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Rules-based order doesn’t mean US-rules order

CIIS Time:06 05, 2018 Writer:Jia Xiudong Editor:Wang Jiapei


 

The 17th annual Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), Asia’s premier security forum, is now under way in Singapore slated to address changing security dynamics in the Asia Pacific and Indian Ocean region. China has kept its footprint at the SLD since it sent a senior delegation to the Dialogue more than a decade ago.

Over the years, China has received much attention at the forum due to its continuous rise and existing maritime disputes with some countries, and it won’t be different this year.

Misconceptions of China persist, and mischaracterizing China’s foreign and security policy even runs the risk of undermining trust and cooperation among regional powers, especially between China and the United States.

China as a rising power with a threat?

The United States has taken the lead, followed by some of its Western allies including Japan and Australia in particular, in alarmist messaging on China’s rise. “Rules-based order” is one of the buzzwords they use very frequently in their speeches and statements at the SLD to explicitly or implicitly accuse China of ignoring or violating the rules, thus posing a threat to the regional or international order.

They do this so often that the mere citation of the “rules-based order” by any speaker on Asia Pacific security at the Dialogue could be perceived and described by international media as a “rebuke of China” or at least a “thinly veiled criticism of China.”

The US has quite a number of labels recently for China, a “revisionist power”, a “new imperialist power”, engaged in “predatory economics”, just to name a few. In judging China’s behavior around the world, the US is not an umpire above the fray.

For China, none of these labels squares with the facts on the ground. The fundamental reason that the US churned out these labels is American anxiety over Chinese rising power and influence perceived as a serious challenge to American supremacy in the Asia Pacific and the world.

Nothing new with anxiety over China's rising

The Trump administration's National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy documents stated that “inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism, is now the primary concern in US national security," and identified China (along with Russia) as a “strategic competitor” said to "challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity."

This kind of anxiety is not new, and it stems from American strategic intention to maintain the post-Cold War status of the US as the only superpower. Regardless of the change of US administrations, one thing remains unchanged in American strategic calculation: to ensure US dominance in the absence of a major rival.

During the administration of President George H. W. Bush in the early 1990s, the Pentagon’s Defense Planning Guidance stated that “Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival, either on the territory of the former Soviet Union or elsewhere… to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia.”

When President Barack Obama took office, he adopted a rebalance-to-Asia strategy in the hope that the US could maintain a predominant role in a region that would shape the globe in the 21st century.

The rebalancing was a two-pronged strategy: beefing up US alliances and security cooperation in the region and negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, or the TPP.

To sell the TPP to the US Congress and public, Obama declared that “America should write the rules. America should call the shots. Other countries should play by the rules that America and our partners set, and not the other way around.” He made it clear that “the United States, not countries like China, should write them.” 

Rules-maker or Rules-breaker?

From the beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump unveiled a dramatically altered vision for the US and its relations with the rest of the world.

Under his nationalist and populist America First policy, Trump withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, pulled out of the Paris climate change agreement, opted out of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), unilaterally abrogated the Iran nuclear deal, took a go-it-alone approach to WTO rules and mechanisms, and the list of brushing away rules that might restrain the US may go on and on.

With Trump’s America First strategy, the US has ushered in a new era of cutthroat, zero-sum games with all countries, big or small, allies or otherwise.

All these moves on the part of the US are in addition to the US breaking its own rules too often, and examples are abundant: invading Iraq and waging other wars, overthrowing regimes, instigating “color revolutions”, failing to ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), bending UNCLOS rules to justify its Freedom of Navigation Operations, etc.

So, for the US, a “rules-based order” means that there is no place, no role for a new rival in the “order”, and that any potential rival shall not be allowed to write the “rules”.

Yes, the US mostly made up the rules and created the order after World War II, but it would toss away or ignore them when they stand in its way. The US unilateral treatment of and flip-flop approach to the “rules-based order” leads to depletion and squandering of its credibility and reputation as the sole superpower.

 

 

The author is a senior fellow at China Institute of International Studies CIIS.

 

 

 

Source: CGTN, June 3, 2018.

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