The Rules-Based Order Idea: Past Time To Move On?

There’s a fundamental problem in our relationship with China: China’s growth advances prosperity but menaces security. If the rules-based order construct does not suit volatile times—and balancing threatens war—is there an alternative?

The idea of a rules-based order is the fashion of the day. Presidents and Prime Minsters mention it in speeches, official foreign policy statements and national security strategies now incorporate it, think-tanks develop new concepts based on it, while academics advocate it in books and articles. The 2016 Australian Defence White paper famously referenced the rules-based order some 56 times. The more recent 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper might only have 12 specific references however it referred “to ‘rules’ on at least 42 other occasions, to ‘international law’ 22 times and to ‘values’ 17 times – all in addition to numerous references to ‘principles’, ‘norms’ and ‘standards’.”[i]

The rules-based order construct has real strengths but, with several inherent weaknesses, is not necessarily the most appropriate order for the contemporary international system. Today’s world is characterised by ongoing volatility and deep uncertainty while a rules-based order seems better suited to times when change was rare, slow and predictable. If a rules-based order is out of step with modern circumstances however, what might be embraced instead? This is a particularly difficult problem when the focus moves from abstract explorations of theoretical orders to the major practical policymaking challenge of our time: managing China’s rise.

Indeed, to some considerable extent, the term “rules-based order” has become a type of verbal short hand employed when policy-makers, -users or -critics wish to talk about China without mentioning the country by name. All opine how much better the international system would function if every state – and especially China - embraced the concept of a rules-based order. This is undoubtedly an appealing notion albeit its relative attraction hangs to some degree on whose rules are adopted; China undoubtedly would be delighted if the international system moved to embrace its rules.

From Australia’s perspective, China’s most prominent test of the contemporary rules-based order so far has been in its program of large-scale territorial expansion in the South China Sea. While China’s strategy for this has been shaped by a perceived need to work around the rules-based order, the order has not proved overly bothersome to its ambitions. In this case at least, the rules-based order has been demonstrated to be an ineffective concept with which to adequately manage China rise. Should we continue to double down on it?

This paper addressees this question in three parts: the first discusses the strengths and weaknesses of a rules-based order, the second suggests a complex interdependence order as a replacement while the third focuses on its application as relates to China.

Why replace the rules-based order?

The term 'order’ may seem out of place when talking about an international system comprising some two hundred countries all jostling for their place in the sun. In this system though, states continually interact in their quest to both survive and prosper; developing common ways of competing and cooperating is a pragmatic approach to managing this everyday occurrence. Over time the informal practises developed become routine, then habitual, and finally evolve into formalized rules. In such a way, agreed patterns of behavior progressively bring order to the anarchical international system of states.

International order is accordingly simply “the settled rules and arrangements that guide relations between states.”[ii] Such ‘rules and arrangements’ provide the common political space states can use to solve problems and address issues of concern. There are several different kinds of international order ranging from deeply conflictual orders to more cooperative ones and including balancing, a concert of powers, liberal democracy, economic interdependence and hegemony.[iii] Importantly international orders are never static. Given that their component elements – states – are ceaselessly active and always striving for advantage, orders are always works in progress.

Crucially, the adjective ‘settled’ does not mean that international orders are fixed, peaceful or even stable. An order’s subjects can choose to comply with, change or defy “the settled rules and arrangements”.[iv] Indeed, the operation of an international order is better considered as involving an agreed socialized instability rather than the maintenance of some permanent solidity. This socialized instability allows change in the international system to be purposefully managed in a way that meets the self-interest of most of the states involved.[v] For this however, the particular international order constructed needs to be able to accommodate change, be open to it and be able to withstand it.[vi]

While there are several different generic types of international order, their appropriateness and specific application depends on the characteristics of the international system at the time. In this, international orders can be viewed as having both form and content – which the rules-based order construct nicely illustrates.

