Democracy in Asia

A family watches candidate posters, including current governor Yuriko Koike, for the Tokyo Governor election in front of a voting station amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Tokyo, Japan July 5, 2020.  REUTERS/Issei Kato


Democracy in Asia logoAt the heart of today’s geopolitical competition is a contest over what type of governance model best meets the needs and enables the potential of citizens. Leaders in the United States and other Western capitals have expressed concern about a global democratic recession occurring alongside a resurgence of global authoritarianism. To counter these trends, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pushed to establish a new “D-10” group comprising the G-7 plus Australia, India, and South Korea. The recently published NATO 2030 white paper calls for a new allied focus on democratic resilience. And in the United States, President Joe Biden has promised that defense of democratic values will be at the heart of his foreign policy agenda. He has announced plans to convene a “Summit for Democracy” in his first year that would focus on spurring progress in fighting corruption, defending against authoritarianism, and advancing human rights.

The task of reinforcing the resilience of global democracies is not a “Western” project, however. In fact, the center of gravity in this burgeoning systems competition between democracy and authoritarianism may be the Indo-Pacific region. The region is home to the world’s largest and most economically dynamic democracies. Perhaps in part as a result of its relatively young population, the region is changing rapidly. More than 50% of the world’s millennial population lives in Asia.

Yet Asia’s relationship with democratic governance is admittedly complicated. Widespread democratization throughout the 1980s and 1990s shifted the complexion of the region away from its illiberal past, ushering in rising hopes of a democratic wave. In recent years, however, democratic backsliding has shifted the political tides in the opposite direction, leading to a resurgence of illiberalism, and in some cases, rising authoritarianism. Similarly, while nations such as Australia have been at the forefront of global efforts to address the risks of authoritarian political influence, most regional leaders have been more circumspect about promoting a strong global democracy agenda.

Recognizing the complex stresses and strains facing Indo-Pacific democracies, as well as powerful lessons Asia’s democracy project can provide elsewhere in the world, the Brookings Institution embarked on a one-year project to explore the health of democratic governance in Asia. The aim of this project was to provide a more granular understanding of both positive and negative governance trends in key Asian democracies and to identify practical steps to strengthen democratic resilience in the region.

This report reflects the culmination of that project. It distills key insights from a team of regional analysts who conducted intensive research and participated in workshops — both among themselves and with other regional democracy experts — in developing their findings. Each of the papers represents the views of its authors. The contributions to this report do not advocate any institutional position or promote any consistent viewpoint.

While the papers grapple with the role of great power actors such as the United States and China in influencing Asian democracy, they also look beyond the great power lens to better understand the regional and domestic drivers that are shaping political trends. The remainder of this paper highlights several meta-trends highlighted by the project’s authors and introduces the key arguments of individual papers.

Support for democracy remains high….

Despite legitimate concerns about the erosion of democratic freedoms in countries including Thailand, the Philippines, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka, it is important to maintain historical perspective. Asia remains considerably more free and democratic in 2020 than it was throughout the Cold War. Equally important, support for democratic governance remains strong in Asia, belying an oft cited narrative that democracy is not consistent with “Asian values.” The Pew Research Center’s most recent polling of six Asian democracies (Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea) shows high levels of support for democracy and “the way democracy is working” in the surveyed countries. Yet, notably, some of the greatest dissatisfaction with democratic performance occurs in the region’s more consolidated democracies: Japan and South Korea.

Even the region’s “successful” democracies continue to wrestle with problems of accountability and economic transparency.

As Richard C. Bush, Jung H. Pak, and Mireya Solís all highlight in their papers for this collection, performance continues to be a reliable guidepost of public attitudes toward governance. Even the region’s “successful” democracies continue to wrestle with problems of accountability and economic transparency. Perceived shortcomings on these issues have undermined public attitudes about the degree to which democracy is delivering meaningful results for the general public. As Solís notes, despite Japan’s vocal embrace of liberal values, a “penchant for stability” has had societal costs, with “weakened inter-party competition” and “disengaged voters frustrated by insufficient government transparency.”

