Perspectives on the Rules-Based Order

By Australian Committee of The Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP)

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