Civil Society, Democracy, and America’s Commitment to Asia and the Pacific

DipNote Blog - U.S. Department of State


Our work to rebalance U.S. diplomacy in Asia goes beyond economic and security considerations. We are also committed to standing up for America’s values.

In mid-November, I was in the city of Hangzhou, China participating in a groundbreaking conference on the role of civil society in U.S. foreign policy. The meeting was organized by the Institute for American Studies at Zhejiang University, and it marked the first time scholars in China have ever come together to discuss why organizations outside of government are such an important feature of America’s global engagement.

Participants in the meeting included experts from Chinese universities, the Academy of Sciences, and leaders from American civil society organizations. Our Chinese colleagues arrived with a wide range of assumptions about how American civil society groups operate and the degree to which they are autonomous from government. Over the course of formal presentations and informal conversations, we explored how civil society groups provide a vital, independent source of ideas, advocacy and humanitarian engagement in the world. We discussed initiatives like Secretary Clinton’s Strategic Dialogue with Civil Society that provide outside groups with an opportunity to help shape U.S. foreign policy. And we heard about how the authors of the U.S. Constitution saw a vibrant, diversified civil society as the single most important guarantee of stability in our country (see Federalist No. 10).

My meetings on the margins of the conference also provided an opportunity to learn more about the development of China’s civil society. Activists working on many social and political issues in China face profound challenges and government pressure. But non-governmental organizations are becoming increasingly active on issues including health, education, the environment, and disaster relief. The provincial government in Zhejiang has even established an incubator to provide start-up assistance and office space to approved non-profit organizations. The governments of China and the United States continue to hold very different positions on what constitutes civil society and how civic groups should be allowed to carry out their work. But this conference helped break down important misconceptions about how civil society helps define America’s — and Americans’ — work around the world. I hope the meeting will provide the foundation for many future conversations on the topic, and our Chinese hosts deserve a lot of praise for their efforts to build understanding around this important issue.

Earlier in my trip, I visited Papua New Guinea, Timor-Leste, and Indonesia. In Indonesia, we joined with leaders from 79 countries and international organizations to participate in the Bali Democracy Forum, Asia’s premier regional meeting on democracy issues, and met with foreign ministers and other officials about how to strengthen cooperation between the Forum and the Community of Democracies. We also talked with activists, parliamentarians, and the Deputy Foreign Minister of Burma about how apply lessons from Indonesia’s democratic transition across the region.

In Papua New Guinea, despite widespread poverty, the prospect of a coming energy boom has transformed the capital into one of the most expensive cities in the world. It has also opened the door to a multitude of development opportunities and governance challenges. The people of Timor-Leste are preparing for the withdrawal of UN forces next month, and hoping for a chance at real peace, progress, and independence after decades of conflict. Both countries are at a crossroads. Their futures will depend on the ability of government, civil society, and the private sector to work together. We met with a broad range of leaders in both countries to examine how we can help support successful transitions, and strengthen democracy throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Cross posted from DipNote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State.

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