Recent polls also suggest there is widespread support in Asia for democratic principles, e.g., free and regular elections, fair and transparent judicial proceedings, etc.  However, countries diverge in the importance they attach to specific democratic ideals, suggesting there are significant differences in how citizens across Asia evaluate what matters most in a democratic system. In Japan, for example, only 18% of respondents to Pew listed freedom of religion as a “very important” principle, in contrast to nearly 80% of respondents in India and Indonesia. Likewise, less than 50% of respondents across the region rated media freedom, freedom for civil society, and freedom for opposition parties as very important.

These findings help illuminate some of the difficult problems highlighted by authors in this volume, namely, that in many cases, local issues – not geostrategic considerations – matter most. In addressing those most proximate issues, populist leaders face few political disincentives to creating stricter curbs on individual and civil liberties. As Natalie Sambhi observes in her paper on Indonesian democracy, recent polling indicates that for most Indonesians, economic development continues to trump democratic progress. This finding suggests that “under certain conditions of hardship, almost all Indonesians might be willing to forgo democratic rights in return for the promise of economic prosperity.”

….but recent trendlines are moving in the wrong direction

Multiple studies have pointed to a global democratic “recession” in recent years. While the uninspiring governance performance of leading Western democracies, most notably the United States, has contributed to this so-called recession, it alone does not offer an accurate diagnosis of democratic developments in the region. The papers in this report point to three more proximate trends that have eroded democratic quality in Asia.

Inequality and elite corruption

As Asian countries have increased in wealth, inequality has become an increasingly profound problem. Research by the Asian Development Bank suggests regional inequality has increased by 42% over the past two decades, growing at a rate that exceeds other developing regions such as Africa and Latin America. Relatedly, elite corruption remains a serious concern in multiple countries, leading to government turnovers and the high-profile arrests of political leaders in countries including Malaysia and South Korea. As Sophie Lemière notes in her piece, the enduring popularity of political leaders such as former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who despite his arrest on corruption charges has been able to restore his public image, has paralyzed the country’s political agenda and made it difficult to implement meaningful reforms. Jung H. Pak echoes similar concerns in her paper on South Korea, where she notes that a “toxic partnership between the state and conglomerates” has limited the willingness of consecutive administrations to respond to public demands for reform.

Collectively, these trends have heightened mistrust of government elites and decreased the perceived legitimacy of democratic institutions. In multiple cases, this frustration with entrenched political hierarchies has also enabled the rise of new populist leaders, such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who have further weakened domestic institutions as part of efforts to consolidate power.

Domestic polarization and the rise of ethnonationalism

Relatedly, many Asian democracies are facing increased political polarization across religious, ethnic, and political lines. Richard C. Bush observes that despite Taiwan’s immense democratic achievements, the “majoritarian character” of its political system creates structural tendencies toward political polarization, a development that has hampered government effectiveness, produced erratic swings on important policy issues, and constrained the government’s ability to deal more effectively with problems such as cross-Strait relations.

Similar problems can be seen in the religious domain. On a relative basis, the Indo-Pacific generally has been viewed as a region that allows for religious tolerance. However, a 2019 Pew Research Center report challenges that perception, documenting a marked rise in religious violence and religion-based restrictions in Asia over the past decade. While these domestic fault lines are not new, the impulse by national leaders such as Modi, Jokowi, and Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi to exploit ethno-nationalism for political advantage has been a notable and troubling development.

Decreased space for civil society

A worrisome trend across the Indo-Pacific region in the past few years has been the uptick in new legislation limiting individual and civil liberties, placing restrictions on freedom of assembly, civil society organizations, religious institutions, and the freedom of the press. Reporters Without Borders details a deteriorating media environment within the region, pointing to increased censorship laws, banning of independent media organizations, and police violence against reporters. An analysis of civil society sustainability across nine Asian democracies shows similar trends, pointing to new NGO registration laws, arrests of local activists, and tighter controls on free speech.

In many cases, as our authors highlights, these developments are less of a new trend than a reversion to the mean, with governments turning to familiar illiberal tools and practices in a bid to stifle unrest and prop up their own positions in a more volatile domestic political environment. Yet, as Nicole Curato points out, a once “highly networked and vibrant public sphere” such as existed in the Philippines has become increasingly fragile, fragmented, and ineffective in placing guardrails around the impulses of political leaders.

