The Strategic Case for Democracy Promotion in Asia

“Democracy promotion is falling out of fashion in U.S. foreign policy circles. This is especially true when it comes to Asia: policymakers tend to believe that if the United States dwells on principles when engaging with that region, it will become distracted and lose the edge to China—purportedly a more pragmatic country focused on economic prowess and hard power. Beijing’s grand strategy undoubtedly focuses on dominating the Indo-Pacific, controlling the development and production of the most advanced technologies, and making China the hub of the global economy. 

“But the Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s ambitions are also ideological: he aims to shift global opinion toward an admiration for authoritarian rule and thereby forge a world safe for his autocracy and eager to welcome Chinese influence. This ideological campaign does not yet pose an existential threat to well-established Asian democracies such as Japan and South Korea. It creates great risks, however, for smaller Chinese neighbors whose economic and political fragilities Beijing seeks to exploit. 

“Foreign policy realists argue that supporting democratic governance distracts the United States from hard-power competition. But throughout the course of American history, the country’s sharpest strategic thinkers knew that was not the case. President Thomas Jefferson argued that supporting well-governed republics in the Pacific Northwest would be the best way to prevent European imperial expansion there. In the second half of the nineteenth century, U.S. naval commander Matthew Perry and the naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan made the same arguments about the western Pacific, determining that American interests in the region depended on the ability of Japan and other maritime states to self-govern and resist European imperial ambitions. Nearly two hundred years later, President Ronald Reagan concluded that weak democratic governance was rendering U.S. strategic partners in Asia unstable and vulnerable to hostile influences. Leaning in to encourage democratic transitions in the Philippines and South Korea helped him contain the Soviet Union in its waning days. …”

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