Since the late 2000s, regional intergovernmental frameworks and NGO networks have begun to emerge in Asia, demonstrating commitment to the norms and values of democracy. While intergovernmental frameworks have not yet moved beyond verbal commitment, civil society has been steadily forming and developing cross-border networks. The four main drivers for institutional formation are: 1) the central role of small rising democracies motivated to consolidate their democratic regimes; 2) the influence of institutional developments in other regions; 3) the role of civil society actors; and 4) the rise of China as an authoritarian superpower. However, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to inhibit further development of such institutions. This paper recommends a multi-layered multi-stakeholder approach to further institutional development.
Position of liberal democracy in Asia
The diversity of political regimes and the emergence of China as an authoritarian superpower present stumbling blocks for the formation of regional democratic frameworks in Asia. The region includes several sub-regions: Southeast Asia, where many countries remain non-democratic or have flawed democracies; Northeast Asia, which is home to North Korea, the world’s most egregious human rights violator, and China, the world’s most influential authoritarian power, as well as democratic Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan; and South Asia, which is home to new and fragile democracies in addition to India, the world’s largest democracy. In addition, Asia’s anti-imperialist, non-aligned traditions create skepticism about Western democracy promotion, which can be perceived as neocolonialism. Asian democracies as well as authoritarian regimes jealously guard their sovereignty and uphold the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs as a golden rule.
Despite the diversity of regime types, some components of democracy have been accepted by regional governments. Most Asian countries use elections, although severely flawed in some, as a mechanism of choice for the government. Although authoritarian leaders manipulate and utilize elections only to legitimize their own leadership, their continued desire to point to electoral victories shows that elections have an internationally recognized legitimacy even authoritarian leaders cannot resist. In addition, they accept the legitimacy of some parts of human rights: most regional countries are parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and many of them are parties to various international treaties on the rights of certain groups such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
However, civil liberties are a different story. The “Asian values” debate in the 1990s exemplifies it well: authoritarian political leaders in countries such as China, Singapore, and Malaysia1 positioned civil liberties based on individualism as a Western value, arguing that liberal democracy was not appropriate for Asia’s communitarian interests. Although the Asian values argument has since lost support, countries in the region show persistent resistance to including values associated with liberalism in regional discussions. Because of these relatively weak levels of support, civil liberties such as freedom of the press, freedom of information, privacy rights, and freedom of action for civil society have all come under significant attack during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to some experts, South and Southeast Asia is now the region with the most severe retreat of liberal democracy in the entire world.
Due to the lack of unified support for liberalism, Asia has fallen behind not only the West, but also Latin America and Africa, in shaping regional institutions for the protection and promotion of liberal democracy.
Due to the lack of unified support for liberalism, Asia has fallen behind not only the West, but also Latin America and Africa, in shaping regional institutions for the protection and promotion of liberal democracy. Nevertheless, since the late 2000s, existing regional intergovernmental frameworks have begun to embrace democratic values, and new frameworks for democracy have emerged.
Southeast Asia was the first sub-region in Asia to take up democracy as a common value. Addressing the issue of human rights and fundamental freedoms in a joint communique in 1993, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) indicated its willingness to formulate a common approach to human rights issues. Subsequent expansion of ASEAN’s membership made it difficult to take concrete steps towards this goal, but when the ASEAN Charter was adopted in November 2007 it included democracy, rule of law, respect for human rights, and good governance as common principles for ASEAN member states. In accordance with the charter, the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) was established in 2009 and the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration was adopted in 2012. The ASEAN Community, formed in 2015, also expressed its willingness to strengthen the promotion and protection of democracy, good governance, rule of law, human rights and fundamental freedoms.
The Bali Democracy Forum (BDF), though not a formal multilateral institution, opened the arena for discussion on democracy to the countries in the entire Asian region. The Indonesian government, which played a prominent role in encouraging ASEAN’s focus on democracy and human rights, established the BDF in 2008 as the first regional forum to bring together Asian governmental leaders at the ministerial level. The forum’s meetings, which include non-democratic governments, aim to promote democracy by sharing democratic experiences and best practices, without condemnation of other countries or comparative assessments between countries.2
A similar multilateral commitment to democratic values came to South Asia in 2011, when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) — consisting of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka — adopted the Charter of Democracy, which states that SAARC upholds values that constitute the core of democracy, including the right to live in dignity, the rule of law, freedom, and fundamental human rights. The charter also commits SAARC members to promoting democratic systems in their own countries and in the region and opposing governments that are elected in an unlawful or undemocratic manner.
In addition to broad forums and institutions, the establishment of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or “Quad” between Australia, India, Japan, and the United States in 2007, and its resumption in 2017, has created the region’s most prominent partnership among democracies. While the dialogue has a broad mandate, the participating countries have emphasized democratic values, shared principles, and the value of a rules-based order.
