During his visit to Asia, which concludes May 24, President Joe Biden has been reiterating that his foreign policy is centered on uniting “partners who share our values” in order to oppose governments “who do not share our values.” To meet the challenges posed by a powerful and ambitious China, however, relying on common political values to build a coalition may be a costly blunder. Washington requires as many security partners as possible, and this approach reduces the potential number.
Biden’s most pressing task in the Asia-Pacific is to gather governments that will support the U.S. vision of a regional order over the Chinese vision. However, very few of the countries in Asia-Pacific have fully fledged liberal democracies. A lot of potential U.S. partners, security and support sources are skeptical or hostile towards liberal values. This pool grows as liberalism in the region is falling and illiberalism ascends. You need only look at the Philippines where once disgraced Marcos’ family is now back in power.
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Moreover, America’s ability to pass its own litmus test is increasingly in doubt. The U.S. is now classified as a “flawed democracy” (Economist Intelligence Unit) or a “backsliding democracy” (Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance). In November 2021, a Pew Research Center survey found that 16 of the sixteen countries polled believed that racial or ethnic discrimination in America is worse than it was in their home countries.
Washington knows how to collaborate with other states who don’t behave in accordance to liberal principles. To defeat Germany and Japan in World War II, the U.S. sided with Stalin’s Soviet Union, imperialist powers Britain and France, and a brutally authoritarian government led by Chiang Kai-shek in the Republic of China. During the Cold War, Washington supported “friendly dictators” against Soviet-backed dictators. Recent years have seen the U.S. develop close security relationships to countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan.
Fumio Kishida, Japan’s Prime Minster, and Joe Biden, the US President, meet at Akasaka Palace, Tokyo, Japan on May 23rd, during Joe Biden’s first visit to Asia.
David Mareuil—Anadolu/Bloomberg/Getty Images
Washington maintains a formal distance with Taiwan, although it shares American political values. The United States and Taiwan have a long history of friendship. They also share strong economic ties. Washington does not have official relations or a firm commitment to Taiwan defense. For a positive U.S.-China relationship, the common-values principle must be sacrificed.
Cooperation is hindered by making a big deal about the internal political systems of potential partner countries. In the late 1940s the U.S. government rebuffed overtures from Vietnamese revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh, who feared Chinese domination, because Ho was “communist”; this contributed to Ho’s Vietminh entering a temporary semi-alliance with China.
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In 1998, Al Gore (then the U.S.) addressed an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Malaysia. Al Gore was the Vice-President of the United States. This offended the host government. Gore also encouraged Malaysian dissidents to seek political reforms. Washington’s disapproval of a 2014 military coup in Thailand led to a diminution of the U.S.-Thailand relationship and corresponding improvement in Sino-Thai relations. In the same way, U.S. support of Hun Sen, the Cambodian autocrat, was withdrawn by other Western governments. He led a 1997 coup that put Cambodia on a path towards deeper integration with China. U.S. military cooperation with Cambodia ended in 2021.
The Philippines is a good example. As a U.S. Treaty Ally, the Philippines can act as a buffer against Chinese attempts at quasi-ownership in the South China Sea. But U.S. relations with Rodrigo Duterte, elected president in 2016, soured after he objected to Washington’s criticism of his government’s large-scale extrajudicial killings of alleged drug traffickers. As a result, even as the Philippines won a landmark judgment by an international tribunal in July 2016 against China’s intrusion into Philippine maritime territory in the South China Sea, Duterte traveled to Beijing. There, he received red-carpet treatment as he announced his country’s “separation” from the United States and “realignment” with China.
“America has lost,” he said. “I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there.” Duterte even announced he planned to abrogate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States that gives American soldiers special legal rights in the Philippines. Because of Chinese territorial encroachment, Duterte only withdrew his resignation near the end.
Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr. raises a Philippine flag in a rally for campaigning on May 7, 2022, Manila.
Ezra Acayan—Getty Images
Washington already faces stiff competition from Beijing. China is the largest trading partner for most of the countries in the region. This gives Beijing considerable political power. Asia-Pacific states know that geography makes China a permanent fixture, while America’s commitment to maintaining a leadership role in the region could change with the next U.S. presidential election.
United States have taken on global responsibilities, which often require the redirection of U.S. resource to other places than Asia. The strategic friction points are in China’s front yard, while the United States most cope with long supply lines. China’s navy is larger than the U.S. Navy and it has a formidable network of weapons systems to fight U.S. armed forces in the western Pacific. Most pertinently, Beijing is famously indifferent to the internal political systems of the countries with which it does business; China establishes “strategic partnerships” with pariah states, liberal democracies, capitalist economies, and religious autocracies alike. It is not possible for the United States to add another disadvantage.
America’s self-defeating demand for liberalism
It is difficult to understand why the Biden administration would choose a strategy that could alienate potential security partners. The reaffirmation of the post-Cold War U.S. international policy outlook can explain it. This was before the Trump administration’s degrading of our common values. That longstanding outlook bears the influence of democratic peace theory: the notion that the global spread of liberalism makes war increasingly obsolete because democratic states purportedly don’t go to war against each other. It is therefore natural to promote liberalism in security policy.
There is also a possibility that there may be an unconscious Eurocentrism. A lot of senior American officials started learning international relations through the Cold War’s experience with Europe. They were taught a binary view of Western Europe (Western Europe) and Eastern Europe (Non-Democratic States). These officials now awkwardly overlay this worldview upon the Asia-Pacific, failing to account for the region’s greater diversity compared to Europe.
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The U.S.’s global advocacy for democracy, human rights, and internationally accepted norms has helped make the world a better place. While liberal values will remain a part of US foreign policies, they shouldn’t be the only component. Shared liberal values strengthen some of America’s closest alliances, but ultimately these partnerships are based on shared interests.
It is a fact that very few countries in the region have liberal democracies. Most fear the possibility of China’s machinations. Washington’s most effective leadership role in the region will come from appealing to this common interest and not a narrower list of shared values.
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