A global pandemic creates further strain

The COVID-19 outbreak has accelerated illiberal trends in many Indo-Pacific countries. Widespread lockdowns, restrictions on freedom of speech and movement, and expanding policing authorities have been employed by countries across the region as elements of their efforts to curb the spread of the pandemic. Nicole Curato has coined the term “securitization of social issues” to describe this trend. Curato observes that by painting the fight against the pandemic as a national “war,” leaders such as Duterte have been able to more easily justify a range of authoritarian practices. The result, she notes, is that Duterte now enjoys a staggering 91% approval rating despite a relatively abysmal response to the COVID-19 crisis.

Natalie Sambhi describes similar concerns, noting that in some cases, authoritarian impulses have been welcomed. In Indonesia, for example, the Jokowi administration’s decision to give the Indonesian military a leading role in managing the COVID-19 response has been fairly well received. As the full economic weight of the crisis unfolds, Sambhi argues, the potential for greater civil unrest may provide further justification for a return to the military’s more prominent role in managing domestic security affairs.

The COVID-19 crisis is forcing even long-standing democracies to grapple more directly with the appropriate balance between individual liberties and collective goods. As John Lee reminds us in his paper on Australian democracy, the pandemic has exposed the shortcomings in Australia’s rather laissez faire attitude toward domestic politics and democratic practices. Lee argues that this approach, while creating a less partisan domestic political environment, has also “revealed a widespread Australian ignorance about the structure and workings of its democracy” that has undermined government accountability during the crisis.

Promising winds of change?

Not all recent trends have been negative. Among the more hopeful developments in Asian democracy of the past several years is a resurgence of younger democratic leaders calling for liberal reforms in places as diverse as Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. In Thailand, the Future Forward opposition party won a stunning 80 seats in the 2019 national elections. Although a ruling by the Thai Constitutional Court forced the party’s dissolution in February 2020, the student-led protests that have swept the country for the past year indicate that popular discontent will not be easily eradicated. In the Philippines, despite a turn toward authoritarian practices at the national level, young local leaders like Vico Sotto, the 31-year-old mayor of Pasig City, have begun experimenting with new initiatives, such as Freedom of Information kiosks, that aim to bring more transparency to local governance. And in New Zealand, 40-year-old Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s successful management of the COVID-19 crisis and progressive agenda helped propel her party toward an historic win in New Zealand’s 2020 general election.

In her paper on regional democracy networks, Maiko Ichihara argues that the steady expansion of regional civil society networks is another positive trend in Asia, helping to counteract the dearth of formal regional organizations that have a democracy mandate. The establishment of these cross-border activist networks, Ichihara argues, has helped generate pressure on governments that would have been otherwise less exposed to public scrutiny due to national-level restrictions on civil society groups. The establishment of the Asia Democracy Network, for example, has helped elevate the needs of local civil society groups in both Cambodia and Hong Kong, linking them to like-minded organization in the international community. Similarly, Taiwan’s establishment of a new East Asia Democracy Forum (EADF) has helped connect civil society actors across the region to incentivize further exchanges on best practices and democratic lessons learned.

The role of the great powers

Finally, the papers in this report highlight that while the drivers of democratic progress and regression are primarily internal, the external influence of great powers like the United States and China also casts a long shadow over governance trends in the region.

In its bid to normalize its governance model and cast doubts on the efficacy of democratic governance to deliver solutions, China is once again making illiberalism a more acceptable alternative in the Indo-Pacific.

In all of the major trends noted above — elite corruption and inequality, racial and ethnic tensions, and restricted space for civil society — Beijing’s influence has had a deleterious effect. Corruption and elite capture has risen in parallel with Chinese economic development projects in countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia. Beijing’s export of digital surveillance tools and policy playbooks that are accommodative of their adoption, have made it easier for illiberal leaders, particularly in Southeast Asia, to restrict civil liberties. And as John Lee’s paper points out, by “politiciz[ing] and even weaponiz[ing] race as a tool of foreign policy and subversion,” Beijing has created even more obvious ethnic and racial fissures in Asian democracies. In its bid to normalize its governance model and cast doubts on the efficacy of democratic governance to deliver solutions, China is once again making illiberalism a more acceptable alternative in the Indo-Pacific.

