BY YUICHI HOSOYA, CONTRIBUTING WRITER
Will 2021 be marked as a turning point for the decline of democracy, or will it prevail over an authoritarian regime?
For democracy to prevail in the Indo-Pacific region, cooperation between Japan and Australia, as well as with the United States and the United Kingdom, is likely to be the key.
Concerns over democracy increased at the start of the year.
The attack by rioters on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 was arguably the moment when global confidence toward the United States, a country which has led democratic nations for years, greatly wavered.
China, meanwhile, has boasted of its dramatic economic recovery, building up confidence in its political system by repeatedly criticizing the vulnerability of democracies.
According to Freedom in the World 2020, the latest issue of an annual report by Washington-based nonprofit organization Freedom House, the world had endured 14 consecutive years of democratic decline.
A decline in democracy and a rise in authoritarian regimes appear to have advanced even more amid the spread of COVID-19.
China has been successful in achieving technological innovations one after another under its authoritarian government and is front-runner in the field.
Moreover, the ongoing coup in Myanmar, resulting in the fall of the country’s democratic political system, is casting a dark shadow on Southeast Asia.
A turning point
Is a democratic regime the best option? It would come as no surprise if the governments of many developing countries started to harbor such thoughts.
Will democratic decline continue as many political scientists have pointed out in recent years? Or can democratic nations indicate enough evidence that democracy is superior amid China’s recent rise, as they did when they triumphed in the two world wars and the Cold War?
This year will become a turning point in predicting in which direction the world will move.
The issue will also become the touchstone of Japan’s diplomacy under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s administration.
U.S. President Joe Biden, during the presidential election campaign, proposed to convene a Summit for Democracy as one of his key diplomatic goals.
His stance was reflected in the fact that he held telephone talks first with leaders of democratic countries such as Japan, Australia and South Korea immediately after he was elected president.
The United Kingdom, which recently completed its exit from the European Union, made a formal request on Feb. 1 to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), expressing its willingness to further deepen its involvement in the Indo-Pacific region.
The U.K.’s membership of the CPTPP would help Japan strengthen cooperation with an important partner in maintaining a rules-based, open international order in the region.
It would also give Britain the opportunity to boost cooperation with major countries of the Commonwealth, such as Australia, Canada and Singapore.
As China passed a new coast guard law that explicitly allows the Chinese coast guard to use weapons, apparently taking a more hard-line stance regarding territorial disputes including over the Senkaku Islands and Taiwan, Japan must work more closely with other democratic countries to keep in check actions taken by Beijing that ignore international rules.
In such a situation, the U.K., which chairs this year’s Group of Seven summit, is planning to invite India, Australia and South Korea — three democratic nations in the Indo-Pacific region — to a G7 plus three meeting, dubbed Democracy 10 (D10).
It is as yet unclear what will be discussed at the meeting, but such moves to strengthen cooperation among democratic countries may mark 2021 as the year when democracy regained its momentum.
Free and open
In shaping the future of democracy in the Indo-Pacific region, the relationship between Japan and Australia is central.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with Suga in person last Nov. 17 during his first overseas trip to Tokyo following the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In talks held in an amicable atmosphere, the leaders reaffirmed that the two countries are special strategic partners with shared values and strategic interests, renewing their determination to deepen cooperation to promote a free, open, inclusive and prosperous Indo-Pacific region.
Unlike other bilateral relations, the two nations’ ties are advancing to become an engine to boost multilateral cooperation in the region.
The cooperative ties between the two, which fought fierce battles as enemies during World War II, could turn out to parallel the Franco-German relationship’s role in European integration.
Japan and Australia, both of which are U.S. allies, together led regional cooperation efforts in the Asia-Pacific region in the 1980s and are currently the most active nations in propelling the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative.
The two countries are also core members of the CPTPP trade pact. The significance of their relationship becomes distinct considering the fact that the three superpowers in the region — the U.S., China and India — do not participate in the CPTPP.
Furthermore, Japan, the U.S., Australia and India have been promoting a quadrilateral security cooperation, dubbed the “Quad,” as major democratic countries in the region, with the foreign ministers of the four having held a meeting in Tokyo on Oct. 6.
U.S. bases in Japan and Australia serve as an indispensable cornerstone for U.S. military activities in the Indo-Pacific region. It would be difficult for the United States to get actively involved in the region without having close alliances with Japan and Australia.
Involving the U.S. and U.K.
The close ties between Japan and Australia deserve special attention considering postwar history, as Australia arguably had the strongest anti-Japanese sentiment of the nations which signed the peace treaty with Japan in San Francisco in September 1951.
At the time, Australia had been the most unsparing, calling for a restrictive peace settlement to prevent any recurrence of Japanese imperialism and militarism.
It is also notable that in the process leading to the peace treaty, the U.S., especially the State Department, was seeking to form a Pacific Pact as a collective security system, but the attempt was hampered by strong opposition from the Australian government.
The idea of establishing an Asian equivalent of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was initially proposed by the Philippine government, and the U.S. State Department tried to respond to the proposal.
At one time, the U.S. government seriously considered the feasibility of the idea and held negotiations with Japan and the U.K., but the main reason for its failure was because Australia objected, seeing Japan as the greatest threat.
Australia, surrounded by ocean, had been distant from any security threats for years until the Japanese military’s bombing of Darwin in February 1942, followed by an attack on Sydney Harbor in May the same year.
The attacks completely overturned the Australian people’s national security awareness, prompting the country to distance itself from the U.K. after the war and approach the U.S., signing the Pacific Security Treaty dubbed the ANZUS Pact with the U.S. and New Zealand in September 1951.
At that time, Australia would never have imagined signing a security agreement with Japan.
Japan’s postwar Pacific policies progressed along with the process of reconciliation with Australia, and the two nations’ relations grew stronger with the development of economic and cultural exchanges.
Remarks made by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Australian parliament in July 2014 on his recognition of history indicate that the reconciliation process has been completed.
Historic issues are no longer an obstacle in promoting the two countries’ security cooperation.
However, there are limits to what can be achieved only through bilateral cooperation to promote the Free and Open Indo-Pacific initiative.
Amid increased threats from China seeking maritime hegemony, it would be difficult for both Japan and Australia to protect their vital national interests and security without the involvement of the U.S., the world’s top military power.
Moreover, as the U.K. applied to join the CPTPP and is looking at the possibility of joining the Quad, there are greater chances of a rules-based international order being established in the region.
It was the U.S. and the U.K. which constructed the so-called San Francisco system, the foundation of postwar cooperation in the region. It is welcoming news for Japan that the two nations are again stepping up their involvement in the Indo-Pacific.
Japan under the Suga administration and Australia under the Morrison administration should play a more prominent role in shaping the future of the Indo-Pacific region which had been unaccountable and uncertain, strongly supported by the two democratic nations — the U.S. under the new Biden administration and the U.K. with its post-Brexit “Global Britain” outlook.
The G7 summit, to be held in June in Cornwall, England, will effectively be the first D10 summit, offering an important opportunity for democratic countries to show their ties and superiority to the global community.
And as one of the fruits of this summit meeting, the idea of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific will be widely shared as the core philosophy of the region.
Yuichi Hosoya is research director at API and a professor of international politics at Keio University. API Geoeconomic Briefing, provided by the Asia Pacific Initiative, an independent think tank based in Tokyo, is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends in the post-COVID-19 world, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.