The Indo-Pacific and the decline of the rules-based order

The combination of antagonistic nationalist currents within East Asia and US resistance against the emergence of a post-Cold War order scuttled decades-long efforts to effectively institutionalize an Asia-Pacific region. Facing ever increasing rivalries over how to fill the ensuing void, Christian Wirth and Nicole Jenne analyse  in a recent article how foreign- and security-political elites embarked on strategies for safeguarding the “rules-based order” across the enlarged “Indo-Pacific.”

The past two decades have seen a lot of talk about the need to preserve what many in Europe and the US call the liberal international order and whose institutions and norms have governed international politics since 1945. Particularly in the neighbourhood of rising China, what has now become known as “rules-based order”, we are told, needs to be defended.

Yet, it is hard to defend, let alone bring back, something that has never existed.

Contrary to the framing of the rules-based order, the institutions and norms that undergird the international order of the Asia-Pacific region since the 1950s, remain predicated on a system of military alliances between the United States and its East Asian partners; a system that had been designed to contain the now inexistent Communist bloc.

Unless juxtaposed to authoritarian China, the system where East Asian regional states form the “spokes” converging on the US “hub” neither bears a particularly strong imprint of liberal values, nor has its static conception been flexible enough to adapt to the socio-economic conditions of the globalized world as it emerged in the 1990s.

In this sense, the institutions of the Asia-Pacific rules-based order share some commonalities with the remainders of its former nemesis, the institutions and norms undergirding the Chinese state. It has become precarious and increasingly costly to maintain.

Especially in the past decade, US and its East Asian allies have seen themselves compelled to drastically increase defence expenditures and enhanced centralized control over expanding national security interests in the name of safeguarding the rules-based order. While the US and its allies have increased their military capacities and strengthened their determination to share the euphemistic “burden” of upholding international stability and security, this burden has itself been increasing.

But how did we get this far? Has a post-Cold War order not been emerging?

Our study finds that the costs for maintaining “order” and “stability” have been ballooning after three decades of efforts at imagining and promoting the institutionalization of a post-Cold War order across the Asia-Pacific largely failed. While Southeast Asian governments successfully developed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) framework, early efforts on the part of Australian and Japanese leaders to enmesh East Asian states, including China, as well as the US, in Asia-Pacific wide frameworks faltered.

The obvious reasons therefore have been diverging views about the future of regional order among East Asian elites and governments. Yet, instead of leading the rebuilding of order in the wake of the monumental changes in the early 1990s, US decisionmakers have contributed to the deepening of the problem of order. Anxious about the possible emergence of an Asian bloc, potentially replacing the hub-and-spokes bilateralism, they have been seeking to neutralize East Asian initiatives for advancing regional multilateralism. Crucially, they also refused to lead such efforts themselves.

This lack of pro-active order-building has increased the predicament for US allies in East Asia.

Torn between their deepening economic dependence on China and strengthening military ties with the US, Australian and Japanese elites have once again pioneered efforts to expand the regional sphere. With the hope of retaining their status and forestall the perceived ascent of China’s regional hegemony, they embraced the idea of an Indo-Pacific region. The Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations followed their lead.

Thus, the study finds that, albeit directed against China for preserving the US-led rules-based order of the Asia-Pacific, the expansion of the region to South Asia signifies a dilution also of US power and influence. Numerous actors, such as ASEAN, India, and even the European Union, have jumped on the wagon and pronounced their own views on the Indo-Pacific.

The enlarged Indo-Pacific region provides a larger set of possibilities to cooperate for the majority of states who have sought to find a middle ground between the US and China. Mostly following pragmatic foreign policy practices, they recognize that enlisting on either side in the Sino-Allied struggle offers at best short-term benefits while increasing political and economic risks.

Although this amorphous Indo-Pacific meta-region is unlikely to become formally institutionalized any time soon, it signifies the gradual superseding of hub-and-spokes bilateralism. The US (and its allies) are not alone anymore in defining this strategic space. At the same time, the enlargement of the imagined region dilutes China’s (and India’s) influence. Thus, the ensuing order will remain a mix of conflict and cooperation.

Facing such a fluid “international order”, thinking in Indo-Pacific dimensions can help decision-makers bear the uncertainty over the future of relations between states and remove much of the perceived insecurity caused by tunnel views of linearly shifting power and anxiety about the decline of a liberal or rules-based order that never existed in the imagined form.

Dr. Christian Wirth is Research Fellow at the German Institute for Global and Area Studies. Dr. Nicole Jenne is Associate Professor at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile, Institute of Political Science, and a researcher at the Centre for Asian Studies (CEA-UC) of the same university. They are the authors of “Filling the void: The Asia-Pacific problem of order and emerging Indo-Pacific regional multilateralism”, Contemporary Security Policy, which can be accessed here.

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