There is an ongoing debate over whether Beijing is seeking to export its authoritarian governance model to other Asian nations, an argument this collection of papers does not seek to resolve. These papers highlight, however, that even if Beijing’s ambition is not to turn the rest of the region into a likeness of itself, China’s actions are generating an illiberal tailwind across Asia. Beijing would like to garner acceptance of — or non-opposition to — its governance practices. The more that other countries draw from Beijing’s policy playbook, whether on curbing dissent, controlling information flows, or employing next generation technologies to “maintain social order,” the more that Beijing’s practices at home become normalized abroad.

At the same time as China has become more visible in proffering its version of solutions to the domestic problems confronting many Asian leaders, the United States has been stepping back from its traditional role as a champion of rule of law, human rights, and democratic governance. Washington has demonstrated serial incapacity to advance policy solutions to the problems many Americans confront. The twin pressures of globalization and automation have rendered entire industries in the United States obsolete, generating spikes in unemployment in parts of the country that have not been able to adapt. America’s infrastructure is crumbling, yet its leaders have had no answers for how to address shortcomings. More recently, the world’s wealthiest country managed one of the worst responses to the COVID-19 pandemic while widespread protests and counterprotests over racial injustice tore at the social fabric of the country. And in an unprecedented turn of events, both U.S. citizens and America’s allies, partners, and rivals around the world watched a sitting U.S. president sow disinformation and confusion about the results of the 2020 election and a mob of insurrectionists attack the U.S. Capitol building. Unsurprisingly, American confidence in U.S. political leaders has plummeted. In many parts of the world, faith in American leadership has also been shaken.

As this collection of essays makes clear, the Indo-Pacific region has not stood still while the United States has been consumed by its own imperfections. Washington will have a steep hill to climb in the coming years as it seeks to restore momentum to efforts to promote liberal reforms in the most consequential region of the world for America’s long-term global interests. Yet, the transition in presidential administrations in January 2021 provides yet another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate that the corrective features of democracy — not its imperfections — are its definitional features.

Viewed together, these reports are intended to set a baseline of the governance situation in Asia in 2020. They also are designed to provide practical recommendations for policymakers, leading thinkers, and activists in Washington and across the region that are dedicated to promoting rule of law, human rights, and democratic governance in the Indo-Pacific.

Highlights from individual papers

Tanvi Madan examines the role that shared democratic principles have played in providing a rationale for strengthening U.S.-India relations. She observes that both countries’ embrace of shared values and principles — as the world’s oldest and largest democracies — has fostered a widely-held view of the two countries as “natural” or “like-minded” partners. This perception, in turn, has helped build and sustain domestic constituencies in both countries supportive of strengthening bilateral relations. She notes that China’s rise has strengthened America’s desire to bolster India as a strategic counterweight and a democratic contrast to China. In recent years, however, deepening U.S.-India strategic coordination has occurred alongside illiberal developments in both countries. Madan warns that vocal American criticism of India’s domestic governance record could cool Indian enthusiasm for strengthening coordination with the United States. Madan urges both countries to maintain focus on the broader strategic imperatives of strengthening bilateral relations, even as both work to address their own domestic shortcomings, bolster the resilience of the rules-based international order, and live up to the principles they are encouraging others in the Indo-Pacific region to embrace.

Sophie Lemière explores the aftermath of Malaysia’s historic 2018 election, which ended 61 years of a single party’s monopoly on power and ushered in a new reformist government. Lemière argues that two years after the sweeping upset, the promise of democratic reform and progress has all but disappeared in Malaysia. Fights between long-time political power brokers have paralyzed the government, highlighting the shallowness of its commitment to reform. Lemière notes the COVID-19 pandemic has only worsened this problem, as political leaders seek to leverage the emergency to retain their grip on power. The longevity and endurance of Malaysia’s political elites have created an additional challenge for Malaysian democracy: the absence of independent, outside actors that could incentivize reform. As Lemière notes, Malaysia lacks the democratic youth movements or independent civil society organizations that have helped generate democratic momentum in other Southeast Asian countries. As a result, Malaysia’s cadre of conservative elder statemen have been able to cling to power, challenged more by their internecine fighting than by demands for accountability and reform.

