Stanford Experts Assess the Future of the Liberal International Order in the Indo-Pacific Amid the Rise of Autocracy, Sharp Power

Stanford Experts Assess the Future of the Liberal International Order in the Indo-Pacific Amid the Rise of Autocracy, Sharp Power

At the Nikkei Forum, Freeman Spogli Institute scholars Oriana Skylar Mastro, Michael McFaul, Gi-Wook Shin, and Kiyoteru Tsutsui considered the impacts of the war in Ukraine, strategies of deterrence in Taiwan, and the growing tension between liberal democracy and authoritarian populism.
(Clockwise from top left) Michael McFaul, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Gi-Wook Shin, Kiyoteru Tsutsui (Clockwise from top left) Michael McFaul, Oriana Skylar Mastro, Gi-Wook Shin, Kiyoteru Tsutsui.

The Indo-Pacific, the world’s fastest-growing region in the global economy, faces complex geopolitical and geo-economic risks. Amid Russia’s unrelenting war in Ukraine and its strengthening ties with a bellicose North Korea, China continues to exert its power through economic coercion and diplomatic pressures. Meanwhile, Asia's established and aspiring democracies must rise to the challenge of preventing further democratic decline and revitalizing their institutions. These trends dominated the agenda at the recent Nikkei Forum, The Liberal International Order in the Indo-Pacific.

Cohosted by Shorenstein APARC, the Keio Center for Strategy at the Keio University Global Research Institute, and Nikkei Inc., the forum was held on June 24, 2024, at Keio University and featured Freeman Spogli Institute (FSI) and Keio experts. Its first session, moderated by Akio Fujii, executive chair of the editorial board at Nikkei Inc., included panelists Oriana Skylar Mastro, FSI center fellow at APARC, and Michael McFaul, the director of FSI. They examined the geopolitical effects of the war in Ukraine, deterrence and provocation in Taiwan, and their implications for security in the Indo-Pacific. The second session, moderated by Nikkei commentator Hiroyuki Akita, included Gi-Wook Shin, the director of APARC and director of the Korea Program, and Kiyoteru Tsutsui, the deputy director of APARC and director of the Japan Program. Panelists considered the connectivity of European and Indo-Pacific security, the rise of authoritarianism and global populism, international partnerships, and various ongoing efforts to protect the liberal international order in the Indo-Pacific. The session recordings in English and Japanese are available on the Nikkei Global Events YouTube channel. 

Conflict, Deterrence, and Provocation

Opening the first session, McFaul underscored the broader geopolitical implications of the invasion of Ukraine. Emphasizing the significance of Russian President Vladimir Putin's recent visit to North Korea, he highlighted the intertwined nature of European and Asian security. McFaul argued against the notion that global security should solely focus on China, stressing that Putin's actions demonstrate a critical link between European security concerns and global stability.

McFaul offered a mixed assessment of the war in Ukraine. He praised the international community's response in providing military support and economic aid to Ukraine, stating, “I have been mostly impressed with how the liberal free world, including Japan, came together to provide weapons first and foremost, to provide economic assistance secondarily, and to put in place sanctions [agsint Russia].” Yet he also criticized delays in Western responses, attributing them partly to internal political dynamics, including actions taken during the Trump administration.

What I see, tragically, is the breakdown of the liberal International order.
Michael McFaul
Director of FSI

McFaul expressed concern that Russian defensive positions now hinder prospects for a breakthrough on the Ukrainian side, with future developments tied to the outcome of the next U.S. presidential election. He underscored the importance of democratic nations organizing against autocratic regimes, framing the conflict in Ukraine as a critical battleground for liberal democratic values amidst global power struggles. McFaul described that “what I see, tragically, is the breakdown of the liberal International order. We're going back to an earlier period where there was not one order, but two, and maybe many orders, and one of those divisions is between autocrats and democrats.”

