The International Security Program looks at strategic dynamics and security risks globally, with an emphasis on Australia's region of Indo-Pacific Asia. Its research spans strategic competition and the risks of conflict in Asia, security implications of the rise of China and India, maritime security, nuclear arms control, Australian defence policy and the changing character of conflict. The Program draws on a network of experts in Australia, Asia and globally, and is supported by diverse funding sources including grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. It convenes international policy dialogues such as the 2017 Australia-ROK Emerging Leaders International Security Forum and has a record of producing leading-edge, influential reports.
I joined the Lowy Institute this month to direct the new project on “Australia’s National Security and the Rules-Based International Order”.
In talking to friends about the move it’s quickly become apparent that my new job description is not self-explanatory. “I get the national security bit,” has been a common response, “but what did you call that other thing?”
Whether the international order is just, fair, or in Australia’s interests depends on the type of international order it is.
Though the phrase “rules-based international order” is being used ever more often by world leaders, governments, and the media, it still doesn’t seem to have resonated much with the wider public. That’s not completely surprising – even supposed experts disagree on whether the rules-based order actually exists. And among those who believe it does, there is no consensus on what it actually is.
So, I’m going to set out, at least in part, what I think the rules-based order is and what it means for Australia’s national security choices. I hope this answers some questions about my job, but it’s not intended to be the final word. Rather, this is a set of starting assumptions that I hope will be tested through debate as this project unfolds.
1. Order and chaos
There is very little that is inherently orderly about international relations. For most of human history countries have interacted in a way that could be better described as anarchical. Order is necessary to reduce chaos. But whether the international order is just, fair, or in Australia’s interests depends on the type of international order it is.
2. Power and rules
Australia’s is more secure in an international order that is shaped less by power and more by rules. That’s because Australia is not a great military power and, as a healthy democracy, is relatively adept at operating in rules-based systems, especially when they accord with our values.
3. The post-war order
After the Second World War the United States sought to create a more rules-based international order and drove the creation of new institutions, chiefly the United Nations, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
From the outset, Australia has played an outsized role in the development and enhancement of the institutions and norms of the post-war order. That reflects our enduring interests and demonstrates the impact that we can have.
4. A rules-shaped international order
Many “realists” argue that the rules-based order is a fiction and that international relations are still determined by power. And at the other end of the spectrum there are many idealised narratives of the rules-based order. This debate is irresolvable. The story of how the world works can be told in endlessly different ways. Any attempt at scientifically testing the existence of the rules-based order is quickly confounded by the infinite number of variables and impossibility of isolating cause and effect.
My assumption is that the truth is somewhere in the middle. International relations are not defined exclusively by either power or rules, and the distinction between the two is not always clear cut.
International relations are fundamentally based on raw economic and military power. But international norms shape the way in which that power is exercised: legitimacy enhances state power. Illegitimacy detracts from it. Rules matter even when they are violated. Though rules-based order is now accepted shorthand, the international order can be more accurately described as “shaped by”, rather than “based on” rules.
Power also shapes rules. The permanent membership of the UN Security Council reflected the balance of power when it was created. Effective international rules cannot be entirely detached from power relations. If they are, they will be ignored. But international norms that simply replicated power relations would lose any legitimacy
5. A liberal international order?
The terms “liberal international order” and “rules-based order” are often used interchangeably but there is a difference. The assertion of a liberal international order carries with it a claim that the post war order has been – or should be – politically and economically liberal. That, in turn, implies that illiberal behaviour by states – even within their own borders – is a challenge to the order. A rules-based order could, theoretically, be entirely illiberal.
Americans often prefer the term “liberal international order”. The apparent Australian reluctance to adopt this term – at least in official documents – probably reflects suspicion of values-based foreign policy and wariness of US democracy-promotion.
