Washington, D.C. – On September 22, IRI President Dr. Daniel Twining testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee on the importance of supporting democracy and human rights in Asia, despite challenges to the region’s democratic future.
In his testimony, Twining focused on the impact of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) malign influence, political change and stymied reforms, increased assaults on political freedoms and youth-led movements for change in the Asia-Pacific region. An excerpt from the testimony follows.
“To counter the negative democratic trends we are seeing in the Asia-Pacific region and support those fighting for free, prosperous and just societies there, the United States must continue to dedicate resources to bolstering the capacity of civil society, political parties and independent media. These institutions are critical to establishing solid democracies and pushing back against democratic erosion. IRI research suggests democratic erosion is often a gradual process, with incumbents first seeking to weaken checks and balances, particularly legislatures, judiciaries and election commissions. Organized pushback from opposition parties, civil-society watchdogs and independent media against these subtle first steps can help to head off more dangerous forms of repression and state capture later on. Our support for partners in these spheres is therefore proactive and preventive, not just reactive.
The United States, likewise, can play an important role in ensuring that dynamic young activists have the knowledge and skills to be leaders in their communities while embodying democratic values. We should continue to equip and support young leaders dedicated to building inclusive coalitions and increasing youth participation in decision-making processes. Alliances are critical for maintaining civic space in the face of democratic backsliding and helping young leaders pool resources and work together to take collective action for reform.
With regards to China, the United States must balance complex equities. There is no doubt that China’s influence is negatively impacting countries’ democratic trajectories, but especially in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. approach cannot be one of “us or them.” However, we can take steps to ensure that China finds countries less hospitable to its advances and that countries in the region value and pursue closer relationships with the U.S. and other democracies, including Japan, Australia, South Korea and India. The United States and its partners must invest resources in changing the context in the countries China targets for influence. This can be accomplished through two complementary efforts: 1) offering countries alternatives to Chinese investment and assistance on how to structure future deals with China; and 2) building the resilience of developing democracies to the malign effects of CCP influence.
American support for democracy and human rights strengthens Asian countries’ sovereignty, helping them make independent choices that benefit their people rather than any foreign power. Whereas Chinese assistance too often suborns countries’ independence, for instance by entrapping them in debt or corrupting their political elites, U.S. support for accountability, transparency, democratic decision-making and regular elections helps ensure that we have capable allies and partners that can make their own choices, including in foreign policy, at a time when great-power competition threatens the peace that produced Asia’s economic miracle.
America needs to utilize all the tools in our toolkit of leadership. China is pursuing its interests not only by projecting military power but through what the National Endowment for Democracy calls “sharp power” tools of influence: information operations, united-front tactics, and forms of political corruption and economic capture. Bolstering democratic resiliency in Asia against such forms of malign foreign influence is a U.S. national security interest. Our military strength is pivotal, and our economic depth attracts partners, but the core values of liberty, justice and equality should remain at the heart of America’s regional engagement. They are universal ideals to which people across Asia and the world still aspire.”