Trans-Pacific View

Advancing Democracy in the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy

Further developing the governance pillar of U.S. Asia strategy will require managing a mix of opportunities and challenges.

Prashanth Parameswaran
Advancing Democracy in the US Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy
Credit: State Department Photo

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has been translating the U.S. Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy (FOIP) into more concrete initiatives over the past few months across what officials have termed as three pillars – security, economics, and governance. But at this point, the governance pillar, which is short for enhancing democracy, human rights, good governance, and civil society, remains by far least developed of the three. Though some efforts have begun to be advanced thus far, making further inroads will require managing ongoing challenges as well as furthering opportunities in concert with allies, partners, and other interested actors for the rest of 2019 and beyond.

The challenge of advancing governance as a pillar in U.S. Asia strategy is certainly not new. While advancing democracy and human rights is often mentioned alongside security and economics as a longstanding objective in post-World War II U.S. foreign policy, in reality there has been much change in that continuity. The balance between U.S. interests and ideals has varied across time in part due to disagreements within the United States about what that balance ought to be as well as the complexity of regime types that Washington has had to deal with in the region itself. That difficulty has been compounded in recent years due to a confluence of factors, including the overreaction to the Freedom Agenda advanced during the George W. Bush years and perception that China’s rise ought to further discipline Washington’s ideological impulses on this score.

But the challenge of advancing governance as a pillar in U.S. Asia strategy has also gotten more complex with the advent of the Trump administration and FOIP. For one, a series of trends, including fears of a democratic retreat, rising populism, and the proliferation of technologies that enable authoritarianism, have only further muddied the context for the advancement of American ideals. For another, the Trump administration’s own issues with democracy and human rights – including the president’s anti-democratic actions at home and praise of dictators abroad – has also admittedly widened the perceptions gap between what Washington does itself and what it tells others to do, even though U.S. policy continues to be advanced more quietly and selectively at the working level and through a range of established and important democratic assistance programs.

To the administration’s credit, despite these challenges, it has begun building out some aspects of this governance pillar as part of FOIP. Some of these efforts have been more general, such as the unveiling of an Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative last November by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence designed to foster good governance by countering corruption, encouraging a strong civil society, and promoting responsible financial practices. Others have been more specific, such as the State Department’s holding of a ministerial last July designed to advance religious freedom in the wake of continued concerns about the treatment of minority groups such as the Uyghurs in China and the Rohingya in Myanmar. Officials have indicated that more is in the works as well.

Yet at the same time, it is clear that further inroads can be made as well. Some of this work involves further building out of the governance pillar by the administration itself, both by emphasizing the work that is already underway as well as potentially strengthening some other lines of effort. Regionally, in Southeast Asia, some of the ongoing governance work in the U.S.-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) could be given further emphasis, especially given that the very mainland Southeast Asian countries involved in the LMI have been in the frontlines of grappling with growing Chinese influence. Functionally and more broadly, with respect to promoting responsible and sustainable financial practices, which Washington has set out explicitly as a priority area within the governance pillar, some of the work by the United States and other actors to provide countries like the Maldives with assistance in terms of debt management in the wake of concerns about China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) can eventually be translated into certain principles or standards that may be useful for countries to sieve out in an inclusive manner, whether in public or in more private settings.

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As this work builds, it would also be useful for a high-level administration official to explicitly lay out developments in the governance pillar in a standalone address either in Washington or in the region. As of now, with the outlining of the defense pillar by then-U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June last year and the unveiling of the economics pillar by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in July, the governance pillar remains the only pillar that has not been advanced in a high-level, standalone speech. While there are obviously other ways to advance this pillar, such as factsheets or remarks by lower level officials, these will not have the same impact and will not do as much to assuage lingering concerns about the lack of concern, coherence, and consistency in the administration’s approach to democracy and human rights in the region.

Other aspects will involve working with other U.S. allies and partners and highlighting efforts that are underway, both to leverage U.S. relationships with these countries as well as to illustrate that Washington’s approach remains rooted in the region. At times, this can be done by integrating U.S. allies and partners into what Washington is already doing. U.S.-Taiwan collaboration in hosting a recent regional conference on religious freedom, which came after the holding of a wider ministerial last July, offers one example of how this can occur, with other countries such as Mongolia also being mentioned as interested partners. There are also issues that Washington can advance jointly with its partners in minilateral fora as well. For instance, given the fact that women’s empowerment has been an issue that has been discussed in a few U.S. trilaterals with allies and partners, including the U.S.-Japan-Australia trilateral and the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral, the profile of this issue can also be raised in other fora as well, including the Quad in line with more comprehensive visions of it.

At other times, the U.S. government can tap into existing efforts by its allies and partners to further advance agenda items, or collaborate with other nongovernmental entities to test out potential cooperation on more sensitive issues. For instance, given Japan’s role in advancing quality infrastructure in the region, which is set to continue with its hosting of the G-20 summit in Osaka in June, Tokyo would be a natural partner for advancing collaboration on shaping rules and standards with respect to promoting responsible and sustainable financial practices, which, as mentioned before, has been set out as a priority in the governance pillar. On managing the interaction between technologies and governance, including social media networks, convening fora between U.S. entities and other regions, including Europe – and casting the net broadly to include companies, rights groups, and individual advocates – will be useful in sharing experiences to confront a complex issue amid lingering differences in approaches.

To be sure, as was mentioned at the outset, advancing the governance pillar will not be short of its share of challenges despite the opportunities therein. But doing so will be important if Washington as well as its allies and partners are serious about injecting more vigor into the “free” aspect of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific strategy in the coming years, which has significance not only for U.S. policy but also the wider region as well.