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Commentary on Rules-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific

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This commentary was first published on the Asialink website. It is part of a series of commentaries curated by the Australian Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific, in collaboration with Asialink (University of Melbourne). Anthony Milner, Visiting Professor at AEI, is Co-Chair of the Australian Committee, together with Ric Smith AO.

The rising economic and strategic importance of the Asia-Pacific means the region needs to play a more active role in the Rules-Based Order, and not, as scholar Dr Tsutomu Kikuchi argues, as a bystander to the United States or China's actions.

The Rules-Based Order (RBO) is generally described as a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules – such as international law, regional security arrangements and trade agreements.

In order to create and maintain order, the power configuration that supports it is essential. The US was the key nation that built the RBO after the war, and a network of alliances centred on the US has supported the RBO. The alliances constitute an indispensable part of the RBO.

The RBO had been more assumed than talked about in regional discourse. Interest in these rules has been growing for the past decade or so – as illustrated in foreign and defence policy documents. Such words as ‘The RBO is increasingly under threat’ and ‘maintaining and strengthening the RBO is an urgent task’ reflect the recognition that major changes are occurring today in the international order created after World War II. Underlying this change has been the rise of China and several other nations, and the relative decline in the power of the United States and the West.

Simply speaking, there are two types of rules in the international community. First, we have the rules that govern relationships, usually applied in inter-state relations. Sovereignty, the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs, most-favoured-nation (MFN), reciprocity etc., are the rules that govern relations. There was an implicit assumption that the institutions and rules in each country were not necessarily the same. They were supposed to reflect the country's unique history, traditions and culture.

Secondly, there are the rules that govern the content of domestic institutions and rules, not relations between nations. Here, the commonality between the institutions and rules of each country will be strictly examined. Democracy (political regime), market economy, good governance, human rights, protection of intellectual property rights, competition policy, the role of state in economic management are among them.

The RBO led by the US has been quite intrusive in nature, touching upon domestic institutions and rules. Such domestic institutions and rules had been formed independently under the principles of national sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs – but came under the scrutiny of the international community. This could cause anxiety. Such scrutiny raised concerns in countries that had adopted different political and economic systems from those of the United States.

Furthermore, as we entered the age of globalisation, in which nations become increasingly interdependent – and money, people, goods, and information moved increasingly across national borders – the differences in the domestic institutions and rules of each country became a greater political point of contention. This is because differences in institutions and rules can hinder smooth exchange – and thus create a strong pressure to standardize and harmonize domestic institutions and rules. There will be strong pressure to conform to ‘global standards’. For some countries, the problem was exacerbated because it was the US that eagerly promoted globalisation – especially as the post-Cold War world became an era of US uni-polarity.

The period when the countries of the Asia-Pacific region joined the global economy and developed their economies coincided with the period when the ‘hegemonic’ United States was actively promoting globalisation. Some countries in the Asia-Pacific emerged as desperate to take full advantage of the benefits of globalisation but avoid the difficulties that standardization and harmonization of domestic institutions and rules would cause at home. They took full advantage of the benefits of RBOs' ‘rules governing relations,’ such as trade and investment liberalisation, but were cautious about adopting rules governing domestic institutions and rules. There are many countries in Asia that have such concerns. China is the country that has felt this concern most acutely.

RBOs were flexible and not mandatory. Many Asian countries were able to avoid assimilation to ‘global standards’. Such a stance was tolerated when the economies of such countries were in the early of stage of development and small in size – but as they grew in size and threatened the developed countries, the attitude towards them changed. The pressure for standardisation of domestic institutions and rules has increased – and was seen in certain quarters as an attempt at regime change through peaceful means. From this point of view, the emphasis on the RBO has been viewed by some countries as possessing a hidden aim - to hinder their development. Such countries also tend to see the existence of a network alliances as an integral part of the RBO as a threat.

To reconcile such contrasting views on the RBO will be demanding. It is also necessary to create rules in new areas such as cyber and outer-space. As the response to COVID-19 suggests, international cooperation has been weakened and new rule-making will be difficult. Of importance is whether there is a possibility of cooperation between the US and China (and Russia). In the case of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, while there was a fierce confrontation, partial cooperation was achieved - and the nuclear arms control treaties were concluded in order to avoid a nuclear war. It can be argued that this cooperation was only possible after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the US and the Soviet Union to the brink of a nuclear crisis. Do the US, China (and Russia) need a further crisis prior to achieve substantial cooperation?

In terms of how we describe the RBO today, only the phrase ‘liberal RBO’ has any significance in the Asia-Pacific. This is not to say that I support the US position. It is just that in today's increasingly globalised world, where the forces of diverse nations must come together to tackle difficult challenges, the RBO must be underlined by a liberal theory of order that embraces such rules and norms as national sovereignty, human rights, the rule of law, transparency, good governance, and global governance. If we consider such descriptions as ‘Conservative RBO’ and ‘Consensus RBO’, there is RBO based on a minimum set of rules that can be easily agreed upon by the countries involved. Such a minimalist view of the RBO will not help solve the problems facing the region.

The Asia-Pacific is not the bystander in international relations that it once was. As a region responsible for the future shape of the international community, it should build a RBO that can contribute to solving the problems of the international community. We should pursue a maximalist position on RBOs, not a minimalist one.

Dr Tsutomu Kikuchi is adjunct senior fellow at Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA) and Professor of international relations, Aoyama Gakuin University.

Last Updated: 23/02/2021