum in April 2006, then-Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao declared:

“As far as China is concerned, to foster friendship and cooperation with the Pacific Island countries is not a diplomatic expediency. Rather, it is a strategic decision. China has proved and will continue to prove itself to be a sincere, trustworthy and reliable friend and partner of the Pacific Island countries forever…”94

One of the primary ways of enhancing influence and relevance in the Pacific Islands is Official Development Assistance (ODA) as it is one of the most aid-dependent regions in the world. ODA is higher in this region than any other on a per capita basis. According to OECD figures, of the top 25 countries in which ODA is the highest as a proportion of GDP, 10 of these are Pacific Islands.

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Micronesia’s President Peter Christian in Beijing, March 2017.
Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Micronesia’s President Peter Christian in Beijing, March 2017.Source: Getty

Beijing has allocated significant resources to that end. From a very low base when then Premier Wen delivered the above remarks, China emerged to become the third largest source of ODA in the years from 2008–21. The Lowy Institute’s latest Pacific Aid Map reveals the Pacific Islands received more than $40bn in government aid between 2008 and 2021, with Australia the largest donor (US$17b), followed by China (US$3.9bn), Japan (US$3.5bn) and New Zealand (US$3.2bn).95

These figures need to be placed in their proper context. On the one hand, Chinese aid to the South Pacific constitutes less than 0.15 per cent of overall Chinese ODA. None of the top 10 recipients of Chinese ODA are Pacific Islands. Likewise, and with respect to Other Official Flows or OOF (where the grant element is under 25 per cent and the financing is predominantly commercial in nature) Pacific Islands receive a minuscule amount of what China offers to the rest of the world.

Even so, amounts of ODA which are tiny by Chinese standards are significant by Pacific Island standards. For example, from 2008 to 2022, about 23 per cent of ODA to Fiji — the South Pacific’s most populous nation — came from China. During the same period, China was the first or second largest ODA donor to countries such as the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, and Vanuatu. Aid as a percentage of GDP in these countries is approximately 15 per cent, 24 per cent, 27 per cent, and 22 per cent respectively.96 As mentioned, and in a remarkably short period of time, China has gone from being an irrelevant or non-existent aid donor in this region to the most important one after Australia.

Moreover, ODA is not the only Chinese play. Similarly, from an extremely low or non-existent starting point early this century, China has become the first or second largest source of ordinary and concessionary loans to these and other Pacific Island nations.97

Solomon Islands case study: Regime capture and democratic backsliding

The Solomon Islands gained international attention in 2022 following revelations of a potentially open-ended security agreement with China that could lead to the gradual establishment of a de facto Chinese naval base in the Pacific country.98 This was preceded by the Solomons severing its diplomatic ties with Taiwan in September 2019 and switching it to the People’s Republic of China.

The common reason given for the Solomon Islands’ deepening relationship with China is the increase in Chinese trade and investment in the Solomons in recent years. To be sure, in the latest available figures, China received almost 67 per cent of all exports from the Solomons and enjoys a large current account surplus with China (while it has trade deficits with countries such as Australia).99 There are also accusations of China paying significant bribes to the political leaders and elites of the Solomons.100

These reasons offer a plausible explanation for the cosy China-Solomons relationship. But it is not a complete or sufficient one. The Solomons situation is one where Beijing is exacerbating and exploiting growing division and dysfunction within the country, while the Sogavare government is willingly absorbing and internalising Beijing’s strategic messaging for self-interested reasons. In other words, the current government in Honiara is knowingly allowing its liberal democratic institutions and practices to be degraded and corrupted.

Chinese material offerings and non-material strategies are most tempting and effective when leaders of poorly governed countries are in strife and facing serious and growing opposition to their rule — a typical precursor to democratic backsliding. The Solomons has longstanding domestic political fractures.101 This reached a critical point when Sogavare decided to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China, having only apparently considered one of the four government reports he commissioned to examine the pros and cons of the change.102 Indeed, on the day the diplomatic switch was announced, the Solomon Times reported that the Central Bank of Solomon Islands raised serious concerns in a paper such as the risk of unsustainable debt, depressed fiscal revenue,103 and US responses following the recognition of China. These considered concerns were ignored during the consultation period and were excluded from the taskforce report relied upon by Sogavare.104 Following two years of turmoil, deadly riots began in November 2021 after the government refused to meet protesters from the province of Malaita. Ironically, these riots were quelled with the assistance of troops from Australia, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and New Zealand.105 The following month, a parliamentary motion of no-confidence in Sogavare was defeated, allegedly with the assistance of Chinese funds to pay off other MPs — another assault against democratic principles.106

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese takes a selfie with fellow leaders during the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, July 2022.
Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese takes a selfie with fellow leaders during the Pacific Islands Forum in Suva, July 2022.Source: Getty

The China factor is just one factor sparking these divisions. The country has long been dependent on outside assistance to support a precarious and uneasy calm. For example, the Australian and New Zealand-led Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands (RAMSI) was deployed from 2003 to 2017 to avoid the near collapse of the state and its economy. RAMSI prevented collapse but has not led to improvements in the country’s institutions and economic prospects. The Solomons has the problem of many states dependent on external economic existence: lack of local business experience and skills, poor employment opportunities, over-dependence on unsustainable and low value-added industries such as logging, weak institutions, and poor governance.

The China factor is a relatively recent one. Chinese migrants are dominating the retail sectors, especially in urban areas. With a low capacity to manage its national resources sustainably, Chinese state-owned and private firms are exploiting the mineral, forestry, and fisheries resources of the country with low regard for sustainable or ecological standards.

The problem is not Chinese commercial activity per se, but the non-liberal practices associated with ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ allowed to be imported into the country. For example, Chinese businesspeople commonly bribe their way through government offices to secure licences, work and residential permits, and planning permissions; most of the prime retail sites are occupied or created by Chinese entities;107 the Chinese-dominated logging industry is characterised by poor environmental practices enabled by the bribery of officials, politicians, and locals;108 and media and opposition voices are being suppressed. As one illustration, the Media Association of Solomon Islands was forced to boycott the covering of Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit in May-June 2022 because of restrictions placed on them by Sogavare at the behest of Beijing.109 In July, Sogavare announced the government would assume full financial control of the Solomons Islands Broadcasting Corporation (SIBC). Having previously criticised the national broadcaster for giving more airtime to those who oppose the government rather than reporting what Sogavare has been doing, the SIBC will be expected to serve the government rather than operate as an independent profit-making entity under these changes.110

This brings one back to Chinese material and non-material approaches that lead to democratic degradation. For example, much of China’s material largesse has been directed towards Honiara rather than provinces such as Malaita, the most populous and one of the most impoverished in the whole of the South Pacific. When the Premier of Malaita, Daniel Suidani, objected to the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China and subsequently emerged as a leader of the anti-China movement in the country, the Chinese Embassy worked with Sogavare to attack and undermine Suidani.111 Moreover, the resentment and unrest in the country, which has been exacerbated by Chinese actions, is used by Beijing and Sogavare to justify a deeper security relationship between the two countries. This includes China helping to train Solomon Islands police following anti-China riots and protests.112

The point is that as political tensions and divisions in the Solomons become even more fraught, as is likely, the Sogavare government will become even more dependent on comprehensive Chinese assistance to help Sogavare remain in power. The broader point is that China has a modus operandi applied to many weak or poor states with whom it interacts. By supporting and exacerbating a country’s trajectory towards the path of political and social division, economic vulnerability, deteriorating institutions, corruption, and media suppression, the chances of democratic deterioration increase — thereby enhancing Beijing’s importance and leverage over that state. The leader or government then becomes more accepting of and dependent on CCP perspectives and solutions. This has occurred in places such as Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and now the Solomons. Put differently, that country becomes less able to chart its own independent and sovereign course whilst the leader or regime becomes more reliant on Chinese approaches and ways of thinking.

Rising sea levels threaten the coral atoll nation of Tuvalu.
Rising sea levels threaten the coral atoll nation of Tuvalu.Source: Getty

This is where Chinese information and influence warfare comes into play. The growing Chinese presence helps entrench the perception that Chinese pre-eminence in the South Pacific is as inevitable and natural as it is in East Asia. In this context, the BRI branding and framework have been very useful for Beijing. At a 2014 meeting in Fiji between Xi Jinping and the leaders from the then-eight Pacific Island Countries grouping recognising China (rather than Taiwan), Xi urged these leaders to “take a ride on the Chinese ‘express train’ of development.” Following promises of substantial economic opportunities, many South Pacific leaders were delighted that their countries were newly included in the BRI trade corridors.113

Although the Solomons did not recognise China until 2019 and was not a part of these interactions, similar messages were being delivered to the Solomons by Chinese state media, its embassy, and Chinese business entities operating in the country during this time. Note that all major Chinese companies operating in the Pacific receive political guidance from Chinese embassies and report to the Economic and Commercial Counsellor’s office.114 Indeed, the Solomons joined the BRI one month after its diplomatic recognition of China. Sogavare was able to almost immediately announce enormous projects such as the revival of the Gold Ridge in a deal worth reportedly more than US$500 million. The deal was described by Chinese ambassador Xue Bing as an ‘early harvest’ of the new relationship between Beijing and Honiara,115 from which one is meant to infer that lowering resistance and seeking an opaque and cosy arrangement is the wiser course of action which will lead to prosperity.

The offerings of guaranteed and immediate gains allow another kind of regime capture to which leaders such as Sogavare willingly submit. After RAMSI, the Chinese message is that the Solomons can become more economically vibrant and self-reliant despite its national, institutional, and governance failings — if the Solomons embraces its relationship with China. This is contrasted with the onerous and self-serving demands that Western nations allegedly impose on other countries — and implicitly, on leaders and regimes with different values and standards. Moreover, the Chinese framing is that Western nations want to keep China out of the South Pacific to perpetuate their domination from a bygone era. In contrast, all Beijing wants is a presence to further a friendship with the island nations without demanding the exclusion of other countries.

This framing makes China seem much more reasonable than Australia, Japan, and other allies. It helps to explain why Sogavare dismissed American and Australian concerns with the China-Solomons security deal as “nonsense” while declaring the Solomons had “no intention of pitching into any geopolitical struggle.”

