The invitations are out for the U.S.-hosted virtual Summit for Democracy, which fulfills a campaign pledge by President Joe Biden to gather leaders from around the world to address threats to democracies. According to the U.S. State Department, “The summit will focus on challenges and opportunities facing democracies and will provide a platform for leaders to announce both individual and collective commitments, reforms, and initiatives to defend democracy and human rights at home and abroad.”
The participant list for the upcoming Summit for Democracy, scheduled for December 9-10, was always going to be a politically difficult issue. In the Asia-Pacific region, there are some obvious candidates for inclusion: fellow liberal democracies and U.S. allies Australia, Japan, and South Korea, for instance. There are equally obvious non-invitees, most notably China, which the U.S. sees as a contributor to the spread of global authoritarianism, but also one-party states like Laos and Vietnam. In between, however, there is a wide range of states whose inclusion or exclusion could be debated.
First off is the question of Taiwan. A vibrant democracy that is facing disinformation and political interference campaigns from Beijing, Taipei would be a natural addition to any summit addressing issues facing democracies. Its status, however, left that question somewhat open, as the United States does not officially recognize Taiwan. Taiwan did make the guest list, a decision probably helped by bolstered U.S. support for the island amid a stepped-up pressure campaign from China. To avoid a major backlash, however, Taiwan will be represented not by President Tsai Ing-wen but by Digital Minister Audrey Tang and Taiwan’s top representative in the U.S., Hsiao Bi-khim.
Based on Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom in the World report, which rates the state of political rights and civil liberties in countries around the world, there is a clear difference between Summit for Democracy invitees and non-invitees. Of the countries invited to participate, the average Freedom in the World score was 78.5, versus just 32.8 for countries not invited. But that average masks a wide range of scores in both groups – among invitees, scores ranged from a perfect 100 (Finland, Norway, and Sweden) down to a dismal 20 (the Democratic Republic of the Congo). Meanwhile, countries like Andorra (93), Tunisia (71), and Bolivia (66) were left out.
In the map below, countries that were invited are in green and those not invited are in red. Scroll over any country to see its Freedom in the World score as well.
In the Asia-Pacific specifically, there were some notable surprises. First, the debatable inclusions: Pakistan had the lowest Freedom in the World score of any invited country from the Asia-Pacific region, followed closely by the Maldives at 40. Arguably, Pakistan’s inclusion was a must once India – Pakistan’s arch-rival – was on the list. New Delhi has its own struggles with democracy, being marked “partly free” this year for the first time amid a crackdown on dissent and a rise in Hindu nationalism. However, India is also proud of its democratic bona fides – as well as being a key partner for the U.S. in its Indo-Pacific Strategy. India’s inclusion was arguably a diplomatic necessity, and Pakistan likely made it in as well to avoid further alienating a strained relationship with Washington.
The Maldives, meanwhile, is a struggling democracy but arguably improving after an election upset in 2018. Progress has been decidedly mixed – as Freedom House put it, “many basic freedoms remain restricted, and government-led efforts to reform the justice system remain nascent” – the new government’s pro-democracy rhetoric likely got it a nod. (Its pro-India sentiments, and suspicion toward China, likely didn’t hurt either.)
What about Asia-Pacific countries that were not invited?
Bhutan is perhaps the most surprising exclusion. The constitutional monarchy holds regular elections, while still imposing constraints on freedom of speech and the media. Overall, the country scored 58 on the 2021 Freedom in the World Index. As the report put it, “Bhutan is a constitutional monarchy that has made significant strides toward democratic consolidation and adherence to the rule of law over the past decade.” As one of the few countries in the region actually making progress on political freedom and civil liberties, its omission is odd.
Two other relatively high scorers left off the list are Sri Lanka (56) and Hong Kong (52). Both outscored nine invitees – including Malaysia, the Maldives, and Pakistan within the Asia-Pacific – but both are also in the middle of intense democratic backsliding. Sri Lanka saw its constitution amended to remove checks and balances after the return of the long-ruling Rajapaksas to power, while Hong Kong has gutted its political opposition and severely restricted freedom of speech in the last year under a Beijing-imposed national security law. (Jessie Lau and Sharon Yam have a detailed overview on what campaign season in Hong Kong looks like now in The Diplomat magazine.)
While not surprising, it is notable that just four of 11 Southeast Asia countries got an invite: Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Timor-Leste, the region’s perennial high-scorer on democracy and freedom ratings. One-party states like Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam were never likely to make it in, nor was Thailand, even though its military junta now holds the veneer of electoral validation. Myanmar’s own military coup in February made that a non-starter; Brunei is an absolute monarchy.
That leaves just Singapore, which has at least as strong a case for inclusion as Pakistan. While the country has only ever been ruled by the People’s Action Party, it does, in fact, hold regular elections with an opposition participating (and marking notable gains in the 2020 polls). Freedom House gave Singapore a score of 48, noting structural constraints on political opposition parties and restrictions on freedom of expression. However, the city-state is also a long-standing U.S. partner in a region with already-limited representation.
The fact that so few Southeast Asian countries are included in the Summit for Democracy underscores that most of that region’s governments do not, in fact, share U.S. democratic values. Likewise, not one of the five Central Asian republics merited an invitation. That’s not surprising, considering the countries’ Freedom in the World scores — from high to low, Kyrgyzstan (28), Kazakhstan (23), Uzbekistan (11), Tajikistan (8), and Turkmenistan (2) — but, again, it is telling.
As Shihoko Goto noted in her piece for the most recent issue of The Diplomat magazine, the Biden administration’s emphasis on democracy could end up conflicting with or at least complicating the United States’ larger Indo-Pacific Strategy.