The form of a rules-based order is that of states agreeing that their actions will be in accordance with particular rules. The acceptance of rules by the cooperating states means the various interstate relationships concerned are more predictable compared to a situation without rules where others might act solely at their own discretion in addressing issues. The rules embraced accordingly act as practical tools of political control, shaping and restricting the policy options of other states albeit, with some constraints also to one’s own autonomy and policy options. In being embedded within systems of rules and institutions, the power of other states is usefully constrained.[vii]

The rules-based order though involves states willing agreeing to the rules and for this they usually need to be involved in their formulation. Consensual rule-making processes are a necessary step to gain legitimacy for a rules-based order.[viii]

An attractive advantage of the rules-based order is it is agnostic towards the type of states involved in it. Whether democratic or authoritarian, all manner of states can confer and agree to be bound by particular rules. In a general sense, the rules do not necessarily privilege any specific form of government. Such general applicability is particularly important in terms of sustaining the global economic and financial system in which all states are ideally involved; for this a particular, somewhat technocratic rules-based order is necessary.

While the form of a rules-based order gives certain benefits there are also problems that arise from this design. A rules-based order both reinforces authoritarian governments while playing to their strengths. With the order built from interstate agreements, the focus is at the state level with the country’s society consciously overlooked. Authoritarian government elites are empowered as both the key decision-makers and the gatekeepers between their society and the wider world. Such elites can have self-interested reasons to consent to agreements that only further entrench their influence, that promote political rigidity, that avoid meaningful political change and which keep decision making opaque and non-transparent. A rules-based order can unintentionally provide useful support to an authoritarian government.

In the case of China there is a further twist. The Chinese state apparatus is under the firm command of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese state is an extension of the Party however the Party is much more than a state in its deep penetration and control of society down to the individual level.[ix] A rules-based order is at its core a state-to-state arrangement but in case of China the order in fact tries to connect state-to-party. In many respects, this is attempting to build a relationship between unlike objects. There is a major disjuncture at the core of the rules-based order when considering China.

With the international system continually changing, the rules also need to regularly evolve. In a rules-based order there is “institutionally governed change” with the states concerned trying to manage change through the process of developing new rules.[x] Given these states will inevitably hold differing opinions but their agreement needs to be obtained, change in a rules-based order is often complicated, tortuous and sluggish. Such order can be particularly unresponsive to change and sharply lag real-world events.[xi] Inherently, a rules-based order seems best suited for stable environments where change is slow paced and predictable rather than today’s volatile international system where sudden and abrupt changes may occur.

There is a further related problem. In a rules-based order, states agree to be bound by rules they find agreeable. Such a logic flow suggests that rules-based orders are best suited for managing problems where differences are relatively minor and can be readily dealt with procedurally. States are unlikely to consent to rules specific to those situations where there are fundamental disagreements. A rules-based order may be useful in addressing straightforward issues seen as win-win, that is problems where all parties gain even if not all equally. The order though seems by design inappropriate for addressing difficult, contentious issues that are zero-sum and where one side at least suffers real costs.

This raises the issue of the rules’ content. Ideally the specific rules embraced will be coherent, clear, universal and generalizable, that is not restricted to specific groups or interests.[xii] Critics contend though, that in practice the rules are devised to suit the interests of the most powerful states involved; the distribution of material power effectively shapes the content of the rules adopted.[xiii] Many developing countries in particular complain that Western nations made many of the rules they are now expected to comply with when they were colonies and so ignored. Henry Kissinger notes that “When urged to adhere to the international system’s ‘rules of the game’…, the visceral reaction of many Chinese – including senior leaders – has been profoundly affected by the awareness that China has not participated in making the rules of the game.”[xiv] The implication is that China may play by the ‘rules of the game’ if these are altered to be compatible with Chinese interests and values. In taking such a step though will the other nations who originally developed and agreed to the rules remain on board?[xv]