The Chinese framing is that Western nations want to keep China out of the South Pacific to perpetuate their domination from a bygone era.

As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang puts it when responding to criticism of Beijing’s relationship with Honiara, “the countries have respected each other, treated each other as equals and supported each other in pursuit of common development.” Additionally, “both sides should be wary of the attempts by a handful of countries, holding onto a Cold War mentality, to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs in the name of human rights…”116 That Wang’s views were uncritically reported on by the Solomon Times speaks to the extent to which Beijing has been allowed to co-opt or coerce a poorly resourced local media sector into reporting favourably on the bilateral relationship.117 Beijing has significantly increased its engagement with media in the South Pacific. It offers funding and career opportunities in return for outlets and journalists portraying Chinese actions and intentions in more sympathetic terms. Since Beijing first opened a branch of Xinhua in Suva in 2010, China has funded a growing number of Pacific journalists to attend professional training in China. This included the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Information Department which leads the public presentation of Chinese foreign policy organising formal tours for Pacific Island journalists in 2013 and 2017.118

Finally, the extent of regime capture is evident in the way Sogavare praises China and criticises the West. In a speech in parliament, the Solomons leader accused Australia and its allies of undermining his government, criticised the Western response to Russia, and praised China’s treatment of Christians because they were thriving by following the rules set by Beijing. He also suggested civil society groups critical of his closeness with Beijing are being manipulated by outsiders and have “fallen prey to the Western world.” Sogavare called these activists ‘racists’ and ‘bigots’ who are irrationally hostile towards China. He also accused the United States and Australia of threatening the Solomons with ‘invasion’ should there be a Chinese military base.119

These arguments are very similar to those offered by Chinese officials and represent targeted disinformation campaigns undertaken by the CCP and PLA, channelled through state-owned and sympathetic media. For example, an opinion piece in the Chinese state-owned Global Times argues that US interference in the South Pacific is the primary cause of instability and tension, while the West treats Pacific Island countries as pawns in seeking to maintain their hegemony and hold back the irresistible rise of China.120 While China is helping developing countries reach their potential, Western nations remain stuck with a colonial and prejudiced mindset.121 The notion that the West is threatening the Solomons with military action is a proposition put forward by Beijing.122

While those in the liberal democracies tend to treat these views as absurd, conspiratorial, unconvincing, and self-serving, they have important impacts when propagated frequently and relentlessly. In the context of grand narratives about the spectacular and unstoppable rise of China and the largess that comes from that, they offer a ready-made framework for the captured (whether willingly or unwittingly) to explain and justify their actions. In the case of the Solomons, the CCP is offering not just a seemingly attractive economic and security arrangement to an insecure leader and government but a framework and mindset to complement and complete a package deal with illiberal characteristics.

In short, and to offer the Solomon Islands case study some context for this series of reports, island nations are being specifically and persistently targeted by an external Chinese power. They are susceptible due to their heavy dependence on external material assistance. Beijing’s main purpose is to establish China as the benefactor to an ever more reliant government or individual. Some regimes in countries such as the Solomon Islands have succumbed to what is being offered: growing Chinese economic, security and perhaps military presence in return for regime security and largesse. This is the specific challenge we face in advancing democracy in this sub-region.

Australia’s current approach and recommendations

As the leading diplomatic, security, and ODA partner in the Pacific, Australia has a diverse and entrenched set of policies and already makes enormous contributions to the region. For example, in the democracy promotion area, Australia has a long-standing collaborative relationship with relevant institutions in Fiji such as the Fijian Elections Office. Australia supports the Fiji Parliamentary Support Project which assists with improving the ability of Fiji’s parliament to undertake its democratic legislative, oversight, and representative roles. Other activities relevant to democracy promotion include Australia’s multi-year Governance for Economic Program with Samoa which assists with the strengthening of governance and accountability in the country’s institutions. There are similar programs in Tuvalu and Vanuatu. Australia has also offered technical assistance to the Tonga Electoral Commission and provided election observers in Nauru (at the request of Nauru’s Electoral Commission) and Vanuatu.

Indeed, there is not sufficient space in this report to detail the extensive Australian contributions to the Pacific Island nations bilaterally and through peak groupings such as the Pacific Islands Forum.123

In addition to assistance which pertains specifically to democracy and electoral matters, Australia is the leading partner in the sub-region when it comes to ODA and other forms of assistance related to improved accountability, transparency, and technical expertise in economic, financial, judicial, administrative, and public sector institutions and practices. Australia also works with peak media bodies and individual media outlets and journalists in countries such as the Solomon Islands, Palau, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Solomon Islands. Australia helped establish and continues to work with the Fijian Press Club to develop free and open media in the country.124 The most comprehensive assistance is being offered to Papua New Guinea. The two countries signed a Comprehensive Strategic and Economic Partnership125 in 2020 and a Framework for Closer Security Relations in 2023.126 The former commits Australia to assist PNG with a wide array of matters covering democratic institutions and systems, accountability in all major government functions, technical economic and infrastructure advice, and ways to strengthen civil society and participation. The latter covers assistance and cooperation in all matters of security including defence, policing, maritime security, cyber, climate change, critical infrastructure, and societal violence.

While Australia remains in a leading and privileged position as the ‘preferred partner’ for many Pacific countries, it has found it more difficult to deal with Chinese elite capture approaches as drawn out by the Solomon Islands case study. It is worth noting that Sogavare consistently reassured Australia that it was his ‘preferred partner’ or ‘partner of choice’ even when the former was agreeing to arrangements with China that were clearly challenging Australian interests.127 Moreover, it is also clear from the case study that some leaders will prioritise and look more favourably on external assistance that helps them entrench their power and authority over projects that deliver superior and long-term benefits for their economy and society.

Recommendation 1

Countering elite capture via sticks and carrots

Under specific circumstances where China’s use of resources is being used to achieve elite capture (which almost always will lead to a deterioration of democratic standards and degradation of liberal institutions), Australia and other countries should consider ways to either expose such efforts at capture or offer alternatives for that leader being tempted by Chinese largess for this purpose (provided that Australian alternatives meet high ODA or investment standards for quality, benefits and outcomes delivered, and usual standards of accountability and transparency for that project).

This latter suggestion requires a significant mindset shift in the delivery of ODA into these smaller nations. In essence, it involves reframing ODA as part of the strategic toolkit for statecraft to prevent or counter elite capture by countries such as China in these poorer Pacific economies. The intent is still to deliver high-quality and important economic, social, and institutional outcomes for that country. But Australian and allied ODA can be used to increase our attractiveness to the government that we seek to keep on side and dilute the attractiveness of Chinese alternatives. On occasions, it may be that a leader or regime is set on a pathway of accepting Chinese assistance for political advantage at the expense of accountability, transparency, and superior outcomes for the country. In those situations, exposure might be the only counter-response.

Strategic use of resources is already underway in the Pacific Island nations. For example, Australia and other allies have agreed to consortiums to fund undersea cables rather than allow Chinese firms to lay these critical pieces of infrastructure. One such initiative was Australia and the United States partnering with Google and Microsoft to build two trans-Pacific cables to connect Fiji and French Polynesia with cabled Internet that runs from the United States, through to the islands and Australia. Branches will also connect with the Federated States of Micronesia, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu.128 The Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific was set up to provide loan and grant financing to its Pacific Islands partners. One of the implicit motivations for funding infrastructure such as ports, airports, and cables is to counter and offer alternatives to these nations considering Chinese financing for these assets. Inserting a more explicit strategic rationale and democracy promotion element into Australian ODA efforts might seem a giant leap in mindsets associated with the delivery of aid but is not a large advance in terms of existing policy.

Recommendation 2

Supporting independent media and elite capture

One priority ought to be the use of either ODA or other resources to prevent Chinese domination of media platforms and content as is occurring in the Solomon Islands (as outlined earlier). Merely training journalists to reach higher standards of probity and reporting is not sufficient. There needs to be hard dollars devoted to counter Chinese ownership or influence of media environments in these countries — an objective which is not prohibitive from a cost perspective given the small media markets in these nations. This is why a relatively small amount of Chinese money has been able to significantly change the media landscapes in some of these countries.

This should include greater and direct support for independent journalism and to assist the survival of independent media platforms. Notably, the importance of doing so was recently reflected in the 2023 Joint Statement released by the Sunnylands Initiative which brings together experts across the Indo-Pacific to consider challenges to democratic norms and governance in the region.129 While it is true that merely bombarding a society with state-directed content has not been effective, a compliant local media working in coordination with an increasingly illiberal government is of higher concern.130

Japan’s official development assistance for democracy support under the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Initiative

Professor Hiroaki Shiga


The Indo-Pacific has received increased global attention recently due to the region’s growing strategic and geopolitical importance to world peace and the stability of the liberal international order. However, there is another important reason to pay due attention to the Indo-Pacific region, both from the normative perspective of upholding universal values such as liberal democracy and the rule of law, and from the strategic perspective of deterring the rise of authoritarian states such as China and Russia. This is because the Indo-Pacific, and especially Southeast and South Asia at its core, is a region where democratic backsliding is most severe.131 Russia’s invasion of Ukraine clearly demonstrated the danger that authoritarian states pose to democracies. In the Indo-Pacific region, where another authoritarian power, China, exercises great influence, the danger that authoritarianism poses to liberal democracies cannot be ignored.

Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for an extraordinary NATO summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, March 2022.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrives for an extraordinary NATO summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, March 2022.Source: Getty

The Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Initiative, proposed by the Shinzo Abe administration in 2016 and inherited by the Fumio Kishida administration, is Japan’s response to these trends, intending to contribute to peace and stability in the region and realise universal values. This paper will discuss the role of Japan’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) in upholding liberal democratic values under the FOIP Initiative and offer policy recommendations for what Japan should do in cooperation with other democracies. This paper argues that Japan’s democracy support via ODA under the Abe and Kishida administrations tried to strike a careful balance between upholding liberal democratic values and avoiding the risk of offending incumbent governments in recipient countries in the Indo-Pacific region. This balance is achieved by shifting the focus of governance assistance away from domestic issues of democracy and human rights in each country toward the rule of law in international relations. This serves Japan’s security interests by enabling it to develop security cooperation with “like-minded countries” with questionable domestic governance records. As it becomes increasingly difficult to provide democracy assistance through intergovernmental ODA due to this situation, Japan needs to take a long-term perspective and provide support to civil society organisations (CSOs) and young democracy activists, who are an important check against democratic regression.

