Even as the United States makes Southeast Asia a diplomatic priority, it has invited just three ASEAN members to this week’s democracy summit, but analysts in the region said Tuesday that Washington’s strategy in doing so was largely sound.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are the only three Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) member states that are invited.
And including the Philippines, despite the thousands of extrajudicial killings since 2016, is not as perplexing as it may seem, one analyst said. Others noted that by inviting Manila, the U.S. was prioritizing its strategic security goals.
The Summit for Democracy, to be held Dec. 9-10, is part of U.S. President Joe Biden’s strategy to counter the influence of autocratic states such as Russia and China, said Gilang Kembara, a researcher in international relations at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Indonesia.
And “through the democracy forum, the U.S. is seeking to bring extra ideological weight,” Gilang told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“While the U.S. will continue to pursue its security and economic interests, it is also promoting democratic values such as gender equality, opportunities for women in various fields et cetera.”
As for the invite list, Etta Rosales, the former chair of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights, noted, “most Southeast Asian countries are run by authoritarian governments.”
She was referring to ASEAN member states Brunei, an absolutist monarchy; communist-ruled Laos and Vietnam; Cambodia, which is nominally a democracy but where the ruling party holds all the parliamentary seats; Myanmar, where the military in February toppled an elected government; Thailand, where the government has its roots in a military coup; and Singapore, which has been dominated by a single party since independence.
Therefore, she told BenarNews, “the purpose of the conference is to consolidate democratic countries within specific regions and sub-regions, instead of using a persuasive and open door policy to countries long steeped in authoritarian traditions.
“The Philippines, on the other hand, has a long tradition of democratic rule anchored on the separation of powers and the principle of checks and balances. This is the basis for its being invited.”
A U.S. State Department spokesperson told BenarNews that the goal of the invitation list “was to ensure the summit reflects a diverse slate of democracies.”
“The United States reached out to a regionally diverse set of democracies whose progress and commitments will advance a more just and peaceful world. Our goal is to be as inclusive as possible, within logistical constraints,” the spokesperson said, declining to be named.
‘Philippines is premium buffer for U.S’
Then-President-elect Biden announced last December that he intended to hold a “Summit for Democracy” in his first year in office.
One year later, the Biden-convened Summit for Democracy will be held Dec. 9-10, albeit virtually, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Around 100 nations have been invited to participate.
The three key themes, as announced by the White House, will be: defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
Gilang of Indonesia’s CSIS noted, though, that Washington still maintains ties with undemocratic governments such as the current ones in the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam, which have little respect for human rights, or democratic practices, or even clean government.
In the case of the Philippines, which has overlapping claims with that of Beijing’s in the disputed China Sea, U.S. security interests no doubt play a role, noted Naing Lin, a political science lecturer at Thailand’s Chiang Mai University.
“In terms of strategy, it is undeniable that the Philippines is the premium buffer for the U.S. to balance the power against China, especially in the South China Sea,” Naing told BenarNews.
Washington and other maritime democracies such as the United Kingdom and Australia say they are trying to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific region in the face of increasing Chinese aggression and expansionism in the area.
But “for the sake of better manners, [the U.S.] should not have invited the Philippines. In terms of country administering, the Philippines even tends to commit more human rights violations than Thailand,” Naing said.
Naing was referring to the thousands of extrajudicial killings in Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on illegal drugs, as well as the hundreds of pro-democracy protesters detained since July 2020 in Thailand, and the dozens charged with violating the kingdom’s anti-royal defamation law.
Activists take part in a rally protesting President Rodrigo Duterte's war on drugs, in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Aug. 18, 2017. [Reuters]
Protesters gesture as police deploy water cannons during a demonstration in Bangkok calling for the resignation of Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-O-Cha over his handling of the Covid-19 crisis, Sept. 25, 2021. [AFP]
‘Three out of 10 is not bad’
Washington, under the Biden administration, has been ratcheting up its engagement with Southeast Asia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to go on his first Southeast Asia tour as the country’s top diplomat next week, amid rising tensions with China.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have also visited the region, as have two senior State Department officials, most recently Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Kritenbrink.
Most nations in Southeast Asia are now under the sway of Beijing's economic clout, with China a top investor or trade partner. Still, Washington was selective in hosting this summit, said Rosales, the former chair of the Philippines’ Commission on Human Rights.
“Under the Joe Biden Administration there is caution and prudence in coming up with its list of invited states to a democracy summit,” she said.
Mohd. Azizuddin Mohd. Sani, a professor at the University Utara Malaysia (UUM), said Malaysia merited its invite.
“Although we still need institutional reform in Malaysia, there is no doubt that Malaysia is a democratic state,” Azizuddin told BenarNews.
Malaysia has been ruled by two successive unelected governments since February 2020, when the previous government fell amid infighting. Both have cracked down on free speech, and tried to manipulate democratic institutions in their favor, critics have said.
Another Malaysian analyst, Azmi Hasan, said that despite the slim representation of Southeast Asia at the democracy summit, ASEAN was still an important regional bloc for Washington.
“Three out of 10 is not bad compared to what the U.S. did by inviting Taiwan but disregarding China. The objective is not because of democracy, but geopolitics,” Hasan, an international relations expert and former professor at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, told BenarNews.
The invite to Taiwan has infuriated China, because Beijing considers Taiwan part of the People’s Republic of China.
Azizuddin and Naing of Thailand’s Chiang Mai University both believe Washington will not suffer from its decision to keep most of ASEAN out of the democracy summit this week.
For Azizudin, “this is just a summit.”
“Not inviting the others does not mean the U.S. is alienating Southeast Asian countries.”
And Naing said: “It could mean the U.S. has indirectly pressured those countries who have a flawed democracy.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
Kunnawut Boonreak in Bangkok, Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur and Camille Elemia in Manila contributed to this report.