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'Summit for Democracy': How Biden is Losing Asia-Pacific to China Without Firing a Shot

© REUTERS / Hyungwon KangThe People's Republic of China flag and the U.S. Stars and Stripes fly along Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit in Washington, DC, US on January 18, 2011.
The People's Republic of China flag and the U.S. Stars and Stripes fly along Pennsylvania Avenue near the US Capitol during Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit in Washington, DC, US on January 18, 2011. - Sputnik International, 1920, 13.12.2021
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US President Joe Biden's "Summit for Democracy" has left not only China but many Asian nations out in the cold. Those snubbed view the move as a betrayal, according to a Beijing-based commentator and author, Thomas W. Pauken II, who offered his take on how it could backfire on Washington.
After not being invited to US President Joe Biden's virtual "Summit for Democracy" held on 9-10 December, Beijing issued an essay titled "China: Democracy That Works."
The paper released by China's State Council Information Office on 4 December describes democracy as a "common value of humanity and an ideal," stressing that "the people's status as masters of the country is the essence of people's democracy."
"Democracy is a concrete phenomenon that is constantly evolving," the Beijing document reads. "Rooted in history, culture and tradition, it takes diverse forms and develops along the paths chosen by different peoples based on their exploration and innovation."

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The essay came under criticism in Western media which claimed that the model outlined by China has nothing in common with the "conventional" meaning of "democracy" in the West. Brian Wong, a Rhodes Scholar from Hong Kong, dubbed Beijing's model as "people-centered" and a "Democracy with Chinese characteristics" in an article for the Diplomat.
Wong suggested that "American democracy had seemingly lost much of its allure" and added that Beijing is seeking to offer its own vision of democracy "that would, if substantiated and viable, pose a fundamental challenge to the Anglo-American monopoly of the term."
Beijing's interpretation of democracy has the right to exist even though it does not fit into the Procrustean bed of Biden's model, notes Thomas W. Pauken II, a Beijing-based Asia-Pacific affairs commentator and author of US vs. China: From Trade War to Reciprocal Deal.
The Chinese have hit a sore spot in the US as the role of what is described as small elitist groups in Washington's political decision-making has increased substantially in recent decades, according to the commentator.

"Let’s address the matter that both the Democrat and Republican Parties appear to do the bidding of their Big Business, Wall Street and Silicon Valley Donors. Big Business is represented by the US Chamber of Commerce formed by the nation’s leading companies," Pauken asserted, adding, "Wall Street and US high tech firms poured in huge funding of dark money and campaign donations to Biden’s presidential campaign and the DNC (Democratic National Committee). Defense manufacturers are largely funding the major think tanks based in Washington, DC, and the Washington Beltway thought leaders stand eager to fan the flames of war while writing up academic papers and press releases advocating the US, UK, EU, Australia, Japan and India join in on ‘Contain China’ measures."

The author describes US elites as living "in a bubble world," and suggests that they "have taken charge of the US, especially its foreign policy." According to Pauken, "the rule of the elites in the USA has turned destructive". He added that a quick reversal from this trend is unlikely, at best.
"We are witnessing the imminent decline of the US and greedy power brokers are profiting big-time from it," Pauken notes.
According to a 2014 study carried out by political scientists Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, US economic elites have a disproportionately high influence on political decision-making in Washington. An October Pew Research poll indicated that those participating Americans appear to be dissatisfied with the trend: at least 85% of those surveyed said that the country's political system "needs to be completely reformed" or "needs major changes."
Internationally, the US is no longer seen as a democratic standard bearer: just 17% of those polled in 16 developed economies "consider American democracy a good model for other countries to follow," according to a Pew Research Center Spring 2021 Global Attitudes Survey.
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China was not the only Asian nation whose vision of democracy does not appeal to the Biden administration: among those not invited to the "Summit for Democracy" were Singapore, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Myanmar and others. Just three ASEAN states made it to the US president's virtual gathering.
Although the non-invitees signaled their dissatisfaction, the summit nonetheless did not prompt enthusiasm among Asian nations, according to The Brookings Institution's Andrew Yeo, a professor of politics and director of Asian studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. Even South Korea, invited to Biden's summit, remained relatively silent about the virtual venue, noted Yeo in an op-ed.
"The Association of SouthEast Asian Nations (ASEAN), whose members include a mix of democracies and non-democracies, has never been particularly forward leaning on human rights and democracy issues, given the union’s commitment to principles of sovereignty and non-interference," the professor suggested.
 In this Sept. 16, 2018, file photo, American flags are displayed together with Chinese flags on top of a trishaw in Beijing. China says Friday, Aug. 14, 2020, the United States is trying to “demonize and stigmatize” bilateral its foreign relations, in a scathing attack on the Trump administration's designation of the Confucius Institute U.S. Center as a foreign mission of the Chinese Communist Party. - Sputnik International, 1920, 11.12.2021
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In addition, the region's peculiarities and history must be taken into account, according to a study conducted by the Brookings Institution, a liberal US think tank. The group admits that "Asia remains considerably more free and democratic in 2020 than it was throughout the Cold War," adding that "support for democratic governance remains strong in Asia."
Brookings scholars noted that countries diverge widely in the importance they attach to specific democratic ideals. For example, only 18% of Japanese listed freedom of religion as a “very important” principle, in contrast to roughly 80% of respondents in India and Indonesia. Similarly, less than 50% of respondents across the region called media freedom, freedom for civil society, and freedom for opposition parties as important, the think tank emphasized, citing Pew Research. Recent polling additionally indicates that a majority of Indonesians rate economic development higher than "democratic progress."
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Washington must observe these regional peculiarities amid ongoing geopolitical competition, considering the attention given to Beijing within Biden's Pivot to Asia strategy, according to the think tank. The Pivot to Asia strategy, initially kicked off by the Obama administration, sought to command support among Asia-Pacific nations and exploit their own tensions with Beijing as a means of exerting pressure on the the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

"Greater US-China competition may… give regional partners more space to resist calls for human rights and democracy as their strategic importance to the US climbs," wrote Yeo. "Moreover, if Washington pushes Asian governments too hard on democracy while Beijing does not, such appeals may become counterproductive as governments opt to work with great powers who preach less."

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Biden's "Summit for Democracy" squandered an opportunity to unite South Asia against Beijing, echoed The Diplomat's Mohamed Zeeshan. "Being so opaque in its selectivity, America has compromised its own geopolitical goals in South Asia," Zeeshan stressed.

"[Biden] thought by not inviting them he could effectively utilize the Alinsky tactic to de-legitimatise them but instead the strategy appears to have backfired," Pauken notes. "If a city-state like Singapore gets ostracized by Washington that could happen to any other country who has tried to be friends with the US. Such betrayal harbors discontent and countries will be less trusting of the US in the aftermath. Meanwhile, Singapore and Thailand will just go their own way or choose to draw closer to China as they hold some bitterness over Biden’s goofy summit."

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