Reflecting on discussions with fellow SEAYLP delegates, Nobuhiko Tamaki disputes the Western origins of the rules-based order in Southeast Asia and examines efforts by regional governments to engage China.

US defence secretary James Mattis with ASEAN delegates. Credit: US Department of Defense

By Nobuhiko Tamaki, Project Researcher, Policy Alternatives Research Institute, University of Tokyo

The ‘rules-based order’ was the most cited phrase at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017 and Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme (SEAYLP). Yet there is uncertainty over what the rules-based order in Southeast Asia is, and where it comes from.

In the keynote address, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned the audience of the growing challenges to ‘the US-anchored rules-based order, the remarkable system where nations big and small play by the rules and respect each other’s sovereignty’. He added that disturbing such an order engendered a lot of risk. Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada also pointed out that ‘no country benefits from forcefully altering the prevailing rules-based order’. United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis more clearly referred to the current challenge to the order, namely the rise of China: ‘We cannot accept Chinese actions that impinge on the interests of the international community, undermining the rules-based order that has benefited all countries represented here today, including and especially China.’

Chinese delegates criticised such arguments. Senior Colonel Zhou Bo and the Chinese delegation repeatedly pointed out that China has followed the rules and has been cautious about using military force. Other Chinese criticisms focused on US adherence to the rules-based order, and the fairness of the current rules.

In the SEAYLP seminars, young leaders discussed the nature of the rules-based order. We considered who made the rules, and how they should be applied and enforced in the South China Sea. While many differences were aired, the speakers seemed to share a common understanding of the rules-based order in Southeast Asia. The existing order originated from Western liberal nations, particularly the United States; and it is challenged by China.

I would like to take issue with this view. I do not observe the ‘US-anchored rules-based order’ in the postcolonial history of Southeast Asia. In retrospect, the liberal international order, or the US-led rules-based order, emerged from the West between the late 1940s and the 1950s. Western rules and principles invigorated independence movements in Southeast Asia; in the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, the country’s first president Ho Chi Minh referred to the United States’ Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Yet Western states did not practise these principles in Southeast Asia. France and the Netherlands tried to regain their imperial control over Indochina and Indonesia and the British maintained colonial rule over Malaya and Brunei. Confronting the leftist revolutionary movements supported by China with a Cold War mindset, the US tacitly interfered in Indonesia in the 1950s and overtly engaged in the bloody wars in Indochina from the 1960s to the early 1970s. Newly independent nations in the region confronted each other, as evidenced by the ‘confrontation’ policy of Indonesia’s first president Sukarno or the dispute over Sabah in the Philippines and Malaysia.

The age of revolutions, civil wars, and invasions gave way to an era of prosperous and peaceful order in the 1970s, due especially to US–China rapprochement and the end of the Vietnam War. In the absence of great power struggles, indigenous nations in Southeast Asia created their own rules-based order. The essence of Southeast Asian rules emphasised finding common ground among diverse polities, from democratic rule to one-party rule, through negotiations and concessions.

After the regime change in Indonesia, the establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) provided a venue for peaceful resolutions to confrontations among its members. Japan, the emerging extra-regional power of that time, economically and politically supported ASEAN and the regional rules-based order. Then, China re-emerged as a giant in the region in the late 1980s and has rapidly increased its influence in Southeast Asia since the late 1990s.

My tentative conclusion is that the rules-based order in Southeast Asia is indigenous, not Western-designed, though it is now inseparably linked with the global order. This is the regional reality that confronts China. In the face of Beijing’s growing influence, ASEAN nations have engaged China to find common ground, as seen in the negotiations over a South China Sea code of conduct.

Japan respected the autonomy and rules of the region during its rise. The US reconstructed its relationship with Southeast Asian nations and encouraged ASEAN in its unipolar moment after the Cold War. How China respects the indigenous rules of Southeast Asia and how regional nations and extra-regional powers promote the peaceful evolution of the order will dictate not only the future of Southeast Asia, but that of the wider international order.

As many young leaders pointed out it in the SEAYLP seminar, frank and constructive dialogue among younger generations, including Chinese experts, will create a solid foundation for peace and prosperity in the region. The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue and SEAYLP provided an ideal venue for us to discuss – with a cool head and a warm heart,’ according to IISS Director-General Dr John Chipman – the future of the rules-based order with fellow young leaders and those who will hopefully be young leaders in China in the coming years.

This article is part of a series of blogs by delegates at the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme reflecting on the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2017.

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