FOIP: What is it, and what does it aim for?

The FOIP could be understood as an extension of the value-based diplomacy132 that Japan adopted in the mid-2000s in response to the rise of authoritarian China. The first Abe administration (2006–7) announced its “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” Initiative in 2007, which made clear its commitment to implementing value-based diplomacy.133 In a speech to publicise this initiative, Foreign Minister Taro Aso declared that Japan will add “value-oriented diplomacy (kachi no gaiko),” in which universal values such as democracy, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law will be given greater importance in advancing diplomatic endeavours, as a “new pillar” of Japanese diplomacy.134 This was a truly ambitious initiative to create “a region of stability and prosperity, based on universal values” in an area starting from Northern Europe and passing through the Baltic States, Central and South-Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus, the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent, then Southeast Asia and finally Northeast Asia.135 The second Abe administration (2012–19) embraced this course of diplomacy further and announced the “Democratic Security Diamond Concept” in 2012, which called for greater cooperation with the United States, Australia, and India — key democracies in the Indo-Pacific region.136 Furthermore, Japan’s first National Security Strategy in 2013 clearly stated that “the maintenance and protection of international order based on rules and universal values, such as freedom, democracy, respect for fundamental human rights, and the rule of law” are in Japan’s national interests137 and made a commitment to strengthen “the international order based on universal values.”138 This was certainly a significant diplomatic shift for Japan, which had previously pursued pragmatic diplomacy in pursuit of economic interests under a liberal international order and security umbrella provided by the United States, to embrace an international initiative with a set of normative values.

A Japanese naval ship featuring stealth capability is anchored in Yokosuka, Japan, September 2022.
A Japanese naval ship featuring stealth capability is anchored in Yokosuka, Japan, September 2022.Source: Getty

In order to examine what Japan is prepared to do to hold back the tide of democratic backsliding in the Indo-Pacific region, it is important to understand the change in Japan’s value-based diplomacy from the mid-2000s to the present. To do so, it is useful to understand the changes in the content of the “universal values” that Japan seeks to defend and uphold. This change can be seen by comparing the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” Initiative with the FOIP. The two initiatives have in common that they both advocate for the defence of universal values in the face of China’s rise. However, there is an important difference between them. That is, while the former called for the realisation and defence of liberal democracy and the rule of law within each country in the region, the latter shifts the focus of the universal values to be defended to the “international rule of law.” This shift is made clear by comparing two speeches of former Japanese foreign ministers. Taro Aso stated in his 2007 “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” speech that Japan will be an “escort runner” to support “these countries that have just started into this truly never-ending marathon” of consolidating democracy.139 Apparently, the focus was on domestic values within each country in the region.140 In contrast, in the 2018 diplomatic speech in the Diet, then-Foreign Minister Taro Kono stated that “a free and open maritime order based on the rule of law is the cornerstone of the stability and prosperity of the international community,” and expressed Japan’s intention to maintain and strengthen the free and open maritime order in the Indo-Pacific region as an international public good. He also stated that the three pillars of the FOIP strategy are: first, to spread and establish freedom of navigation and the rule of law; second, to pursue economic prosperity by improving connectivity through the development of high-quality infrastructure in accordance with international standards; and third, to ensure peace and stability by assisting regional states for building maritime law enforcement capacity.141 It is important to note that these three pillars do not pertain to issues of domestic political order, such as liberal democracy. Additionally, it is worth noting that the term “rule of law,” which was once considered a universal domestic value — perhaps one that has different interpretations within each country — is now used in the international context of the maritime order.

Underlying this shift in the focus of Japan’s value-based diplomacy is a sense of crisis that the rise of China is rapidly deteriorating Japan’s own security environment. For Japan, which has long maintained its position as the top donor of ODA to many Asian countries, the impact of China’s rise was initially perceived in terms of competition for regional influence as Beijing rapidly increased its emphasis on lending and development aid as tools of statecraft.142 However, as the Xi Jinping administration (2013–present) has stepped up its maritime expansion and intensified territorial disputes with neighbouring countries, China has increasingly been perceived as a direct military threat to Japan in particular. Japan’s attention quickly shifted to how to ensure its own national security defined in the traditional sense “to maintain its sovereignty and independence; to defend its territorial integrity; to ensure the safety of life, person, and properties of its nationals.”143

As the Xi Jinping administration has stepped up its maritime expansion and intensified territorial disputes with neighbouring countries, China has increasingly been perceived as a direct military threat to Japan in particular.

This security concern was clearly expressed in the 2013 National Security Strategy. Recognising that Japan found itself in “an increasingly severe security environment,” the strategy defined Japan’s national interests as the maintenance of its sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, as well as the achievement of its economic prosperity.144 It also stated that the strategy, “as fundamental policies pertaining to national security,” presents policy guidelines in areas related to national security, including ODA.145 In response, the Development Cooperation Charter,146 revised in 2015, explicitly stated for the first time that ODA would contribute to the country’s national interests.147

In light of these circumstances, the essence of the FOIP Initiative, announced after the adoption of the 2013 National Security Strategy, should be understood as part of a national security strategy to secure Japan’s national interests of security and economic prosperity by maintaining the international public good of a “free and open international order.” In this context, a commitment to the defence of liberal democratic values in the Indo-Pacific region should be understood as a lower-order priority after the strategic objectives of maintaining Japan’s traditional security and economic prosperity.

Change and continuity of Japan’s democracy support by ODA under FOIP

“Democracy support” is an elusive concept. One reason is that “democracy,” the object to be supported, is “an essentially contested concept.”148 In this paper, democracy is defined as liberal democracy or constitutional democracy.149 The liberal components, such as respect for human rights and the rule of law,150 are becoming more important since the major phenomenon of democratic backsliding is the emergence of “illiberal democracy” where democratically elected politicians gradually set themselves free from institutions devised to constrain the arbitrary use of political power.151 The second reason for the ambiguity of the concept of democracy support is that it is often confused with democracy promotion. Democracy support is a part of democracy promotion. While the means of democracy promotion include diplomatic persuasion, economic sanctions, and even military intervention,152 democracy support is a particular type of foreign policy that supports the introduction and consolidation of norms, institutions, and processes of liberal democracy within other states. Though its targets are diverse and can include various actors, for the sake of space, this paper will limit itself to democracy support through Official Development Assistance (ODA).153

It is worth examining how Japan’s ODA support for democratisation has changed under the FOIP and what has not changed. To analyse this, we must first review the history and features of Japan’s ODA for upholding liberal democratic values. It was only after the end of the Cold War that Japan embarked on providing ODA in this field. It was extended to former socialist countries like former Soviet republics, Eastern European countries, and Mongolia, and post-conflict countries such as Cambodia. However, Japan’s approach was different from that of Western countries. To begin with, the amount of Japanese ODA for democracy-related projects is very limited. For example, from 2007 to 2016, Japan’s support in this area averaged 2.1 per cent of its total ODA, ranking 26th among the 29 member countries of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).154 In addition, Japan adopts an approach to avoid giving the recipient government the impression that Japan was interfering in its internal affairs. ODA in this area has been limited to assistance for the implementation of fair and regular elections, decentralisation, and capacity building for national and local government officials, and has avoided the risk of antagonising recipient governments by supporting opposition parties, independent media, or anti-government NGOs, as done by the US-based organisations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). Any media support has been given to state-owned media organisations for technical support and policy development.

Japan has provided aid for training judicial officers such as judges, public prosecutors and lawyers, however, it has been reluctant to assist with constitutional drafting in the countries in transition from a socialist-authoritarian regime to a liberal democracy.

Japan’s ODA support for the rule of law has also avoided the politically sensitive aspect of preventing the arbitrary exercise of public power through legal constraints, an important component of liberal democracy. Japan has provided aid for training judicial officers such as judges, public prosecutors and lawyers,155 however, it has been reluctant to assist with constitutional drafting in the countries in transition from a socialist-authoritarian regime to a liberal democracy. This is in contrast to the United States and European states, which have actively assisted in this field. Instead, Japan has focused on aspects of the rule of law that support economic development, with an emphasis on the development of civil and economic laws such as civil codes, civil procedural laws, anti-trust laws, and securities laws. This approach was based on pragmatic considerations that emphasised friendly relations with recipient governments, but it was also rooted in Japan’s aid philosophy of respecting the ownership of the recipient countries and supporting their self-help efforts (jijo-doryoku). This philosophy is expressed in the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA)’s document as follows:

Japan has implemented cooperation that emphasises the autonomy (jishu-sei) and endogenous initiative (naihatsu-sei) of the recipient country, while maintaining the viewpoint that each recipient country has its own unique situation and background. Japan has gained the trust of recipient countries through its so-called “leaning approach,” in which it considers issues together with recipient countries and builds institutions in line with the current situation in the recipient countries.

Then, how has Japan’s unique ODA policy for democracy support, which has been criticised by Western countries for being reticent, changed under the FOIP Initiative? Indeed, the Development Cooperation Charters, which were revised in 2015 and 2023 respectively, can be read as if Japan intended to become more active in democracy support. Both charters reiterate Japan’s commitment to “pay adequate attention to the situation in the recipient countries regarding the process of democratisation, the rule of law and the protection of basic human rights, with a view to promoting the consolidation of democratization, the rule of law and the respect for basic human rights.”156 The 2023 Charter, recognising the “movements against democratisation and the protection of human rights” in developing countries, pledges that Japan would “support the development of legal systems, including assistance in drafting laws and regulations, institutional development, and human resources development” in order “to facilitate establishment of the rule of law, realisation of good governance, promotion and consolidation of democratisation, and respect for fundamental human rights.”157

In addition, the 2023 Charter suggests changes that could be interpreted as an introduction of new methods in supporting democracy. One such change is the new positioning of civil society as “a strategic partner in Japan’s development cooperation.”158 Recognising that it is sometimes difficult for government-to-government assistance to be attuned to local needs, the Charter pledges that Japan will “utilise the expertise of civil society” and “support the capacity building of its civil society and further strengthen development cooperation implemented through civil society in Japan and abroad by constantly improving its support schemes.”159 However, CSOs working in Japan in the field of human rights and democracy support are mostly branches of international CSOs in Europe and the United States, while “home-grown” CSOs are very few in number and have limited human and financial resources. Another change is the introduction of “offer-type” cooperation which “will enable creating and proactively proposing attractive menus that leverage Japan’s strengths.”160 In other words, under the new ODA Charter there is now a possibility that Japan could proactively offer democracy support programs to recipient states, rather than waiting for a government request. Should such programs be offered, they would likely continue to be directed at areas Japan currently supports, i.e. government capacity building, legal and judicial development, and the conduct of elections. If Japan strengthens cooperation with Japanese CSOs in providing democracy support or proactively proposes democracy support menus under “offer-type” cooperation, it will undoubtedly mark a significant departure from the traditional policy of providing assistance overwhelmingly on a government-to-government basis and respecting the ownership of recipient governments.

