Wednesday, September 27, 2023 | 15:20 WIB

21st Century Challenges to Democracy. Part IV: The influence of non-democratic states

In looking at problems confronting 21st century democracy and possible solutions, the Independent Observer has spoken with a number of international figures. In Part IV, we speak to Gareth Evans, former Australian Foreign Minister, Paul Wolfowitz, former US Deputy Secretary of Defense, Shyam Saran, former Indian Foreign Secretary, Marty Natalegawa, former Indonesian Foreign Minister, Ana Maria Gomes, former Euro MP and recently candidate for President of Portugal, Marzuki Darusman former Head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission, former Library of Congress Representative to Indonesia, William P. Tuchrello and Kevin Evans, a former Australian diplomat to Indonesia. 

IO – We live in an age of dramatic tribalism and social polarization and these two elements frequently weaponized in social media, provide major challenges to 21st century democracy. One important form of polarization in the world today is the division between the countries that are democracies and those that are not and two major non-democracies that attack and try to undermine democracy are China and Russia and the internet has indeed proven to be one of their foremost weapons of choice in challenging 21st century democracy. 

Former Australian diplomat turned political observer, Kevin Evans notes that although Russia is formally democratic in its constitution its elections are structured in such a way that makes it extremely difficult for opposition parties to win and both the press and the opposition experience intimidation. China on the other hand is not a democracy nor does its constitution claim to be one. Both countries consider democracies their competitors chief amongst them the United States. They compete by attacking their democratic systems. “Elections have been interfered with by leaking salacious information about candidates and by creating so-called troll factories on social media such as Facebook or Twitter and then using these accounts to create hatred and anger against certain segments of society such as for example women or blacks and then creating hatred and anger in opposite groups say white supremacists; thereby using democratic infrastructure such as free speech and the internet to subvert the democratic system.” 

Former Euro MP Ana Maria Gomes of Portugal contends, “The big powers in the democratic world must act together because there are states who use the digital platform in their own and in other countries in anti-democratic ways in order to manipulate and repress their own population as well as to interfere in the democratic systems of other countries. Two countries that do this are Russia and China. Mr. Putin has also been financing extreme right-wing fascist leaders and groups such as Marine Le Pen in France and Vox in Spain as well as Nigel Farage in Britain and Matteo Salvini in Italy.” 

China’s actions against democracy cover what can be referred to as normal propaganda against democracy via the internet challenging the democratic model, as well as interfering in elections. It is difficult for democracies to retaliate because in China the internet is completely controlled by the Chinese government. Even when the BBC for example tries to broadcast critical views to China they are blocked by the Chinese government. Ever since Winnie-the-Pooh was used satirically to represent Xi Jinping in cartoons criticizing him, even poor Winnie has been blocked by China. 

Secondly, China uses military actions to pressure democracies such as for example claiming the South China Sea and creating military bases on reefs. We also see Chinese military action in the East China Sea and along its borders with India. Thirdly, China pressures other countries economically as in the case of Australia which recently criticized China with regard to the coronavirus. 

The question that arises is what should be done by democracies to protect themselves and does the United States still have a leading role to play in sustaining democracy around the world especially in the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asian region? 

Former Foreign Minister of Australia, Gareth Evans doubts America’s ability to play such a role at the moment. He advises, “Keeping its head down until such time as its own democratic performance matches its rhetoric. Call out and sanction grotesque violations of universal democratic and human rights values by all means, but recognise that one has to practice what one preaches: all the world hates a hypocrite.” 

He is also not optimistic about the chances for democratic growth in the region seeing the countries themselves as lacking in the democratic instinct and commenting, “The democratic instinct is simply not embedded to the extent it needs to be in enough countries if social media-fuelled populist authoritarianism and the siren call of Chinese-model success is to be resisted. Japan, the ROK and Taiwan are probably strong enough, but ASEAN is currently a litter of lost or fragile causes – with not only the still overt communism of Vietnam and Laos, but the authoritarianism both hard and soft of governments in Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines, Brunei and Singapore and now again Myanmar, and the fragility of politics in Malaysia. Indonesia is at risk from the politics of religious intolerance, but otherwise remains a beacon of democratic hope. India remains a similar beacon, as it has been for decades, but the Modi government – particularly in its almost unbridled Hindu nationalism – has been ringing ever louder alarm bells. And the rest of South Asia is for the most part as democratically desolate as Southeast Asia.” 

