Democracy promotion is falling out of fashion in US foreign policy circles. This is especially true when it comes to Asia: policymakers tend to believe that if the United States dwells on principles when engaging with that region, it will become distracted and lose the edge to China—purportedly a more pragmatic country focused on economic prowess and hard power. Beijing’s grand strategy undoubtedly focuses on dominating the Indo-Pacific, controlling the development and production of the most advanced technologies, and making China the hub of the global economy.
But the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitions are also ideological: he aims to shift global opinion toward an admiration for authoritarian rule and thereby forge a world safe for his autocracy and eager to welcome Chinese influence. This ideological campaign does not yet pose an existential threat to well-established Asian democracies such as Japan and South Korea. It creates great risks, however, for smaller Chinese neighbours whose economic and political fragilities Beijing seeks to exploit.
Foreign policy realists argue that supporting democratic governance distracts the United States from hard-power competition. But throughout the course of American history, the country’s sharpest strategic thinkers knew that was not the case. President Thomas Jefferson argued that supporting well-governed republics in the Pacific Northwest would be the best way to prevent European imperial expansion there. In the second half of the nineteenth century, US naval commander Matthew Perry and the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan made the same arguments about the western Pacific, determining that American interests in the region depended on the ability of Japan and other maritime states to self-govern and resist European imperial ambitions. Nearly two hundred years later, President Ronald Reagan concluded that weak democratic governance was rendering US strategic partners in Asia unstable and vulnerable to hostile influences. Leaning in to encourage democratic transitions in the Philippines and South Korea helped him contain the Soviet Union in its waning days.
These lessons from American statecraft are invaluable in today’s competitive environment. To make creating democratic partnerships effective as a foreign-policy tool, however, the United States must ensure that regional nations take a greater lead, putting Washington in a supporting role where possible. Fortunately, powerful democracies in Asia are rising to this challenge. The Indo-Pacific is bucking the global trend of democratic backsliding. The kinds of liberties that Freedom House measures improved in the region over the past year.
And leading Asian democracies evince an increasing determination to make values the center of their foreign policy. In recent surveys run by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Asian policy experts—excepting only Chinese and Singaporean respondents—ranked “democracy,” “human rights,” and “free and fair elections” as critical to the future of their entire region. In a shift, Japan and South Korea have added support for good governance to their foreign assistance portfolios, recognising that accountability and the rule of law undergirds security in the Indo-Pacific.
These efforts deserve more American encouragement and support. The United States should partner with Asian allies working to strengthen democratic institutions from the Maldives to Mongolia and engage more robustly with civil-society watchdogs that fight against corruption that corrodes national sovereignty and threatens US interests. Of course, many countries in Asia remain only partly free, and some still have authoritarian governments. But most of Asia’s one-party states still support a free and open Indo-Pacific rather than the international order China’s revisionist autocracy wishes to create—a hierarchical world in which expansionism is celebrated and great powers are free to suborn the independence of their neighbours.
The preservation of freedom in the Indo-Pacific is a vital interest for so many Asian nations that have transitioned from colonial rule and want to protect their hard-won independence from authoritarian interference. In short, democracy is an Asian value. US strategy depends on siding with these countries—and with Asia’s broader trend toward growing popular participation and forging democratic partnerships.
When US foreign policy has focused on encouraging democratic governance as a means to national resilience, the impacts on the balance of power abroad have redounded to the United States’ benefit. Historically, the United States’ policy toward the Philippines had many flaws. But despite those, US efforts to encourage the country to develop stronger democratic institutions on its path to independence made the Philippines much more capable of resisting Japan’s appeals to pan-Asianism during World War II. The United States’ post-war project to set Tokyo down a democratic path helped ensure that communism did not take root in Japan; the fact that Japan became an economically flourishing democracy helped contain Soviet expansionism after the United States withdrew from Vietnam and contributed to bringing the Cold War to a peaceful end.
Reagan began his term critical of his predecessor Jimmy Carter’s emphasis on human rights and democracy with frontline allies such as the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan. Initially, he believed any country that could serve as an anti-Soviet ally—democratic or not—should be embraced. But Secretary of State George Schultz and other advisers convinced him—based on the United States’ experience in Vietnam—that corrupt, authoritarian leaders tend to lose legitimacy and prove brittle allies in the long run.
Reagan soon pivoted to the side of pro-democracy reformers. Today, the Philippines, South Korea, and Taiwan are robust democracies. Alongside Australia, India, and Japan, these countries have become stalwarts against Chinese coercive ambitions in the region, including by actively supporting the presence of the US military as a guarantor of stability.
