In a new article, Rebecca Strating studies strategic narratives around the “Rules-Based Order” (RBO) in Asia-Specific. She studies three asymmetrical bilateral maritime disputes that involve the UK, India and Australia, and finds that RBO narratives constrained the behaviours of the states that adopt the term.
In November 2022 the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced that the UK would open negotiations with the Republic of Mauritius on the sovereignty of the Chagos Archipelago, a small group of atolls claimed by both states in the Indian Ocean.
This announcement indicated a reversal of UK policy. London had previously rejected Mauritian sovereignty claims and expressing its commitment to ceding sovereignty only when the Chagos islands were no longer required for its defence purposes. In 1966, the UK leased the biggest island – Diego Garcia – to the United States, where it set up its key military base in the Indian Ocean that was subsequently used in major US military operations. As the Indian Ocean is increasingly subject to strategic contestation, both the UK and US has viewed UK’s continuing sovereignty of Chagos Archipelago as important to countering the regional presence of the People’s Republic of China.
Given the strategic value of Diego Garcia to the UK and its relationship with the US, what explains the new government’s approach?
Mauritius and its supporters have engaged in a campaign based on strategic litigation and public diplomacy to put reputational pressure on the UK both domestically and internationally. This campaign has emphasised how the UK – by refusing to deal with the legacy of colonialisation in the Indian Ocean – was actively undermining the international ‘rules-based order’ (RBO) that it has sought to defend in its own strategic narratives.
This campaign has been long-running. In 2010, Mauritius initiated an arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) protesting the UK’s declaration of a Marine Protected Area around Chagos islands. The UK initially responded by disputing the tribunal’s jurisdiction to hear the case. When the ruling largely fell in Mauritius’ favour, the UK interpreted its newly-defined legal responsibilities in a minimalist way.
In 2019, Mauritius asked the UN General Assembly to request an International Court of Justice (ICJ) advisory opinion on Chagos sovereignty in 2019, which UK narratives cast Mauritius as inappropriately ‘internationalising’ the bilateral dispute. The resultant ICJ advisory opinion rejected UK sovereignty over the Chagos Archipelago on the grounds that Mauritius’ decolonisation was not lawfully completed. The same year, the UN General Assembly voted in favour of strongly condemning British occupation of Chagos Islands, calling for complete decolonisation. In 2021, a Special Chamber in the Mauritius-Maldives maritime boundary dispute re-affirmed the ICJ’s advisory opinion as having legal effect.
Cumulatively, these legal rulings and the associated discourses around them has made it more difficult for the UK to defend its sovereign and maritime claims around the Chagos archipelago to an international audience, especially in light of its own RBO narratives.
This article uses the Chagos example as one case study to demonstrate how states can become ensnared in their own strategic narratives that are designed to compel emerging great powers to abide by existing norms and international law.
In the context of dramatic power shifts in Asia, regional allies and partners of the US such as the UK, Australia, Japan, and India, have adopted new ‘Indo-Pacific’ strategic narratives to stabilise, promote and defend their preferred vision of an RBO, one in which ostensibly all states – even global and authoritarian powers – comply with existing and commonly agreed upon standards of behaviour.
‘Indo-Pacific powers’ are particularly concerned about the revisionist intentions of China. Beijing’s maritime assertions in the South China Sea are the key example used to argue that China desires to ‘re-order the region’ by ‘bullying’ its smaller neighbours in maritime disputes and pursuing ‘unilateral changes to the status quo’ through coercive activities that violate or ignoring UNCLOS. Beijing’s rejection of the 2016 South China Sea Arbitral Tribunal ruling in the case initiated by Philippines – which found China’s ‘historic rights’ claim in the South China Sea inconsistent with international law – as a challenge to the prevailing RBO.
Yet, as these states encourage emerging powers to abide by the ‘rules’ in their strategic narratives, they can be held to the same standard in their own asymmetrical disputes. RBO narratives can promote greater state compliance with international law and norms, but this tends to be among states who adopt the narrative rather than its targets: emerging revisionist powers who violate, ignore, or seek to re-write international law.
The article compares the rhetoric and actions of three Indo-Pacific powers in asymmetrical bilateral maritime disputes: the Timor Sea United Nations Compulsory Conciliation between Australia and Timor-Leste, the Bay of Bengal Maritime Boundary Arbitration between India and Bangladesh, and the Chagos Island Marine Protected Area Arbitration between the UK and Mauritius.
In each case study, there is evidence that reputational concerns became as important – if not more so – than material considerations, although this played out in different ways across the case studies.
The bigger powers – Australia, India and the UK – came to interpret the disputes in the context of their overarching strategic interests and concerns about great power revisionism, particularly in maritime domains.
Ultimately, RBO narratives constrained the behaviours of the states that adopt the term. Adopters were compelled to take different approaches in their own maritime disputes with smaller powers to reduce the perceived inconsistencies between their RBO rhetoric and their actions. For states, this suggests that there are risks involved in invoking the RBO in their strategic narratives. In an increasingly contested region, reputation and credibility can play an important role in regional diplomacy as Indo-Pacific powers seek to persuade other states that the existing order is preferable to authoritarian alternatives. This produces positive affects for the legitimacy of international regimes such as UNCLOS even though it is not necessarily the intended outcome of Indo-Pacific states’ rhetorical strategies. The RBO, however, is less effective in changing the approaches of the primary disrupters, including authoritarian powers such as China and Russia.
Rebecca Strating is the author of “The rules-based order as rhetorical entrapment: Comparing maritime dispute resolution in the Indo-Pacific”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.