These intergovernmental frameworks nonetheless have various weaknesses. Despite making verbal commitments to democratic norms and principles, they have done relatively little to support civil liberties in the region. The ASEAN Human Rights Declaration is colored by cultural relativism and is weak on affirming human rights as a universal value. Neither the BDF nor the Quad has made joint statements at times of human rights violations in Asia. SAARC has been suspended since 2014 due to tensions between India and Pakistan.
In addition, none of these frameworks are equipped with practical mechanisms to protect and promote democracy. While the AICHR comes closest as a regional mechanism that could protect freedom and human rights, it lacks independence. Participating governments dispatch their approved representatives to the institution, each of which is given veto power, making it impossible for the organization to take more sensitive positions. It is also impractical for the BDF to take substantive actions to prevent democratic backsliding, given its desire to avoid finger pointing among member countries as well as its lack of substantial interaction with civil society.3 The Quad countries have been providing election support, cyber security measures, and rule of law assistance to regional countries bilaterally, with a focus on strengthening the norms of democratic governance, but the dialogue lacks formal multilateral infrastructure.
While progress has been slow in inter-governmental frameworks, non-governmental democracy networks show more promise. The Asia Democracy Network (ADN), established in 2013 as a regional multi-stakeholder platform, has been promoting human rights and democracy through the formation of transnational civil society networks, including NGOs, researchers, parliamentarians, and independent media. Covering the three sub-regions of Asia — Northeast, Southeast, and South Asia — the ADN promotes democracy through sharing lessons learned and mutual support. The organization has also played a regional advocacy role. At the time of the Cambodian general elections in 2018, for example, the ADN appealed to international and governmental organizations on behalf of Cambodian civil society. While Hongkongers were fighting for freedom in 2019–2020, the ADN provided advocacy support to activists in Hong Kong.4
ADN’s advocacy is supplemented by the Asia Democracy Research Network (ADRN). Established in the same year as the ADN as a network of Asian think tanks, ADRN provides resources and tools for the ADN’s activities through research. Although coordination between the ADN and the ADRN remains a challenge, the ADRN has been actively conducting research on various issues pertaining to challenges for democratic governance common to Asian countries.
A new development is emerging as well. In response to the democratic backsliding in Asia, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, in collaboration with Asian democrats, have convened a new Track II democracy dialogue. July 2020 saw the release of “The Sunnylands Principles on Enhancing Democratic Partnership in the Indo-Pacific Region” which set out the democratic values shared by participants. Asian participants in this process include former high-ranking officials in the governments and judiciary of India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea, who are currently working actively with civil society. Their links to national-level decisionmakers bodes well for the process eventually becoming a multi-stakeholder regional initiative also involving regional governments.
Four key drivers have promoted the gradual establishment of regional democracy frameworks in Asia. The first key driver was the democratization of Asian countries. As countries in Asia sought to consolidate their nascent democracies, they sought to form regional institutions focused on their unique needs. Small South Asian democracies (Bangladesh, Bhutan, the Maldives, and Nepal) moved for the enactment of the SAARC Charter of Democracy to help check domestic anti-democratic forces and seek regional support. Having troubled relations with India, they also intended to embed India in the regional institution and bind the country to shared regional principles.5 Mongolia, sandwiched between two giant authoritarian countries, Russia and China, played an important role in the establishment of the ADN, seeking to increase its international recognition as a democracy and to protect its independence by joining with other democracies in the region. Pro-democracy actors in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand, who contributed to the establishment of the ADN, tried to secure support and participation from established democracies as well as emerging democracies to maintain their democracies at home, and to create a regional system that would allow them to seek support from each other.6
The second key driver for the creation of Asian democracy mechanisms was the influence of institutional developments in other regions. The ADN, for example, was established by Asian pro-democracy activists who had connected with NGO networks such as Red Latinoamericana y del Caribe para la Democracia (REDLAD) in Latin America and sought to create a similar network in Asia.7 The BDF was influenced by European pro-democracy mechanisms, as part of a bid by the Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono administration to mimic Europe and establish Indonesia as a norm-setter in Asia. The SAARC’s emphasis on human rights and democracy was motivated by similar developments in ASEAN.8
The third driver was the invaluable role played by civil society actors. The Institute for Peace and Democracy, together with other Indonesian civil society organizations, has played a prominent role in organizing the BDF and setting its agendas. During the formulation of SAARC’s Charter of Democracy, prominent think tanks and NGOs engaged with member states such as Bangladesh and Nepal and promoted the discussion of democracy, in addition to stimulating such discussions on the grassroots level.9 While it is not surprising that civil society members played significant roles for the ADN as a NGO network, civil society actors, especially foundations and think tanks in South Korea and Taiwan, together with democracy activists in Southeast Asia, also played central roles.10 Believing that core norms of democracy such as accountability, transparency, inclusivity, and respect for human rights facilitate more responsive government, these non-state actors facilitated the creation of a vision to promote democratic governance standards in the Indo-Pacific region.