A woman casts her vote for parliament’s upper house election at a polling station in Himeji, Japan, July 2016.
A woman casts her vote for parliament’s upper house election at a polling station in Himeji, Japan, July 2016.Source: Getty

However, it is unlikely that there will be a dramatic change to Japan’s traditional approach to democracy support via its ODA program. It is reasonable to anticipate that collaboration with CSOs will primarily focus on humanitarian and socio-economic sectors. Additionally, “offer-type” cooperation will likely be introduced to sectors that are crucial for Japan’s economic gains.161 The reason for such a pessimistic assessment is that both charters still emphasise the importance of respecting the ownership of recipient governments. The 2023 Charter explicitly states that Japan should continue to implement this “good tradition” as follows:

Japan’s development cooperation aims for self-reliant development through support for self-help efforts by developing countries, with the spirit of working together to persistently create what suits partner countries through dialogue and collaboration based on a field-oriented approach. This spirit and Japan’s approach of building reciprocal relationships with developing countries in which both sides learn from each other as equals are good traditions of Japan’s development cooperation).162

Furthermore, the 2023 Charter argues that “it is more necessary than ever for the international community to cooperate in order to overcome the compound crises by transcending differences in values and conflicts of interest.”163 The Charter also refrains from using the term “universal values” that was used in the 2015 Charter to refer to “freedom, democracy, respect for basic human rights and the rule of law.”164 These changes in Japan’s value-based diplomacy may be partly understood as the result of Japan’s reflection on the sobering fact that many countries in the Global South did not respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the West expected. The Western depiction of the war in Ukraine as a battle between liberal democracy and authoritarianism did not necessarily resonate with the Global South. Since then, Japan has begun to emphasise its stance of listening to the voices of the Global South. This is expressed in a speech by Prime Minister Kishida in Washington in January 2023, in which he said, “Even if we walk on a path which we believe to be right, if the Global South, holding integral places in the international arena, turn their back, we will find ourselves in the minority and unable to resolve mounting policy issues.”165

A Chinese Coast Guard ship sails near a Philippine vessel that was part of a convoy of civilian boats in the disputed South China Sea, December 2023
A Chinese Coast Guard ship sails near a Philippine vessel that was part of a convoy of civilian boats in the disputed South China Sea, December 2023Source: Getty

On the other hand, the FOIP brought about a significant change in Japan’s ODA policy. It added a new mandate to JICA’s support for the rule of law: upholding the international rule of law by strengthening the capacity of maritime security organisations to enforce the law at sea. This corresponds to the shift in emphasis of universal values to be upheld by the FOIP to the “international rule of law.” The 2023 Development Cooperation Charter lists the “strengthening of a free and open international order based on the rule of law” as one of the priority ODA policies.166 Patrol vessels are now provided to maritime law enforcement agencies in Southeast Asian countries (the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia), a South Asian country (Sri Lanka), and in countries as far as Djibouti in defence of a free and open international order based on the rule of law. This support originated from the grant of a second-hand small Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat to Indonesia in the mid-2000s as an anti-piracy measure. However, as China continued its maritime expansion and Japan began to recognise this as a threat to its security, the number and size of patrol vessels increased. In response, yen loans, the main modality of Japan’s ODA,167 were provided in place of grant aid. Although such ODA claims to contribute to universal values, it should be understood that its purpose is to indirectly contribute to Japan’s traditional security by enhancing the deterrence capabilities of countries that have maritime territorial disputes with China.

This trend towards securitisation of ODA168 is related to Japan’s strategic aim stated in the 2022 National Security Strategy by the Kishida administration to achieve a “new balance of power in international relations” in the Indo-Pacific region, jointly with its ally and “like-minded countries” in order to “prevent the emergence of situations in which any one state can unilaterally change the status quo easily.”169 In other words, in order to restore any balance of power in the region that has tilted in favour of China, it is a rational course of action for Japan to help enhance the deterrence capabilities of “like-minded countries” with common security interests in deterring China, in addition to strengthening its own defence capabilities.170 As strengthening security partnerships with “like-minded countries” becomes increasingly important in the future to deter the rise of China, providing ODA to stem the deteriorating trend of liberal democracy and the rule of law in such countries becomes an increasingly difficult option for Japan. In other words, strategic considerations of inviting “like-minded countries” to jointly roll back against China may override value-based considerations of assisting democratisation in such countries.

In sum, Japan’s democracy support via ODA under the Abe and Kishida administrations tried to strike a careful balance between upholding liberal democratic values and avoiding the risk of offending incumbent governments in recipient countries in the Indo-Pacific region. This balance is achieved by shifting the focus of governance assistance away from domestic issues of democracy and human rights in each country toward the rule of law in international relations. This serves Japan’s security interests by enabling it to develop security cooperation with “like-minded countries” with questionable domestic governance records.171

Policy recommendations

Recommendation 1

Address by ODA the wide range of development needs of countries in the Indo-Pacific region to provide an alternative to China’s development assistance

This is relevant to China’s influence on democratic backsliding in the Indo-Pacific region. While more research is needed, it would miss the point to view China as actively exporting autocracy.172 Nor would it be correct to see the so-called Chinese-style authoritarian rule of the one-party communist dictatorship as increasingly influential in replacing liberal democracy as a political ideology. Rather, China indirectly contributes to a setback in democratisation by providing an alternative to Western ODA that is conditional on respecting human rights and democratisation.173 From this perspective, the mission of the United States, Japan and Australia is to roll back against Chinese aid by sincerely responding to the diverse development needs of developing countries in the region through “quality ODA.” This includes support for “quality infrastructure” that is transparent, accountable, economically efficient, open, environmentally and socially sustainable, and debt-sustainable, as opposed to Chinese aid.174 It should also include the promotion of the rule of law, in particular transparency in political and administrative decision-making, thereby helping to prevent elite capture by Chinese aid. It is also important to strive to achieve the common OECD-DAC target of 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income (GNI) for the amount of ODA.

Recommendation 2

Enhance coordination with democracy support from the United States, Australia, and South Korea, as well as so-called “emerging donors” such as India and Indonesia

Given the diversity of democracy175 and democratic backsliding,176 it is crucial to tailor democracy support to the specific needs of Indo-Pacific countries. An effective approach is mutual learning, where lessons from each country are consolidated.177 Better coordination with like-minded partners should improve the efficiency and effectiveness of democracy support programs and avoid duplication of effort. Regular consultations between aid agencies in democracies such as Japan, the United States and Australia, and making them open to civil society, would be beneficial.178

Recommendation 3

Provide a safe haven for young pro-democracy activists from Myanmar, Thailand, China, Hong Kong and elsewhere

Japan has a history of harbouring many Asian exiles, dissidents, and intellectuals who resisted colonial and dynastic rule, such as Sun Yat-sen (father of the Republic of China), Song Jiaoren (first leader of the Kuomintang), and Phan Boi Chau (leader of the Vietnamese independent movement). As such history teaches, current exiles may become future leaders of their country. The role of Japan, and in particular civil society, is to provide these promising, young and determined democrats with a safe haven for free speech and to support them financially. The Japan Government should consider relaxing the criteria for recognition of political asylum seekers.

Recommendation 4

Encourage dialogue and cooperation among CSOs in the Indo-Pacific region

Given the limitations of democratisation assistance through ODA, expectations for a greater role for Japanese CSOs in supporting democratisation in the Indo-Pacific region are growing. This will require capacity building and funding for Japanese CSOs. There is also a need for a platform for Japanese CSOs to develop support for CSOs and media advocating liberal democratic values in the countries of the Indo-Pacific region, in collaboration with similar organisations in the United States, Australia and elsewhere. In this regard, it is worth noting that Yukio Takasu, former Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations, has proposed the creation of an Indo-Pacific Platform for Universal Values to serve as the above-mentioned platform.179

Recommendation 5

Ensure democracy does not regress in Japan

A rarely discussed yet important means of democracy support is to “set an example” for other countries.180 Japan should play an exemplary role as one of the few stable liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific region. This does not mean that Japan is an ideal democracy. As liberal democracy is an ideal that is never fully realised, it is important to strive towards bridging the gap between reality and the ideal in one’s own country. In this regard, efforts to strengthen respect for human rights domestically (e.g. the issue of foreign trainees, and the improvement of the status of women)181 are particularly important. Even more important is to ensure that Japan does not join the long line of countries experiencing democratic backsliding. In this respect, it is worrisome to note that Japan’s liberal democracy is showing signs of regression. This is evident, for example, in discriminatory comments repeatedly made by ruling party lawmakers toward domestic ethnic and sexual minorities. Also, the deterioration of the situation of the freedom of the press is to be noted.182 If this deplorable trend continues, Japan will lose its moral standing to support democracy in the Indo-Pacific region. The same is true for the United States and other democracies in the region.


As China’s provocative actions escalate around Japan,183 Japan’s perception of its security environment is likely to continue to deteriorate. Balancing its contribution to the realisation of universal values with its own military security interests will become increasingly challenging, and the need to prioritise the latter at the expense of the former may increase. There are indications of this. For instance, during his speech to the UN General Assembly in September 2023, Prime Minister Kishida refrained from using the term “democracy.” He even went on to argue that we cannot overcome complex issues ranging from climate change to infectious diseases, and challenges to the rule of law, “if the international community remains divided over ideologies or values.”184 This trend is not exclusive to Japan; US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also avoided using the term for the first time in 2023, having referred to it since 2012 in his speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue. However, it is important to note that ODA is not the only means of supporting democracy, and steady efforts through various methods, such as civil society dialogues, will become increasingly important.

