Commentary |
27 July 2020

Why Australia hasn't given up on a rules-based world order

Putting 'negative globalism' talk aside, strategic shocks are forcing Canberra to think about an international system that can protect sovereignty and prevent great power conflict. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Ben Scott
Ben Scott

Has Australia given up hope for an international order based on rules?

Facing a stormier world, Canberra has clung ever-tighter to the concept of the "rules-based international order". That phrase first appeared in a Defence White Paper in 2009 and was repeated 56 times in the 2016 version. But in this month's Defence Strategic Update it was overtaken by references to the "grey zone".

Supporting the rules-based international order risks looks increasingly quixotic if that order is giving way to murky grey-zone competition. After warning last year of the dangers of "negative globalism", Prime Minister Scott Morrison launched the strategic update by noting "the institutions of patterns of co-operation … are now under increasing – and I would suggest almost irreversible – strain".

A closer look at recent government speeches suggests Canberra hasn't given up on the rules-based order. But strategic shocks have forced a shift in focus, and will compel Australia to think harder about the sort of order we can live with.

A decade ago Australia was hoping macro rules of the international order – such as the prohibition on acquisition of territory through force – could shape China's rise. Canberra is now more worried about China shaping the international order, including through micro-rules on issues such as 5G technology.

In 2008 Kevin Rudd explained to audiences in Washington and Beijing that because these rules had enabled China's rise, it was in Beijing's interests to abide by them. In 2014 Tony Abbott reported that Xi Jinping had committed "explicitly to a rule-based international order founded on the principle that we should all treat others as we would be treated ourselves". This optimism dissipated quickly as Xi began flexing China's muscles internationally.

The election of Donald Trump shook Australia's longstanding assumption that the United States would continue underpinning the international order. Defence Minister Linda Reynolds gently reminded a Washington audience that Australia did "not take for granted a regional default inclination towards the advantages of existing rules-based systems – nor should the United States".

More recently, Canberra has fallen tellingly silent on the United States' international role. Foreign Minister Marise Payne didn't mention the US once in her major speech on "Australia and the world".

China's goal becomes clear

Trump's withdrawal from the international stage created an unexpected opening for Xi. It became clear China's goal was to refashion rather than overturn the old order. Beijing sought the leadership of international organisations and the insertion of "Xi Jinping thought" into international documents – in place of what it saw as objectionable liberal values.

China is exerting ever more sway over ostensibly apolitical international standard-setting bodies, such as the International Telecommunications Union. COVID-19 showed the danger of deference to China by these international institutions.

If the ideological content of the international order is up for grabs, Australia might find itself arguing even more forcefully for liberal values.

The pandemic also accelerated US-China enmity and revealed the weakness of international institutions that were intended to manage competition between great powers. And Canberra was reminded that the international order generated standards on issues such as health and technology that could be as consequential as the international law on which the order is based.

Payne's speech responded to these developments as well as Morrison's call – in his "negative globalism" speech – for an "audit of global institutions and rule-making processes". She said "multilateral organisations, especially international standard-setting bodies, create rules that are vital to Australia's security, interests, values and prosperity … Australia's interests are not served by stepping away and leaving others to shape global order for us."

In Reynolds' words "we have to define a new rules-based order and encourage very strongly all major state actors to accord with these rules".

Countries such as Australia need an order that will bound the great powers' rivalry and forestall conflict. For this to be viable, Washington and Beijing would need to at least acquiesce to the rules. If we're going back to basics, both might accept an older, more conservative version of world order. The foundational rule of our system of states was respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. If the Chinese Communist Party could be reassured that its own legitimacy was off limits, it might be persuaded to cease meddling in other countries' affairs. That could work for Russia too.

And it might suit Australia. Canberra has never been as enthusiastic as Washington about promoting the values of the "liberal international order". Australian leaders have been much more comfortable referring to the more neutral-sounding "rules-based order". And in recent speeches they have emphasised, above all else, the importance of respecting sovereignty.

But reassuring a sceptical audience in Beijing would require concessions – such as overlooking mass human rights abuses in Xinjiang – that Canberra should be loath to make. It could also necessitate surrendering the comparative ideological advantage that comes with our more attractive democratic model.

So, if the ideological content of the international order is up for grabs, Australia might find itself arguing even more forcefully for liberal values. In Payne's words: "We must stand up for our values and bring our influence to bear in these institutions to … preserve the open character of international institutions based on universal values and transparency."

Ben Scott is Director of the Australia’s Security and the Rules-Based Order Project at the Lowy Institute.