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Biden blundered by excluding Singapore from democracy summit

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Russia and China are both very upset that they were not included in President Biden’s Summit for Democracy. China, in particular, is miffed because, as a recently released official government publication put it, China is “a democracy that works.” Of course, what passes for Chinese democracy is no different from Soviet democracy under Joseph Stalin. The Soviet dictator considered one of his great triumphs to be the 1936 Soviet constitution, which outdid all other democracies in guaranteeing a host of rights to its citizens. The document was finalized and released just as Stalin’s Great Purge was getting under way. China’s democracy would include persecution — and worse — of Uyghurs.

Russian and Chinese objections to the summit may be risible, but the summit’s actual guest list raised more questions than it answered. According to the Department of State’s official list, Angola, Iraq and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were among the invitees. Yet Freedom House’s latest Democracy Index assigns all three countries among the lower of its Global Freedom Scores. In particular, the DRC ranks so low that it falls below such putative democratic stalwarts as Kazakhstan, Turkey and Uganda; it shares its ranking with Russia. The DRCs very name is itself a giveaway — no country that has included “democratic” in its name actually has been a democracy. Ironically, President Biden in his opening remarks to the summit specifically noted the Freedom House finding that democracy is under threat worldwide. 

Even more problematic than the presence of the aforementioned countries at the summit is the list of countries that Washington classed with Russia and China and were deemed unfit to be invited. Topping the list was Singapore, whose Freedom House ranking was higher than all of the aforementioned invitees, as well as those of Pakistan, Nigeria and Lebanon. Indeed, Singapore’s ranking is equal to that of Niger and Kenya, both of which did merit invitations. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh likewise did not make the State Department’s cut, though they, like Singapore, rank higher on the Freedom House list than several summit participants.

Still, Singapore was probably the summit’s most glaring — and questionable — omission. Some of the city-state’s most respected leaders, notably longtime Ambassador Tommy Koh, have blasted Washington for keeping Singapore off its invitation list. He notes that Pakistan, apart from being rated as less democratic, has a longstanding close relationship with Beijing.

Yet Washington sees the city-state as a key linchpin in its efforts to promote what it terms “a free and open Indo-Pacific.” As recently as April, the State Department described Singapore as “one of the United States’ strongest bilateral partners in Southeast Asia and [one that] plays an indispensable role in supporting the region’s security and economic framework.” Indeed, in 2019 Singapore renewed its access agreement with Washington, giving American military forces access to its facilities until 2035. In particular, U.S. warships not only make frequent visits to Changi Naval Base but also use its facilities for logistic support and resupply. Washington’s decision to exclude Singapore is simply inexplicable.

The summit also could have been far more explicit about the plight of the Uyghurs. Washington has intervened militarily to protect minorities that were nowhere near possible extermination as are these ethnic Turkmens. A verbal rebuke of Chinese treatment of the Uyghurs would have been very much in order.

On the other hand, the Biden administration deserves credit for extending an invitation to Taiwan. Its inclusion certainly represented a major slap at Beijing. Indeed, it appears that none of the other 108 invitees dropped out of the summit because Taipei was a participant. That fact, too, could only have irked China’s leaders.

Nevertheless, as it considers invitations to a follow-up summit in 2022, Washington should ensure that the meeting explicitly addresses the plight of the Uyghurs. In addition, the administration should reconsider the countries it invites and those it does not. And when it issues invitations, Singapore certainly should be among those receiving one. 

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags China democratic nations Freedom House Joe Biden Russia Singapore Summit for Democracy

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