Such complaints underline that the content of a rules-based order is directly related to the objectives the individual states involved have. There is no widely held understanding of what the content of a rules-based order should be with instead a great diversity of opinions. The Obama Administration’s 2015 National Security Strategy took an expansive view declaring that: “a rules-based international order…promotes global security and prosperity as well as the dignity and human rights of all peoples.”[xvi] In 2016, middle-power Australia’s rules-based order definition focused on more mundane matters, principally the peaceful resolution of disputes and trade facilitation, with the later including the unconstrained transfer of commercial goods through the global commons.[xvii] The 2017 Foreign Affairs White Paper is less precise on what a rules-based order encompasses but includes international trade, national security, regional stability and global prosperity.[xviii]

Away from states there are also different perspectives. American John Ikenberry for example advocates a liberal rules-based order that is open, has low barriers to trade and exchange, where ideas flow freely across borders and where the rules are inclusive and non-discriminatory.[xix] German Volker Stanzel in contrast considers a liberal rules-based order as being derived from principles of governance laid down in the United Nation’s Charter and other appropriate UN documents and resolutions that have been agreed to by all UN members.[xx] Australian Chris Reus-Smit takes a different tack and proposes a cosmopolitan order focused on individuals not states, that upholds the rights and needs of individuals and that emphasizes international public goods, international human rights and global distributive justice.[xxi] Various rule-based orders may have similar forms but they can differ considerably in content.

These different understandings simply highlights that the term ‘rules-based order’ is a broad, rather generic expression that means different things to different people. It is a “humpty-dumpty” term; it means whatever the person using it means.[xxii] Shape-shifting terms though can often create confusion and are particularly prone to misuse.

A long-recognized problem with a rules-based order is enforcement. As realists recognize, in the anarchical international system of sovereign states there are no policemen. With the international system fundamentally different to the domestic environment, concepts like the rule of law do not easily cross between them. Trying to address this, many current rules-based order concepts include balancing as a subordinate element.[xxiii] The recent 2018 US National Defense Strategy takes this a step further effectively elevating balancing to having equal status to rules-based order.[xxiv]

In adopting balancing, a state tries to build greater relative power than an adversary, allowing the state to threaten or employ violence to dissuade the adversary from taking unwanted actions. Balancing though is normally an order in its own right, and in that it is based on realist concepts diametrically opposed to many liberal notions that a rules-based order incorporates. This merging creates some incoherencies for example the use of balancing within a rules-based order implies that states must comply with the rules they have agreed to or else there will be war. In this, stressing cooperation while relying on armed conflict to solve fundamental issues seems an unsuitable basis for a stable international order.

In the Australian case, this incoherency is particularly evident. China looms large as a potential threat but is also a close and most important trading partner. It is an unavoidable, if inconvenient, fact that plans to increase the defence budget to fund a larger, more capable, Australian Defence Force are based on continuing good economic growth, and to a great extent this relies on China.

A further example of the inherent difficulties a rules-based order has in such matters is evident as China actively engages in its large-scale territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Here, China is using various means including diplomacy, economic power, naval forces, threats, information management and international law to unilaterally adjust its boundaries with several South East Asian states. China has been strikingly successful both in achieving its national objectives and in demonstrating how to best exploit a rules-based order. This same approach may be used elsewhere by China or others to similarly advance their interests, including some that may be of greater global concern than this dispute. Is there another type of order that might be more effective and less susceptible to purposeful manipulation?

A better order?

A rules-based order as earlier discussed is built upon a state-centred worldview. Given the way modern states interact with the international system however, this perspective may be outdated. Countries are no longer trying to build an economy bounded by their national borders instead they are actively working to become important parts of large-scale global supply chains and financial investment frameworks.[xxv] Most states are now purposefully transforming themselves so as to be more deeply enmeshed in the contemporary global interdependent economic networks. In this enmeshment process states become fragmented and decentralized and can no longer be sensibly thought of as monolithic entities. A rules-based order then seems to assume a concept of an idealized state in an international system as it once was rather than as it now is. Modern states operate not in some imagined 19th Century international system of Westphalian-states but instead in a highly globalised and very different one.