President Joe Biden has signalled that he believes the global fight for democratic values is crucial. He has struggled, however, to frame democracy as a critical part of the United States’ Asia strategy. His administration has become so focused on dominating the narrative in its great-power competition with China that it has inadvertently reinforced the impression that Washington is mainly concerned with its own economic and military rivalry with Beijing, not with how China’s ambitions affect other states in the region. But the fact remains that the most powerful states in China’s neighbourhood have far more values in common with Washington than they do with Beijing. US strategy needs to reflect that favourable ideological balance of power in Asia.
While some American policymakers are questioning whether values-based internationalism may be a liability in strategic competition, many Asian countries are prioritising support for a values-based foreign policy. Japanese leaders, for instance, understand clearly that they must defend democracy in Europe if they hope to defend it in Asia. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has championed support for Ukraine against Russia’s assault, saying in 2022 that “Ukraine today could be Taiwan tomorrow.”
Japan’s 2023 Development Cooperation Charter, the document that guides Tokyo’s overseas development assistance, pledges to make support for freedom and the rule of law a key component of foreign aid. And in December, when Japan unveiled a pioneering new national security strategy, it identified a commitment to universal values as one of the three pillars on which the country’s safety relies. Tokyo is now supporting parliamentary strengthening in the Pacific Islands, helping these nations bring more accountability to their governance.
South Korea, too, is increasingly emphasising its support for freedom beyond its borders. Its 2022 Indo-Pacific Strategy emphasised the importance of human rights and rule of law. Seoul recently committed $100 million to support democratic development abroad. South Korea’s version of the Peace Corps has embraced a new focus on strengthening open and accountable local governance in the societies where it works, and Seoul has sought a leading role in the annual Summit for Democracy, originally a US initiative to combat authoritarianism worldwide; in 2024, Seoul will host the global summit. The recent political rapprochement between Japan and South Korea seems likely to reinforce Seoul’s turn toward a values-based foreign policy.
Asians’ recognition of democracy’s strategic importance extends beyond the United States’ core allies. Large majorities of young Asians—even those living in countries that are not key US partners, such as Malaysia, the Maldives, Mongolia, and Timor Leste—recently told International Republican Institute pollsters that they believe democracy is the best form of government and desire democratic consolidation in their countries. Over the past several decades, Indonesia has transformed into an imperfect yet thriving pluralistic democracy that runs credible elections and boasts a rich civil-society sector determined to protect freedoms and hold politicians to account. Now, Jakarta is turning toward championing democratisation abroad, pressing for democratic change in Myanmar within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and hosting the Bali Democracy Forum, which trains civic and political leaders from Asia and the Middle East.
Taiwan only held its first free presidential election in 1996. But today, its competitive elections, thriving civil society, and independent press may make it the freest society in Asia. Since 2003, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy—a government-funded non-profit modelled on the US National Endowment for Democracy—has provided critical support to Asian pro-democracy civil society groups.
And many Indo-Pacific multilateral organisations—such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Pacific Islands Forum—are organised around upholding democratic values and resisting authoritarian coercion. Asia’s enthusiasm for democracy is no accident. The region’s recent history has demonstrated that democratic development is central to economic growth. Its wealthiest societies all benefit from responsive government institutions, regular elections, property rights, and strong rule of law. Despite China’s propaganda about its development miracle, Asia’s most prosperous societies are open societies. Witnessing the economic flourishing of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, Asian citizens and leaders have seen firsthand that investing in democratic institutions is strategically wise.
But pressures on democratic governance are growing across the Indo-Pacific, including within the region’s most developed democracies. Many Asian nations have been subjected to overt Chinese economic coercion: when Australia, India, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea have refused to toe Beijing’s line in territorial or diplomatic disputes, China has hit them with import bans in key sectors. Such economic coercion subverts democracy and national sovereignty by trying to compel elected leaders to pay greater fealty to Chinese interests than to the interests of their own citizens.
Asian countries are also the targets of extensive influence operations run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 2015, Australia was stunned to discover well-financed Chinese influence campaigns influencing its parliament and subsequently passed strict laws to enforce the registry of potential foreign agents of influence. More recently, a Chinese government-sponsored corruption scheme successfully pressured leaders in the strategically situated Solomon Islands to extend the Chinese navy new rights to base ships in its harbours and to allow Chinese police officers to deploy on its territory.
China’s growing attempts to strategically encircle Australia demonstrate its appetite to exploit vulnerabilities in even strong democracies. But Chinese pressure poses a special risk to countries that are not democracies or where democratisation is reversible. Key Asian states are now poised between pursuing greater freedom or embracing authoritarianism: in Thailand, for instance, an opposition party scored a stunning victory in the country’s 2023 elections, but then saw governing elites stymie that overwhelming vote for change by sustaining the old order. China’s ideological push could tip the balance away from democracy in such smaller Asian nations. Credible allegations of Chinese influence-peddling now plague political processes in the Pacific Islands; Nauru recently dropped its diplomatic recognition of Taiwan at Beijing’s behest.
