AMERICA’S PUZZLING LIST OF INVITEES TO DEMOCRACY SUMMIT
Has President Biden lost his way?
That was my candid first impression of a list of nations invited to a virtual “Summit for Democracy” Biden will be hosting December 9-10.
Biden promised to stage the summit during his 2020 campaign as a multinational forum to discuss 1) defending democratic countries against authoritarianism; 2) eradicating corruption; and 3) promoting respect for human rights.
The State Department has selected 110 nations and regions out of the 193 members of the United Nations. But the selection standard appears unclear, making one feel unsure if the upcoming event will pave the way for achieving the desired objectives. If anything, the tactical and strategic callowness of the administration’s ploy to arbitrarily split the world in two is too obvious.
Of the ten members of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), the US invited only three—Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines—leaving out seven others that include Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Thailand is America’s authentic ally but may have come into disfavor with Washington because of its military-led political leadership. Singapore is not an ally but a friendly and reasonably powerful nation that allows port-calls by US military vessels. As I will mention later, the US has consistently paid attention to the importance of this island city state. I wonder if its exclusion was because Washington construed Singapore’s political system, which is controlled by one party, as incompatible with democracy.
The exclusion of Vietnam is hard to comprehend. The US and Vietnam—archrivals during the Vietnam War—have mended their relationship beyond the wounds of the bitterly fought war. Vietnam has defined a strengthening of its relations with the US as the core of its future development and has in effect been cooperating closely with the US in countering the threat of China in the South China Sea. The country is also an important member of the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) free trade agreement, with similar economic and geopolitical objectives as the US. It was the US that unilaterally withdrew from the TPP at the direction of former President Donald Trump. Again, the exclusion of Vietnam, which has endeavored to strengthen its strategic partnership with the US since diplomatic relations were normalized in 1995, is difficult to understand.
It goes without saying that a group of US-led Western democracies and China are engaged in a fierce confrontation in the Indo-pacific region, each side exerting its utmost to win over ASEAN members, including Singapore and Vietnam.
On November 22, Xi Jinping hosted a special ASEAN-China summit online, proclaiming the formation of a “comprehensive strategic partnership.”
On the same day, Britain announced that ASEAN foreign ministers will be invited to the G7 foreign ministers’ meet slated for December 10 in Liverpool. Britain holds the rotating presidency of the G7 summit this year.
As for the US, Biden committed US$100 million in aid to ASEAN at the October 26 US-ASEAN summit, also held online. About three months preceding the summit, on July 23, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin left Washington on a visit to the Philippines, Singapore, and Vietnam, declaring that he would tell ASEAN nations that the US would continue to be a reliable friend—a real friend in need.
A month later, on August 22, Vice President Kamara Harris began a five-day visit to Singapore and Vietnam, emphasizing the need for America to cooperate with Indo-Pacific nations more closely as a partner.
China’s Sweet Overtures
And yet, these nations weren’t invited, obviously causing most ASEAN members to wonder what US diplomacy is about. I can easily see China taking advantage of the situation, making sweet overtures to nations that were disgruntled because the US essentially told them: “We cannot keep you in our circle because you aren’t a full-fledged democracy.”
Cambodia has been hopelessly seduced by China’s sweet words. Every single ASEAN resolution against China has failed to see the light of day because of Cambodia’s objections. A drama involving a drastic shift in the balance of power in Cambodia between the US and China is about to come to an end—overwhelmingly in the latter’s favor. In June, Cambodian Defense Minister Tea Banh publicly announced that a military base was being constructed with China’s financial backing. Observers have long warned against Cambodia’s tilt towards China. Because Cambodia has almost completely modified its foreign and security policies to China’s satisfaction, strong opinions have been voiced by many of the basically moderate ASEAN nations that its system of unanimous votes should be changed.
US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman flew to Phnom Penh in June to survey the base construction and found Cambodia had demolished US-financed facilities at Ream Naval Base in southwestern Cambodia, including the Navy tactical headquarters building, obviously in preparation for Chinese-built facilities to take their place. How can this situation be addressed, where China continues to wrest away crucial assets in developing nations? The answer isn’t simple. What is evident is that an exclusion from the democracy summit likely will have no effect whatsoever.
India, the Maldives, Nepal, and Pakistan were among the South Asian nations invited to the summit, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were excluded.
The Times of India in its November 22 edition assumed that Nepal and Pakistan made it to the list “because both countries are neighbors of China” and speculated further that Bangladesh was not invited because the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, the US-backed main opposition party, had failed to make an impact in the last two national elections “which may have tilted the balance.” Reading between the lines, one gets the impression that the daily has a negative view of Washington’s selection criteria which reflects America’s likes and dislikes after all.
New Middle East Order without America
From the Middle East, only Israel, a staunch American ally, and Iraq were invited. Excluded were Saudi Arabia, Turkey, a NATO member whose movements are attracting global attention, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar which closely cooperated with the US when Biden abruptly withdrew American forces from Afghanistan in late August.
A movement to create a new order in the Middle East without the US is already in the offing. Turkey has generated strong resentment from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for aiding radical Islamic groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, in tandem with Qatar.
But Turkey has now begun to show signs of refraining from supporting those radical groups. The reason: the UAE has announced a US$10 billion fund aimed at supporting mainly strategic investments in Turkey. Foreseeing how the complicated Middle Eastern situation will evolve is next to impossible, but any move that would more strongly prompt a creation of a new order in the Middle East without the US will inevitably invite intervention by Russia or China. US national interests in the region will undoubtedly be severely impaired.
Meanwhile, Taiwan has made it to the list, thus enabling the US to give another sense of security to many members of the international community as regards its policy of protecting the self-governing democracy. Digital Minister Audrey Tan and Bi-Khim Hiao, chief representative of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office in Washington, will represent their country. The selection of this duo is ideal for discussing issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but may not be the best choice for involved political discussions. I wonder if this was a sign that the Biden administration was reluctant to generate any more resentment from China than necessary.
A total of 110 nations will participate in the summit. Biden has vowed the next summit, to be held a year from now, will be a full-fledged get-together where delegates congregate face to face. But more likely than not, I suppose all of the US will be completely tied up in the midterm elections by then.
From the way things stand in America now, the Democrats could lose both chambers of Congress next year. Although a democracy summit gives a strong verbal impression, little concrete outcome should be expected, realistically speaking. America’s selection of nations this time may only have served to reveal the harsh reality that Biden has an ambiguous sense of purpose as regards the summit, lacking the strategic objectivity needed to stabilize the balance of world power to America’s advantage.
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 978 in the December 30, 2021 issue of The Weekly Shincho)