The differences can be seen in the connections between states. A rules-based order assumes “thin” linkages between states principally focused on self-interested policy coordination and consensual agreements.[xxvi] In the present international system though, there are “thick” linkages that join all parts of a state’s society, including the social, political, economic, cultural and military, with a similarly diverse array of external others.[xxvii] A rules-based order seems out of place in a world of “thick” linkages; as Hillary Clinton observed when US Secretary of State: “foreign policy is now as much about people as it is about states. …these shifts require a broader and deeper order than sufficed in the past.”[xxviii]

A more suitable type of order for the modern era might be complex interdependence as envisaged by Robert Keohane and Joe Nye.[xxix] In terms of form, complex interdependence features three main characteristics: multiple formal and informal channels connecting societies, interstate relationships consisting of multiple issues without any one issue dominating and no use made of military threats or force. The order operates based on those involved bargaining by manipulating their asymmetrical interdependencies across the multiple formal and informal channels. For each issue area, each state has different interdependence sensitivities (short term impact) and vulnerabilities (long term impact) that can be purposefully exploited to obtain the objectives sought. This means that in addressing an issue there are not necessarily mutual benefits; the losing party may well incur costs.[xxx] In international relations theory terms, complex interdependence then has some similarities to realism but provides “an issue-structural, rather than a power-structural, explanation of … change.”[xxxi] Issues drive change.

Crucially complex interdependence is not economic interdependence, albeit some of the linkages between connecting societies may be economic ones. Complex interdependence covers a much broader sweep of issues than solely economic matters.

With change driven by issues, a complex interdependence order is context-dependent with the content modulated to fit the specific issues being addressed. Making linkages between issues may then be particularly useful.[xxxii] A state may be able to achieve its objectives in a specific issue by linking it to another issue area in which the other party is sensitive or vulnerable. The aim is to avoid particular areas where the other party has asymmetric strengths and link instead to alternative, more promising areas. A successful linkage approach involves the state being aware of the other party’s priorities and concerns, and then combining this with appropriate bargaining tactics.[xxxiii]

A complex interdependence order works in a completely different manner to a rules-based order but the two are not completely independent. Instead a rules-based order can be a considered a precursor to a complex interdependence order. China for example came out of a long self-imposed exile and in the 1980s gradually became a part of the rules-based global trading order. Since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001, the country has become progressively more integrated into the global system. President Xi has recently stressed China’s steadily deepening interdependence with the external world is a key element to achieving the “China dream”.[xxxiv]

The Chinese example indicates that a complex interdependence order like a rules-based order does not depend on the state having a certain type of government. Instead, the nation concerned needs to be to open to the world. Whether with a democratic or authoritarian form of government, a closed nation lacks the multiple formal and informal channels connecting it to other states and societies that a complex interdependence order requires. In this regard, China has steadily become a surprisingly open authoritarian country across several different dimensions as can be seen in the case of the U.S.-China relationship.

At the governmental level, there are now some 90 official inter-governmental dialogues annually involving Cabinet ministers, presidential aides, and senior officials. At the business level, U.S. companies today employ hundreds of thousands of workers in China while Chinese State-Owned Enterprises are increasingly investing in American enterprises. Economically, China and America are now amongst each other’s largest trading partners while in the financial domain the Chinese state has large holdings of U.S. Government Treasury Bonds. In terms of education, there are more than 300,000 Chinese students studying in the U.S. each year together with thousands of scientific research collaboration activities underway.[xxxv] Lastly at the people-to-people level, some 2 million Chinese migrate to the U.S. each year while about 3 million Chinese travelers are expected to undertake short-term visits in 2016.[xxxvi]

Activity is not the same as interdependence but it does give an indication of the breadth and depth of the relationship with its multiple formal and informal channels. Such links are both not easy to give up while offering connections able to be exploited depending on the specific issue of concern. Such a notion will cause some concerns and this is worth unpacking further in considering how a complex interdependence order might operate. In passing it should be remembered that there are interdependencies in even hostile relationships. The ever-changing military balance between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War for example reflected that changes on one side led to the other responding.[xxxvii] The important point though is that a complex interdependence order offers a pathway to address difficult issues without resort to war.

