RECURRING PROPOSITIONS ABOUT THE RULES-BASED ORDER:
It is centred on multilateral organisations
Australian governments have typically defined the rules-based order expansively to encompass “a broad architecture of international governance which has developed since the end of the Second World War”.
According to Prime Minister Morrison, “The UN is the prime custodian of the rules-based order … the UN and its norms are central to a cooperative rules-based approach to global challenges.”
Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said multilateral organisations “create rules that are vital to Australia’s security, interests, values and prosperity. Those bodies regulate international cooperation in key sectors of our economy including civil aviation, maritime transport, intellectual property, telecommunications, agriculture. They promote universal values and play critical roles in responding to emerging global challenges.”
It reflects our values
Prime Minister Julia Gillard said “The values of the [United Nations] Charter don’t only reflect the official stance of the Australian government. They reflect the character of the Australian people.”
More recently, and in response to growing pressure on the rules-based order, Foreign Minister Payne said Australia “must stand up for our values and bring our influence to bear in these institutions to protect and promote our national interests, and to preserve the open character of international institutions based on universal values and transparency”.
It has delivered 70 years of peace and prosperity
According to the 2016 Defence White Paper, the rules-based order “has helped support Australia’s security and economic interests for 70 years” because it “supports the peaceful resolution of disputes, facilitates free and open trade and enables unfettered access to the global commons” including “trading routes, secure communications and transport”.
Official statements also credit the rules-based order with limiting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. For instance, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said the Iran nuclear deal “serves our interests in nuclear non-proliferation and in reinforcing the rules-based international system”.
It constrains power
Australian leaders have regularly argued that the rules-based order limits coercion and the abuse of power. In this account, by preventing the “misuse of power”, the rules-based order provides an alternative to a world in which “might is right”.
The rules-based order is also described as bounding strategic competition so that it can take place “within the framework of international law — not winning through corruption, interference or coercion”.
It has also enabled “disputes to be resolved in accordance with rules rather than by coercive means”.
But government documents sometimes described the rules-based order in less ambitious terms. It “fosters cooperation” and “eases tension between states”. Moreover, the rules are sometimes characterised as only one “component of the international order”.
It is US dependent
Although the rules-based order is seen as a constraint on power, Australian political leaders have consistently emphasised that the order is also dependent on US power. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull referred to a “system of rules and institutions which the United States and its allies built from the ashes of World War II.”
According to the 2013 National Security Strategy, the United States “provides the critical underpinning to the rules-based order that exists today”. Similarly, “[t]he global strategic and economic weight of the United States will be essential to the continued stability of the rules-based global order on which Australia relies for our security and prosperity”.
More recently, Australian policymakers have sought to remind Washington that “the United States’ engagement to support a rules-based order is in its own interests and in the interests of wider international stability and prosperity”.
Prime Minister Turnbull told an American audience in 2016 that the United States should not “lose sight of the wood for the trees … because the big picture is the rules-based international order, which America has underwritten for generations”.
It could shape China’s rise
The rise of China looms large, but not always clearly, in Australian policy pronouncements on the rules-based order. In 2008, Prime Minister Rudd urged China to act “in accordance with the rules” and “make a strong contribution to strengthening the global and regional rules-based order”.
After Chinese President Xi Jinping addressed the Australian federal parliament in 2014, Prime Minister Tony Abbott said, “I have never heard a Chinese leader commit so explicitly to a rule-based international order founded on the principle that we should all treat others as we would be treated ourselves.”.
Prime Minister Turnbull told Chinese Premier Li Keqiang that “Australia and China have both benefited immeasurably from the stability in our region that has been underpinned by the rules-based international order.”
It is global and regional
Government documents have shifted back and forth between emphasising the ‘global’ rules-based order and focusing more tightly on its regional dimension.
According to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, “[t]o support a balance in the Indo–Pacific favourable to our interests and promote an open, inclusive and rules-based region, Australia will also work more closely with the region’s major democracies, bilaterally and in small groupings”.
