Perspectives: Greater Role for Smaller States in the Rules-Based Order

By Prof. Dang Cam Tu
Associate Professor, Politics and International Relationsp; Deputy Director-General, Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies – Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam.

The Rules-Based Order today is characterised by great power competition and two competing visions: the Washington Consensus vs. the Beijing Consensus, writes Prof. Dang Cam Tu. What is needed, she argues, is an “Evolving RBO” that gives a voice to small and medium countries.

‘Rules-based order’ (RBO) is currently among the most frequently repeated terms in world politics, often in response to a contrary reality – that is, the imperfection of international laws, the inefficacy or lack of governance, and the tilt towards a power-based order. Consensus either remains on the general definition or it is tacitly acknowledged – the international RBO refers to a shared commitment of countries to conduct their behaviour and interaction in accordance with agreed rules and principles, explicitly articulated in various forms of international cooperation documents. There are differences of viewpoint and emphasis, but these are in the details – especially when influenced by players’ interests, values, and perceived power in real and evolving dynamics of regional and global governance.

The hard experience from two devastating world wars informed the popular perception and expectation of the international RBO as an alternative to international coercion by confrontational superpowers. The international order constructed after the Second World War and consolidated during the Cold War was also guided by liberal and internationalist beliefs shared among political elites in Western countries – and designed to counter assumed challenges from socialist countries, nationalist states elsewhere, and isolationist tendencies in the US. Small and medium countries look to the RBO for a neutral platform where they hope to stand on equal footing with more powerful countries and be protected from intimidation or coercive power. More powerful states, on their part, often choose to use the RBO as a leverage to impose their will on weaker counterparts.

Different imperatives lead to different interpretations and sometimes loose compliance behaviour – where players pick and choose the rules that suit them while ignoring those that do not. The negotiation on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea between ASEAN and China illustrates well the difference with the latter attempting to selectively choose the parts of existing rules (UNCLOS) that serve its interests, either ignore or reinterpret others that do not from a power-based approach and impose its reinterpretation on the former who is endeavouring to uphold and reinforce existing rules. The term ‘RBO’ has therefore been deployed in pursuit of — and in response to — divergent interests and challenges. When power-based behaviour prevails, the outcome can be a mixed set of rule-taking, rule-setting, and rule-manipulation.

Today the RBO tends to be discussed in terms of on-going intensified great power competition, especially between the US and China. Power rivalry is in part about a contest of influence on the process of rules-writing – and hence order-making. In international politics, big powers have obvious advantages – enjoying favourable conditions, including support from other states. The giants — including non-benign ones — can certainly discourage rather than promote both the legitimacy and efficacy of the order under their influence. The perceived inefficiency of the UN and other global governance institutions under the impact of US-China rivalry is a case in point. The two biggest powers, in accelerating their competition, undermine the global order by flouting existing rules – withdrawing from or abusing multilateral institutions, paralysing international cooperation, and intensifying divides within the international system. The term ‘RBO’ becomes subsumed in a discourse about global leadership – with two big powers advocating different visions and modes of foreign relations, namely the Washington Consensus vs. the Beijing Consensus.

Concerns about great-power rivalry have resulted in a call for a less power-based and more participatory RBO, especially among small and medium countries. The perspectives and role of middle powers need stressing. They have tended to be at the core of the multi-layered web of regional governance rules and institutions, and the increasingly preferred mini-lateral forms of engagement. The normative power of ASEAN in the emerging Indo-Pacific strategic region provides a good example of the way small and medium powers — when they work together — can have a substantial impact.

Because it is difficult for dominant powers to enforce or initiate any norms without suspicious response and resistance, ASEAN has had an opportunity to play a central role in the norm-setting process. The Southeast Asian countries have achieved general acceptance on shared norms, for instance, with currently 39, including 29 non-ASEAN, countries becoming signatories to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC). Being an effective tool for ASEAN to preserve regional peace and stability in Southeast Asia for more than five decades — acceded to by all the major powers and many of the countries in the region — the TAC can serve as the core in building a larger code of conduct to advance trust and cooperation among states in the Indo-Pacific. The perceived increasing role of middle powers in enhancing the RBO also rests on the inclusive institutional arrangements and norms that they support – in contrast to the exclusive and competitive China-led Belt and Road Initiative and the US-led Indo-Pacific Strategy. Inclusiveness is a rule-making remedy that ASEAN and other middle powers tend to take in response to big power competition and rivalry.

Small- and medium-sized states could have a special role in developing rules to govern new aspects of international life. Such aspects include cyber space, technology, global health, environmental protection, climate change and ageing. Rules in these areas might create challenges because they are non-traditional frontiers with new logics, instruments, players, stakeholders, and forms of competition. For example, cyber space and technology have become new areas for competition among not only state players but also non-state players and stakeholders – a development that raises questions about the reconciliation and interpretation of laws on issues like sovereignty. Leadership at the domestic as well as the international level also needs attention here – given that many of the new areas for rule-making are more the concern of domestic players and stakeholders as well as small- and medium-sized states, and less relevant to the competitive logics of power politics.

In general, the phrase ‘Evolving RBO’ is better suited to describe the narrative underway – better, for instance, than speaking of ‘Liberal’, ‘Conservative’ or ‘Consensus’ RBO. ‘Evolving RBO’ reflects the need for updating the existing RBO with new rules and for promoting a more participatory RBO. The other phrases suggest wishful thinking about end results and promote rather than moderate dividing lines among players and stakeholders.

Dang Cam Tu PhD is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations, Deputy Director-General of the Institute for Foreign Policy and Strategic Studies, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the institution she works for.

Banner image: ASEAN flag flying above the flags of Southeast Asian nations. Credit: FrameAngel, Shutterstock.