The China Case

In applying a complex interdependence order to China, bargaining over issues is not state-to-state but rather state-to-party and increasingly state-to-top-party leadership only. In the first decade of the 21st Century, the Chinese political system had started to feature several competing power centers that all vied to influence policy. The political system was showing many indications of steadily becoming what some call “fragmented authoritarianism”. There was a certain logic to this given the country’s capitalist orientation and its large population; devolved governance offered agility and flexibility in a very complex domestic environment.[xxxviii]

Since Xi Jinping assumed the top Chinese Communist Party leadership positions in 2012 such devolution has been reversed, with a recentralization of decision-making power around a strengthened core executive group and new central party bodies. Greater political discipline is now being enforced across the Party and in those sectors deemed crucial to Party rule: government bureaucracies, the military, the security organs, state-owned enterprises and the media.[xxxix] Lower level initiative is no longer encouraged with a more hierarchically-based form of decision-making embraced. This means that there are now steadily greater information flows upwards to support the decision making by the very high-level party officials; the result is to make these individuals busier than ever. Partly to address this, the Party has started encouraging the growth of think tanks to give the increasingly time-poor top party officials processed advice to improve their decision-making speed.[xl]

With this centralization, the core executive group has an enhanced ability to see the connections between different issue areas improving coordination and lessening policy incoherence. On the other hand though, their knowledge of each individual issue is now less comprehensive; when decisions were made previously they were made at lower-levels with limited visibility of cross-cutting issues but deeper knowledge of the context. Moreover, the core executive group is now more visibly responsible and accountable across a much wider array of issues. Lower level decision-makers are now less easy to blame for bad outcomes.

To some it may seem that a tightly-knit, well-educated Chinese Communist Party executive group would have considerable advantages when bargaining in a complex interdependence order with democratic states and their seemingly muddled leaderships and disorderly governments. Indeed, since Plato many have considered technocratic governments led by philosophy kings should generally prevail over democratic states albeit history suggests otherwise. While in the Chinese case there may be some advantages accruing to their specific governance structure, in terms of bargaining involving asymmetric interdependencies there are some significant sensitivities and vulnerabilities. In thinking about asymmetries, focusing on areas where there are shortcomings in Chinese governance may be advantageous, if only because counter-responses in kind are unlikely to be have much impact given democratic governance’s different underlying principles and processes.

For the Chinese Communist Party, short-term sensitivities and long-term vulnerabilities come together in one big one issue about which it obsessively worries. Joseph Fewsmith observes that: “China is the only great power that worries about its legitimacy on a daily basis. How do we know that the Chinese Communist Party worries about legitimacy? Because it tells us so.”[xli] Chinese civilization has endured for many centuries but its ruling dynasties have come and gone. Indeed, the end of Communist Party rule in the USSR continues to suggest that the Chinese Communist Party’s rule may also one day finish. Today’s Chinese leaders work “ in a very restricted space, where their margin for error is low. No one pretends that Chinese people have deep loyalty to the Communist Party.”[xlii]

The Party’s legitimacy is commonly seen to lie on it continuing to demonstrate high economic competence and keep ‘bringing home the bacon’. In this it is not that different to democratic governments that are elected or lose office based on their performance in securing national prosperity, albeit in China the Party frets that economic turbulence might lead to the country’s governance structures changing utterly and irrevocably. Using economic asymmetries to influence specific issues though seems unwise given the size of China in the global economy. China has considerable opportunities to respond in kind unlike say Russia, upon whom economic sanctions were imposed during bargaining about reversing its Crimea annexation and Ukrainian interventions. Instead, in China’s case it may be more sensible to make cross linkages into other areas where the Party is more exposed.

