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Opinion

Asia's wise heads are wrong to dismiss Biden's big idea

President-elect's democracy push is worth considering

| North America
Biden has suggested three agenda items for his summit: fighting corruption, anti-authoritarianism, and human rights.   © Reuters

James Crabtree is an associate professor in practice at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore. He is author of "The Billionaire Raj."

Joe Biden's inauguration is still more than a month away, but his big foreign policy idea is already being pronounced dead on arrival. "During my first year in office, the United States will organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world," the U.S. President-elect wrote last year. Across Asia wise heads have shaken, dubbing his plan naive or unworkable.

This is premature. There are many problems with the concept of global democracies clubbing together to curb China and Russia, or cooperating to solve major challenges. But these do not mean Biden's scheme has no merit. Indeed, there are good reasons Asian democracies should get behind it.

It isn't hard to see why the summit has won few admirers. Those around Asia who do want to encourage democracy no longer see Washington as a model, given the chaos of President Donald Trump's rule. Any hint of liberal finger-wagging gets especially short shrift in Southeast Asia, a strategically critical region but one in which democratic governance has recently been in retreat. "It's not a good idea to wave this flag of democracy in everyone's face," as Chan Heng Chee, Singapore's former ambassador to the U.S. puts it.

Biden's agenda is vague too. Of those nations likely to be invited to the summit, many are at best partial democracies. But lurking behind it lies something potentially more focused, in the vein of a mooted Democratic 10, or D-10, grouping bringing together the existing Group of Seven with Australia, South Korea and India.

Both visions are problematic. The broader version is too unwieldy to get much done. There are also obvious tensions over membership, given so many U.S. partners, such as Brazil and Turkey, are pioneers in just the kind of democratic backsliding that Biden's summit wants to reverse.

Similar problems abound in Asia, with India and the Philippines only the most obvious cases. It remains unclear if Taiwan would even be invited. And it is probably best not to mention Vietnam, an authoritarian one-party Communist state that just happens to be central to the U.S. vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. The whole thing could end up looking horribly hypocritical.

Different problems dog the more focused vision. Internal divisions scuppered earlier moves to found a "league of democracies" in the late 2000s. It has been hard enough to get the Quad grouping of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. to move forward, so the odds of a putative D-10 suddenly swooping into action seem slim.

Is the Summit for Democracy therefore destined to flop? It might. Even so, Biden's idea deserves a cautious welcome for three reasons, the first being that almost any attempt to renew global cooperation is worth having after a year in which such efforts have been alarmingly absent.

Biden has suggested three agenda items for his summit: fighting corruption, anti-authoritarianism, and human rights. But others could be added, from COVID recovery to rules governing areas like artificial intelligence or global data management. Existing groupings like the Group of 20 have made little progress here. Leadership on these and other global problems is most likely to come via greater cooperation between the advanced industrial economies of Asia, Europe and North America, all of whom happen to be democracies -- a point made by Antony Blinken, Biden's incoming secretary of state.

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken speaks after being introduced by President-elect Joe Biden at the Queen Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24.   © Getty Images

The second argument is self-interested, namely that global democracies need new forms of mutual support as they grapple with great power competition. It is not hard to look at Beijing's recent treatment of Australia and think that others will be next. China's Global Times wrote recently that Biden could usher in a period of "new major power relations." This is a code phrase for spheres of influence, or "you stay on your side of the Pacific, and we stay on ours" as Jake Sullivan, Biden's pick for National Security adviser, puts it. Even Asia's most hardheaded realists want to avoid this. Most also want to keep the U.S. constructively engaged in their region, an objective Biden's democracy agenda could help to achieve.

Finally, Biden's vision could evolve in interesting ways, both institutionally and in terms of U.S. behavior. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio recently described Biden's national security team as "polite and orderly caretakers of America's decline." A more diplomatic way of saying this is that Biden and his team would seek to build a more constructive multilateralism, with the U.S. leading in some areas and merely helping in others, even as its relative power in the international system ebbs.

Whatever happens, Biden's democracy agenda will be problematic. In a world of messy geopolitical competition, it is unlikely that a new grouping of democracies will become the primary way of solving global problems, or indeed of managing China's rise. But the idea of renewing "the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world" is worthy, as is the hope that the U.S. should begin to craft a new global role as one responsible leader among many.

Biden's democracy agenda will not solve every problem. But in a world that has suffered the catastrophic consequences of too little cooperation, Asia would be wise to give it a chance.

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