Japanese approaches to development aid and democracy support in Southeast Asia

Chikako Kodama


The purpose of the chapter is to understand Japanese approaches to development cooperation, particularly to democracy assistance in Southeast Asia, and to contribute to recommendations on how Japan can cooperate in this area. Democracy assistance, within Japan’s official development assistance (ODA) program, is in the toolbox of Japan’s value-based diplomacy and is defined as “a method of promoting democracy based on an agreement between the target and the provider, and it intends to transfer resources peacefully.”185 In this chapter, democracy assistance and democracy support are used interchangeably to mean support for democratic institutions, political processes and civil society for the principal purpose of fostering democracy based on consent.186 This chapter focuses on the nine countries in Southeast Asia that receive Japanese ODA i.e. Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Thailand, Timor-Leste and Vietnam.

The amount of Japanese development cooperation for democracy support has increased between the mid-2000s and the mid-2010s reflecting the placement of promotion of “universal values” at the centre of Japanese diplomacy.187 However, the portion of ODA allocated for democracy assistance has been limited based on a cross-country comparison with other Development Assistance Committee (DAC) members.188 Within Japanese ODA, democracy assistance is directed towards the support of public sector policy and administration management, and legal and judicial development while support to civil society (e.g. civic education, human rights advocacy, independent media) is particularly scarce.189 Japan started promoting universal values including democracy to counterbalance Chinese influence internationally and gain trust from Western allies.190 The policy commitment is in line with Japanese policymakers’ view that political development follows socioeconomic development based on Japan’s experience of democratisation.191 Therefore, Japan considers socio-economic support as a part of democracy assistance.192

The chapter seeks to identify strategic and realistic recommendations for Japanese support of democracy in Southeast Asia. It provides an overview of Japan’s country-based Development Assistance/Cooperation Policy for countries in Southeast Asia, which connects Japanese development cooperation policies and a specific country’s development plan. It analyses if and how the promotion of universal values in diplomatic policy is reflected in a hands-on guiding framework at the country level. The chapter concludes with an identification of lessons learnt for Japan to provide democracy assistance. Together with findings from other chapters that review Australian approaches, the learning points will form recommendations for cooperation between Australia and Japan in pursuing democracy support.

Japanese approach to development cooperation

Japan is one of the largest providers of ODA in the world, with distinct characteristics in terms of scale, regional priority and sectoral allocation in comparison with Germany and the United States (Table 2).194 In terms of the size of the ODA, Japan provided US$23.6 billion in 2022. Compared to the year when the 2015 Development Cooperation Charter was launched, the Japanese ODA has increased by 76.5 per cent. For the last three years (2020–22), Japan has been the third largest donor, after the United States and Germany among the DAC members. One of the notable characteristics of Japanese ODA is a higher ratio of loan aid to grant aid. During the last decade, more than half of the assistance amount (61.9 per cent) was provided as loan aid on average while grant aid was 37.4 per cent. On the other hand, during the same period, the United States provided predominantly grant aid (99.9 per cent). In terms of regional allocation, Japan prioritises Asia. On average, 59.9 per cent of total ODA from 2013 to 2022 has been allocated to Asia,195 followed by Africa (14.2 per cent) and the Middle East (6.1 per cent). In the case of sectoral distribution, over the last 10 years, Japan allocated 42.6 per cent of its ODA for economic infrastructure and services.196 The United States prioritises social infrastructure (46.0 per cent) and then humanitarian aid (24.1 per cent). It allocates a mere 3.6 per cent of its ODA to economic infrastructure, which presents a stark contrast to Japan’s sectoral distribution.

Table 2. Official development assistance profile

Source: Calculated by the author based on OECD data, Creditor Reporting System. Data were retrieved on 30 January 2024. ODA/GNI percentage is from the OECD Development Co-Operation Profile of each country, 2023

In sum, the Japanese development cooperation profile still reflects its ODA history and experience. Japan’s ODA history started with assistance to Asia first in the 1950s.197 In addition, Japan itself developed economic infrastructure such as highways, dams and railways with loan aid from the World Bank during the 1950s and 60s, which laid the foundation for Japan’s rapid economic growth.198 Its own background is embedded in the approach taken to development cooperation.

Development cooperation and democracy support in Southeast Asia

Southeast Asia is home to nations with wide variations in economic development and political systems. For instance, Malaysia’s GNI per capita is US$10,930 while it was US$1,140 in Myanmar in 2021.199 In Indonesia, the amount of ODA received, US$612 million, is less than three per cent of the country’s foreign direct investment (FDI) inflow in 2021.200 On the other hand, in Timor-Leste, development aid is still an important means of financing, the amount of which (US$253 million) is almost four times larger than the amount of FDI in 2021.201 The polities in the region include both democracies and non-democracies. During the last 20 years, some countries like Indonesia maintained democratic regimes whilst others such as Vietnam remained non-democracies although they conducted regular elections. Then there are countries such as Thailand that have transitioned between democracy and autocracy and back again.202 As for political rights and civil liberties, in 2022 only one country, Timor-Leste was considered free and five countries were classified as not free according to the Freedom in the World dataset.

In reflecting such diversities, Japan’s approaches to the countries with development cooperation vary, which will be examined in the next section. However, at the regional level, development cooperation in Southeast Asia from 2013 to 2022 reflects similar trends in Japanese ODA overall. Owing to the priority given to Asia, the countries in Southeast Asia received on average about a quarter (27.2 per cent) of total ODA from Japan, with a slight increase over 10 years (Figure 3).203 The top three recipients based on the cumulative ODA figures for the last 10 years are Viet Nam, Myanmar and the Philippines. The priority given to these countries is evidence that Japan does not consider the type of political system or level of freedom as a criterion for providing ODA.204 Rather, these top three countries are important from a geostrategic and economic perspective.205

Figure 3. Japanese official development assistance allocation to Southeast Asia

Figure 3
Source: OECD, Creditor Reporting System. Data retrieved 30 January 2024 (disbursement-base, constant price, US$m, 2021)

In terms of sectoral allocation, almost half of ODA to Southeast Asia, on average, is distributed to economic infrastructure and services (49.6 per cent) during the same 2013–22 period. Figure 4 demonstrates a strong upward trend in the ODA to Southeast Asia for economic infrastructure and services. Enhancing connectivity, which is one of the pillars of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) is built on earlier support for infrastructure development in Southeast Asia.206 Although FOIP covers other pillars including the promotion of fundamental principles such as the rule of law, the focus on infrastructure development could present a resemblance to the Belt and Road Initiative promoted by China.

Figure 4. Japanese official development assistance allocation to economic infrastructure

Figure 4
Source: OECD, Creditor Reporting System. Data retrieved 30 January 2024 (disbursement-base, constant price, US$m, 2021)

The absolute amount allocated for democracy support started to decrease in the mid-2010s in Southeast Asia as well as all developing countries (Figure 5).207 This is mostly explained by a reduction in support for Afghanistan.208 The ratio of democracy support within Japan’s total ODA peaked in 2011 both globally (3.3 per cent of the total) and in Southeast Asia (4.3 per cent). Since then, in 2022 the ratio of democracy support within total ODA in Southeast Asia has decreased even further to 0.46 per cent, which is the lowest percentage recorded over the last 20 years. This represents a significant gap between Japan’s commitment to the promotion of universal values expressed in foreign policies and its actual regional practice.

Figure 5. Japanese official development assistance allocation to democracy support in Southeast Asia

Figure 5
Source: OECD, Creditor Reporting System. Data retrieved 30 January 2024 (disbursement-base, constant price, US$m, 2021)

In short, the type of political system of a target state, whether a democracy or not, is not used by Japan as a condition for providing aid: ODA assistance has been increasing in non-democratic countries. Japan’s approach to development assistance follows “noninterference and noninterventionist principles.”209 The concentration of Japanese ODA on infrastructure support, with democracy assistance playing only a very minor role stands counter to the promotion of universal values in its diplomacy.

The purpose and substance of democracy support

In reviewing democracy support, one must be cautious about assessing a state’s commitment based on the amount of ODA to “government and civil society” and its share of the total ODA funds. Although the category “government and civil society” is most relevant to democracy-related areas of support in the CRS, it does not inform the purpose of support: Japan assists with legal and judicial support with the objective of economic development. In addition, democracy assistance often takes the form of training, advocacy, campaigning, networking, and knowledge development etc., which normally costs less than the construction of infrastructure. Furthermore, the majority of Japanese foreign aid is in the form of loans rather than grants, as mentioned previously. The amount of loan aid tends to be large. This section analyses Japanese assistance to democracy-related areas of support according to its purpose, substance and trends by reviewing its assistance policy at the country level.

Objectives of democracy-related support

Of the nine Southeast Asian countries to which Japan provides ODA for “government and civil society,” in only four countries is strengthening democratic governance a priority area for funding i.e. Cambodia, Laos, Timor-Leste and Vietnam (for details see Annex 1: Japan's country assistance policies).210 Indonesia provides a good example. Indonesia remains the top recipient of ODA supporting “government and civil society” in Southeast Asia.211 However, support for legal and judicial reform such as technical assistance for intellectual property rights protection and legislation drafting has been provided for the primary purpose of improving the business environment and international competitiveness of Indonesia (Priority 1). Police support used to be one of the main areas of Japanese assistance. Capacity development of civil police forces continues but for the purpose of realisation of security and safety (Priority 2).212 Although it is not stipulated in the country assistance policy for Indonesia, the rolling plan213 provides that sharing Indonesia’s experience of democratisation and institutional reforms within ASEAN countries is a Japanese priority. Like Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are also expected to become Japan’s development cooperation partners to support the Southeast Asia region considering their levels of economic development. However, unlike Indonesia, the country assistance policies to the two countries do not mention democratisation for their support to the region.214

Substance of Japan’s democracy support

In countries where Japan provides development cooperation for the purpose of democratisation or democratic governance, what and how does it provide support? Vietnam provides a useful snapshot of Japan’s priorities when it comes to democracy support as the second largest recipient of ODA for “government and civil society.” Within this category, 27.3 per cent of aid is directed toward “public sector policy and administration management” whilst 52.6 per cent is for “legal and judicial development” for the last 10 years.215 As the examples below demonstrate, Japan’s objectives in its democracy support programs primarily focus on building governmental administrative and service delivery capacities by targeting governing institutions rather than supporting democratic political processes or civil society.