Ironically, the Party has provided a comprehensive list of matters that it finds particularly harmful to its claims for legitimacy. The infamous Document No.9 issued by the Party’s Central Committee in late 2013 details seven topic areas that should never be discussed including: constitutional democracy, universal values (rule of law, equality, freedom, human rights etc), civil society, neoliberalism (national monopolies, privatization etc), Western notions of journalism and the media, historical nihilism (histories of the Party’s development and rule) and critical evaluations of the Party’s reform programs. The document observes that: “If we allow any of these ideas to spread, they will disturb the people’s existing consensus on important issues like which flag to raise, which road to take, which goals to pursue, etc., and this will disrupt our nation’s stable progress on reform and development.”[xliii] The document then helpfully goes on to offer advice on how such troubling ideas could be spread. Given the extensive connections between China and the outside world noted earlier, there are many ways available. External parties could exploit many pressure points including meeting the Dali Lama, publicly discussing human rights, actively supporting a free press, assisting open internet access or vigorously marketing China’s true history.

Making linkages between different areas when bargaining about troubling issues is not an approach unknown to China. In a useful study of Chinese abilities in this technique, Krista Wiegand revealed that between 1978 and 2008 China deliberately exploited Japanese sensitivities over the Senkaku islands some 26 times, gaining numerous concessions.[xliv] Chinese activities undertaken to exploit Japanese sensitivities included assisting activists travel to islands, stationing research ships near the islands, fishing boat infringements, positioning warships and Coast Guard vessels in the area, military aircraft incursions and Coast Guard vessels firing warning shots close to Japanese fishing boats operating near the islands. The Chinese linked these activities to numerous issues such as renewals and realignments of the Japan–U.S. security agreement, Japan’s apologies for wartime atrocities, Japanese economic aid, Japanese troop deployments, Japanese military planning, forthcoming bilateral China-Japan talks, and Japan’s bid for a United Nations Security Council seat. In more recent years China has become quite vociferous in using Party controlled media and State officials to threaten economic retaliation if smaller countries and middle powers do not agree with its territorial expansion in the South China Sea.

Even so, the matter of bargaining about difficult issues using linkages to matters that really trouble the Party may worry some. There is however, more nuance possible in this approach then it may at first appear. Complex interdependence is an order that is “issue-structural” and so how it is used can be varied with each issue and according to the circumstances at the time. While the form of complex interdependence remains, the content can be carefully and prudently modulated to fit each issue. Such fine-tuning is less practical with other alternatives such as balancing or democratic advancement, which are somewhat blunter in application. However, purposefully exploiting sensitivities and vulnerabilities and making linkages to such delicate issues as legitimacy would irritate the Party, as it would any other authoritarian government. This is though how complex interdependence as an order that manipulates sensitivities and vulnerabilities functions. It is built on a firm base of cooperation across diverse fields but at times when the issues are difficult its operation will involve contentious arguments. When bargaining over thorny problems, suggesting imposing real or imagined costs is often necessary to encourage the other side to come to some acceptable middle ground position.

In further considering bargaining, four secondary aspects may be usefully discussed. Firstly, as noted earlier the Chinese core executive is very busy, limiting deep consideration of issues. There is accordingly always a chance of including in a negotiation a matter that seems innocuous but may potentially be a sleeper with a long-term impact. In signing the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, the Soviets thought agreeing to certain human rights norms was simply pandering to the European Union to get the document signed. Equally, the U.S. Government thought it a trivial issue the Soviets would easily evade. Instead, the norms agreed to over time played a significant part in the Communist Party’s demise.[xlv]

Secondly, highly centralized decision-making systems generally lack the agility to respond effectively to unexpected events. In such systems it takes time for the information necessary to inform decisions to flow upwards, be considered, and then for commands to flow downwards to start to turn a very complex ‘ship of state’ that reaches directly into every aspect of Chinese society. Extending this, Xi Jinping’s new decision-making process also seems open to being overwhelmed if there are too many new problems arising simultaneously. Ill-considered decisions seem almost built-in in those circumstances requiring quick reactions. To some extent, the system seems designed to be gamed – even if only across a short time period.