It can be said that the second half of the 20th century has many examples of failed attempts by the United States to intervene directly in establishing democracy in various parts of the world including the Middle East, Vietnam and South America. While that method worked in Japan and Germany this was only after a highly destructive world war ending with unconditional surrender on the part of Germany and Japan. Nation building is a long and painful process including creating a democratic system. While education and law are the classical instruments of social engineering it often takes several generations for the results to be seen as these are often imperfectly implemented. Former American Deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz agrees that America’s role can only be a supporting one and says, “Developing countries need to decide for themselves what system of government is best for them. Nevertheless, refugees are not applying for visas to live in China but they are applying for visas to live in the United States. However, if there is no will behind creating a democratic system, the United States cannot impose it. Any increase in exchanges about experiences and understanding of democracy such as Indonesia’s Democracy Forum is good and the United States can be supportive of that but right now the best thing is for the United States to get its act together and provide a good example. Demonstrate to the world that democracy works here in the United States.” 

Ana Gomes concurs and states that the way to respond to totalitarian forces is not through war and violence but rather by supporting those fighting for democracy in repressed countries such as supporting rebels in China, Navalny in Russia and Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar. Democracies can be in solidarity with them but cannot replace them. She cites the World Movement for Democracy whose members consist of parliamentarians, journalists and former government officials as a prime example of an organization that performs solidarity actions for democracy all over the world and would like to see such a forum specifically for the Indo-Pacific and ASEAN region. 

Such views are supported by former Indian Foreign Minister Shyam Saran who goes a step further saying that the United States will not make a difference to democracy in countries such as India and Indonesia despite the threat of China and Russia and that their democracies should not depend on the United States but rather on their own commitment to democracy. Indonesia however, does not appear to be as convinced that America’s role is diminishing with regard to democracy. Former head of Indonesia’s Human Rights Commission, Marzuki Darusman who is frequently entrusted by the United Nations with sensitive missions in countries such as Myanmar, Sri Langka and Pakistan comments, “China and our economic dependence on China is the issue and that is why we need a clear United States policy because we cannot play it alone. We need to be able to have certain assumptions about the United States but we cannot wait for them to fix their problems. It is in our interest to have a constructive United States presence in the region without undue attention to China. We need to make it clear to both sides that we need a peaceful zone in Southeast Asia.” 

Paul Wolfowitz also sees the United States continuing to play a role not only in solving humanitarian problems such as preventing people from dying of diseases such as AIDS for example but also in defending democracy. “The United States should counter China’s presenting democracy in a bad light by calling attention to China’s violation of human rights such as placing Uyghurs in what amounts to concentration camps and breaking its democracy promises to the people of Hong Kong. 

It should also limit China’s influence in the United States as well as in developing countries and that includes not having social media run and controlled by Chinese companies, preventing China’s unfair trade practices and its theft of intellectual property rights via cyber methods as well as limiting its ability to buy very sensitive intellectual property rights or coercing companies to release them to China. We need to be very careful here.” 

He considers China’s claims as well as the military bases it has set up in the South China Sea as very disturbing and notes that while countries do not want to go to war China should not be able to continue unopposed. “In this regard it is important to recognize that we do not really know how much of China’s population truly support its government’s measures. If ASEAN countries can have a unified position in the face of China and then ask for US backing in support of this, they would get it but they cannot wait for the US to do it for them. ASEAN must come up with a common strategy.” 

Kevin Evans observes, “A regime that must go to such great lengths to control and suppress its own people is clearly lacking confidence in its own legitimacy and viability. So, it cannot trust its own people. Chinese society is not that stable. Do not mistake tranquillity for stability. It is not the same. Tranquillity is an absence of activity whereas stability is a system which can self-correct without falling apart; when there are challenges there are release valves where people can express their problems or frustrations through an institutionalized system. So, there is no need to suppress or destroy it. This can look messy but problems are being addressed. The United States is not a failed state. Major national problems are being addressed such as COVID and the economy. Democracies are more self-correcting. Dictatorships may move fast but they can do so in the wrong direction as well.” 

A Russian political scientist was once asked what advice he would give China and he responded with, “Do not scare the neighbours too much.” Both Russia and China have in fact scared nearly all their neighbours. Kevin Evans says that this probably harks back to China’s one hundred years of national humiliation at the hands of the West which has remained a matter of national grievance until today. It refers to a period between 1850 and 1950 where China was oppressed by the West which created extraterritorial territories in China. Both longevity as well as per capita income in China went down drastically and southern China experienced its second largest migration to the surrounding regions. Now that China is economically powerful it wishes to take its place among the great powers of the world. China probably also remembers how before the Second World War the West boycotted Japan which claimed it had to attack the region in order to secure resources for its people. This may well be why China is claiming the South China Sea and is so intent on building the Silk Road land routes as a way of ensuring that Chinese trade and access to resources could never be blocked. 