Civil service reform216

Technical assistance to the Ministry of Interior started in 2022 to improve civil servant entrance examinations. With training and dispatch of technical advisers, the project helps to improve entrance examination questions, methodology for assessing candidates and conducting interviews.

Judicial support217

Japan’s support for the judicial system in Vietnam started with a training course for Vietnamese judicial officials organised by the Japanese Ministry of Justice in 1994. JICA commenced technical support for the development of legal frameworks in 1996. Since then, various technical assistance projects have been provided to the Ministry of Justice, the Prime Minister’s office, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuracy, the Vietnam Bar Federation, and the Central Committee for Internal Affairs of the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Support for the legislature218

Technical assistance to the office of the national assembly lasted from 2014 to 2021 (Phase 1 for three and half years from 2014 and Phase 2 for four years from 2017). Training, study visits and workshops have been conducted to improve the management of sessions in the national assembly, functions of assembly committees, and legislative capacity.

Overall, in Southeast Asia, under the overarching category of “government and civil society,” Japan mainly supports “public sector policy and administration management” (50.3 per cent) and “legal and judicial development” (77.8 per cent). Electoral support represents three per cent of all ODA to Southeast Asia from 2013–22, with Cambodia receiving aid in 2018 and Myanmar in 2015 and 2020.219

Construction of a highway express lane in Ambalangoda funded by the Asian Development Bank, October 2009.
Construction of a highway express lane in Ambalangoda funded by the Asian Development Bank, October 2009.

A new trend

Within support to “government and civil society,” Japan has traditionally been reluctant to support “democratic participation and civil society.”220 During the last 10 years, however, the portion of ODA allocated to “democratic participation and civil society” has increased to five per cent of the total amount to “government and civil society” on average (from 2003 to 2012, it was 0.24 per cent). Particularly, Japan has directed a greater amount of ODA to “government and civil society” for this purpose in Timor-Leste (22.8 per cent) and Cambodia (14 per cent). Examples of the sub-sector in Cambodia and Timor-Leste include:

Civic engagement in Cambodia

Japan in collaboration with a multilateral organisation launched multi-year programs in 2020 and 2022 to promote civic participation. This support includes efforts that improve citizen access to information and digital literacy as well as direct support to CSOs for improving sustainability and budget monitoring capabilities.

Social inclusion, multi-tier governance and rule of law in Timor-Leste

Support was extended to various actors during the electoral cycle from 2016 to 2019. Unlike usual electoral assistance directly funding the state’s electoral management bodies, the program with a multilateral organisation assists political participation, civic education, political journalism, electoral justice and election security.

Japan’s support for democratic participation and civil society has been constrained and previous work identified the causes as a lack of an ODA funding scheme, a request-based approach by the government, and limited civil society engagement.

In conclusion, when looking at ODA activities or programs categorised as “government and civil society” support, consolidation of democracy or democratic governance is not always the primary objective. Even in countries with non-democratic regimes, development cooperation is provided to support state institutions. Japan’s support for democratic participation and civil society has been constrained and previous work identified the causes as a lack of an ODA funding scheme, a request-based approach by the government, and limited civil society engagement.221 Although it is modest and not implemented across all countries receiving ODA, the portion allocated to the subsector for democratic participation and civil society has increased for the last 10 years.

Recommendations and conclusion

What lessons can be learned from Japan’s approach to democracy support within its ODA programs for Southeast Asia? Given the trends summarised above, it would be unrealistic to expect a drastic change in the priority sectors of Japanese ODA. However, Japan has an interest in adjusting its approach considering its objectives of counterbalancing Chinese influence using ODA and its belief in democracy. Therefore, the following recommendations are offered.

Recommendation 1

Japan could increase ODA for democracy support activities to align with its strategic and values-based policies

The recent trend of reducing both the amount and the portion of democracy assistance within Japan’s ODA contradicts the purpose of value-based diplomacy. In order to differentiate Japan’s foreign aid approach from that of China, and to gain the trust of Western allies, an increase in funds allocated toward democracy support programs would be in line with Japan’s interests. This would involve a return to the funding level allocated during the period from 2003 to 2012.

Recommendation 2

Japan could strengthen democracy support by diversifying its substance

This can be achieved in three ways. First, Japan can increase support for civil society in recipient countries in collaboration with multilateral organisations taking the approach it has used in the past in Cambodia and Timor-Leste mentioned above. This can be done without changing the current Japanese aid system. There are various possible entry points to support civil society without necessarily undermining a host government222 such as using internationally agreed frameworks and mechanisms such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Second, Japan could introduce additional components to existing programmes since Japan’s 2023 Development Cooperation Charter commits to improving funding schemes for supporting civil society in Japan and abroad. Whilst current programmes focus on building the capacity of state institutions as observed in the case of Vietnam, future schemes could involve civil society organisations to promote access to justice, civic engagement, and monitoring of public service delivery performance within Japan’s existing priority areas.

Third, various stakeholders beyond the government in partner countries could be engaged more in planning ODA programmes. For example, the 2023 Charter introduced a new approach, the “offer-type” cooperation or “Co-creation for common agenda initiative.” Under the Strategy for the Co-Creation Initiative, Japan will identify aid initiatives through a process of dialogue with various stakeholders in a partner country, including civil society.223 Although the Initiative initially targets three areas of climate change and green transformation; economic resilience; and digitisation and digital transformation, such priority areas could be expanded after engagement with stakeholders within recipient countries, including civil society.

In non-democratic countries, which are almost half of the states in Southeast Asia, siding with the government/ruling party will pose a risk when a regime changes as Japan experienced in Myanmar. Support for civil society will mitigate the risk too.

Recommendation 3

Japan could take a more robust approach to assessing the appropriateness of development cooperation with non-democratic countries

Japan continues to provide development cooperation to non-democratic countries. Therefore, it would be important to understand how authoritarian regimes work in the specific context. Supporting public institutions and systems that were originally established for democratic purposes may not lead to strengthening democratic principles and institutions. Authoritarian regimes often use elections, the legislature, and the judiciary to sustain the regime.224 Support for socio-economic development may not be neutral either since economic growth often works as a source of legitimacy for authoritarian regimes. Such research is required for “ensuring the appropriateness of development cooperation” as included in the 2023 Development Cooperation Charter.

Together with the above considerations, Japan could leverage its democracy assistance and expand cooperation to counter illiberal and non-democratic practices and narratives more effectively with regional partners such as Australia that also support democracy. ODA is an important foreign policy tool for this work. In doing so, it needs to assess whether the Japanese ODA approaches which focus mainly on accelerating economic development through institutional reform rather than expanding political and civic space, is working as well to support democracy, as is often assumed.

Annex 1. Japan’s country assistance policies

Japanese approaches to development aid and democracy support in the Pacific

Dr Yuki Miyoda


Japan’s historical bonds with the Pacific Island nations date back over a century and the islands generally view Japan positively due to its significant role in their development after gaining independence.229 However, Japan’s strategic priorities have often overlooked these smaller nations, perhaps due to size, distance, and absence of major conflict in the region.230 Moreover, the political systems in these nations have been heavily influenced by their colonial past with major powers such as the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia, resulting in governance structures that are more democratic compared to those in Southeast Asia.231 The perceived lower risk in these democratically inclined nations had diminished their prominence in Japan’s strategic discussions.

In fact, while the Indo-Pacific has attracted global attention, there is little detailed and specific understanding of the economies and societies of the Pacific Island nations. Japan’s aid to these islands has been steady but not high, making up between three and six per cent of its total Official Development Assistance (ODA).232 However, the Pacific region’s strategic value to Japan has markedly increased in recent times, especially against the backdrop of intensifying US-China tensions. Traditionally, the Pacific Island nations have fostered strong connections with democratic nations, with China’s influence being historically minimal. Yet, recent developments, such as the Solomon Islands’ 2022 policing pact with China and the decisions by Solomon Islands, Kiribati, and Nauru to sever diplomatic relations with Taiwan in preference for China, signal a shift in the regional dynamics.233

Japan’s ODA serves as “one of the most important tools of Japan’s diplomacy.”234 Given this context, what objectives is Japan aiming for or expected to achieve in these nations by leveraging its ODA? This chapter explains Japan’s strategic framework for cooperation with the Pacific Islands, provides historical and economic context to its relationship with the region, and analyses the objectives and substance of Japan’s ODA with a focus on Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Solomons and Fiji. Japanese aid is currently dominated by infrastructure investment with only a small percentage of ODA provided for democracy support activities. An expansion of democracy support via aid would advance Japan’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, as would investment in infrastructure projects (e.g. telecommunications, digital infrastructure and undersea cables) that indirectly support democratic institutions and values such as free media and speech, especially where there is competition from China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Strategic framework for cooperation with the Pacific

The Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) stands as the region’s traditional multilateral framework, incorporating 14 Pacific Island nations and territories along with Australia and New Zealand, making it a crucial element in Japan’s diplomacy within the Pacific. Japan’s engagement with the PIF began in 1981 following the Forum’s (then known as the South Pacific Forum) opposition to Japan’s proposed disposal of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean.235 Since then, Japan has maintained ongoing dialogues, establishing a trustful relationship, highlighted by organising the inaugural Pacific Islands Summit in 1997 (previously called the Japan-South Pacific Forum Summit), known as PALM. This triennial summit is unique to Japan, excluding Australia and New Zealand, and has become a foundation for strengthening Japan’s relationship with Pacific Island countries.

