The Japan Forum on International Relations

     President Biden recently hosted a virtual Summit for Democracy focused on countering authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting human rights.  He acknowledged that democracy is a work in progress but also recognized the resilience of democratic states around the world as a reflection of a universal desire for stability, prosperity, and freedom.  President Biden cited the need to counter a narrative of democratic decline propagated by authoritarian states as the defining challenge of our time, and he called on the “global community for democracy” to support the democratic values and institutions that are foundational to good governance and the rules-based international order.  Japan and the United States are well positioned to embrace this cause as allies dedicated to ensuring a free and open Indo-Pacific region.  And the Summit for Democracy should be a catalyst for action.

     The Summit for Democracy was a starting point for a series of initiatives in a “year of action” that will culminate in a second democracy summit at the end of 2022.  President Biden introduced an “Initiative for Democratic Renewal” to showcase U.S. support for elements of democratic resilience such as media freedom, the fight against corruption, and free and fair elections.  Prime Minister Fumio Kishida emphasized his commitment to universal values such as democracy and human rights, referenced assistance for human resource development and institutions including judicial systems as examples of Japan’s commitment to democratic governance, and committed to sharing Japan’s experience with other countries.  Prime Minister Kishida also noted that the path to democracy is not always straight forward and that respecting the efforts of various countries will contribute to the consolidation of democracy.

     As the year of action takes shape, it will be important to recognize that the Indo-Pacific region offers a range of experiences with democracy and that diverse approaches will prove critical when considering ways to champion democratic principles.  Japan can contribute greatly to such an effort by sharing its experience using official development assistance (ODA) to support the foundations of democratic governance, from institution building in the legislative and legal sectors and support for the rule of law to training programs aimed at strengthening public administration in developing countries.  Japan also has played a leading role in promoting economic development, particularly in Southeast Asia, based on the notion that prosperity is foundational for stability.  Japan should utilize its experience to help the United States develop a range of initiatives with regional actors to ensure the inclusion of Asian voices during the year of action and generate a narrative on democracy that could resonate in the region.

     Japan and the United States can also coordinate development assistance strategies to synergize support for democratic governance in the region.  Australia has traditionally anchored its ODA around economic growth and poverty reduction but now also provides support for democratic institutions, women’s empowerment, and civil society, offering a range of issue areas in which to coordinate efforts at capacity building.  The Republic of Korea has introduced similar initiatives that dovetail nicely with Australian, Japanese, and U.S. aid priorities.  And earlier this year the members of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) reaffirmed a shared commitment to democratic values and emphasized the importance of infrastructure development as a foundation for stability in the Indo-Pacific region. Strategic dialogue on resilience, broadly defined, should generate multiple opportunities to further promote democratic principles in the region.

     Japan and the United States should also utilize the year of action to shape the agendas of international institutions in favor of democratic norms.  This would include building on the commitment of the G7 earlier this year to champion the shared values of democracy, freedom, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights.  Networking with like-minded countries on the margins of regional gatherings such as the East Asia Summit and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum would also encourage coordinated approaches to supporting democratic norms under the rubric of multilateral frameworks that are the hallmark of diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific.

     The Summit for Democracy presents a unique opportunity to celebrate the diversity and resiliency of democracy in Asia and strengthen the various foundations for democratic governance across the region.  Japan and the United States can support the year of action by facilitating regional dialogue on the forms of democracy support, coordinating development aid strategies with regional partners, and ensuring that international institutions continue to emphasize democratic norms as the foundation for peace and prosperity in the world’s most dynamic region.  This is the time for President Biden and Prime Minister Kishida to begin shaping an alliance agenda for democratic governance to ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific.