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Playing by the Rules in Asia

CANBERRA – China’s adventurism in the South China Sea has prompted a change in Australian policymaking that merits wide international attention. In making maintenance of a “rules-based global order” a core strategic priority, Australia’s new Defense White Paper adopts language not often found at the heart of national defense charters. It is all the more surprising coming from a conservative government that is usually keen to follow the United States down any path it takes.

Australia wanted a readily defensible basis for contesting China’s claims that could not be portrayed as just another reflexive embrace of the American position. For a country trying – as are others in the region – to avoid zero-sum choices between our strategic partner, the US, and our economic partner, China, the White Paper’s words were astutely chosen and deserve emulation.

Part of the attraction of a “rules-based global order” is that it would constrain all relevant players. US policymakers, unlike those in most of the rest of the world, don’t find the concept inherently attractive. Although they – like everyone else – do pay lip service to it, willingness to be bound by international rules is not part of US officials’ DNA.

The invasion of Iraq in 2003 remains Exhibit A. But there are others, including the overreach (alongside the United Kingdom and France) of the UN Security Council’s mandate in Libya in 2011, and what Jessica Mathews has described as the “wasteland for multilateral commitments” in the US approach to binding treaties, including the Convention on Biodiversity, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, the Protocol on Torture, and, most relevant to the South China Sea, the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).