In the 2016 Defence White Paper, the rules-based order was identified as a central component of Australia’s relationships with the United Nations, NATO, the United Kingdom, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and New Zealand. India was identified both as an important supporter of the rules-based order and, like China, a major power that can rise peacefully within that framework. Meanwhile, Papua New Guinea, Fiji, and Tonga had “demonstrated a willingness to make important contributions to maintaining the rules-based global order”. However, when it came to relations with Malaysia and Singapore, the White Paper said Australia was interested in a “rules-based regional order”.
It is under unprecedented pressure
A growing theme of Australian government statements about the rules-based order over the last decade has been its fragility.
“Significant forces of change are now buffeting this system”, according to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper. The 2016 Defence White Paper said the rules-based order was being challenged by “competition between countries and major powers trying to promote their interests outside of the established rules”.
The 2020 Defence Strategic Update said “confidence in the rules-based global order is being undermined by disruptions from a widening range of sources”.
It needs to evolve
Canberra often recognises that evolution of the rules-based order is necessary to reflect shifting geopolitics and new dimensions of international relations.
In 2012, Prime Minister Gillard called for “a greater role for Asian countries”, and the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper said “Australia will support reforms that give new and emerging powers a greater role in the international system. Some change to institutions and patterns of global cooperation is inevitable, necessary and appropriate to reflect the greater weight of countries such as China, Indonesia, India, Nigeria and Brazil. Reform should be a shared project. Australia is a willing partner.”
More recently, Foreign Minister Payne said that Australia “will work to ensure that the development of new rules and norms to address emerging challenges is consistent with enduring values and principles. This is particularly important in the case of critical technologies, including cyber and artificial intelligence, critical minerals and outer space”.
It requires tangible deeds
Tangible Australian support for the rules-based order, perhaps extending to military commitments, is addressed in a range of speeches and policy documents. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds has pointed out that standing up for the rules-based order requires “not just words”.
The 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper asserted that “Australia’s interests are strongly served by acting with others to support a rules-based international order. Australia will encourage and tangibly support the leadership of the United States to this end.”
Australian government rhetoric on military defence of the rules-based order has shifted over the last decade.
The 2009 Defence White Paper said that in some circumstances, the need to support the rules-based order could see Australia intervene militarily in another country. In the 2016 Defence White Paper, support for the rules-based order was identified as something Australia had fought for before and may be prepared to fight for again.
In the 2016 White Paper, providing “meaningful contributions to global responses to address threats to the rules-based global order which threaten Australia and its interests” is identified as one of three equally weighted defence objectives. In the 2020 Defence Strategic Update, these three priorities are ordered hierarchically. Australia’s immediate region was listed as the top priority, while “Operations in support of the rules-based global order” was listed as the third priority.
Senior Fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute
“Allan is right, the post-war order is gone, but many of its institutions and systems remain. These are under immense pressure from anti-globalisation, populism, nationalism, and authoritarianism, from the Trump administration on one side and China on the other. Getting agreement on responses to many of our most urgent global problems — such as climate change or even fighting the COVID-19 pandemic — is harder than ever.
Yet there will always be some form of rules-based layer to global order. Much less certain is how effective these elements of the international system will be and whose values they will reflect. In some areas, such as governance of the internet, competing systems and philosophies are emerging. Great power competition and diverging values and interests mean fault-lines are likely to continue to run through much of the multilateral, rule-setting system for the foreseeable future.
Still, history does not always work in straight lines. We can find space to work with China within some rules-based systems, such as trade for example. America could still rediscover that its security and prosperity are enhanced when it leads by the power of its example and invests in global public goods. It does not look hopeful now, but perhaps China and the United States could emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic with a renewed understanding that even as they compete, none of the world’s major global challenges can be addressed adequately without cooperation between them.”