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Debating ‘rules’, ‘order’ and ‘peace’ in the Asia–Pacific

Posted By on June 28, 2017 @ 11:00

Image courtesy of Pixabay user lincerta.

Concepts such as ‘rules’, ‘order’ and ‘peace’ are often bandied [1] about [2] in dialogue among Asia–Pacific countries, but the differing interpretations of those words have resulted in countries talking past each other, rather than to each other.

On the Korean peninsula, for instance, North and South Korea clearly have different ideas about peace and stability in their immediate neighbourhood. For South Korea, peace and stability on the peninsula are anchored in its alliance with the US, as well as North Korea’s denuclearisation. On the contrary, North Korea argues that South Korea’s strategy, including its joint military exercises with the US, is responsible for instability on the peninsula. From Pyongyang’s perspective, it’s necessary to have a strong nuclear deterrent and powerful conventional military forces to prevent war from breaking out. Evidently, both sides want the same end-goal but have different ideas on what ‘peace’ and ‘stability’ on the Korean peninsula mean.

The notion of a ‘rules-based regional order’ faces a similar challenge. During his speech at the recent Shangri-La Dialogue, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis highlighted [3] the US’s ‘deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order’. This order, according to Mattis, is constituted by ‘equal respect for international law’ and ‘freedom of navigation and overflight’, and is rooted in institutions such as the UN, ASEAN and the World Bank. Reaffirming that the prevailing rules-based order is built upon US presence in the region, the Australian [4] and Japanese defence ministers [5] added that regional countries had all reaped the benefits of the existing regional order. In response, the Chinese delegation leader, Lieutenant General He Lei, stated [6]that China is, in fact, ‘a country that abides by, supports and defends international and regional rules’.

Yet, given the ongoing debate [7] about which countries are rule-breakers or followers, this raises the question: when leaders and officials speak of a ‘rules-based regional order’, what kind of rules do they view as legitimately constituting the regional order? Do all stakeholders have the same understanding of those rules? Such discrepancy in meaning might appear to be a banal point to highlight; after all, given the different interests and circumstances of different countries, it’s perhaps not surprising that they hold different perspectives on security issues. One could also argue that mere words don’t hold much significance; in the bigger picture, what matters are the actions that are taken. Nevertheless, considering that this region’s central institution—that is, ASEAN and its associated platforms—has placed so much importance on dialogue and discussion, I would suggest that rhetoric is rather important as an initial signal of intent.

ASEAN’s strategy has consistently involved convening and facilitating dialogue among regional countries—from the major powers to the smaller nations. It has initiated and led a host of such platforms, including the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting and its Plus process, and the East Asia Summit. The region is therefore not lacking in the quantity of dialogue mechanisms; the challenge is in the content of the discussions.

Given the recurring disagreements among regional countries on key terms such as ‘peace’, ‘rules’ and ‘order’—which persist despite ongoing exchanges of views—prospects for reaching a consensus on regional security challenges through continuing dialogue might appear bleak. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that dialogue among regional states continues. It’s debatable whether such exchanges feed positively into actual policy, but the alternative of an absence of dialogue isn’t a viable path. In the short to medium term, dialogue might not get individual countries to all be on the same page, particularly when it involves national interests, but allowing channels of communication to remain open is likely to bring more benefits than harm to the region as a whole in the longer term.

Most importantly, dialogue processes should ensure that all regional countries—not just the major powers—get an equal chance to voice their views on matters of concern. Dialogue might also be more productive if the relevant actors and stakeholders focus not only on trying to persuade others to see things from their respective perspectives, but on also attempting to arrive at relatively common understandings of what it means to talk about issues of ‘peace’, ‘rules’ and ‘order’. This could provide an initial step towards getting nations to talk to each other, rather than—as the above examples show—past each other.



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URLs in this post:

[1] bandied: http://asean.org/storage/2016/09/Chairmans-Statement-of-the-11th-East-Asia-Summit.pdf

[2] about: https://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-la-dialogue

[3] highlighted: https://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-la-dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2017-4f77/plenary-1-6b79/mattis-8315

[4] Australian: https://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-la-dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2017-4f77/plenary-2-faad/payne-44ff

[5] Japanese defence ministers: https://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-la-dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2017-4f77/plenary-2-faad/inada-622b

[6] stated : http://eng.mod.gov.cn/news/2017-06/04/content_4781985.htm

[7] debate: http://www.iiss.org/en/events/shangri-la-dialogue/archive/shangri-la-dialogue-2017-a321/plenary-1-6b79/mattis-qa-4fdf

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