Center Fellow Oriana Skylar Mastro addressed the moderator's query about Ukraine’s implications for East Asia by delving into the complexities of deterrence and provocation in relations with China. She highlighted three main concerns: the blurred distinction between actions that deter China versus those that provoke it, the conflicting priorities of reassuring allies versus deterring adversaries post-Ukraine, and the delicate balance between showcasing military capabilities and demonstrating resolve. Mastro argued that while military build-up might deter China, political gestures, such as enhancing Taiwan's international stature, could provoke tensions.

She emphasized the challenges in aligning U.S. and Japanese strategies, especially regarding Taiwan, where differing interpretations of deterrence and provocation persist. “Attempts to signal resolve can be much more provocative than attempts to demonstrate capabilities [...] It seems that the United States and Japan at least have to be on the same page about what is reassuring versus what deters China, what deters China versus what provokes China, and what is more important, capabilities or resolve,” she explained

Mastro stressed the importance of nuanced policy decisions considering how actions perceived as deterrence in one context might provoke, in another, thus impacting regional stability. “I prefer for the United States to speak softly and carry a big stick, meaning we have a lot of capability but we should stop talking about it so much,” she said. She underscored the U.S. and Japan must coordinate closely on strategic messaging to ensure a cohesive approach to managing China's responses and maintaining regional security.

FSI and APARC scholars meet with Yoshimasa Hayashi FSI and APARC scholars meet with Yoshimasa Hayashi.

During their visit to Tokyo, the Stanford delegation met with Japanese government officials, including Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshimasa Hayashi.

Michael McFaul gave an interview to the Japan Broadcasting Corporation's (NHK) prime-time news show News 7, which you can view here >

Manifold Pressures on Liberal Democracy

During the second panel, Gi-Wook Shin discussed the contemporary challenges facing liberal democracy, citing instances of foreign influence from authoritarian states like Russia and China. He began with a personal anecdote from Mongolia, where a friend running for parliament reported intimidation by authorities allegedly supported by Russia. Shin drew parallels to previous instances of interference, such as Russia's involvement in the 2016 U.S. election and China's actions in Taiwan and Korea.

In contrast to the American and British leadership against fascism and communism in the 1930s and 1940s, Shin described the current crisis in global leadership to safeguard liberal values. He questioned whether any country could now step up to combat rising authoritarianism, citing Modi’s India and alliances forming between leaders like Putin, Kim Jong-Un, and Xi Jinping. “I don't think I can say with confidence that the U.S. can defend liberal democracy, I don't see any leader in Europe either, and I don't see anyone in Asia,” he lamented.

He called for strategies to restore and strengthen global leadership in promoting and defending liberal democracy against mounting authoritarian challenges from China, Russia, and others.

Japanese democracy is functioning quite well. Apart from that, Japanese Society is peaceful, safe, and stable. Although the economic growth rate is low, people's discontent is not gushing out
Kiyoteru Tsutsui
Deputy Director of APARC

In his remarks, Kiyoteru Tsutsui addressed these global challenges to democracy and emphasized Japan's role in safeguarding it. Tsutsui noted Japan's relatively stable democratic environment compared to nations experiencing greater political divisions. Despite recent economic fluctuations in the country,, “Japanese democracy is functioning quite well,” he argued. “Apart from that, Japanese society is peaceful, safe, and stable. Although the economic growth rate is low, people's discontent is not gushing out and they can live quite a good life.”

Tsutsui emphasized Japan's economic and diplomatic contributions to promoting democracy, citing its trusted role in assisting Asian countries through the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JAICA). He suggested Japan could assert its influence not only through traditional democracy promotion but also by establishing standards in areas like infrastructure and public health. “If we look at the global rankings, Japan has quite a big influence.” He underscored the importance of Japan's discreet but impactful diplomacy in upholding democratic values globally, including its involvement in initiatives like the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, The Quad, and CPTPP. Through practical actions and international cooperation, he said, Japan  demonstrates its commitment to democratic values and counters global trends of democratic decline. Throughout the forum, the panelists agreed that the Indo-Pacific remains at the center of the global struggle between democracy and autocracy. They emphasized the need for collaborative action to bolster democratic institutions worldwide and urged nations to unite quickly to prevent further escalation of tensions in the region and beyond.

Nikkei newspaper report on the Nikkei Forum – July 3, 2024
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