With the announcement of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) strategy by then-Prime Minister Abe, the nature of the PALM Summit evolved to become more strategic.236 In 2018, the eight summit mentioned a “Partnership towards prosperous, free and open Pacific.” Since then, and in addition to sustainable development, which has always been a top priority for Pacific Islanders, the PALM Summit’s Final Declaration has made references to the security situation in East Asia, the preservation of the rule of law, freedom of navigation, and the need to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea.237

MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters lift supplies from USNS Amelia Earhart T-AKE 6 before delivering them to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington CVN 73, Pacific Ocean, 2012.
MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters lift supplies from USNS Amelia Earhart T-AKE 6 before delivering them to the aircraft carrier USS George Washington CVN 73, Pacific Ocean, 2012.Source: Getty

Within the PALM 9 Leaders’ Declaration in 2021, Prime Minister Suga announced his Kizuna Initiative to “further strengthen the cooperation between Japan and the Pacific Island Countries (PIC) through ‘All Japan’ efforts based on Japan’s FOIP vision, including through Japan’s Interagency Committee for Promoting Cooperation with the PICs (set up in 2019).” This committee aims to enhance the coherence of Japan’s approach to the region, by better coordinating its various dimensions.238

Article 10 of the ninth Summit final declaration includes the objective of supporting “Sustainable Oceans based on the Rule of Law.”239 This nuanced language, while not directly addressing maritime security, reflects a diplomatic balancing act, accommodating varying perspectives on regional threats, which predominantly revolve around environmental concerns rather than geopolitical tensions. So far, only five out of the 12 Pacific nations (Fiji, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, and PNG) have openly endorsed Japan’s FOIP.240 Given the initial vagueness of the FOIP vision, some considered it mostly development-oriented and focused on infrastructure development, while others viewed it as a strategic concept that could be part of great-power competition, particularly with China.

In contrast to ASEAN, the Pacific Island Countries have not demonstrated any intention of developing their own Indo-Pacific strategic framework or integrating Japan’s FOIP concept into their individual national policies. It is thus “paradoxical” that Japan and other external powers are re-engaging with Oceania under the banner of their Indo-Pacific strategy, while the Pacific Island Countries uphold their principle of being “friends to all, enemy to none.”241 The Pacific Island Countries, in all their official documents, describe climate change as an existential threat to their security and wish to stay away from the geopolitical competition between the United States and China. In contrast, some see that while their country’s own situation has remained unchanged, the intensifying competition between the United States and China in the region has increased their strategic value.

Despite the inclusion of Pacific nations in Japan’s pivotal FOIP vision, the actual infusion of ODA into these strategic priorities remains to be fully realised. While the proportion of Japan’s ODA allocated to the Pacific has seen an uptick from around three per cent in 2006 to six per cent, the significance of Japan’s engagement with these nations is not prominently highlighted in the most recent developmental cooperation discourse, as per the FY2022 White Paper on Development Cooperation.242

Japan made a notable change in its strategy by choosing not to set specific aid targets anymore, focusing instead on the quality over the quantity of its assistance. This move aims to set Japan apart from China’s approach to aid.

Japan made a notable change in its strategy by choosing not to set specific aid targets anymore, focusing instead on the quality over the quantity of its assistance. This move aims to set Japan apart from China’s approach to aid.243 Tokyo has indeed promoted its “quality infrastructure” concept, which has been endorsed by the OECD and G20 as an international standard. This approach prioritises the sustainability of infrastructure projects, taking into account environmental, labour and fiscal norms to support regional connectivity.

Japan’s historical and current ties with Pacific nations

The Pacific Islands, some of which were battlegrounds during the Second World War, are home to a considerable number of individuals of Japanese heritage, particularly in the Federated States of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, and Palau.244 This is a testament to Japan’s longstanding engagement with the region, which dates back to its mandate period under the League of Nations. Through its post-independence infrastructure development, Japan has made efforts to gain trust in the region.

The Polynesian and Melanesian nations, having shed the unilateral dependencies on their past colonial rulers — the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and France — are diversifying their diplomatic relationships. This shift has fostered a generally favourable view towards Japan among these countries.245 This perception is mirrored in the international support Japan enjoys from these nations, such as advocating for Japan’s permanent membership on the UN Security Council.246 Additionally, Japan’s interactions with entities like the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission underscore its close relations within the region.247

Historically, Japan’s strategy in the region has been characterised as “fragmented” and “slow and steady,” with a primary focus on development, particularly in the areas of fisheries, aid, and trade. As a major consumer of fish, Japan depends substantially on Oceania: around 40 per cent of the bonito and tuna consumed in Japan is caught in the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of Pacific Island Countries.248 Also, as of 2022, PNG has been Japan’s 4th liquid natural gas (LNG) supplier, after Australia, Malaysia, and Brunei, accounting for around five per cent of its consumption.249 In 2022, it was reported that PNG Prime Minister James Marape offered Japanese companies priority access to new gas-field development and LNG processing projects,250 suggesting bilateral cooperation could expand further.251

The Pacific region also serves as a crucial maritime route between Japan and Australia, facilitating significant trade flows as Australia is the largest supplier of energy and mineral resources to Japan. Japan relies heavily on Australia for its resource needs, importing 70 per cent of its coal, 60 per cent of its iron ore, and 40 per cent of its LNG. Any disruption here could significantly affect trade between Japan and Australia and Japan’s economic stability. Moreover, resources trade is likely to increase in the future, as Japan is looking to invest in hydrogen and critical materials in Australia.

Economic features of Pacific Island nations

Despite their small land areas, Pacific Island Countries oversee vast EEZs, rich in diverse marine resources. They exhibit a diverse range of income levels, from low- and middle-income countries to least-developed countries (LDCs) in DAC classifications and are economically dependent on primary industries and natural resource wealth (see Annex 2). However, according to Japan’s Development Cooperation Charter, they commonly face unique challenges tied to their geographical features — such as their small size, isolation, and maritime nature — which transcend mere economic indicators. Additionally, the recent climate crisis poses distinct challenges for these countries.252 These nations’ detachment from global markets hampers industrial development, leading to a heavy reliance on international aid. It is important to highlight that due to the small size of island economies, a relatively small investment can have a large impact on a particular country.

Democratic progress in Pacific nations post-independence

The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the implementing body for Japan’s ODA, has earmarked PNG, the Solomon Islands, and Fiji for focused support based on their potential for self-sufficiency.253 Each of these nations has experienced a difficult path to democratisation since gaining independence. Whilst Freedom House designates most of the Pacific Islands as ‘free’ under its yearly “Freedom in the World” democracy ranking, this is not the case for these three nations.254

Papua New Guinea

Gaining independence from Australia in 1975, PNG’s political landscape is marked by regular elections often plagued by irregularities and violence, shifting party loyalties, and a rare completion of full governmental terms. Since its first evaluation by Freedom House in 1975, PNG has swung between “partly free” and “free” but has been consistently classified as “partly free” since 2004. In 2022, Freedom House scored PNG 61/100 for political freedom, placing it in the “partly free” category with political rights at 22/40 and civil liberties at 39/60.255

Analysts point out that PNG’s independence might have been more an Australian concession than a local victory,256 leading to a continued Australian dependency that hints at a neocolonial relationship. The country experienced a period of “dual government” under Peter O’Neill and Michael Somare (2011–12), with Somare questioning the democratic system imposed by Australia.257 The 2022 elections saw James Marape’s reappointment amidst controversies over election fairness and associated violence, underlining ongoing political turmoil.258 Subsequent legal challenges underscored persistent political instability.


Fiji’s journey as an independent nation from the United Kingdom in 1970 has been marked by political upheaval, primarily due to ethnic strife, leading to multiple coups. From 2006 to 2014, Fiji was under military dictatorship, curtailing media freedom and straining its relations with Western countries. Unlike Australia and New Zealand, Japan did not enforce travel bans on the coup leaders. However, Japan chose not to extend an invitation to Fiji’s prime minister for the Japan-PIF Leaders Meeting (PALM) in Japan and limited its interactions during this period.259 Ahead of the 2014 elections, a new constitution in 2013 was introduced aimed at fostering inclusivity and national unity, though its democratic authenticity has been questioned. Despite a reduction in the post-coup repressive atmosphere, issues like political meddling, judicial influence, and misconduct by the military and police persist.

The 2022 elections saw a transition of power to a coalition of opposition parties, challenging Frank Bainimarama’s longstanding governance and hinting at potential democratic advancement, despite contentious electoral reform legislation. In 2022, Fiji was classified as “partly free” with a Freedom House score of 59/100, with political rights at 24/40 and civil liberties at 35/60.260

Solomon Islands

The Solomon Islands, which gained independence in 1978 from the United Kingdom, has had a rocky road to democracy that continues today. From 2000 to 2015 it was rated “partly free” and was upgraded to “free” in 2016 with a score of 79/100 in 2022, including political rights at 30/40 and civil liberties at 49/60.261 Post-independence, the nation faced severe internal discord, leading to interventions by regional forces to reestablish stability. Due to ethnic conflict, a Regional Assistance Mission to the region (RAMSI) consisting of Australia, New Zealand, and other countries was dispatched in 2003 to maintain security until the mission ended in 2017. Despite recent progress, latent societal tensions and political disagreements, particularly regarding ties with China, pose threats to stability.

Notably, antigovernment protests in Honiara over the official switch in diplomatic recognition of China over Taiwan led to riots in November 2021, highlighting a fragile peace despite general respect for political rights and civil liberties.262 Corruption and gender-based violence remain significant issues.

In conclusion, although these three nations do not exhibit the overt authoritarianism seen in some Southeast Asian countries, the robustness of state governance and democratic institutions varies, presenting continuous challenges to stability and legal order.

Japanese aid to individual countries in the Pacific

The implementing body for ODA, JICA, has played a significant role in facilitating relations between Japan and the Pacific nations. JICA now maintains offices in Fiji, Marshall Islands, Palau, PNG, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, and Vanuatu.263 In examining Japan’s development assistance, it is essential to consider the specific objectives and substance of aid provided to individual Pacific Island countries. This section focuses on the targeted aid initiatives and their implications for countries like PNG, Fiji, and the Solomon Islands, highlighting Japan’s strategic approach and the tangible impact of its assistance.

