Use of Australia's defence force will represent a failure of policy, especially in any China-related contingency.  Photo: Xinhua News Agency

Use of Australia's defence force will represent a failure of policy, especially in any China-related contingency. Photo: Xinhua News Agency

Playing by the global rules

26 February 2016

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Senior Lecturer

Convener ASEAN Australia Defence Postgraduate Scholarship Program

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Australia’s 2016 Defence white paper uses the term “rules-based global order” 56 times, compared with just nine instances in its 2013 predecessor.

This order, we are told, is “a shared commitment by all countries to conduct their activities in accordance with agreed rules which evolve over time, such as international law and regional security arrangements”. This is curiously self-contradictory; if “all” countries were in “regional security arrangements”, wouldn’t those arrangements be better described as “global”?

But more importantly, why should voluntary regional security arrangements, such as the so-called hub and spokes system of the United States’s alliances in East Asia be seen as part of the “rules-based global order”?

International law is made up of rules. But in what way are regional security arrangements equivalent to “rules”? Defence treaties might be legally binding, but many regional security arrangements are informal and voluntary agreements, entered into by states presumably for as long as both parties benefit.

The repetition of the “rules-based global order” mantra can be read at several levels.

Firstly and most clearly, it reveals fear of disorder from the erosion of a longstanding fact: that the United States will maintain order in our region in the face of the economic and military growth of Asia. Secondly, it offers a new versatile omnidirectional planning concept for managing the uncertainty surrounding the consequences of this crumbling world.

This understanding is a far cry from past Defence white papers. There it was a kind of residual category, denoting operations in far distant regions. By supporting the United Nations in stabilising failed states in the Middle East and Africa, Australia would gain kudos as a good global citizen. Now with the US, China and potentially ourselves clashing over what constitutes adherence to The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and proper behaviour around the disputed islands of the South China Sea, the “rules-based global order” has moved directly into our own region.

The newly expanded definition leads to some linguistic contortions. In chapter three of the white paper, we are told the “rules-based global order” offers a means to “deal with threats before they become existential threats to Australia”. This, on a first reading, is odd. The “rules-based global order” has in the past denoted an ideal or possibly what political scientists call an “institution”– a set of norms and rules. Either way the “rules-based global order” has been based on ideas rather than material fact.

To read the entire article by Greg Raymond, visit the Canberra Times website.

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