All those countries (including Australia) that so solemnly call for a 'rules-based order' in Indo-Pacific Asia have a chance today to show they mean it.

At a major gathering in Brunei, the annual ASEAN Regional Forum, Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and his counterparts have an opportunity to endorse the decision by the Philippines to appeal to an international legal umpire over its South China Sea boundary dispute with China.

What is disappointing and baffling is that so far most Indo-Pacific nations, Australia included, have been conspicuously mute when it comes even to acknowledging the fact that someone is daring to play by the rules.

In January, exasperated at the lack of progress towards a binding code of conduct in the contested South China Sea, the government of the Philippines notified China that it would be seeking international arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The process is going ahead in ITLOS, an international tribunal under that convention. A panel of judges has just been appointed. Yet China is refusing to recognise or join the proceedings.

So far the United States, Japanthe EU and (according to Bonnie Glaser from the Center for Strategic and International Studies) Vietnam have welcomed Manila's decision to take China to court. Were other substantial regional players to begin adding their voices, it might be enough to begin tipping the balance of Asian opinion on this question of might or right.

Indeed, with a credible middle-power nation like Australia weighing in, Southeast Asian nations such as Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore might at last consider morally supporting their fellow ASEAN member.

All it would take is a suitable sentence — crafted but pointed — in Bob Carr's remarks at the Brunei meeting today.

By no means should Canberra take sides on the question of competing claims – China has plenty of right to prosecute an international legal case over its version of South China Sea boundaries, and were it to participate in the ITLOS case it might pleasantly surprise itself and win.

In its defence, the Australian Government may say that it has already called for a rules-based approach and respect for international law in the South China Sea. And, in general terms, it sometimes has

But that's precisely why Canberra now needs to move from generalities to specifics, and to endorse Manila's move without prejudging the tribunal's conclusion. To do otherwise would be needlessly weak, out of step with our US ally, and, worst of all, bad for the credibility of all the rest of our 'rules-based' rhetoric.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.