Biden hails democracies' values at summit snubbing Russia, China

Mr Biden has argued that autocrats are working to undermine democratic systems. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG, REUTERS) - President Joe Biden warned of the need to vigilantly protect democratic values at the start of a two-day summit that has stoked tensions with China and Russia and comes as the US plans to announce additional human rights-related sanctions on Thursday (Dec 9).

"Democracy needs champions," Mr Biden told attendees at the virtual gathering of world leaders, dubbed the Summit for Democracy.

"The data we're seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction," he said, adding that erosion of democratic values is "being exacerbated by global challenges that are more complex than ever, and which require shared efforts to address these concerns".

The Biden administration organised the event as part of its efforts to counter authoritarian regimes. Officials from more than 100 governments attended, together with activists, private sector leaders and journalists.

Biden administration officials say the US will join with other countries in attendance to announce fresh sanctions at the summit aimed at punishing human rights abuses and corruption.

The US Treasury Department later announced it has targeted government officials and companies it accused of involvement with corruption, including officials in El Salvador and Guatemala involved in their countries Covid-19 responses.

Thursday's action, the latest in a series of sanctions announcements marking the week of the democracy summit targeted 15 individuals and entities across several countries in Central America, Africa and Europe, the Treasury said.

Mr Biden also pledged that the US would commit as much as US$424 million (S$578 million) over the next year to shoring up democracy worldwide.

Mr Biden has argued that autocrats, especially China's Mr Xi Jinping and Russia's Mr Vladimir Putin, are working to undermine democratic systems. Neither country was invited to the event.

China and Russia have been dismissive of the gathering, with the ambassadors to the US from both countries jointly authoring an article accusing the US and the international norms it supports of being "obviously anti-democratic".

Mr Biden hosts the summit at a fragile moment for US democracy. His predecessor Donald Trump's false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen have become a litmus test for Republican candidates, and Mr Trump and his allies are working to install sympathetic state elections officials ahead of next year's midterm elections and the 2024 presidential race.

Mr Biden took office days after Trump supporters stormed the US Capitol on Jan 6 as lawmakers were preparing to certify the election results.

"Here in the United States, we know as well as anyone that renewing our democracy, (and) strengthening our democratic institutions, requires constant effort," Mr Biden said on Thursday.

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Tensions Over Taiwan

US decisions over who to invite to the summit have stirred controversy. Taiwan is one of Asia's more vibrant democracies, but it's not formally recognised by the US or most other countries as a sovereign nation, and China has attacked Taiwan's inclusion in the event. And in some other invitee nations - including Brazil, the Philippines and Poland - there has been a recent erosion of democratic institutions.

China has been especially aggressive in counter-programming the summit and last week hosted an International Forum on Democracy that drew attendees from 120 countries and other entities, according to Chinese state media.

In a white paper, the Beijing asserted that China is a "democracy that works", despite its single-party rule which, to many observers, would disqualify it from being considered a democracy.

Ahead of the summit, the Biden administration on Monday announced new measures to combat global corruption.

The Treasury Department will begin developing rules to expand reporting requirements for all-cash real estate purchase, while the Defence Department and other agencies will begin to more heavily weigh the risk of corruption as they distribute security assistance and humanitarian aide.

Mr Biden first called for the summit during a July 2019 speech framing the foreign policy positions of his presidential campaign and contrasting them to the views of then-president Trump.

The summit, he said, would work "to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world" after the Trump presidency and amid global assaults on democracy.

"We have to stand up for the values that unite us - to stand for justice for all, for free speech, freedom of assembly, a free press, freedom of religion," Mr Biden said on Thursday.

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