Russia’s war in Ukraine and growing tension between the United States and China reinforce the same trend: the return of global geopolitical competition among great powers. As in the last such period — the Cold War — this creates a risk that the architects of U.S. foreign policy will sacrifice the pursuit of democracy and human rights for the sake of good relations with repressive but strategically positioned regimes. Case in point: the summit meeting that begins Thursday in Washington between President Biden and nine high-level representatives from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
The visitors are not a uniformly undemocratic group — they include elected presidents from Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the Philippines’ top diplomat. ASEAN’s most egregious human rights violator, the junta in Myanmar, will not be participating at all, in part because it rejected a demand by the United States and other ASEAN members that it not send “political” officials directly tied to the government that took power in a coup last year. Nevertheless, Hun Sen, the strongman who has ruled Cambodia for 37 years and is holding 74 political prisoners, will be on hand, as will Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, the former general who first rose to power in a 2014 coup and has kept it in part through arrests of opposition politicians and suppression of youth-led democracy protests. Vietnam and Laos are one-party states; Brunei is a monarchy whose laws discriminate against LGBTQ people; and Singapore also restricts expression and assembly severely enough to warrant its exclusion from last year’s summit of democracies. Indeed, only Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines rated invitations to that meeting and the latter was a borderline case, given President Rodrigo Duterte’s violent and lawless campaign against those he accuses of drug trafficking.
Southeast Asia’s repressive rulers are eager to claim legitimization from this invitation to Washington. The Biden administration knows that but considers high-level engagement with them necessary to counter China’s growing influence in the region. Secretary of State Antony Blinken alluded to competition with Beijing when he announced the ASEAN summit last December as part of the U.S. push for “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” The need to bolster relations with ASEAN has only grown since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February; the administration can point to initial dividends from its outreach, such as Singapore’s willingness to join sanctions against Moscow and the votes of all ASEAN members for a U.N. resolution denouncing the invasion (only Vietnam and Laos abstained). On the whole, though, ASEAN members, even the democratic ones, have maintained a tepid stance on the war.
Mr. Biden must use this summit to reinforce the message that this is not just a European issue and that the whole world — ASEAN very much included — has a lot to lose from unchecked aggression. He must do so while simultaneously telling the individual ASEAN leaders he meets the truth about their abuse of power and how the United States views it. In fact, past instances in which the United States preached democracy but practiced realpolitik have come back to haunt its current effort to rally the world behind Ukraine’s cause. This week, Mr. Biden has a chance to show he has learned from that history.