In contrast to more problematic trends elsewhere in the region, Australia stands out as a democratic success story. John Lee argues in his paper, however, that the COVID-19 pandemic has tested Australia’s democratic institutions, exposing structural flaws that limit government accountability and transparency. The pandemic, Lee writes, has laid bare the risks of democratic complacency, highlighting the degree to which an otherwise satisfied Australian electorate has rarely debated or considered the appropriate checks and balances to place on government authorities. This paper suggests Australia and other liberal democracies need to guard against this tendency toward complacency, especially at a time when China is actively seeking to exploit the vulnerabilities of democratic institutions. Asian democracies, Lee argues, must not sweep the weaknesses that COVID-19 has exposed under the rug, but should use them to refocus on striking the right balance between individual rights and government interests in a pluralistic society.

Nicole Curato explores the impact of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on democratic institutions in the Philippines. Pointing to three worrisome trends — the growing “securitization” of social welfare issues, efforts to weaken democratic oversight institutions, and attempts to control public discourse — Curato suggests the Philippines’ public sphere has become increasingly fragile under Duterte’s watch. Although Duterte’s illiberal actions have undermined “decades-long efforts at institutionalizing democratic control,” Curato argues the president’s “tough guy” reputation has made him wildly popular with the public, creating little pressure for reform. Despite these troubling developments, Curato argues there is still reason for hope in the Philippines. Her paper highlights a number of local democratic innovations, including new experiments in digital governance and municipal transparency initiatives. She argues these “micropolitical reforms… may have limited scope, but they are meaningful in consequence.” Further investment in these types of local governance initiatives and in strengthening the country’s civil service should be a priority for good governance advocates.

In her paper on Indonesian democracy, Natalie Sambhi examines the impact of Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s presidency on civil-military relations in the world’s third largest democracy. Sambhi writes that despite early hopes the Indonesian president’s outsider status would usher in a new period of reform, Jokowi has instead “presided over a period of democratic regression and increasing illiberalism.” Under Jokowi’s presidency, Indonesia’s military has taken on a more prominent role in the country’s political affairs, a trend that hearkens back to Indonesia’s former authoritarianism, when the military maintained a “pervasive presence in state affairs.” In some ways, Sambhi argues, it is Jokowi’s outsider status and his weak connections to Indonesia’s elite networks that have precipitated this trend. Facing strong political headwinds and political polarization, Indonesia’s outsider president has been forced to curry favor with the country’s traditional powerbrokers, who still retain much of the economic and political influence they accrued in the country’s authoritarian years. Sambhi adds that COVID-19 has worsened these illiberal trends, forcing the country’s traditionally weak civilian bureaucracy to rely on the military to manage the pandemic. These are trends, Sambhi argues, that will not be easy to reverse, as they are reinforcing long-standing perceptions that the military is a more trustworthy and capable actor than civilian government leaders.

Looking beyond national-level challenges, Maiko Ichihara explores democracy’s role in Asian regionalism. As Ichichara observes, unlike regions such as Latin America, Asia lacks strong intergovernmental organizations with a democracy mandate. The diversity of Asian political regimes, the region’s deep commitment to non-interference and sovereignty principles, as well as China’s expanding influence, all limit the likelihood of such institutions taking root. Although institutions such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) have voiced their commitment to democratic principles, these commitments have not yet translated into concrete action. Ichihara argues it is Asia’s non-governmental networks, such as the Asia Democracy Network (ADN), which show more promise. In recent years, these networks have allowed Asian democracy activists to create stronger linkages to counterparts across the region, while also providing a more powerful platform to raise the issue of Asian democracy within the international community, such as the ADN did when advocating on behalf of Cambodian civil society actors. Looking forward, Ichihara suggests that good governance advocates would be wise to strengthen Asia’s nongovernmental networks in supporting regional democracy.