Asian countries sometimes recoil at the American tendency to frame its support for democracy in chest-thumping, even messianic terms. Even the United States’ closest friends in the region do not share the distinctive history that has shaped the US sense of democracy’s preciousness. As one senior Australian official put it to the authors, “America fought three brutal wars to define its democracy, but in our country a bunch of guys with long beards signed a document and said, ‘Right, let’s go to the pub.”
Asian countries where citizens have had to fight for democratic governance—Taiwan and South Korea, for instance—often speak more urgently of democracy as a universal value. But they tread more carefully in their diplomacy with their neighbours. Even if Asian countries’ tone and approach in supporting democracy are not the same as America’s, however, the underlying assumptions that led Perry, Mahan, and Reagan to see geopolitical advantage in supporting well-governed republics are taking root across the region. So, too, is a belief that threats to democracy, for reasons of national interest, require a response.
If the United States merely follows a realist strategy in Asia, that would play into China’s hand. China, after all, is not leaving ideology off the table. The CCP sanctions pro-democracy groups, politicians who stand up for human rights, and independent activists abroad precisely because it believes that appeals to accountability, transparency, and democratic values undercut China’s geostrategic advantages. Leaked CCP documents show that China is actively pursuing a strategy of disrupting democracies and democratic alliances in Asia, as well as in the rest of the world.
An Asia that is more free and democratic would be harder for the CCP to coerce and coopt. China’s rivals in Asia are open societies that enjoy strong partnerships with the United States in part because they share common values. Beijing’s closest allies, by contrast, are autocracies where citizens have little say in how their rulers conduct their affairs. A US retreat from overtly supporting democratic values would make China’s quest for dominance easier, opening new opportunities for Beijing to engage in bribery to secure new investments, military access points, and influence over the infrastructure and digital domains in key geographic locations in Asia.
Instead of shying away from promoting universal values, the United States should work pragmatically with its regional partners to consolidate the Indo-Pacific’s democratic infrastructure. Washington should encourage Tokyo and Seoul, in particular, to keep stepping up to lead the region’s democratic development. The White House must make it clearer that developing the region’s democratic infrastructure is a strategic priority, and US development agencies and congressionally funded NGOs can offer these countries more support by sharing best practices and aligning development-assistance strategies.
Throughout the rest of the region, Washington should pursue programs to help combat corruption, give sanctuary to persecuted political dissidents, and empower democratic reformers, offering new possibilities for partnership with Asian allies beyond traditional forms of military and economic cooperation. The United States could profitably invest in parliamentary strengthening, training young Asian leaders who want to deliver on democratic reforms, and supporting investigative journalists and civil society watchdogs to keep politicians honest in the face of malign foreign influence. Building civic and political alliances, including with next-generation Asian leaders, is a sound way for Americans to invest in a free and open Indo-Pacific, rather than mainly relying only on government-to-government and military-to-military relations.
Prioritising support for democracy in Asia does not mean that United States can, or should, stop working with nondemocratic partners, or with partners whose democracies have shortcomings. Authoritarian states such as Vietnam share the US interest in a free and open Indo-Pacific while stifling political dissent at home. Hybrid regimes such as Singapore share vital security and economic interests with the United States but afford their citizens fewer rights. India’s civic and media space has become more restrictive, and sectarian politics threaten minority rights, even as electoral competition flourishes and Prime Minister Narendra Modi remains popular with the Indian public. The United States, which itself confronts challenges to democratic best practice, is nonetheless right to work closely with these nations because they share an overriding interest in preventing a greater threat to freedom—hegemony by a totalitarian China.
Even in these countries, the United States and its Asian partners can counteract democratic backsliding by engaging with all sectors of society—including youth leaders, independent journalists, and digital activists—and not simply ruling elites, in preparation for the day when political change opens greater space for democratic participation. Consider the hard case of Myanmar, where a military coup in 2021 ended a historic but incomplete democratic transition. In that country, hardly anyone supports the military regime, most citizens hold negative opinions of China, and most consider democracy the best form of government.
The smart play for Washington is not to ignore this strategic fulcrum, but to ally itself with brave citizens in Myanmar demanding democratic change while encouraging allied governments and civil societies to do the same. Countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines eventually bucked one-party rule when economic development created large middle classes that demanded more political rights. Washington worked with these nations when they were not democracies. But US efforts to nurture civil society eventually helped enable activists in these countries pursue democratic openings. They now provide examples to other nations. Pro-democracy advocates in countries such as Cambodia can look to neighbours such as South Korea and Indonesia, instead of to the West, as models for their own democratic transitions.
Thanks to population powerhouses such as India and Indonesia, more people live under democratic governments in Asia than in any other region in the world. The countries in the region most resilient to Chinese intimidation, cooptation, and coercion are those with effective institutions. The United States must work pragmatically with regional partners to bolster a democratic infrastructure that provides an enduring foundation for peace, pluralism, and prosperity.