6. Under pressure
Whether it is rules-based, rules-shaped or liberal, the existing international order is under mounting pressure and probably unsustainable in its current form. The world is changing. International power is shifting away from the United States and “the West”, and towards China and “the East”. The world is becoming more multipolar. The United States’ commitment to the order it helped create is waning. Unhappy publics – including in many Western countries – are less accepting of the premises of the rules-based order.
7. The need for change
Australia has strong interests in both defending the existing order and promoting change that will make it more sustainable. At least in the short term, we may need to do so without much help from the United States. A more sustainable international order needs to be more inclusive and multilateral. The more like-minded powers we can cooperate with to this end the better. Our own consistency in abiding by international law will be a factor.
8. It has to be a package deal
Australia’s interests are advanced by international norms and rules that accord with our values and interests. Most basically, this means rules that protect our sovereignty and democracy, discourage the use of force, encourage the peaceful resolution of disputes and support open economies and free trade. But even rules that don’t accord with our immediate interests can advance our broader objectives if they also support the sort of international order that we want. So there is a cost to selective compliance.
9. Prepare for the grey zone
But we also need a plan B. We need to prepare for securing Australia in a world where relations between states are shaped more by power and less by rules. That could mean investing more in power – mostly but not only military capability – as well as thinking more about how we should be prepared to use it.
International law is based on black-and-white distinctions between war and peace. But countries are increasingly competing in the “grey zone” that exists between the two. That includes openly aggressive measures that still fall short of the legally category “use of force” as well as more covert – or at least “plausibly deniable” – means. The purpose of these activities is typically to make incremental gains with the ultimate goal of “winning without fighting”.
Examples include China’s island building in the South China Sea. Russia’s “little green men” in Ukraine, Iran’s use of militias and proxies, cyber intrusions, information operations, foreign interference, and some forms of economic coercion.
This sort of state behaviour both exploits and hastens the weakening of the rules-based order. So Australia needs to think thoroughly and carefully about when and how we should engage in so-called “grey zone competition”.
In March, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull will welcome the ten leaders of ASEAN to Sydney for a special summit focusing on business and security ties. This is the first time Australia has hosted ASEAN. By any definition, it is a significant event in Canberra's diplomatic calendar, with the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet taking on an across-government steering role in the long lead-up to the summit.
On one level, such an investment of time and energy demonstrates the growing prominence of South East Asia in Australia's foreign policy. Economically, it is a major market of over 600 million people, although it accounts for just 15% of Australia's trade. In security terms, South East Asia "frames Australia's northern approaches" and most important trade routes, and "sits at a nexus of strategic competition in the Indo-Pacific", according to the 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper.
Yet these same currents of strategic competition have also rudely exposed ASEAN's limitations as a supranational organisation, as less than the sum of its constituent South East Asian parts. This is particularly so on faultline issues like the South China Sea, where China has successfully played on intra-ASEAN divisions.
As a result, more of Canberra's diplomatic energies in South East Asia are being invested bilaterally and in new groupings such as the Australia-India-Japan-US quadrilateral – in effect bypassing ASEAN.
Canberra still sees ASEAN centrality as the main anchor for its big-tent diplomacy in the wider region due to its convening power over the 18-member ADMM Plus and East Asia Summit. Maintaining open and inclusive multilateral architecture remains a key organising principle for Australia's prosperity and security. Canberra does not want to see exclusive groupings emerge in ways that force binary choices between prosperity and security, or between China and the US. ASEAN has usefully muddied these waters by pursuing engagement and dialogue promiscuously, but at the cost of process-heavy obligations that eat into the schedules of ASEAN leaders, their beleaguered officials and dialogue partners.
ASEAN is more to be pitied than blamed for this. The 10-member association lacks real teeth for collective bargaining because its members consistently refuse to compromise national interests, or to cede sovereignty upwards – a point that many South East Asians will privately concede.