Thirdly, while the discussion so far has focused on the Party as a single entity it is in reality not a monolithic organization rather being composed of different feuding factions and various competing social networks. The particular linkages made and the asymmetric interdependencies exploited can be done in a way that helps or hinders particular factions or networks and thereby strengthens or weakens their place in the Party’s internal power games. Bargaining about various issues then can be a two-level game, not just operating state-to-party but also within the party. This would though be a rather complex play requiring both subtlety and a deep knowledge of the Party.

Fourthly, and partly related to the previous matter, failure in the Party does not necessarily lead to a comfortable retirement; the penalties can be harsh. Success in a negotiation may be more important than how it is achieved or the price paid particularly if the individual concerned is already under some doubt. As Richard Haass noted: “When trying to influence a group of political actors to take specific actions, policy-makers are more apt to get the desired response when they employ levers that affect these individuals most directly.”[xlvi]

A complex interdependence order may appear to offer some potential to replace the rules-based order construct but have a serious shortcoming in relying on connections between Chinese society and the external world able to be readily cut. Indeed, the Party has long been resistant to China being completely open to the external world. Under Xi Jinping the Party has noticeably renewed efforts to restrict Chinese citizens easily interacting with the outside world. Recent examples include the enactment of laws sharply restricting access to foreign media sources and the severe constraining of links between Chinese and foreign NGOs. Even so, there is a real dilemma for the Party in severing connections; for China to be successful, it requires extensive global access. Openness is an integral part of achieving Xi’s China dream. The structure of the present international system forces China to remain open to the complex interdependence order.

Another perceived difficulty may be that given China’s growing political, economic and diplomatic power, the country may now be considered too robust to be influenced by a complex interdependence order. This may be so but only an attempt to use such an order will definitively answer such concerns. China’s use of linkage strategies to sway Japan indicate in a limited way what is possible but they do not confirm such strategies will be useful in influencing China. Strategies continually evolve as both sides respond to their opponent’s counter moves by developing new ways to achieve their objectives. Moving from a rules-based order to a complex interdependence order might be considered a step in such a process.

Finally, regardless of the perceived efficacious of a possible future complex interdependence order, sticking with a rules-based order seems unwise. The order has numerous flaws as discussed earlier. Moreover, China seems well aware of such shortcomings as demonstrated by its avoidance of the rules-based order’s constraints in its territorial expansion in the South China Sea. Considering this, Fang Yang and Mingjiang Li conclude that: “There is consensus within the Chinese policy community that time is on China’s side as its power continues to rise. Many Chinese policy analysts believe that Beijing should not rush to resolve these disputes because as its hard power grows it may have more options in the future. All these current Chinese policies and emerging new thoughts for future policies suggest that China’s non-compromising hard line stance in the disputes in the East and South China Seas is very likely to prevail.”[xlvii] Staying with the rules-based order will not overcome this perception: is it sensible to continue to embrace an unsuccessful approach?

Ideally an international order should establish a socialized instability that enables change to be prudently managed. In this, a rules-based order given it strengths and weaknesses seems most appropriate to a time when change in the international system is limited, predictable and rare; characteristics not evident today. A complex interdependence order may be a suitable replacement in being compatible with the current globalized international system with its extensive interdependencies that most states are trying to deepen and broaden. A complex interdependence order though relies on manipulating asymmetric sensitivities and vulnerabilities, and the making of linkages between at times difficult issues. While built around cooperation and avoiding war, its workings may on occasion lead to sharp, acrimonious bargaining.

