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Perspectives on the Rules Based Order

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A series of commentaries commissioned by the Australian Committee of CSCAP and published first on Asialink at the University of Melbourne. Professor Anthony Milner, Visiting Professor at AEI, is Co-Chair of the Australian Committee, together with Ric Smith AO.

UN Security Council

The term 'Rules Based Order' (RBO) has been used frequently in recent years – in government documents as well as in media and academic analysis. It is difficult to separate this from the deep geostrategic transformation underway over the last decade or so – with an economic and political power shift from the North Atlantic to Asia and the Pacific. Although there seems to be widespread support for some form of rules system in the international sphere, there is no consensus about which rules matter or about the term 'Rules Based Order' itself.

Australia, like numerous other countries, has expressed a commitment to promoting the RBO – and our government also accepts that the rules themselves may need to evolve ‘to take account of the interests of rising powers’. A preliminary task is to examine the range of perspectives on the principles and values which ought to govern international behaviour. The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) has been promoting deliberation on this urgent topic – and has given priority to identifying influential points of view around the Indo-Pacific region.

One initiative – undertaken by the Australian Committee of CSCAP – has been to commission written commentaries from a number of prominent specialists. We have asked them to consider three questions:

1) Where do you see differences in viewpoint or definition or emphasis regarding the content of what has been termed the 'Rules Based Order'?

2) In what areas would the existing RBO benefit from amending or up-dating?

3) Are terms like ‘Liberal RBO’, ‘Conservative RBO’, or ‘Consensus RBO’ useful in describing rules and principles which govern or ought to govern the international order?

These questions have triggered some lively contributions. Some point to significant differences in perspectives between one country and another. For a number of authors, the RBO carries the ‘baggage of Western dominance’ – it serves as ‘a rhetorical proxy for maintaining a US-led regional order’– and they argue that the so-called RBO system must be revised to adapt to the decline of that dominance. One commentator suggests that approaches to the RBO are so fluid that the term’s meaning simply ‘depends on the perspective of the user’; another suggests that powerful countries ‘often choose to use the rules-based order as a leverage to impose their will on weaker counterparts’.

A further point made by a number of contributors is that the updating of the RBO should not be left to major powers. Middle-sized and smaller countries have always had a strong stake in the RBO, and some have had a role in shaping it through a commitment to multilateralism. Australia itself has made a contribution, as have Southeast Asian countries – particularly through ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations).

A positive finding in this collection is that, despite the assertion of nation-first demands over the last few years, many of our authors are quite comfortable with the fact that their countries are being integrated into a wider world system. They believe as well that some type of international rules system is necessary in order to ‘deliver predictability’ and minimise the risks of ‘dangerous surprise’.

The fact that different authors have responded to our questions in varying ways is in itself valuable, helping to lay the foundations for further deliberation on the RBO – and, in particular, to assist to refine or revise the rules system in a way that will give a larger range of countries a sense of ownership.

The commentaries are being published in cooperation with Asialink at the University of Melbourne.

Mr Ric Smith, AO, PSM
Co-Chair, Australian Committee, CSCAP

Professor Tony Milner, AM, FASSA
Co-Chair, Australian Committee, CSCAP 
International Director, Asialink


PERSPECTIVES

Bilahari Kausikan: What (and Whose) Rules-Based Order (RBO)?

Bilahari Kausikan: What (and Whose) Rules-Based Order (RBO)?

The Rules-Based Order can mean many things to many people. But as former diplomat Bilahari Kausikan writes its value as a diplomatic tool lies in its ambiguity.

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Lina Alexander: Rules-Based Order – More Than Words

Lina Alexander: Rules-Based Order – More Than Words

Increasing tension between the status quo and emerging powers has sparked analysis and reflection over the long-term sustainability of the so-called "Rules-Based Order", writes academic Lina Alexander.

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Dr. Bec Strating: Preserving the ‘Rules-Based Order’

Dr. Bec Strating: Preserving the ‘Rules-Based Order’

The rules governing international order face constant pressure for updating and renewal, even as they are challenged by states that seek to cherry-pick from the rule book. But as Dr. Bec Strating argues, the greater good requires states to avoid appeals to exceptionalism.

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Rahul Mishra: 'Rules-Based' Order in the Post-Unipolar World

Rahul Mishra: 'Rules-Based' Order in the Post-Unipolar World

The Rules-Based Order is in need of reform, writes University of Malaya analyst Rahul Mishra. But it is first necessary to ensure the rules are grounded in the legitimacy that comes with greater inclusion.

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Zha Daojiong & Dong Ting: How Track II organisations can move forward the discussion of the RBO

Zha Daojiong & Dong Ting: How Track II organisations can move forward the discussion of the RBO

As countries like China continue to integrate into the world economy, the liberal 'rules-based' order — centred around political governance and the military — needs to remain malleable and flexible, write analysts Zha Daojiong and Dong Ting.

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Joel Ng, Sarah Teo, & Benjamin Ho: Rules-Based Order? Strengthening consensus on the rules and principles underpinning the international order

Joel Ng, Sarah Teo, & Benjamin Ho: Rules-Based Order? Strengthening consensus on the rules and principles underpinning the international order

As rising powers seek a seat at the table, the international rules-based order must reflect the needs and aspirations of all – not just the major powers, write analysts Joel Ng, Sarah Teo, and Benjamin Ho of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

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Dr Tsutomu Kikuchi: Commentary on Rules-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific

Dr. Tsutomu Kikuchi: Commentary on Rules-Based Order in the Asia-Pacific

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.

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Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan: Rules-Based Order in Outer Space

Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan: Rules-Based Order in Outer Space

While disputes about the Rules-Based Order in long-established areas of policy rage on, Dr. Rajeswari Pillai Rajagopalan argues the proliferation of space technology gives rise to new debates about order, defence, and security.

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Andrew Godwin: Strengthening consensus on the rules and principles underpinning international order

Andrew Godwin: Strengthening consensus on the rules and principles underpinning international order

The international Rules-Based Order has been subject to competing perspectives and interpretations. Legal expert Andrew Godwin argues the way to resolve this contention might be to focus on outcomes.

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Last Updated: 23/02/2021