We need to replace the dying US-led rules-based order

But for new rules to be formulated, the starting point must be to acknowledge the wide range of perspectives beyond the western world

A US Marine helicopter takes off during a joint amphibious assault exercise with the Philippines off the waters of South China Sea. Getty Images
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Seven months ago, I wrote in these pages that US President Joe Biden had finished the rules-based international order off for good.

Despite he and his officials making the term central to his administration’s foreign policy, the fact that these “rules” clearly did not apply to America and its allies – notably Israel in its murderous campaign in Gaza – meant that it had been utterly hollowed out, and had become a byword for western hypocrisy in much of the world.

Since then, others have come to agree: Andreas Kluth, former editor-in-chief of the German news organisation Handelsblatt Global in February, Spencer Ackerman in The New York Times in April, Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times last month, followed by Elbridge Colby, an American defence analyst hotly tipped to be national security adviser if Donald Trump wins the next presidential race.

“I totally agree that we should dump the limp, lame, and hypocritical concept of the ‘rules-based international order’,” Mr Colby posted on X just over a week ago. Both he and Mr Rachman favour a return to the idea of “defending the free world”.

That, I believe, would be a dangerous path. It sets up an unnecessary binary – the “free world” must be defended against something else, presumably the “unfree world”, whatever that might be – and would formalise once again a western bloc that would be dominated by an America that has never made its disregard for international law clearer. Last month, the Republican Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, declared that no international body was “above American sovereignty”, and this Tuesday his colleagues in Congress voted to sanction officials of the International Criminal Court for having the temerity to apply for an arrest warrant for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others.

One area where rules and laws – or the lack of universally agreed ones – really matters is the Asia-Pacific.

If we don’t have a rules-based international order, and we can hardly rely on international law when the US continues to do so much to undermine it, where do we go from here?

At last week’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun at least met his US counterpart, Lloyd Austin, which was the first in-person talks for those officials since contact between the two militaries broke down in 2022 after then speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. But there were still plenty of differences on display. Mr Dong referred to “infringements and provocations” in the region’s seas, while Mr Austin claimed it was China’s activities that were “provocative”.

If we don’t have a rules-based international order, and we can hardly rely on international law when the US continues to do so much to undermine it, either by not signing up to an array of conventions and statutes, or insisting it and its allies should be exempt, where do we go from here?

Prof Anthony Milner, one of Australia’s most distinguished academics and an Asia specialist who has been a mainstay of Track II diplomatic discussions in the region for decades, has sketched out a new way to approach “rule-making”. His template is for the Asia-Pacific (or Indo-Pacific, as some now prefer), but it could be adopted more widely.

“A starting point for rules negotiation would best acknowledge the increasingly multipolar character of the region,” he says. He recommends adopting a “Contrasting Principles” framework that concentrates on three different visions of order, rather than claiming there is only one legitimate lens.

Firstly the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, which in its current form may have been originally raised by Japan but came to be associated with an aggressive US security stance and commitment to spreading its values under the Trump White House.

Secondly, the Chinese “Global Community of Shared Future”, which opposes “alliance-based confrontations”, says countries “should not draw lines based on ideology” and declares respect for the “diversity of human civilisations” and for the right of different countries to “explore their own development paths”.

And thirdly, the Asean “Outlook on the Indo-Pacific”, which stresses community-building, consensus, inclusivity, respect for different countries regardless of their political orientation and peaceful negotiation.

“Clashes between principles are embedded in these contrasting visions,” notes Prof Milner, but “some differences of principle concern how much emphasis should be given to a particular principle and not necessarily a conflict between principles”.

In short, if new rules are to be formulated, the starting point must be to acknowledge that there is a far wider range of perspectives than those that led to the construction of the post-Second World War geopolitical order. This range of perspectives must somehow be accommodated, not ironed out, because if new rules are to be made – they are certainly needed – they will only work if everyone accepts them.

I would argue that this should involve consistency where possible, compromise when necessary, and above all to be relentlessly solution-focused. To take one example: the disputes in the South China Sea involving China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines. The western view of such conflicts would be clear cut: an appropriate court should rule on the validity of the claims and there would be winners and losers. But why not look to the region’s past for more creative solutions?

Historically, many borders were fluid or ill-defined, and power frequently drained away the further you were from the capital. For a time in the 19th century, Cambodia came under the suzerainty of not one but two other powers – Siam and Vietnam. Some novel form of joint ownership could draw on these traditions to resolve the disagreements in the South China Sea. Would that be unsatisfactory for some? Maybe. But it would be better than conflict.

And that perhaps, is the wider point. Whether we are looking at new ways of rule-making in the Asia-Pacific or beyond, demanding that your way is the only way is a road to war. Wishing to avoid that, nations in my part of the world are often said to be “hedging” between the US and China. That may be true, partly. But it also stems not only from a desire not to have to choose between one or the other, but a genuine and deeply rooted feeling: why should we have to choose?

Why indeed? The rush by so many to divide the world into two opposing camps, bristling for battle, continues to mystify me. Prof Milner’s way forward takes the opposite approach. It’s a starting point for rules negotiation. Isn’t it worth a try?

Published: June 06, 2024, 4:00 AM