The type of international order embraced needs careful thought both for the benefits it provides and for how others may exploit it. While the operation of an order may be able to be adjusted to meet new circumstances, at some time a new order will be required. Now might be the time to move on from a rules-based order construct to one better suited for today’s needs.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia institute, Griffith University.


[i]. Ric Smith, “Understanding a rules-based White Paper”, The Interpreter, (Sydney: Lowy Insitutute), 30 November 2017, [accessed 12 March 2018].

[ii]. G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), p. 47.

[iii]. John A. Hall, International Order (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1996) pp. 8-24.

[iv]. Shiping Tang, 'Order: A Conceptual Analysis', Chinese Political Science Review, 1, No. 1 (February 2016), pp. 30-46.

[v]. Jean-Marc Coicaud, “Legitimacy, Socialization and International Change”, in Emanuel Adler Charles A. Kupchan, Jean-Marc Coicaud and Yuen Foong Khong, eds., Power in Transition: The Peaceful Change of International Order (Tokyo: United Nations University Press, 2001), p. 70.

[vi]. Charles A. Kupchan, “Introduction: Explaining Peaceful Power Transition”, in Emanuel Adler et al, Power in Transition, p. 19.

[vii]. Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, pp. 61-62, 80, 91.

[viii]. Harold James, The Roman Predicament: How the Rules of International Order Create the Politics of Empire (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006) p. 33. Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, p. 117.

[ix]. Richard Mcgregor, The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers (London: Penguin Books, 2011).

[x]. Christian Reus-Smit, American Power and World Order (Cambridge: Polity Press Ltd, 2004), p. 122.

[xi]. James, The Roman Predicament, p. 38.

[xii]. James, The Roman Predicament, p. 144.

[xiii]. Kenneth N. Waltz, “Structural Realism after the Cold War”, International Security 25, No. 1, (Summer 2000), pp. 5-41.

[xiv]. Henry A. Kissinger, World Order: Reflections on the Character of Nations and the Course of History (London: Allen Lane 2014), p. 225.

[xv]. Harding, “Has U.S. China Policy Failed?”, p. 95.

[xvi]. The White House, National Security Strategy (Washington, DC: The White House, 2015), p. i.

[xvii]. Department of Defence, 2016 Defence White Paper (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2016), p. 44.

[xviii]. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper, (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2017), pp 7, 79-80, 82-83.

[xix]. Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan, p. 283.

[xx]. Volker Stanzel, “Reinforce the International Liberal Institutional Order'” in Daniel Twinning ed., Defending a Fraying Order: The Imperative of Closer U.S.-Europe-Japan Cooperation (Washington: The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2016), pp. 31-35, p. 32.

[xxi]. Reus-Smit, American Power and World Order , p. 123, 26-27.

[xxii]. Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and through the Looking Glass, ed. Martin Gardner, (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), p. 269.

[xxiii]. Kissinger, World Order , p. 9.

[xxiv]. Jim Mattis, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge, (Washington: Department of Defense) pp 1-2 and 4.

[xxv]. Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China”, European Journal of International Relations, 22, No. 1 (March 2016), pp. 72-98.

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[xxviii]. Clinton, “Opinions”, 4 September 2014.

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[xxxvi]. Chen Weihua, “Chinese Tourists a boost to US”, 17 March 2016, Jie Zong and Jeanne Batalova, “Asian Immigrants in the United States”, 6 January 2016,

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[xliii]. Chinafile Editors, “Document 9: A Chinafile Translation”, November 8, 2013

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[xlv] . Daniel C. Thomas, The Helsinki Effect: International Norms, Human Rights, and the Demise of Communism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[xlvi]. Haass Richard N and Meghan L. O'sullivan, “Terms of Engagement: Alternatives to Punitive Policies”, Survival 42, No. 2, (Summer 2000), pp. 113-35.

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