In the future China will face several problems of its own. Will China’s increasingly costly system of coercion still be viable in thirty-years-time? There is also an aspirational element that China constantly needs to maintain. People in China are so used to economic growth at over 5% a year that it becomes questionable what would happen if such growth did not occur. The Chinese government’s source of legitimacy is economic growth. The Suharto government’s source of legitimacy was also economic growth but once that went the government fell. Another problem facing China is that the working population of China is going down and the actual population will begin to decline in 10-years-time. How will China deal with zero population growth? 

To this former Library of Congress Representative and political observer William P. Tuchrello adds that how China deals domestically with its own minorities or the non-Han ethnic groups within its borders may become more and more of an issue in the future. Thailand and Indonesia for example continue to struggle with ways to develop more multi-ethnic societies domestically. Also, the role of religion is a vital part of several ASEAN states including Indonesia, Burma, Laos, the Philippines, Timor, Brunei, Thailand and Malaysia in contrast to the current Chinese government which is increasingly less tolerant of the role of religion. 

Kevin Evans stresses that in the next 20 years the Chinese threat that is of most concern is that it will threaten the constitutional integrity of democratic systems by virtue of exporting its ideological model. The attractiveness of this is its economic achievements. “Democracies should inoculate and reinvigorate themselves with confidence in the legitimacy of the democratic system. They should do this by simply learning how to solve problems without resorting to authoritarian measures. For example, how to deal with the violent hate on the internet that can stimulate violent actions in the real world without sacrificing the principles of freedom of speech or stooping to petty criminalization. 

Secondly, democratic nations should be working together sharing challenges and collectively finding solutions to those challenges including creating forums like the Bali Democracy Forum. The next step would be to create a permanent democracy forum or platform for civil society or democracy activists to meet, talk and exchange ideas. Supporting the principles of democracy should not be seen as a nice thing to do but must be in terms of defending the constitutional integrity of democratic nations in the face of resurgent authoritarianism.” 

Bringing in an Indonesian perspective, Marzuki Darusman has surprisingly similar views. He believes that there is a need globally for a rollback movement against illiberal and restrictive political systems and that Indonesia should be part of that movement. He remarks, “Indonesia needs a mission-driven foreign policy. Before Jokowi was President of Indonesia, Indonesia created the Bali Democracy Forum. It provided us with a recognized role and it has been the focus of like-minded countries in the region and beyond. We set up a democracy forum to serve as some sort of centre or means of driving the democracy movement forward. A more workable set up would be to look at individuals and provide the movement with a more institutionalized existence: a forum of democracy and ethics. It should get a number of eminent individuals from like-minded countries to develop an institution predominantly driven by people from the region but also open to membership of the United States, Europe, Latin America and Africa.” 

Marzuki believes that with regard to China, the United States and ASEAN need to find a way to be able to rebalance the region or to suppress and contain China. “We can make it clear why we think China may not replace the United States as a global power upholding international norms namely, because it does not have an international philosophy. The United States has an international philosophy that it doubles up with its military might. It is set up and upholds norms that allow states to interact on a rules-based system.” 

Perhaps the last word should go to former Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa who says, “Recent developments in the United States and evidence of challenges to democracies elsewhere, provide a reminder that the promotion and protection of democratic principles is a never-ending effort that must be waged with persistence and perseverance. The incoming Biden administration offers hope that the protection and promotion of universal democratic principles, based on mutual respect among nations, will once again be at the forefront of United States policies. Indonesia and the United States, as key democratic countries, have the opportunity to once again forge cooperative partnership in this important area.” (Tamalia Alisjahbana)

If you enjoyed this article you may also enjoy:

Part I of this series discusses the changing demographics, racism, the economy and education and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see:

Part II of this series discusses the internet, fake news and extremism and their challenge to 21st century democracy. Please see:

Part III of this series discusses the role of political structures and systems in preventing polarization and extremism in the challenges to 21st century democracy. Please see:

Part V of this series discusses Lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia. Please see:

Part VI of this series discusses lessons and Conclusions for Indonesia re China. Please see:


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