Countries rally behind democracy in U.S.-led summit amid China’s rise

Dec 10 , 2021. 4 hours ago – 05:03 By Miya Tanaka, KYODO NEWS

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers opening remarks for the virtual Summit for Democracy on Dec. 9, 2021, in Washington. (Getty/Kyodo)

WASHINGTON – Dozens of world leaders rallied behind U.S. calls to uphold democracy and human rights as President Joe Biden on Thursday hosted a virtual summit to counter challenges posed by authoritarianism seen in countries such as China.

The “Summit for Democracy,” which brings together over 100 countries and regions for two days through Friday, has added to tensions between the United States and China, with Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island which Beijing claims as its own territory, among the invitees while China was not.

Noting that autocrats are seeking to expand their influence around the world and justify their repressive policies as more efficient than democratic governance in addressing today’s challenges, Biden said at the outset of the meeting, “Democracy doesn’t happen by accident. We have to renew it with each generation.”

“This is an urgent matter,” he added.

Biden took office in January with a pledge to restore the U.S. role as a champion of democracy and human rights around the world, following what critics viewed as a retreat of U.S. global leadership under his predecessor Donald Trump. Holding a summit focused on democracy during his first year in office was one of Biden’s campaign promises.

Representing Japan, a key U.S. ally that has become more vocal about concerns over China’s assertiveness in the region, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida called for working collectively against moves to undermine freedom, democracy and rule of law and vowed to speak out against serious human rights violations.

Kishida also pledged to provide $14 million to international organizations to ramp up efforts to protect human rights in the corporate sector, according to the Japanese government.

The event, which was also joined by activists, members of civil society and private-sector leaders, centered around three thematic pillars — defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption and promoting respect for human rights.

It will be the first of what would be a two-step process, with Biden planning to host another “Summit for Democracy” in an in-person format about a year later so the participating countries can report on the progress made toward their commitments.

The Biden administration, for its part, vowed to provide up to $424.4 million for a “democratic renewal” initiative that will include efforts to support independent media, defend free and fair elections globally and work with other like-minded nations to counter internet censorship and other kinds of “digital authoritarianism.”

China, meanwhile, has been stepping up its attack against the U.S. campaign, criticizing the summit for being a divisive event that puts “half of the world’s countries into a category of so-called ‘non-democracies’ with its own yardstick.”

It has also criticized the American political system and society as flawed, citing its poor handling of the coronavirus pandemic, entrenched racism, and failed efforts to stabilize countries such as Afghanistan through democratization.

A deadly attack on the U.S. Capitol in January this year by a mob seeking to overturn the outcome of the U.S. presidential election also exposed the vulnerability of democracy in the country that has long championed such values.

The Biden administration has conceded that “no democracy is perfect” and that they see themselves “as a democracy not with all of the answers, but with openness and transparency about our efforts to overcome challenges at home while working with partners to support democracy and human rights abroad.”

It has also sought to play down questions over the reasoning behind the selection of the invitees, such as bringing in the Philippines but not Thailand, even though they are both U.S. treaty allies. Manila was invited despite being criticized for human rights abuses such as extrajudicial killings conducted in the country’s war on drugs.

Hungary — a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member that is showing democratic backsliding as Prime Minister Viktor Orban strengthens his grip on the country — was not invited. Turkey, also a NATO ally but deemed an autocracy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was also not invited.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki has said that “inclusion or an invitation is not a stamp of approval on their approach to democracy, nor is exclusion a stamp of the opposite of that.”

“It’s just meant to have a diverse range of voices and faces and representatives at the discussion,” she said.

Including Taiwan in the list of participants can be seen as another sign of U.S. support for the island, which is under military pressure from an increasingly assertive China.

China and Taiwan have been governed separately since they split in 1949 as the result of a civil war.

Lithuania, which has been facing diplomatic pressure from China for deepening ties with Taipei, has also been invited.

Afghanistan, taken over by the Islamist Taliban earlier in the year as U.S. forces withdrew, was not among the guests. Russia and North Korea also did not receive an invitation.

Organizations that promote democracy and human rights around the world have been sounding alarms in recent years over declining freedoms.

According to a 2021 report by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization, 70 percent of the world’s population lives either under an outright non-democratic regime or in a democratically backsliding country, compared to only 46 percent 10 years ago.