We hear a great gush of affirmations of the “rules-based order” that keeps the peace in the Asia-Pacific region. But whose rules? They must be Tinkerbell’s rules – clap if you believe.

US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis referred to a “rules-based” order five times in his weekend speech to the big annual defence conference in Singapore, the Shangri-la Dialogue. “We have a deep and abiding commitment to reinforcing the rules-based international order,” for instance.

Malcolm Turnbull spoke of the region’s rules seven times in his speech to the same forum: “If we are to maintain the dynamism of the region then we must preserve the rules-based structure that has enabled it thus far.”

Japan’s Defence Minister, Tomomi Inada, warned that “the rules-based order is under challenge”. The indispensable rules also featured prominently at the annual Australia-US ministerial consultations in Sydney on Monday.

The problem, of course, is that the rules have just been dispensed with. Spectacularly. As the Australian analyst Allan Gyngell, former head of the Office of National Assessments, points out: “The emphasis on the rules-based order is precisely because the rules aren’t being upheld.”

China has annexed reefs and rocks in the South China Sea that are also claimed by others. Beijing’s claims have been found to have “no legal basis” by an independent arbitration panel at the International Court of Justice in The Hague. Ignoring demands by the US under the Obama administration and half a dozen other nations that it stop, China has built up these maritime features into military bases.

China has achieved all of its initial goals, unimpeded in any way. “From Beijing’s perspective, China’s ‘salami-slicing strategy'” of incremental advances “has already yielded rich dividends,” says Professor Mohan Malik, an expert at the Asia-Pacific Centre for Security Studies in Hawaii, which is affiliated with the Pentagon.

“China now dominates the entire South China Sea” – the world’s richest trade route – “without having had to fight a major war”, Malik tells me. And the US Navy’s much-ballyhooed “freedom of navigation” operations? They had about as much deterrent effect as a five-year-old armed with a peashooter in an inflatable yellow boat. “Law without power cannot be enforced and those who have the power to enforce seem increasingly unwilling and unable to do so,” continues Malik. “Beijing knows that neither the US nor Japan or any other power will take sufficient action to deter or prevent it.

“China has already achieved the ability to deny sea access to other navies through its artificial islands and the ongoing militarisation of those rocks and reefs,” observes Malik.

“By building air and naval bases in the South China Sea, Beijing would be able to project power all the way to the heart of south-east Asia and the Malacca Straits” – the strategic sea route that links the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean.

The Obama administration proved ineffectual in enforcing the law of the sea. The Trump administration’s tough early rhetoric has proved, so far, to be empty wind. What does the deputy sheriff do when the sheriff has lost interest in law enforcement and has shut himself up in the saloon? He does what Malcolm Turnbull did in Singapore – he sends out the call for a posse to ride out and help.

It was subtle but real. In addressing the dozens of assembled defence ministers and military chiefs at the Shangri-la Dialogue, Turnbull said that “we cannot rely on great powers to safeguard our interests”. And “we have to take responsibility for our own security and prosperity”. He offered to share “the burden of collective leadership with trusted partners and friends”. It was time “for all of us to play more active roles in protecting and shaping the future of this region”. He asked for “urgency and conviction”.

Professor Malik agrees that anything less than a posse will be ineffectual: “Beijing for sure won’t stop unless it’s stopped by a coalition of maritime powers.” While Turnbull waits to see who might answer the call, China is advancing on the other elements of its grand plan to create what it calls a “community of common destiny”.

Above the water, it is funding its vast One Belt, One Road initiative, perhaps the biggest international infrastructure program since the Roman Empire. The cash will complement the coercion that China has already exercised to get its way in the South China Sea. It is deploying the carrot as well as the stick.

Below the water, Beijing plans to build an enormous sea wall in the South China Sea, and also the East China Sea where its claims clash with Japan’s. The wall’s advertised purpose is to explore for natural resources. Analysts foresee that it will also have military functions, especially in submarine warfare, to help it command the seas.

Chinese strategists predicted that the countries of the region would have a three-stage reaction to its expansion into the South China Sea. Initial resistance would give way to accommodation. Reconciliation on China’s terms would follow.

Where are we up to now? Mohan Malik says that the Asia-Pacific region has now entered the second phase – accommodation. The Philippines, the country that brought the case against China to The Hague, has since capitulated. Malaysia, another rival claimant, seems to have acquiesced, too. Unless a posse does indeed emerge, China has defied the rules with impunity. A rules-based order? Clap if you believe.

By Peter Hartcher
Sydney Morning Herald


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