China’s emergence as an increasingly influential authoritarian superpower is the fourth driver. Faced with Beijing’s increasing violations of international rules and norms, and its conscious and unconscious export of its own governance model across Asia, regional countries have reinforced the sense that they need to establish mechanisms to maintain the liberal international order. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue and the Sunnylands process, in particular, were motivated by such sense of necessity. While they do not intend to antagonize China, they seek to serve as mechanisms with which to preserve the rule-based order where democratic governance and human dignity are protected in the age of China’s rise.
Regional intergovernmental frameworks for democracy are at risk of entering a stagnant phase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indonesia and the Philippines, which promoted the democracy agenda in Southeast Asia, have accelerated their democratic retreat, while Thailand, another country which worked together with those two, has been under a military regime since 2014. While SAARC began to see hope for resumption when the Indian government established a COVID-19 Emergency Fund for SAARC countries, an initiative to which SAARC member states have responded positively, democratic retreat in most member countries is likely to serve as a stumbling block in bringing the organization forward as a defender of democracy.
Instead of resting expectations on region-wide frameworks that include authoritarian countries, democracies should forge their own partnership and lead the discussion to uphold the values of liberal democracy.
Given the greater necessity as well as increased challenges during the pandemic, further development of regional frameworks for democracy requires proactive promoters. Here, this paper recommends a multi-layered multi-stakeholder approach. Instead of resting expectations on region-wide frameworks that include authoritarian countries, democracies should forge their own partnership and lead the discussion to uphold the values of liberal democracy. The Sunnylands process is a useful framework. Related actors should involve government officials in regional democracies in the process.
While governments need to be involved in the process, this could only work if it is a genuine Track 1.5 effort, keeping civil society at the center to maintain the momentum. While government officials come and go, civil society maintain their expertise and knowledge necessary to continue moving the process forward. Asian civil society networks have already become more active in response to the deterioration of democracy and civil liberties during the pandemic. In July 2020 the ADN launched a website called Asia Democracy Chronicles to provide information on civil liberties and human rights repressed under the pandemic in Asian countries. The ADRN has also been publishing research on the topic at a fast pace, advocating for this issue. These actors are not afraid to uphold liberal democracy as a common value for Asia.
At the same time, in order not to exclude authoritarian countries from the table, the existing sub-regional frameworks of ASEAN and SAARC remain important. In order to make these institutions more meaningful, incorporation of civil society actors into the dialogue on democracy is ideal. In addition, a region-wide mechanism that would incorporate the important missing sub-region of Northeast Asia is much needed. For that purpose, the Indonesian government should weaken its grip over the BDF and make it into a multilateral framework with equal footing among member countries. Mixing between the civil society pillar and the government pillar of the BDF is strongly needed as well.
Democratic governments, which are pressured not to bring the agenda of liberal democracy to the table in order not to force regional countries to choose between China and democracies, should encourage the expansion of the roles of the civil society. After all, the true champions of freedom and democracy are the civil society actors.
- “East Beats West: Racial Prejudice,” Asiaweek 21, no. 36 (September 8, 1995): 40-43.
- Author interview with I Ketut Putra Erawan, executive director of Institute for Peace and Democracy, Bali, Indonesia, December 2019.
- While several forums have been established in parallel with the BDF, including the Bali Democracy Civil Society and Media Forum, the Indonesian government has not established a point of contact for these other forums with the BDF, and there is no room for civil society to exert influence over the BDF.
- Lynn Lee, “The Role of Asia Democracy Network in Democratic Defense in Asia,” paper presented at American Political Science Association 2020 annual meeting, September 11, 2020.
- Niranjan Sahoo, “Regional Institutions for Democracy: A Case Study of SAARC,” paper presented at American Political Science Association 2020 annual meeting, September 11, 2020.
- Lynn Lee, “The Role of Asia Democracy Network in Democratic Defense in Asia.”
- Niranjan Sahoo, “Regional Institutions for Democracy: A Case Study of SAARC.”
- Lynn Lee, “The Role of Asia Democracy Network in Democratic Defense in Asia.”
Ted Reinert edited this paper. The author thanks Lindsey W. Ford, Ryan Hass, Lynn Lee, and Niranjan Sahoo for their valuable comments. This research was assisted by a grant from the Abe Fellowship Program administered by the Social Science Research Council in cooperation with and with funds provided by the Japan Foundation Center for Global Partnership.