Comment

Save
Print

Playing by the global rules

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.

Advertisement

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.

Ideas and institutions in themselves don't neutralise threats or have any physical effect until some actor or entity with material power decides to uphold those rules with force. It is nation-states, military forces or international organisations that "deal with threats". But if we now consider the Defence white paper's new umbrella hybrid concept of "rules-based global order" as comprising both the system of international law and the system of military alliances, it all makes sense.

What we have is a shorthand form of "each way betting", a longstanding feature of Australian strategic policy. Australia's defence policy has long been built on multiple pillars: defence self-reliance, the alliance with the US, support for UN, and engagement with regional countries. In the new "rules-based global order" construct Australia appears to combine these into one mega-construct that spans international law (such as UNCLOS), international norms (such as the UN Charter prohibiting the use of force for territorial acquisition), our alliance with the US, informal security arrangements with regional actors such as Japan and Korea and the multilateral security structures such as the East Asia Summit.

The advantage in this is that it prepares Australia for many possibilities, including both the familiar scenario of fighting alongside the United Sates but also the more frightening possibility of a world where the United States ceases to play the same role it has for many years. In the emerging world of multiple powers (not just the US), supporting norms and rules that constrain and socialise great power behaviour is sensible policy for a middle power like Australia. Similarly, a world where coalitions of like-minded countries assemble to face down a common threat is better for small and medium powers.

The new Defence white paper also translates this new construction of "rules-based global order" into new force planning principles.

Australian defence planning since at the Dibb white paper of 1987 has been based on continental defence. Over time, this principle was relaxed, most significantly in the 2000 Defence white paper, when the ability to conduct stability operations in the South Pacific and East Timor was added. The thinking was that forces developed for these purposes would provide capabilities that could be used further afield, either in south-east Asia, north-east Asia or further, if required. But in the 2016 white paper forces must be developed for all three strategic objectives of defending Australia directly, supporting the security of maritime south-east Asian and Pacific Island nations, and supporting the "rules-based global order" anywhere in the Indo-Pacific, from north Asia to the Middle East.

This is sensible in that it recognises that the location of potential crises has moved closer to home. And while it does represent a decreased ability to impose discipline on force structure design, this seems to be adequately compensated for by a sensible force structure blueprint that appears to settle the spurious debate between expeditionary and continental defence concepts.

The ADF will become more heavily weighted towards air and maritime forces, with only 18 per cent of the investment in future capability going to land and amphibious warfare. The underpinnings of this force will not be neglected, with 26 per cent of investment targeted towards the mundane "enablers" like logistics systems that make the "shiny toys" deliver when required.

While this is a careful and reasonable response to our shifting strategic environment, the government shouldn't see it as an endpoint. We must understand that the use of our defence force will represent a failure of policy, especially in our region and especially in any China-related contingency. Australia's adaptation to strategic change needs to occur as much in our diplomacy and foreign policy as in our strategic policy.

Greg Raymond is a research associate in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre  at the Australian National University's Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs.