Sliding Toward a Less Orderly World

By Ron Huisken, Adjunct Associate Professor, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre – Australian National University (ANU)

The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) has launched its Regional Security Outlook for 2021. Editor, Prof. Ron Huisken, kicks off the series with an assessment of the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on regional security.

The COVID-19 novel coronavirus is a gritty and primitive specimen, so primitive that scientists dispute whether it qualifies as a form of life. But it is wickedly contagious and possessed of fiendishly advanced stealth capabilities. In a matter of weeks it had erased ‘normality’ across most of our planet, effortlessly riding the tentacles of globalisation to every corner of the world, paying no greater heed to geopolitical divides than to religious, racial or political boundaries.

The first infections appear to have occurred in central China in late November 2019 and just 10 weeks later the number of states yet to report any infections was smaller than the number who had. By mid-2020, when barely a handful of the 197 members of the United Nations could claim to be COVID free, the virus had become the undisputed gold standard for a global pandemic. In the absence of a vaccine, the logical countermeasure was to stifle the virus by keeping people apart and enduring whatever economic consequences flowed from doing so.

Separation and lockdown became the global norm. The pandemic gradually reduced the distracting cacophony of the international system to a whisper, leaving all states unusually exposed. This inadvertent additional transparency appears to have intensifi ed the inflammatory effect the advent of the virus had on a number of international relationships. The scale of the economic penalty paid to weather the pandemic has been immense—essentially immeasurable—as are the social, political and other changes tangled up with this huge scar on humanity’s timeline.

In thinking about the longer-term ramifications of the pandemic, perhaps the most widely used gambit was to posit two fundamental alternatives. Firstly, that the pandemic would prove to be a true watershed in which everything was rendered more fl uid and there was genuine scope to make fundamentally different choices about the future of the human enterprise. The alternative view was that the pandemic would see the strengthening or accentuation of established trends and developments, that is, that we would face the same future that we could (more dimly) discern in 2019, but that this future would arrive more quickly and, to that extent, be rather more inevitable. In broad terms, it would appear that the first alternative was more widely endorsed in the earlier stages of the pandemic with the weight of opinion swinging to the latter from around mid-2020. This transition is broadly supported when comparing the commentary CSCAP commissioned in the April-May 2020 timeframe with the articles that will follow which were prepared in the October-November 2020 period. Clearly, however, these are differences of degree, even of semantics. Whichever assessment the reader prefers, the world will feel and work differently when COVID-19 is behind us.

In one decisively important sense, however namely, its impact on the character of the US-China relationship – the notion that the pandemic has been a transformational watershed seems indisputable. COVID-19 struck a world in which significant changes in the relative strategic weight of the world’s major states was well advanced, both motivating and allowing behaviour that challenged the prevailing international order, inevitably, the very order that had supported and encouraged these changes. By the time COVID-19 took hold the condition of the international system could fairly be described as turbulent and increasingly brittle, an outcome clearly anticipated in the assessments offered in successive editions of the CSCAP Regional Security Outlook over the years 2014-20.

Perhaps the most important consequence of COVID-19 has been that China and the United States have been prepared to see their increasingly difficult bilateral relationship fracture precipitously and to be effectively stripped of every residual positive attribute. Far from rekindling suppressed instincts of collegiality, the crisis saw the two premier states defiantly flaunting the distinctive features of their governmental systems as they engaged in a bitter and emotional exchange on the causes, management and probable consequences of the pandemic. The consequences of this emotional divorce—if it is simply allowed to run its course—are incalculable. A critical element of this estrangement was a seemingly mutual impatience to be rid of the deep economic entanglements that had developed over the decades of engagement.

Among the more confi dent predictions of new or strengthened propensities post-COVID was the winding back of globalisation – that is, to restrain or qualify the post-Cold War willingness to allow market forces free rein to determine the supply chain for all products. As major power relations deteriorated in the new century, some began to question the wisdom of this philosophy, at least for the products deemed highly sensitive from a national security or health perspective. Many consider that while efficiency may have been king in the past, the COVID experience will see it displaced for an indeterminate period by resilience. Economists, of course, have warned that market dynamics and the profit motive constituted formidable forces that can only be diverted at considerable cost to the state and/or the consumer.