This mattered less in the past. But Australia has belatedly come to realise that it needs to do more heavy lifting in South East Asia, as questions mount over the US commitment to the region and China's economic heft and coercive footprint fills the space left behind. This is clear in the subtext of the 2017 White Paper, which emphasises Australia's bilateral relationships in South East Asia as a "high priority", alongside ASEAN engagement.
At the same time, Canberra's renewed interest in the Quad suggests it is actively hedging by developing alternative security structures that skirt ASEAN. This is something that past Australian leaders have been loathe to do. Kevin Rudd flirted with the concept of an Asia Pacific Community, but ultimately deferred to ASEAN centrality. But things have moved on, because ASEAN's strategic disunity can no longer be ignored.
The emphasis on "South East Asia" in Australia's latest foreign and defence policy white papers is also instructive. References to the "ASEAN region" are still popular in some quarters of the Australian foreign policy commentariat, where hope remains that Australia will one day join the grouping. But such proprietary terminology only flatters to deceive. Australia's engagement with ASEAN needs to be recognised as subordinate within a wider South East Asia policy, Timor-Leste included.
Canberra would like its various upgraded bilateral partnerships with countries such as Vietnam and Singapore, and "mini-laterals" including the Five Power Defence Arrangements and the Quad to be seen as complementary to Australia-ASEAN ties. Hopefully they are. But even as Australia prepares to stage an unprecedented ASEAN-Australia summit, Canberra is busy diversifying its diplomatic efforts partly in response to ASEAN's shortcomings.
Two major gatherings will be held on the sidelines of the ASEAN-Australia conclave, a business summit and a counter-terrorism conference. Terrorism, while important, is also a safe-bet denominator for security cooperation with South East Asia, given ASEAN's reluctance to overtly mention inter-state tensions and China's strategic challenge in particular. Several South East Asian defence ministers were recently invited to Perth for preparatory discussions on counter-terrorism, focusing on the potential flow-back threat to the region, as jihadists exit Iraq and Syria.
The ruinous siege in Marawi has shone a spotlight on the southern Philippines and the vulnerable urban environment in South East Asia at large as the next phase of terrorist challenges in Australia's region. Canberra has stepped up its bilateral defence assistance to the Philippines, including urban warfare training, taking advantage of the Duterte administration's positive disposition towards Australia. Australia's military capacity is modest. But without great power baggage, Canberra has opportunities to be nimbler than the US as it moves to deepen defence partnerships in South East Asia.
ASEAN still offers a worthwhile channel for Australia to help South East Asia counter terrorism and violent extremism, via the ADMM Plus. But there are risks attached. One is that Australia's focus on counter-terrorism could duplicate Indonesia's recently proposed Our Eyes initiative, involving six ASEAN members. Another is that concentrating too much on the military aspects of counter-terrorism could embolden regional militaries to take on roles best left to civilian law enforcement.
Yet counter-terrorism can offer useful "cover" for strategic security cooperation. Australian patrol aircraft sent to the Philippines during the latter stages of the battle for Marawi plugged surveillance gaps in the Philippine military's terrorist detection efforts. But they were also deployed in useful proximity to the South China Sea, to enable monitoring of China's continuing build-up of strategic infrastructure in the Spratly Islands.
Finally, the endemic problem of duplication in ASEAN-led processes could potentially undermine Australia's future counter-terrorism and maritime security capacity-building, including the trilateral Sulu Sea coordinated patrols, among Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
In light of this, Canberra should do what it can to support rationalisation and de-confliction efforts within ASEAN. This is one area where the Philippines was notably active during its year as ASEAN chair in 2017, producing a concept paper to cut back on redundant activities. The job of implementing these rationalisation efforts now falls to Singapore, the current chair.
One useful message that Turnbull could reinforce to ASEAN leaders in Sydney next month is the virtue of a "less is more" approach when it comes to meetings and summitry. That might sound a little awkward coming from the host of a celebratory summit. But it could help a lost ASEAN rediscover its much-celebrated "way".