Papua New Guinea

Japan’s overarching policy for aid to PNG is aimed at “Achieving Sustainable Economic Growth and Improving Living Standards by Strengthening the Basic Socio-Economic Foundations.”264 This policy is rooted in a commitment to bolster PNG’s infrastructure as a means to support broader socio-economic development. The approach is aligned with PNG’s own strategic plans and visions, including the Medium-Term Development Plan, the PNG Development Strategic Plan, and PNG Vision 2050, reflecting a concerted effort to address key challenges such as environmental degradation and climate change.

Japan’s priority areas for assistance in PNG include (1) bolstering the foundation for economic growth, (2) enhancing social services, and (3) focusing on environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation. These areas underscore the multifaceted nature of Japan’s aid, aiming not only at economic development but also at improving quality of life and resilience to environmental challenges.

Voters gather at a polling station to vote in the Papua New Guinea general elections, Port Moresby, July 2022.
Voters gather at a polling station to vote in the Papua New Guinea general elections, Port Moresby, July 2022. Source: Getty

Despite these efforts, there is an acknowledgement that Japan’s presence in PNG, while significant, has faced competition from emerging donors (i.e. China) as described by the Japanese Government below.

“In the international arena, PNG and Japan are in a mutually supportive relationship. PNG has been supporting Japan’s international status for candidacies to the key positions in international organizations. It has been said, however, that Japanese presence in PNG seems to have been somewhat comparatively lower while newly emerging donors become more influential to PNG.”265

This dynamic necessitates a continuous assessment of Japan’s aid strategy to ensure its effectiveness and alignment with PNG’s evolving needs.

Notably, PNG stands as the largest recipient of Japan’s bilateral aid in the Pacific, with a substantial portion directed towards infrastructure development. However, Japan’s aid portfolio also includes initiatives aimed at governance and societal resilience, such as providing 101 million yen in 2021 to support a referendum in the Autonomous Region of Bougainville in collaboration with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). This project, aimed at facilitating the peaceful implementation of the referendum crucial for the region’s stability, exemplifies Japan’s commitment to fostering democratic processes and peace in PNG. This region experienced a devastating civil war from 1988 to 1998, which resulted in the loss of approximately 10 per cent of its population, extensive destruction of its infrastructure, and significant economic damage. The conclusion of the conflict led to the signing of the Bougainville Peace Accords in 2001, which provided for the conduct of a referendum to decide the future status of the region, the grant of a substantial degree of autonomy to the region, and the disarmament of the province. The project supplied essential equipment, including ballot printing machines, and provided the necessary technical and operational support for the referendum’s execution. This initiative was designed to create a safe voting environment, enabling the electorate to make informed decisions and thereby reinforcing peace, stability, and economic recovery in the region.

Table 3. Breakdown of Japan’s assistance to Papua New Guinea by category (net disbursements, millions of US$)

Notes: 1. The figures for DAC-listed countries are derived from data submitted to the DAC. 2. The numbers in brackets for grant aid represent donations made through international organisations and similar entities. 3. Due to rounding, the sum of individual items may not exactly match the total.

Table 4. Comparison of economic support to Papua New Guinea from key donors (net disbursements, millions of US$)

Source: Japan’s ODA Data by Country


Japan provides development assistance to Fiji under the “Supporting Comprehensive Economic and Social Development and Balanced Nation-Building” policy framework.266 Japanese aid focuses on (1) infrastructure development to spur economic growth, (2) measures to combat climate change and protect the environment, and (3) enhancing the quality of social services. This multifaceted approach reflects Japan’s recognition of Fiji’s diverse development needs and challenges.

Infrastructure projects dominate Japan’s aid to Fiji, reflecting the critical role of infrastructure in economic development and connectivity. In 2015, Japan, in partnership with UNDP, initiated the “Plan for Improving Access to Social Services on Justice and Gender Issues for All Fijians” with a budget of 297 million yen. This project aimed to establish a more inclusive and equitable system of social services, addressing gaps in the rule of law and ensuring better protection of women’s rights. This initiative highlights Japan’s commitment to addressing social disparities and promoting gender equality in Fiji, contributing to the nation’s broader goals of peace and stability.

Despite Fiji reinstating a democratic political system through peaceful general elections in September 2014, there were notable deficiencies in the enforcement of the rule of law and the availability of social services like social security in various villages and isolated island communities. Additionally, traditional customs frequently infringed upon women’s rights. To address these issues, in 2015, funding was allocated to support the development of a comprehensive framework for the rule of law and the provision of social services across rural areas of Fiji and beyond. The establishment of these systems in rural Fijian regions is believed to have significantly contributed to the enhancement of peace and stability within the country.

Table 5. Breakdown of Japan’s assistance to Fiji by category (net disbursements, millions of US$)

Table 6. Comparison of economic support to Fiji from key donors (net disbursements, millions of US$)

Source: Japan’s ODA Data by Country

Solomon Islands

For the Solomon Islands, Japan’s basic policy of assistance is geared towards “Supporting Sustainable Economic Development and Improving Living Standards through Assistance for Economic and Social Sectors.”267 The aid is directed towards (1) addressing vulnerabilities in sanitation, rural medical services, and the agriculture and fisheries industries (2) environmental conservation, climate change mitigation, and disaster prevention. These priorities reflect Japan’s strategic approach to aiding the Solomon Islands in overcoming its unique challenges and enhancing its resilience to environmental and socio-economic shocks.

One notable initiative is the anti-corruption capacity-building plan, implemented in collaboration with UNDP in 2020 for 189 million yen. This project aimed at strengthening the institutional framework to combat corruption, a pervasive issue that undermines governance and development. By renovating the offices of key agencies and providing training, Japan’s assistance seeks to empower the Solomon Islands’ efforts to foster transparency and accountability within its governance structures.

Across these three nations, Japan’s ODA has been largely directed towards infrastructure initiatives, with less emphasis on directly fostering democracy. The provision of democracy assistance, as illustrated in Table 9 for the years 2013 to 2022, has been relatively modest. Nevertheless, what might be considered small amounts of ODA from Japan’s perspective can have a significant impact on the recipient countries. Tables 4, 6 and 8 highlight that Japan ranks as the second-largest donor to these countries after Australia.

Table 7. Breakdown of Japan’s assistance to the Solomon Islands by category (net disbursements, millions of US$)

Table 8. Comparison of economic support to the Solomon Islands from key donors (net disbursements, millions of US$)

Source: Japan’s ODA Data by Country

Table 9. Allocation of democracy assistance to Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands as a percentage of total ODA for each country

Source: OECD Creditor Reporting System

Conclusion and recommendations

Recommendation 1

To further the strategic objectives of the FOIP, Japan should increase aid for democracy support and accountable governance alongside investment in infrastructure

Considering resource constraints, Japan has chosen to prioritise “quality” rather than “quantity” in its ODA strategy, a policy that is applied across all regions, including the Pacific Islands. Despite democracy assistance from Japan to the region being minimal, there is room for growth. The limited scope of Japan’s ODA towards enhancing democratic governance in the Pacific suggests an opportunity for strategic expansion. By integrating support for democratic practices and accountable governance into its ODA strategy, alongside ongoing infrastructure projects, Japan can align its efforts with the broader objective of promoting a free and open Indo-Pacific. This approach does not necessarily anticipate a significant increase in democracy assistance but aims to prevent a decline in the amount of democracy assistance, aligning with value-based diplomatic goals. There is a potential pivotal role for Japan’s ODA within the FOIP, although Tokyo has yet to articulate a comprehensive regional engagement plan.

Recommendation 2

Strategically, aid for infrastructure should also target projects that safeguard and support democratic values in developing countries, not only their economic development

The strategic and geopolitical dynamics, particularly with China’s assertive “One Belt, One Road” initiative, position the Pacific Islands at a strategic crossroads, facing challenges and opportunities for Japan’s regional aid strategy. Incremental funding towards democracy programs could distinguish Japan’s aid approach from China’s, earning the trust of Western allies. For instance, integrating indirect supports for democratic governance, such as safeguarding against democratic undersea cable installations, indirectly upholds democratic values by protecting free speech and preventing suppression. Such measures, though not directly democracy assistance, contribute to defending democratic integrity.

Enhanced multilateral cooperation is essential to address the Pacific Islands’ multifaceted challenges. Japan’s involvement in initiatives such as “Partners in the Blue Pacific” underscores the importance of collaborative action on climate change, sustainable development, and regional stability. The anticipation of a comprehensive strategy at the next PALM Summit in 2024 could mark a significant evolution in Japan’s Pacific engagement, potentially highlighting a dual focus on democratic values and infrastructure development, and aligning Japan’s ODA more closely with the goals of the FOIP vision.

Annex 2.

The classification by the JCPA is outlined as follows:

Nations identified for proactive support from JICA due to their strategic significance in political, economic, and security aspects include PNG, Fiji, Palau, the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and the Marshall Islands.

Countries where JICA intends to extend a certain level of aid, working in close collaboration with other donor agencies, encompass Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Samoa, Tonga, and Kiribati.

Nations where JICA plans to offer support in domains where Japan has competitive advantages, all the while coordinating effectively with other donors, are Tuvalu, Nauru, Cook Islands, and Niue.

General information about Papua New Guinea, Fiji and the Solomon Islands

Source: Japan’s ODA Data by Country


This project was supported by a grant from the Japan Foundation to Macquarie University awarded from September 2023 to March 2024. I would like to express my gratitude to the Foundation for recognising the importance of the study, with special thanks to Mr Yukihiro Ohira, Director of the Australian office, and Ms Akemi Maekawa, Coordinator Japanese Studies. Thank you also to the United States Studies Centre and Dr Mike Green for continuing to support research on the importance of democracy in our region. Mr Jared Mondschein, Ms Susan Beale, Mr Samuel Garrett and Ms Ava Kalinauskas deserve a very special thank you and acknowledgment for going above and beyond to get this report peer-reviewed and published in a short timeframe. Deep thanks also goes to Ms Michelle Lee of the Department of Security Studies and Criminology and the Research Office at Macquarie University who have provided invaluable support for this project. Finally, I am grateful for the dedication and commitment of my co-authors to this project, Dr John Lee, Professor Hiroaki Shiga, Dr Yuki Miyoda and Ms Chikako Kodama.

Japan Foundation
Macquarie University