There are also important wider considerations. International trade, joint ventures, reciprocal direct investment are self-evidently a crucial medium for the development of common interests between states, including a shared resistance to issues that generate tension and confrontation and put those common interests at risk. This belief—that economic interdependence strengthens the peace between states—has long been part of the enduring drive to strive for genuinely freer international trade. It is an aspect of our world that we jettison to our peril. Economic interdependence may not guarantee peace, as the events of August 1914 attest, but it can still prove invaluable.

An illuminating indicator of the intensity of the political clash between the US and China that the pandemic brought to a head is what happened to the issue of the rulesbased order. The rules-based order—the system that had developed from the foundations laid by the US in the immediate aftermath of WW2—had been flagged as an issue for most of the new century. Most states were prepared to concede, albeit discretely, that the prevailing order had been instrumental in enabling the strong improvement in their international standing and future opportunities but a few also signalled reservations through a reference to the fact that they had not participated in the design of the order. Some key events, most notably the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 without a clear mandate from the UN Security Council damaged the aura of authority and acceptance associated with the order. The issue surged to a new plateau over the manner in which Crimea was re-incorporated into the Russian Federation in 2014 and China’s dramatic construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea in 2014-15, developments seen as putting central components of the order—namely the UN Charter and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea—under stress.

Sec Pompeo
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivers a speech heavily criticising China at the Richard M Nixon Presidential Library, Yorba Linda, US - July 23, 2020. Image credit: Ringo Chiu, Shutterstock.

Under the stresses associated with the pandemic, this somewhat hesitant and ambiguous disquiet distilled into the contention that alternatives to the liberal democracy model of governance were available that were demonstrably more effective and offered a superior basis for a revamped set of norms and guidelines to underpin international order. A core axis of resentment about the prevailing order has been exposed as the perceived contention that liberal democracy and the market economy was and remained an evolutionary pinnacle in humanity’s aspiration to devise the optimal system of governance. A cluster of states—the strongest of which is China—are increasingly disposed to contend that over the very long periods of time that they have been coherent communities they have evolved distinctive social contracts and means of giving effect to such contracts. These arrangements—and associated notions of such core themes as democracy, human rights and the rule of law—may in some respects differ quite sharply from the liberal democracy model but these states now insist that it is unacceptable to in any way question their legitimacy or to portray them as having anything other than equivalent status. In an address to the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University on 27 April 2020, China’s Foreign Minister elected to put it in the following terms; “China and the US are facing increasingly prominent contradictions in social systems, values and state interests.”

While openness and clarity about a contentious issue is an important step forward it does not promise a durable solution. That is almost certainly the case here. Among the foundational principles drawn from the history of the first half of the 20th century and that informed the US approach to order is that the concentration of power was a threat to the primacy of the individual and to international peace because errors of judgement could be more directly translated into massive and irreversible actions. The solution was deemed to lie in deliberate disaggregation and institutionalised power-sharing. The democracy/market economy model was not intended or expected to deliver the most efficient and effective governance. Rather, the objective was to provide the strongest governance consistent with the State being subordinate to its citizens. In contrast, the thinking that animates China’s leadership—from the writings of Confucius to Marx, Lenin and Mao—all points to the State taking comprehensive responsibility for the nation’s destiny, insisting on correspondingly exclusive ownership of the instruments of power and re-casting the concepts of rights, obligations and rewards in collective rather than individual terms.

At the practical level, these somewhat esoteric notions translate into sharp differences in the role of the state in business affairs and concerns that these differences preclude a level playing fi eld or fair competition for national and foreign markets. The body of rules seeking to provide a level playing field for international commerce and related matters such as the protection of intellectual property and market access—or a system to ensure fair competition between private enterprises from all nations—are without doubt the most widely and continuously accessed component of the rules-based order. These were roughly the issues that defeated the increasingly urgent US-China negotiations in 2018-19. This development does not so much challenge the importance of a rulesbased order but it does leave hanging whether it is possible to envisage an order that is devoid of a normative foundation.

