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This week’s Asia Review looks at the recent virtual Summit for Democracy hosted by the Biden Administration as it struggles to reconcile geopolitical imperatives with normative positions. It zeroes in on Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan while doing so. Plus, the edition looks at questions flowing from a new index that measures power distribution in the Asia-Pacific, as well as flags problems with what one philosopher calls “conceptual overreach.”
DRI Asia Review
December 17,
Principle and Power in the Asia-Pacific
The dangers of labels
Bangladeshi and Taiwanese voices on democracy
Bangladesh’s impressive life-expectancy gains
Asia’s bipolar future?
Democracy and conceptual overreach

Welcome to the newsletter of Diplomat Risk Intelligence, the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, your go-to outlet for definitive analyses from and about the Asia-Pacific.

This week’s Asia Review looks at the recent virtual Summit for Democracy hosted by the Biden Administration as it struggles to reconcile geopolitical imperatives with normative positions. It zeroes in on Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan while doing so. Plus, the edition looks at questions flowing from a new index that measures power distribution in the Asia-Pacific, as well as flags problems with what one philosopher calls “conceptual overreach.”


Biden’ Summit for Democracy: Neither Consistent nor Pragmatic
President Joe Biden speaks from the White House complex on December 9, 2021, for the opening of the Summit for Democracy, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, looks on.
— AP Photo, Susan Walsh

A week after U.S. President Joe Biden’s much-vaunted virtual Summit for Democracy, on December 9 and 10, the outcome of—and need for—the event remains murky at best. This is not the least because of the arbitrary nature of the list of who made it to the Summit and who didn’t, a judgement call the Biden administration ostensibly made for high-minded reasons modestly tempered by narrow pragmatism. (For a very useful map of who made to the list of invitees see here.)

The very fact that the Administration sought to couch what could have otherwise been a straightforward powwow of more-or-less likeminded nations in highly normative terms, and worse still, ended up shooting itself on the foot when it came to antagonizing partners like Vietnam and Singapore (both not invited) didn’t help matters.

To add to complications, the Summit itself was marked with gaffes. Reuters reported on December 13 that the Biden National Security Council cut off Taiwanese Digital Minister Audrey Tang’s video feed during her presentation. “The White House was concerned that differentiating Taiwan and China on a map in a U.S.-hosted conference—to which Taiwan had been invited in a show of support at a time when it is under intense pressure from Beijing—could be seen as being at odds with Washington's "one-China" policy, which avoids taking a position as to whether Taiwan is part of China,” the news agency quoted its sources as saying.

The net effect of the exercise last week is—as several analysts have already pointed out— that Biden’s public snubbing of many otherwise extremely important geopolitical partners could indeed have second-order, complicating effects on his Indo-Pacific strategy. That said, two of the South Asian countries excluded by the Biden Administration—Bangladesh and Sri Lanka—do demonstrate how tenuous the grip of democracy (broadly understood) remains in the region.

Despite the stringent mobility restrictions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Sri Lanka held elections in 2020, which the Asian Network for Free Election reported was “mostly free from election violation” and overall “smooth, transparent and uneventful.” However, controversial moves by the current Rajapaksa government, such as renouncing its commitments under the United Nations resolution on post-civil war accountability and reconciliation and increased repression of human rights activists, have raised international concern. Freedom House in its World Report 2021 rated Sri Lanka as “partly free” with a score of 56 out of 100, listing it among the countries which “deserve special scrutiny.”

Earlier this year, on August 30, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa declared a national emergency which grants authorities unlimited power of detentions and arrests—approved by the Sri Lankan parliament on September 6—under the pretext of addressing the country’s growing economic crisis. This move, which opposition leaders condemned as another step “in the direction of authoritarianism,” comes amid reports of increased arrests by authorities under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act. There is  growing concern about religious freedom violations in the country, particularly governmental and societal discrimination against members of the Muslim community.

As a young democracy which firmly transitioned from military to parliamentary rule in 1990-91 (after brief periods of democratic rule earlier in its history), Bangladesh’s overall democratic record has been dismal. Some believe that the country’s democratic transition remains incomplete and far from consolidated, while others harshly condemn the political landscape as “extraordinarily toxic.” As Sri Lanka, Freedom House ranked Bangladesh as “partly free,” but with a much lower score of 39 out of 100.

Experts have pointed out how systematic suppression of the opposition has effectively converted the country into a one-party state. Human Rights Watch has also recorded several instances of electoral irregularities, including voter intimidation, election rigging and partisan behavior by election officials. Electoral violence is not new in the country, the latest iteration of which killed seven people in the rural council elections held in November.

Reports indicate that violence against ethnic and religious minorities increased after the general elections were held in the country in 2018. In October this year, the country was gripped by communal violence after two Hindu men were killed, several others injured and property destroyed by angry mobs over the alleged desecration of the Holy Quran. Observers have noted a broader trend of crackdown on civil rights in recent years, particularly the right to freedom of expression, especially criticizing the Digital Security Act—a provision seen to limit fundamental rights, such as freedom of religion or belief.

