Democracy in the Indo-Pacific: Australia’s role in the fight against authoritarianism

Jeremy Costa | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow

Image credit: Etan Liam

United States President Joe Biden made an election promise to return the staunch defence of democracy at home and abroad to the centre of Washington’s foreign and domestic policy agenda. In a speech delivered on February 19 to the Munich Security Conference, Biden proclaimed that “democratic progress is under assault” and called upon the US’ allies to defend freedom in their regions.


As one of Washington’s closest allies, Australia will be expected to lead the charge in the Indo-Pacific. But Canberra has an array of strategic priorities which do not fit neatly within a multilateral strategy that puts pressure on the region’s authoritarian regimes. However, according to Freedom House, authoritarianism has been gaining ground over democracies since 2005, and it is time that the US and its allies, including Canberra, prioritise democratic progress, even at the expense of short-term strategic interest.


The US’ ‘democracy first’ strategy has emphasised building a network of allies that, together, can realistically challenge and pressure authoritarian regimes around the world. However, the elevation of democracy formulates an integral part of the Biden administration’s plans to reduce growing Chinese influence around the world. China’s coercive economic practices toward Canberra have shone a spotlight on the consequences of reliance on Beijing. Australia has already received praise from the US’ most senior military commander in the region, as well as its top diplomat in Canberra, US embassy’s chargé d’affaires Michael Goldman, for “standing up” to Chinese coercion. For the US, the deterioration of Canberra’s relationship with China presents an opportunity to demonstrate to countries, particularly in the developing world, that the allure of Beijing’s economic footprint does not come without ramifications.


Australia has also used the pretext of democracy promotion to make countries in the region, many of which are important strategic partners to Canberra, resistant to coercion. In particular, Australia’s Pacific Step-Up policy commits large amounts of resources to a region which Beijing has increasingly paid attention to, and remains one of Canberra’s "highest foreign policy priorities". However, while democracy promotion is often used as the pretext, there are clearly inconsistencies in Australia’s approach. For example, Vietnam, unequivocally an authoritarian regime, is highly unlikely to receive any criticism from Canberra. In fact, in 2018 Canberra announced that the relationship was to be elevated to ‘strategic partnership’. It is this inconsistency that means the US and Australia are unlikely to ever gain real authority on a democracy first strategy. It is what the country’s autocratic adversaries, such as China and Russia, will use to discredit Washington’s agenda.


As a multilateral strategy, it is unclear through which mechanisms liberal democracies will increase cooperation. While the international community has many institutions devoted to global economic cooperation, there exists little in the form of democracy promotion. In this space, President Biden has called for a ‘summit of democracies’. In a recent op-ed for The Australian entitled Democracies unite in face of world’s challenges, Foreign Minister Marise Payne promoted The Group of Seven Plus (G7+) as one potential institution that could fill the void. The recent inclusion of outreach partners Australia, India, South Korea, South Africa and the chair and Secretary-General of ASEAN is reflective of the desire to expand the G7’s traditional mandate. In particular, the Foreign Minister pointed to the need to emphasise “the benefits of our system of government” and the “demonstrable improvements that they make to those people’s lives”. With a focus on themes of development, including equitable access to the COVID-19 vaccines in the region, Minister Payne’s comments reflect Australia’s preference for soft power mechanisms over difficult diplomatic stances. Canberra has plenty of opportunity to support freedom and advance democracy in an Indo-Pacific region that faces a multitude of challenges. To do so, however, It will need to start prioritising the protection of democracy in its foreign policy decision-making. This will sometimes mean taking uncomfortable diplomatic stances that risk short-term strategic priorities. Canberra’s decision to avoid recognising Fiame Naomi Mata'afa as Samoa’s Prime Minister in recent weeks, despite prevailing in the country’s recent election by a single seat, exemplifies the tension between strategic interest and a strategy that prioritises democracy promotion. The controversial constitutional manoeuvre, initiated by Tuila'epa Sailele Malielegaoim, who has been Prime Minister of Samoa since 1998, is representative of the type of democratic challenges facing many of the countries in Australia’s region. For Australia to become a genuine authority on democracy promotion, it must voice consistent support for democratic progress and condemnation of authoritarian sliding to its allies and adversaries alike. A genuine strategy that challenges autocratic rule around the world is welcome and required. However, the motivations behind the US’ democracy first strategy extends beyond a desire to empower democracy globally. Namely, it forms a central component of the Biden administration’s China strategy. Rhetorically, democracies around the world have rallied around the call for a greater collaboration. However, there remains an institutional gap to organise and implement a collective strategy. It remains unclear whether the G7+, or Biden’s proposed Summit for Democracy, can effectively fill the void. Canberra will have to make difficult diplomatic choices if it is to become a global authority on democracy. It remains to be seen whether it is willing to sacrifice strategic interest for the sake of democratic progress.


Jeremy Costa is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.