Although a handful of governments handled the COVID crisis with distinction, all things considered, the international community had little cause to feel reassured about its performance. No one with clout and credibility tried to pull states together. Given the intensifying contestation between states, it was hardly surprising that the world’s multilateral machinery, starting with key global bodies like the UN Security Council and the G20 but extending to ASEAN processes like the ARF and EAS, was paralysed. Once again, as a community of states, we have been forced to conclude that we have much to re-learn as well as learn, yet another experience to examine for the lessons it offers on how to minimise the risk of a recurrence and how to suppress it most efficiently should it recur, and to find more effective ways to encourage states not to allow the passage of time to cause these lessons to be lost.

ASEAN-Aus meeting
This year's virtual ASEAN-Australia Ministerial Summit - September 10, 2020. Image credit: @ASEAN2020VN, Twitter.

And what of CSCAP? We owe our existence to the aspiration to build in the Indo-Pacific region a multilateral process centred on ASEAN that was adequately credible, flexible, imaginative and courageous to play an indispensable role in preserving stability and peace amid what was confi dently expected to be a testing agenda of strategic transformation. Whatever one thinks of how effectively we have used the past 25 years we now confront the perfect storm – a challenge to regional stability and peace that is at the very top of the scale of imaginable possibilities and— due to the consensus rule in the ASEAN Regional Forum—comparatively little in the way of tried and tested procedures to explore and encourage a mutual backing away. The order that prevailed for more than 60 years after WW2 is eroding. Whether it will be superseded by a single, looser order or multiple orders each with distinctive values and norms is still unclear. Further uncertainty stems from the architect of the current order self-consciously washing its hands of leadership and example setting in recent times and displaying an arrogant disregard for that most coveted quality – the aura of legitimacy and authority. It remains to be seen whether, as a nation, it wishes to, and is able, to begin to claw that back but it remains immensely powerful and influential and therefore must endure being judged by the highest standards.

In the short term, at least, this leaves only diplomacy. The objective has to be to develop mindsets among the key players that ‘decoupling’ is a costly and dangerous path, not something to be approached in a mood of distrust and betrayal and to be accomplished ‘as quickly and as absolutely as possible’. The tools of persuasion will necessarily include highlighting perhaps the most important judgement arrived at in earlier CSCAP assessments, namely that an indeterminate period of co-existence and power-sharing seems inescapable. Much will also have to be made of the signifi cant errors of judgement on all sides in terms of setting objectives and policy directions and the means of accomplishing them that contributed so much to the recent ‘emotional divorce’. Our notional diplomat will have to be well-informed and able to skilfully occupy the space between being frank and being brutal. Speaking truth to power can be daunting but doing so in a manner that makes power pay attention is the supreme skill. Finally, our diplomat will be able to stress that the voluntary and sincere goodwill of all the smaller and medium states of the region is available to both in equal measure.

We should not be naïve. The prevailing tensions are not the result of mere misunderstandings. They have deep and substantive roots and may defy remedy. Simply to persuade the parties to frame the objective as the creation of sufficient space between them to diffuse the more acute sources of confrontation—rather than seek a wrenching parting of the ways—would be an extraordinary accomplishment. While none should be discouraged from tackling this diplomatic challenge, a consistent message on the themes outlined above from the leadership of ASEAN could prove to be decisively important. ASEAN, after all, is in the front row of this unfolding drama and has perhaps the most to lose.

Ron Huisken is Adjunct Associate Professor, Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU and Editor of the CSCAP Regional Security Outlook.

Banner image: ASEAN flag held in celebration of ASEAN Day - August 8. Credit: BeanRibbon, Shutterstock.

This article was first published in the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific’s Regional Security Outlook 2021.