The irony with Bangladesh’s and Sri Lanka’s exclusion from Biden’s democracy summit, then, is this: Had his administration used the same yardstick of what constitutes a “true” democracy to evaluate all of the countries in South and Southeast Asia, it could have at least preserved normative consistency (though almost surely antagonized more, and more powerful, states). By differentially adjudicating the state of democracy across countries and regions, it has not only lost moral high ground, but also scored several geopolitical own-goals.


Bangladeshi Newspapers Blast Biden, While Taiwan Highlights Its Democratic Cred
— Flickr, Nicolas Raymond

The reaction of influential Bangladeshi voices to Biden’s democracy summit last week was predictable, with several voices in Bangladesh harshly denouncing Washington’s opaque and selective approach in drawing up the invitees list. On December 13, 2021 Prothom Alo—a leading Bengali daily newspaper—published an editorial piece, which opined that not only will the Summit create more ideological and geopolitical divisions, but could also lead “weaker democracies” to join a shadow coalition of authoritarian regimes around China and Russia.

Another piece, also published by Prothom Alo, on December 14 highlighted the flaws in, and threats to, America’s democracy and projected the Summit as simply another attempt by Washington to meet its narrow self-interest through strengthening its “camp” against opposing countries, without any genuine concern for democracy promotion around the world.

Meanwhile, ahead of the democracy summit, on December 6 Taiwan’s Foreign minister Joseph Wu highlighted his country’s democratic credentials—alongside its geostrategic role—in an interview with Australian media. Speaking with Australia’s former Defense Minister Christopher Pyne, Wu noted, according to China Times, a Taiwanese newspaper: “Taiwan has received affirmation from the international community for its adherence to freedom and democratic values. Taiwan is determined, and has the duty, to safeguard its sovereignty and way of democratic life.”

“Taiwan, a democratic nation, is on the frontlines against China’s authoritarianism. Therefore, it anticipates more support from its democratic partners,” the newspaper also quoted Wu as saying.

All this, of course, was before his colleague Tang’s video feed during the democracy summit was allegedly cut off by the Biden White House for suggesting that Taiwan was a country.


Total At-Birth Life Expectancy in Bangladesh
— Data: World Bank. Graphics: DRI


Asia-Pacific’s Bipolar Future?
— Flickr, Mills Baker

For four consecutive years now, Sydney-based Lowy Institute, one of Australia’s leading think tanks, has been publishing an annual Asia Power Index, which provides a multi-dimensional view of power distribution in the Asia-Pacific region. For the latest episode of DRI Future Tense, Hervé Lemahieu, Lowy’s Director of Research and principal architect of the project, spoke with DRI’s Director of Research Abhijnan Rej to discuss key lessons and prognoses of the latest edition.

Despite the rhetoric of a multipolar Asia-Pacific popular in some regional capitals, Lemahieu explains how distribution of power in the Indo-Pacific reflects a strong bipolar trend, and why that is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future. Speaking about a deteriorating global strategic environment strongly affected by the global pandemic, he suggests that COVID-19 has slowed the ascendancy of middle powers in the Asia-Pacific.

Although the U.S. has shown tentative signs of modest recovery in diplomatic influence following the election of Biden as president in November last year, Lemahieu assesses that Washington’s incoherent regional economic strategy continues to remain its Achilles’ heel in its engagement with many in the region. Meanwhile, China—despite a decrease in its comprehensive national power for the first time in the four-year period Lowy has published its power index—holds greater comparative advantage in regional economic integration, largely due to its physical proximity.

So, how far are we from a multipolar Asia? Will there be a greater diffusion of power in the near future? Why is Russia, despite its own ambivalence about its Asia-Pacific identity, identified as a major power in Lowy’s index? These are just some of the questions Lemahieu answered as he reiterated the need for power to be seen through a classical geopolitical lens.

Listen to the podcast


Conceptual Overreach
— Flickr, astoller

Could making everything revolve around, and subsumed by, a single overarching “good” principle—be that human rights or democracy—end up causing analytical confusion and policy harm?

One Oxford philosopher thinks so.

In an insightful and persuasive article published in Aeon in January, John Tasioulas argues against “conceptual overreach,” a situation or political-philosophical position that “occurs when a particular concept undergoes a process of expansion or inflation in which it absorbs ideas and demands that are foreign to it.”

“In its most extreme manifestation, conceptual overreach morphs into a totalizing ‘all in one’ dogma,” Tasioulas writes.

One of the examples Tasioulas provocatively probes, partly drawing on a 2017 book by Stanford professor Josiah Ober, is the notion of democracy, and the frequent conflation of “democracy” and “liberal democracy”— a mistake the Biden Administration glaringly made while selecting participating countries for last week’s summit.

“Is the idea of ‘illiberal democracy’, as some contend, a contradiction in terms, because any democracy truly worth the name will already respect liberal demands? Or is the belief that bona fide democracies must be liberal an instance of conceptual overreach, packing into democracy quite separate values and concerns?” he asks, and in doing so does us a great service.

DRI’s Research Analyst Rushali Saha and Director of Research Abhijnan Rej contributed to this edition of DRI Asia Review. Translations of Bangladeshi and Taiwanese media articles were provided by in-house linguists.

Diplomat Risk Intelligence (DRI) is the research and consulting division of The Diplomat, the Asia-Pacific’s leading current affairs magazine.

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