Jung H. Pak observes that behind the luster South Korea has acquired for its exceptional handling of COVID-19, the country still confronts endemic governance challenges. These include a centralization of power in the presidency, corruption stemming from the symbiotic relationship between the state and top conglomerates, and a pattern of see-sawing on key foreign policy issues between presidential administrations. President Moon Jae-in has elevated rapprochement with North Korea above other priorities, going so far as to curtail civil liberties and squelch opposition to accommodative policies toward North Korea in its efforts to create a conducive environment for inter-Korean reconciliation. In doing so, the Moon administration has mirrored previous efforts by conservative presidents to crack down on pro-North Korean sentiment. Pak concludes that political reform in South Korea will be a long-term project. Even so, Pak points to near-term steps Moon could take to bolster South Korea’s democratic health, including by listening to critics, empowering civic organizations, and pursuing policies that are capable of enduring beyond the end of his constitutionally limited one-term presidency.

Richard C. Bush examines Taiwan’s democratic record. He concludes that Taiwan’s reputation as an entrenched democracy is well-deserved. Elections are free, fair, and highly competitive. Transfers of power are peaceful and orderly. Political parties are institutionalized. Civil society flourishes, and citizens lobby within established legal frameworks to protect their rights and freedoms. Even so, Taiwan citizens have expressed greater interest in performance than in process, and on this score, Taiwan still has room for improvement. Taiwan’s majoritarian political system and its winner-takes-all principle has contributed to periods of political polarization. The system does not incentivize give-and-take compromises that are often the lifeblood of healthy, representative governments. Given the constant threat posed by China, Taiwan can ill-afford to underperform. It must draw from recent experiences when political actors abandoned partisanship to advance the common good, such as in response to COVID-19. Bush urges Taiwan’s current and future leaders to work together to chart a path forward that protects the considerable gains Taiwan has achieved in consolidating its democratic model of governance over the past three decades.

Mireya Solís discusses Japan’s role as Asia’s oldest democracy and a leading voice for greater liberalism in the Indo-Pacific region. Solís argues that while Japan has succeeded more than many fellow democracies in adjusting to globalization and escaping populist pressures, the country’s current era of political stability is the result of a fragmented and weakened political opposition. Voter apathy, tepid inter-party competition, and the weakening of accountability channels all present serious challenges for Tokyo if it hopes to revitalize democracy at home. Internationally, the United States and Japan share concerns about democratic recession and China’s coercive diplomacy. Solís suggests that although Washington and Tokyo have not always been aligned on a strategy of democracy promotion, they can nonetheless coordinate more closely in promoting democratic resilience and the survival of the liberal order. Japan has long pressed to include a stronger democratic emphasis in Asia’s regional architecture, to disseminate economic standards that tame corruption and curb digital protectionism, and to cultivate deeper security cooperation with like-minded democracies, all of which are priorities Solís argues may find resonance with a new Biden administration.


The Biden administration enters office confronting myriad challenges at home and abroad. In determining how best to respond to the hand it has been dealt, the administration will need to make many difficult decisions. Among them, it will need to decide how best to champion the rule of law, human rights, and democratic governance in a region that is supportive of many democratic norms but averse to ideological battles between China and the United States. It will also need to determine how best to advance its affirmative priorities at the Summit for Democracy, and to do so without alienating countries such as Singapore and Vietnam which are integral to its broader strategic orientation in Asia.

This collection of reports highlights that a big part of the governance story in Asia is being narrated below the grand strategic level. The more that American policymakers can develop a granular understanding of the root causes of recent illiberal trends in the Indo-Pacific, the more effective they will be at developing prescriptions that advance America’s interests and values. Agree or disagree, we hope this series of reports contributes meaningfully to public policy — and public debate — on the role of democracy promotion in America’s strategy for the Indo-Pacific.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    The authors would like to thank the scholars who participated in this project for their excellent contributions, as well as the experts from the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the Open Society Foundation who participated in our workshops and helped strengthen the final products. They also owe a debt of gratitude to Kevin Dong for his research assistance, and Ted Reinert and Rachel Slattery for their tireless editing and graphics work, without which this project wouldn’t have come to fruition.